Radical Abolitionists and the African Origins of the American Civil War Cause Lincoln to Free the Slaves

by Stanford Lewis

In an article by James Illington, entitled, Slavery and the Origin of the Civil War, “the Pew Poll found that sixty percent of Americans under the age of thirty identified States’ Rights as a more important cause of the American Civil War than Slavery. These results are all the more disheartening when we take into account this generation’s generally progressive political leaning on other issues.” What is most disconcerting is that African-Americans were not excluded from these findings. In this regard, African-Americans are as miseducated on this most important issue as are Whites and other Americans. White Americans have chosen to ignore and forget part of their history that they as a community have found too unpleasant to remember. This selective amnesia is in part what is happening on the issue of the origin of the American Civil War. In fact, on several occasions I have spoken with veterans of the Vietnam War and on one occasion I spoke to a soldier who had lost his leg. I made the comment that losing a leg must have been excruciatingly painful. He looked me straight in the eyes and replied very matter of fact, “no, it did not hurt at all.” I was amazed. He further explained, “When your body experiences a traumatic level of pain, you pass out. So, I really do not remember the pain.” Similarly, the bloody physical revolution of Nat Turner’s Rebellion along with radical abolitionist/ Republicans courageous and physical acts of resistance, waged by Africans is the root cause of the American Civil War. The fact that enslaved Africans dared to physically rise up against their white enslavers for freedom was so awful and unimaginable to white America’s historical, cultural and psychological imaginations that they systematically suppressed this terrible reality. According to Dr. Bruce Chadwick, author of The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film “it seemed that to realize reunification, the Civil War’s political and cultural history almost had to be rewritten so that the Southerners would never again be seen as harsh slave owners or as the people who started—and lost—the war.” (10) College professors in the South who criticized enslaving Africans lost their jobs and were driven out of town. As one chemistry professor was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he spoke positively of the presidential campaign of General John C. Fremont students burned him in effigy, he was terminated as a result of his positive comments. The youth were strongly encouraged not to study in the North for fear they would become radical abolitionists. Schools of higher learning were constructed to keep Southerners isolated and protected from foreign Northern ideology. Thomas Jefferson used this as one of the motivating factors in the construction of the University of Virginia. (Wills 307) The creative community including playwrights, poets, novelists and writers set about creating a mythological South of morals and ethics, a noble society that fought for state’s rights and for the protection of their women, children, and property, which only incidentally included ownership of the Africans. This rewriting was a fabrication of history but it was perceived as an absolutely necessary revision in order to establish peace between the warring states. In this regard it can be considered a noble lie. The true story of the Civil War was submerged, and only partially remembered as it was being reconstructed to fit the perceived needs of a nation over several generations. By 1903 the noble lie that was the reconstructed myth of the bloody Civil War which had been led by radical abolitionists and Republicans reached the silver screen in America and it was received by the public as true history. As Teddy Roosevelt once commented it was “history written in lightning.” “But the myth had a high price. The only way mythmakers could wash away the bitterness between North and South and bring about reunification was to erase the fundamental cause of the war and all its death and destruction—slavery. The historical writings and popular culture of the late nineteenth century began the erasure, but it was the all-powerful film medium that, in thousands of darkened movie houses across the Republic, most effectively absolved the South of any blame for slavery…the movie’s complete denial of dignity to African Americans, the former slaves—whether at the turn of the century in the crude “Rastus” and “Sambo” films about contemporary blacks or in the Civil War dramas showing slaves before, during and after the war. Stripped of humanity on the screen, they became stripped of it in real life.” (Chadwick 14)

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Radical Abolitionists and the African Origins of the American Civil War Cause Lincoln to Free the Slaves by Stanford Lewis

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