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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

1 rating: 1.0
A book by David Goldfield

Starred Review. This sweeping, provocative history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction has two grand themes. One is the importance of evangelical Protestantism, particularly in the North and within the Republican Party, in changing slavery … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: David Goldfield
Genre: History
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
1 review about America Aflame: How the Civil War Created...

Evangelical Christians started the Civil War, and it was a great disaster

  • Jun 20, 2011
That is the these David Goldfield proposes, which wasn't what I was expecting based on the subtitle "How the Civil War created a nation".  I had hoped, based on that phrase,  to learn more about how Lincoln's daring assumptions of political power in the name of preserving the union after the conflict translated into the radically new (not just renewed or restored) concept of the "United States" after the war.  

Instead I find as Goldfield lays out in his introduction that it was evangelical Christianity's
  • moral certitude that slavery is wrong,
  • coupled with their use of emerging media, cheap printing, and very high literacy rates (another effect of evangelical Christianity, although Goldfield does not acknowledge this; I wonder if he would condemn it as well?)
  • animus against Catholics, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups that threatened their milleniial path to Manifest Destiny
  • access to political power while at the same time polatizing the debate with moral absolutes (based on that nasty old moral certitude that slavery is wrong--silly Christians!  Why can't we all just get along, I say?  Lets just reinstate slavery and eliminate education and literacy while we're at it).
That lead to the Civil War, which was America's greatest failure!

In the introduction, Goldfield even promises to use Lincoln as one of his key narrative characters; how he will turn Lincoln into an evangelical is something I have to see!  He starts out on logically shaky ground by going back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 where Lincoln's position "A House Divided" was based on Matthew 12:25 where Jesus is quoted saying "a house divided against itself shall not stand."  To go from this use of a biblical quote to establishing Lincoln as an evangelical (or even more laughably as a tool of the evangelicals--imagine Lincoln as anyone's tool!) and Christianity as the cause of the Civil War will take a broad leap of intellect to both make and accept--and I haven't even finished the introduction yet!  I'll read on.

One might even suspect that Goldfield himself doesn't really believe his argument.,  At one point, commenting on an antislavery editorial by Horace Greeley, Goldfield jokes:  "It was all there:  sex, class, and patriotism."--but not religion.  In the burned-over region of Civil War scholarship, getting noticed requires flashy thinking, and by raising the specter of evil Christianity against peace-loving slaveholders who just want to be recognized as full participants in the benefits of the American system (yes, he seriously does make that argument) the cynic could be forgiven for suggesting that Goldfield seems to feel he's latched onto just the kind of thinking that will get him noticed.

And in fact, once past the introduction and the chapters laying the origins of the war at the feet of evangelical Christianity, he settles into a straightforward and quite readable narrative of the War and its aftermath.   It is hard to find in Goldfield's arguments the evil hands of evangelicalism at work, or the sweeping assertion that the War was a great disaster.

Make no mistake, the Civil War was a great evil, with the loss of life, the suffering on the battlefield and off, that has scarred the American landscape and lives every day since.  But I don't think even Goldfield really thinks it a disaster, no matter how boldly he states it.  Consider his summary (p. 156) of Lincoln's position on slavery during the 1858 debates:

Lincoln placed his differences with Douglas into this broader moral context so his listeners might understand the high stakes involved, that the slavery issue was not merely a political question like, say, the tariff or the transcontinental railroad but a test of America's democratic and religious ideals:  'It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world.  They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time and will ever continue to struggle.  The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings.'  In these few sentences Lincoln related how the slavery issue connected to principles that transcended both time and space.  He linked the anti-slavery cause to the nation's democratic legacy and its global mission.

If one could convincingly argue that Lincoln's moral position was driven by evangelical Christianity, then that body would accept the indictment with honor; however, Goldfield wisely does not make that argument here, even though that leaves his introduction further out on an unsupported limb and open to the charge of cynical bookselling.   And even Goldfield himself seems to respect Lincoln and the nation for undertaking whatever suffering is necessary to fulfil its legacy and global mission.  His admiring glance at Lincoln's stance seems to put askance his introductory rant of the war as a great disaster at any cost or benefit.

One area where Goldfield rightly condemns Christians is in Biblical defense of slavery.  Galatians 3:28 is crystal clear:  "There  is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  While other verses call for acceptance of our position in life, even in a position of slavery, nowhere does Jesus ever posit or even accept the right of one man to enslave another.  The use of Scripture to defend slavery remains an abhorrent stain on Christianity even today.

Goldfield concludes the war, and Lincoln's sad end, with over 100 pages left in the book, leaving plenty of time to talk about the nation the War created.  He recounts the sad tale of Reconstruction, and draws parallels between the treatment of freed African-Americans and the reservation-bound Native Americans as they were swept away in the rush of immigration, railroad-building, and gold-and-silver fever of the decade after the war.  While Goldfield does draw the element of religious rightness, self-righteousness, and redemption in these outcomes of the war, it hardly seems as though Christianity started or is at fault for these sins, as much as false and hypocritical justification for them; the freedmen and the Native American's would have been restricted and reserved Christianity or no.  They were, as Goldfield more accurately argues at the end (p. 524), swept aside in the rush to progress that the unified (read Northern) America pursued headlong after the war.  

So, Goldfield has written a fairly standard narrative layman's history of the Civil War, which he has prefaced with a bold theory that can easily be summarized in hyped and overheated headlines like my title.  The history is readable, but you'll have to judge for yourself if he proves his theory. 

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