It will always be an impediment to any mellowing of my feelings towards Ronald Reagan to recall his visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi after becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 1980. Philadelphia was the place where the Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964, and for Reagan, in his first appearance as the nominee, to visit Philadelphia and discuss states’ rights was a highly transparent code that conveyed the despicable message that those who still opposed the cause of integration would have a friend in the White House if Reagan was elected.
It was therefore good news to read the other week that Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi and man with, as The Economist says, “a record of racially insensitive remarks,” avoided the opportunity to keep talking code, at least as far as the origin of the Civil War goes. “Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession,” Barbour is quoted as saying. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the civil war to do that. But it did.” The Economist sugsts that Barbour might be speaking code for a new era: “Mr. Barbour wants to be president. His remarks not only directly refute the ancient argument that slavery was not the principle cause of the war; they showed that there is no longer political gain in pretending otherwise.”
Which makes me think that the issues that created the war and that infected the country’s politics for more than a century are at long last disappearing. In the Times Talk discussion I moderated, we played a clip of Shelby Foote contending that to understand Americans of the 20th century, you need to understand the Civil War. “It was the Crossroads of Our Being,” Foote said. I wondered if it was still true that to understand Americans of the 21st century, you need to understand the Civil War. Ken Burns and David Blight, who have thought about the Civil War far more than I, agreed with Foote, with Blight making the particularly sharp observation that just as the Civil War was the result of the failure of the first American Republic, the Civil Rights movement was the result of the failure of the second.
But I guess here is where I depart from my learned new friends. It is true that much political argument takes place with language from the Civil War–states’ rights, big government–but I don’t think the polity actually thinks that way. The government is out of touch with the people. The massive success of the civil rights movement, the liberation of minority groups, women, gays and so on, has really changed the nation. we are all Martin Luther King Jr.‘s children now, even Haley Barbour, and when the third republic fails, it will be because we could not reconcile King’s view of freedom with Reagan’s, at least as it applied to economics.
Here’s a prediction, one whose accuracy I am sure I won’t be around to verify: there won’t be a civil war bicentennial commemoration, any more than there will be a War of 1812 commemoration next year. The issues will be gone.