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Saturday, February 14, 2015

WHAT CAUSED the CIVIL WAR: REFLECTIONS on the SOUTH and SOUTHERN HISTORY by Edward L. Ayers



Published in 2005 by W.W. Norton and Company

This wonderful set of nine essays is just about as complete of a discussion of the South, the Civil War, Reconstruction, family, home, historical research and some practical applications of the lessons of the Civil War for us today as I have read.

It seems to me that most of these essays have been published somewhere else first. That being said, Ayers has arranged them in a rough chronological order based not on the historical topic of the essay but on Ayers's own life. He starts with his own childhood in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina and his own growing understand of what it means to be a Southerner. As the essays go along, Ayers goes to college, travels the world a bit and eventually returns to the South to do research and eventually teach at the University of Virginia. 

As Ayers moves through his education and his career he develops a perspective on the Civil War and that perspective changes as he grows in his research.

The best essay was the title essay. Ayers has a surprisingly simple yet nuanced tale of the causes of the war. I have read plenty of books on the war (easily 100 non-fiction books and at least 20 fiction books) and Ayers provided a thoughtful look at this topic. 

In short, he argues that it was slavery, of course, and a complete failure of the politics of the day to deal with changing public attitudes. The Whigs, one of the two major political parties, died by fracturing over slavery in 1840s and 1850s. The reactionary anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and the Republicans replaced the Whigs. The Know-Nothings caused a lot of noise and chaos but had no staying power. The Republicans adopted a mild anti-slavery platform (basically, no new slave states) and this caused the Democrats to fracture into multiple parties. 

Basically, slavery went from being an unhappy but back-burner issue to being
The Issue - the one that could not be compromised on, either way in just a few short years. It was such a short time that the political system could not figure out how to respond fast enough. In our modern culture, gay rights has had a similar evolution and it might serve as a useful comparison. 20 years ago it was considered to be a giant leap forward to let gay soldiers serve under the Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now, Gay Marriage, a topic that wasn't even on anyone's radar 20 years ago, is a reality in most states and one political party is struggling to deal with this new reality. Churches are split and ugly insults go back and forth across social media as people try to re-work things in their own minds.

I enjoyed the essay on Reconstruction a lot as well. "Exporting Reconstruction" pointed out something obvious that I had never noticed before. Reconstruction was America's first attempt at nation-building- and it was not very successful. The parallels with our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are striking. 

I did not enjoy "A Digital Civil War". This essay spoke of Ayers's attempt to coordinate a massive amount of data in the early days of personal computing and how he helped pioneer some new techniques. At first it was kind of fun to remember those "good old days" of small memory and primitive software but it grew wearisome soon enough.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on February 13, 2015.

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