A Few [Shared] Thoughts on the American Civil War

I previously mentioned that I’m working through The Christian Humanist podcast archives. I just so happened to listen to one particular podcast right after the events in Charleston. What follows is a transcript from episode 56: Civil Wars. The original broadcast date was Sept. 13, 2011. The dialogue is by Michial Farmer. Any errors are my own.

I’m going to start talking about the American Civil War by talking about the Revolutionary War, which is also a civil war, because of course it’s British subjects rebelling against Britain.

The Revolutionary War is very clearly – the participants view themselves clearly as akin to the Romans. They clearly believe they are a Republic resisting Tyranny. So if you look at the way Thomas Paine talks about it in Common Sense he uses that word tyranny over and over again – and that’s no accident. As we all know, the Founders tended to see themselves in line Abraham Lincolnwith the Roman Republic. So when it comes around to the American Civil War, Southerners are going to tend to think of themselves, too, as members of a republic resisting tyranny; and so you get all sorts of nasty remarks about Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant – and he is as strong a Federalist president as ever had existed up to that point. He believes in the power of the federal government; he does not believe in the power of the states – for better or for worse.

The easy answer about the American Civil War is that it is – of course – about slavery. The easy answer is almost never correct. Slavery certainly was the catalyst that set it off. What it was really about – I think – was different ways of life. You had a very agrarian lifestyle in the South and not that it necessitated, but it made it very easy to use slaves. Then there was very non-agrarian, very urbanized life in the North, and so you have the conflict between these two ways of life. If the North had been as heavily agrarian as the South, I suspect they would have had slaves as well. Of course, the North was no place to live if you were black. There’s a wonderful Our Nigbook by I think her name is Harriet Wilson called Our Nig, which explains what it was like for black “servants” in the North in the era immediately preceding the Civil War. Spoiler Alert: not that great. So to say it’s about slavery is kind of accurate. To say it’s about civil rights in any way is not accurate. Very few people in the North or South were interested in giving black people civil rights. It was a conflict between these two cultures, one of which belonged largely to the past. The agrarian lifestyle was something that exists almost nowhere in America today because of the forward march of urbanization, so you have the past meeting the future and it got ugly.

That being said, I am from Georgia. I grew up hearing about the Confederate generals as heroes. I am sympathetic to that point of view; on the other hand, I am very glad the Civil War happened. I’m very glad that there were not two countries. I’m very glad slavery was ended. I admire Abraham Lincoln even though some of the tactics he used during that war – suspending habeas corpus, things like that – are disturbing to me. I affirm that the Civil War was a necessary war – waving confederate battle flagas good as a war can be, I suppose. But I also recognize that it was not as simple as Good North / Evil South, that there are things we lost in losing the agrarian lifestyle that should be mourned and that it is possible to mourn those things without flying a confederate flag out the window of your pickup truck.

It is possible to mourn those things without flying a confederate flag out the window of your pickup truck.

That being said [there are books that] paint the South as a Christian nation and the North as a secular nation. That’s balderdash. Obviously, there were lots of Christians involved in the abolitionist movement, there were lots Christians involved in the North, and there were lots of people who were eitherUncle Tom and Little Black Sambo not Christians in name or Christians in name only in the South. It is ridiculous to claim that the South was somehow righteous and that slavery was not as bad as we’ve heard. No, slavery was as bad as we’ve heard. It was an evil institution that needed to end for the health of not just the slaves but the slaveowners. So please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying or mistake me for some sort of Lost Causer.

We all know that racism is not a geographically limited phenomenon by any means. And if you think it is, I suggest you go listen to the Randy Newman song “Rednecks” which we won’t quote here on the show. It seems to be a bit more obvious in the South because you can’t ignore it in the South like you can in the North and in some other regions of the United States. The South is integrated. You can’t avoid the kinds of frictions that arise and so it’s going to come up more.

But yeah, the Civil War was about slavery, but it wasn’t just about slavery or maybe even primarily about slavery. I don’t know that it was primarily about states’ rights the way some of the neo-Confederates will tell you. I think it was primarily about a clash of civilizations.

