Why the Civil War Happened (And Why it Matters)

Cross-posting with elizabethhuhn.com, but here it is in full:


I am not a particularly political person. Or maybe I should say, I follow politics obliquely, and I have opinions, but my opinions are somewhat all over the place. I’m ambivalent about most issues–I sympathize with both sides. I also hate confrontation, so I never (ever) talk politics. If you ask me, I’ll tell you something like the above.


But when you start saying shit about the Civil War that is not only nonsensical but does untold damage to progress being made recently in a very important area of popular and historical consciousness, well . . . well, I get angry.

Recently, President Trump said the following:

TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee.
ZITO: Oh, that’s right. You were in Tennessee.
TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
ZITO: Yeah, he’s a fascinating…
TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

Um, holy shit, guys. Holy, effing shit. The level of wrongness is mind-blowing. Let’s begin picking this apart.

I think it’s okay to bypass the first part. Jackson did love his wife, Rachel. He literally fought duels with people who bad-mouthed her, because her marital status wasn’t exactly free and clear when she married Jackson, and that fact haunted her the rest of her life. In fact, Jackson blamed her detractors for hounding her to death. And I’m sure people in Tennessee love him. Hey, he’s an interesting and charismatic, if controversial, figure.

The last paragraph, though. Whew. Let me count the ways that this is wrong, factually and on a larger, theoretical level.

1. JACKSON WAS DEAD DURING THE CIVIL WAR. DEAD. Deceased. No longer with us. Pushing up the daisies. Six feet under. He’d kicked the can, given up the ghost, gone on to a better (worse?) place. [Insert the parrot skit from Monty Python.] He WAS NOT SAD ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR because he WAS DEAD. Dead, dead, dead.

2. Yes, we would have still had a Civil War. There were many reasons for the war, most of them much, much bigger than one man. Now, back in the 1830’s, when Jackson was president, there was the Nullification Crisis and he told South Carolina to sit down and shut up because he loved the effing Union and he would personally shoot everyone dead in the entire state if that’s what it took to keep them from seceding. And, yes, the bullying worked. However, that obviously did NOT solve the underlying issues, and the next twenty years only deepened the divide. Not even Jackson’s considerable force of will could have prevented war. Even if he’d bullied the states into staying, it would have only postponedthe reckoning, because SLAVERY. That’s why. BECAUSE SLAVERY. Yeah, that little thing. You know, SLAVERY. More on this below. The fact is that even if he had been alive–and he wasn’t–he couldn’t have stopped the tide of war.

3. He was a very tough person.Yes, yes he was. He carried a bullet in him most his life and fought (and won) several duels. He defeated the British at New Orleans. Tough guy. But . . .

4. He had a big heart. That, sadly, is debatable and probably untrue. You see, Jackson was a slaveholder (SLAVERY), which is a black mark against him (though, in my opinion, not actually enough to condemn his entire legacy and/or erase him from the historical record like some people seem inclined to do). Oh, yeah, and there was THE TRAIL OF TEARS. To be fair, I don’t think he meant to send all those people on a death march, but that was what happened when he forced them off their land in defiance of the Supreme Court. (The Court told him he couldn’t evict the Cherokee, and legend has him saying, “Mr Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it”.) Yeah, he was “tough” in this instance too. Tough enough to cause the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Cherokee. How delightful. Big heart, right?

5. People don’t ask that question, but why was there a civil war?Again, holy eff. I mean, holy effing eff. There are tomes and tomes and tomes about the causes of the Civil War. There are entire conferences devoted to that topic. It is discussed in classrooms across the country (I hope, at least!). People are discussing this in a major, massive way, and they are relating it to the problems that still plague us today, because these things are related. Just because a certain someone isn’t aware of it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Now, given the breathtaking level of historical idiocy in this country, I’m afraid that not enough people ARE aware of this crucial (VITALLY IMPORTANT) discussion. Some people have gotten the entirely wrong idea about the causes of the Civil War or just don’t care. But there is a discussion, a massive discussion that is ongoing and relevant to today’s politics.

