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Blogosophical Investigations
Sunday, May 11, 2003  

I was reading William James on the subject of habit yesterday, and became interested to know what he had to say about the position of blacks in America.

This is the Internet: no sooner asked than answered. I immediately found James's address on the dedication in 1897 of the Shaw Monument in Boston. Robert Gould Shaw was the commander (white, of course) of the black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Shaw died in the 54th's attack on Fort Wagner. James's brother Wilkie, serving in the 54th, was wounded in the same battle. William James's prose in the speech is in bright purple, but I defy you to read it without being moved.

Here is his view of the Civil War:

The war for our Union, with all the constitutional questions which it settled, and all the military lessons which it gathered in, has throughout its dilatory length but one meaning in the eye of history. And nowhere was that meaning better symbolized and embodied than in the constitution of this first Northern negro regiment.

… Since the 'thirties the slavery question had been the only question, and by the end of the 'fifties our land lay sick and shaking with it like a traveller who has thrown himself down at night beside a pestilential swamp, and in the morning finds the fever through the marrow of his bones

… And when South Carolina took the final step in battering down Fort Sumter, it was the fanatics of slavery themselves who called upon their idolized institution ruin swift and complete. What law and reason were unable to accomplish, had now to be done by that uncertain and dreadful dispenser of God's judgments, War - War, with its abominably casual, inaccurate methods, destroying good and bad together, but at last able to hew a way out of intolerable situations, when through man's delusion of perversity every better way is blocked.

As it happens, he winds up with a reference to his pet subject, habit:

… the secret and the glory of our English speaking race, consists in nothing but two common habits, two inveterate habits carried into public life, … One of them is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings. It was by breaking away from this habit that the Slave States nearly wrecked our Nation. The other is that of fierce and merciless resentment toward every man or set of men who break the public peace. By holding to this habit the free States saved her life.

I think you could call his view the official Northern, and now national, doctrine of the Civil War.

Somehow or other I found my way to the Website of the 37th Texas Cavalry, 'an historically accurate Confederate reenactment unit', where a Southern view is expressed. Apparently, '…this site remains the largest, most visited War for Southern Independence reenactor web site.' One or two snippets from the page 'On Black Confederates' :

It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks. Over 13,000 of these, "saw the elephant" also known as meeting the enemy in combat. These Black Confederates included both slave and free. The Confederate Congress did not approve blacks to be officially enlisted as soldiers (except as musicians), until late in the war. But in the ranks it was a different story. Many Confederate officers did not obey the mandates of politicians,…

As the war came to an end, the Confederacy took progressive measures to build back up its army. The creation of the Confederate States Colored Troops, copied after the segregated northern colored troops, came too late to be successful. Had the Confederacy been successful, it would have created the world's largest armies (at the time) consisting of black soldiers, even larger than that of the North. This would have given the future of the Confederacy a vastly different appearance than what modern day racist or anti-Confederate liberals conjecture. Not only did Jefferson Davis envision black Confederate veterans receiving bounty lands for their service, there would have been no future for slavery after the goal of 300,000 armed black CSA veterans came home after the war.

… . In 1864, President Jefferson Davis approved a plan that proposed the emancipation of slaves, in return for the official recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France. France showed interest but Britain refused.

There are many fascinating anecdotes on the same page.

I often meet American libertarians still fighting the Civil War (or, as they'd more likely say, War for Southern Independence). The argument turns really interesting when black Americans like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell join in.

10:52 AM

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