That isn’t to say that to hold that particular historical view is to condone black slavery. It is simply to make an historical claim. There are good things we lost and there are things I’m very glad are gone as well.

Aristotle_Bust_White_Background_TransparentWe can be good Aristotelians and say there are multiple ways you can answer the question “what caused this?” There are different kinds of causes. We can bring up the sociological things. We can bring up historical events. We can raise the kinds of issues that were actually brought up in newspapers and by politicians at the time. We can go into journals by people ranging from Presidents to foot soldiers and read what they said were their particular motives. We take all those things, throw them in a heap, point to the heap, and say, “that is why the Civil War.”

I think it’s fascinating that you have a reversal of roles from what you saw in the English Civil war. You have the people claiming to be the gallant Cavalier class who are also the ones crowing about tyranny and saying “we need to overthrow the tyrant.” It’s the Roundheads playing the Tyrant and the Cavaliers playing the Rebels . . . This is one [war] that probably informs out imaginations more than the others.


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Public Opinion: Trial by Ordeal in the Modern Age

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Mr Peabody let me borrow has absolutely no idea that I have the Wayback Machine, so we have to be quick. Pay close attention – there’s going to be a quiz later.



David Tennant Tardis
[The most appropriate response]


Monty Python Witch
We found a Witch!
May we burn her?

Look around; can you tell where we are?

That’s right! It’s the Middle Ages.

And what do we have here?

Someone’s been accused of a crime!

No, there’s no need of a jury; these fine people have something better: judicium Dei via trial by ordeal.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of trial by ordeal? Well, you’re in luck! Here’s a quick rundown:

People in the Bad Old Days widely believed God would protect an innocent person from harm, even if that meant suspending the laws of nature. That’s right; God would personally intervene with a miracle to help “prove” someone’s guilt or innocence! No need for evidence, witnesses, or anything of that kind; simply subject the accused to the ordeal du jour and let God do the rest.


Go ahead; pick your poison:


Trial by Combat

You and your accused fight it out. Last man standing wins is right.

May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor

Trial by Fire

Trial by FireWalk a given distance over red-hot ploughshares or while holding a red-hot iron. Wait three days and have a priest examine the affected area. If there’s no sign of injury: congratulations! You’re innocent and free to go. If the area is blistered, festering, or otherwise injured: prepare to die.

A variation of this trial requires you to remove a stone from boiling water or other substance (like oil or lead).

Famous – or infamous – people to undergo trial by fire include Emma of Normandy, Peter Bartholomew, and Girolamo Savonarola.

Trial by Water

Trail by WaterTrial by hot water is pretty much the same as the variation of ordeal by fire [see above].

Trial by cold water is found in the world’s oldest law codes (Code of Ur-Nammu and Code of Hammurabi) and appears reserved for those accused of sorcery/witchcraft. If you find yourself in this unfortunate position, expect to be submerged in the local stream/lake/river and declared innocent if you sink and guilty if they float. Apparently blessed water can’t receive sinners or something like that. Let’s just hope they fish you out in time (assuming you’re innocent). Either way, looks like you lose.

The witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries relied on this method.

Trial by Cross

It’s essentially a staring contest where you risk your life. You and your accuser stand on either side of a cross and stretch out your arms. First one to lower his arms loses. I hope you’ve been doing your calisthenics!

Trial by Ingestion / Trial by Sacrament / Ordeal of the Eucharist / Trial by Poison

In this (somewhat tasty) ordeal, you’re given blessed dry bread and cheese. If you choke, you’re guilty.  A variation of this requires you to take the Eucharist after solemnly swearing you’re up to no good declaring innocence. If you’re guilty, you’ll die within one year. So lock your door and become a hermit and you should be just fine.

church host
I wonder if it works on those accused of gluttony?


Have you been paying attention? Good! It’s time for our quiz. Fair warning, though: it has absolutely nothing to do with anything on this page. Still think you’re ready? Then proceed to the next page!

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