6. Why could that one not have been worked out? You’ll forgive me, but this requires some more colorful cussing. I’m going to go and yell a bit and come back. Why could “that one” not have been “worked out”? Jesus.

What is “that one”? I’m guessing this means the causes of the war. Why couldn’t the causes have been resolved in a way other than war? It’s a very basic question, and not without merits for someone who knows nothing about history or the war (like, say, an elementary school kid). “That one” is not exactly one thing, but let’s be clear: SLAVERY. The causes of the Civil War are not as simple as they may seem (though, still, SLAVERY). As Lincoln said, both sides had some blame in the sin of slavery.

However, the cause was slavery. Now, you may hear differently from some people, and you might hear hedging and side-stepping. States-rights, some might say. The right to do what? Own slaves. Differences in culture and economy. Caused by what? The slave economy. There are ancillary repercussions to slavery that caused rifts in and of themselves, but they basically all lead back to the original sin of SLAVERY.

So why could that not have been “worked out”? This makes two implicit assumptions: that people didn’t try very hard, and that there was, in fact, a way to work it out. People did try. Starting with the Constitution, very intelligent men and women attempted to address the slavery issue. The Constitution shunted the problem down the road with the overly optimistic hope that slavery would die out naturally and/or that future generations would be able to solve the problem. Well, future generations tried and failed. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. With every compromise, passions heated, and the rhetoric intensified–it didn’t solve anything, it just bottled things up until at last it exploded.

You see, astute people understood that confining slavery to a certain place or granting more and more “rights” to slaveholders wasn’t going to fix anything. There are many complex reasons why, but essentially, there cannot be a country divided between free and slave states. The slave holders can’t keep their slaves in check if the slaves have somewhere to run, and no state is truly “free” if slave-holders can bring their slaves into that state and even purse their escaped slaves into that state. Slavery demands an entire political and social framework to uphold it, or it become untenable.

Now, let’s look at an example of an attempt to work it out: Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 organized Kansas as a territory on the basis of popular sovereignty. The people of the territory would get to decide whether it would be free or slave territory. The result? A small-scale civil war, in which people flooded in from slave and free states in order to sway the vote. They set up rival governments and had rival constitutions, and there were battles and sieges and massacres.

Sometimes, there is no compromise.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “I believe the government cannot  endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved–I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. ”

7. SLAVERY. For God’s sake, slavery. This is so important to where we stand today as a nation in regards to race relations. Essentially, this is the only rebuttal needed to the nonsense uttered by the president.

Don’t believe me?

How about this, from the Confederate Constitution: “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

Or this, from the vice-president, Alexander Stephens: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. ”

No, but please, tell me about how this could have been worked out.


Writerly Wednesday: When Novellas Attack

This one is a cross-post with my main author’s website, http://www.elizabethhuhn.com.

Go ahead, follow this link, if you dare, and find out what happens . . . when novellas attack. It’s the frightening tale of a novella that turned into a novel.

In the meantime, here’s a pretty picture to tide you over:


Moving Towards Preservation on the DC Lock-keeper’s House

A while back, I wrote about the Lock-keeper’s house in DC. It’s the oldest building on the Mall, and among the oldest in DC. It’s a remnant of the place DC used to be, a place of good intentions and poor execution. At the time I wrote, it looked like work was imminent to repair and move the building. It’s currently pretty sad-looking, all boarded up with barred windows and broken glass. It sits an arm’s length from Constitution Avenue, one of the main arteries of the city, with all the traffic that entails. When work finally gets underway in about a year, the building will be moved back from the road (hurrah!) and rehabilitated as a visitor/information center (hurrah!).

Here’s the most detailed article I found on this (there isn’t a whole lot of media interest in this, I’m afraid):

Historic Lockkeepers House To Make Moves On The Mall


This photo–taken at a rare moment of light traffic on Constitution Avenue–shows how close the house is to the street and how close it is to other landmarks like the Washington Monument.What you can’t quite see if the broken glass and bars on  the windows.

Who Tells Your Story–Hamilton

img_0785In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!

I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).

The Subtext

As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?

A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?

It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.

That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.

Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).

Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.

The Text

Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.

As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.

Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.

So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.

Pulls no punches.

One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)

And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.

The History

There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.

It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.

The Historiography

The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.

Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.

What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.

“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues

While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:

-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.

-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).

-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.

Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).

Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.

Writerly Wednesday: A Literary Link

I’m in the middle of reading Médici’s Daughter, a novel by Sophie Perinot about a 16th-century French Princess, Marguerite de Valois. Margeurite was the daughter of Catherine de Médici, an Italian princess who married Henri II of France. Marguerite was one of many children: if my count is right, there were four sons and three daughters (who survived childhood). Three of her brothers were successively kings of France while she was a young woman. But Marguerite didn’t necessarily get along with all of her fractious family. Her mother was apparently very scheming, and her brother Henri III ended up having her imprisoned for years. Before that, though, Marguerite was witness to one of the worst episodes in French history: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It happened in the middle of the celebrations for–and possibly because of–her marriage to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant lord. The marriage was loveless and would later be annulled, but Henry, as a Prince of the Blood, became king after all of Marguerite’s brothers died childless.

[Two notes on this: one, a Prince of the Blood is not at all like a prince in the English sense of the word. Princes and princesses of the blood were not children and grandchildren of monarchs but were further removed. Here I discuss titles a bit. Second, Henri became king through his own claim, through his father’s side of the family, because France had Salic law, which meant no one could inherit the throne through the female line.]

Henri IV, as he was, became a hero of French history for being moderate and for bringing some stability during the turbulent wars of religion in France. He remarried after the end of his marriage to Marguerite and had many legitimate children. He was the first of the House of Bourbon. Trace the male line down the centuries, and you come to Louis XVI, which itself links us to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, because it was his wife, Marie-Antoinette, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the Affair.

But let’s go backwards for just a moment, back to Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of one king and sister of three others. In fact, let’s go back further and talk about her father, Henri II. Henri died due to an infection following a jousting accident. Before dying though, he not only begot a whole crew of legitimate children, he also sired many bastards. (Really, it’s pretty remarkable what he accomplished in so little time on this earth . . . ) One of his mistresses was Nicole de Savigny; their son Henri was dubbed the Comte de Saint-Remy. If that sounds familiar, then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention!

If not, well, here’s Jeanne de Valois de St. Remy . . . the woman who almost single-handedly caused the Affair of the Necklace. (I say “almost” because she conspired with her husband, Nicolas de La Motte.)

That’s right. She was (very) distant cousins with Louis XVI. She even received an annuity from the crown (which she promptly sold for ready cash).She and her husband called themselves comtesse and comte, though they had no actual right to the title. And in spite of being directly descended from a king, the family was penniless yet had delusions of grandeur, which is part of what led Jeanne to defraud a Cardinal, steal a necklace, and blame a queen for the theft.

So Jeanne’s ancestor was half-brother to Marguerite, the main character and protagonist of Médici’s Daughter, which, I might add, I highly recommend. Go read it!

A Cross-post and a New Blog

I have an exciting announcement to make. I wish it were that ever-elusive book deal, but it isn’t quite that exciting.

I have begun a new blog at www.elizabethhuhn.com, and I’m calling it “…And Full as Much Heart” (part of a quote from Jane Eyre). This blog will be focused on my writing, research, and my love of history of all kinds. Fingers-crossed, this will start establishing my presence as my writing career gets off the ground (you heard me–I’m going to have a writing career!).  This blog will remain active, and I will cross-post when appropriate.

For now, I’m going to cross-post a blog about my trip yesterday into central Virginia to the Wilderness Battlefield. I listed “10 Things About the Battle of the Wilderness“. I hope it’s informative and fun.