My Civil War Course, Lincoln, Religion, and Terrorism



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PAUL HARVEY

I'm currently team-teaching (with a local English professor) a course on The Civil War and American Culture (we should have called it "Slavery, The Civil War, and American Culture, which more accurately fits our reading list). It's part of our Humanities program, in which vast bodies of undergraduates of all majors are force-marched through an "interdisciplinary experience" (or, as we like to put it in Pink Floyd mode, "how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"). Students often hate it. All those Psych. and Comm. majors actually have to write lengthy papers about long texts -- gross! "Hey, I thought this was a history, not an English, class, how come there are all those little squiggly marks on my paper?" You know the drill.

In doing the course and thinking again about Uncle Tom's Cabin (UTC), I discovered this remarkable website, full of riches for the American religious historian: Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture (correction: my co-teacher found the website, and from there we integrated it into the course). It led me, among other things, to survey the abundance of commodified images of the novel's characters, as well as to contemporary (1850s) reviews of the book. I was fascinated by this piece from the North American Review, emblematic of a considerable body of northern opinion (basically: slavery is a curse, but the presence of Africans is a worse one, and slavery is the lesser of those two evils). How widespread was this opinion? That's something I'm thinking about again as I survey a variety of materials surrounding UTC.

Yesterday we were covering the subject of what George Frederickson calls "romantic racialism," and my co-teacher spent a good deal of the period covering just these couple of paragraphs from the preface:

THE scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt.

But another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, "good-will to man." The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood.

Looking through the primary sources from UTC Web is compelling me to think through again religion and the coming of the War, as well as the role of romantic religious imagery in the period (together with sentimental culture) in preparing the way in part for the spread of of a "kindler and gentler" abolitionism, but also for what Ed Blum calls the "reforging of the white republic." It also helps me understand better how the "Uncle Tom" of the novel became the "Tom" of insult, and how the male culture of minstrelsy took over the female culture of the sentimental novel in terms of controlling the "cultural reception" of UTC.

Vernon Burton has been thinking through this period for a long time, and leaves us with this set of reflections on religion and the age of Lincoln, based on his new book (blogged about here before) The Age of Lincoln. Here's an excerpt:

Essential to such definitions was religious faith, a potent motivating factor. The Age of Lincoln opens with the Gettysburg address, Lincoln’s benediction. The first chapter begins with Baptist Minister William Miller, who persuaded his followers to expect the return of Jesus Christ to earth on October 22, 1844. When Jesus did not come, they went back into society, and they and others decided to transform the United States into God’s Kingdom on Earth. Religion and millennial visions undergirded reform efforts both North and South. When northern reform efforts lined up to declare slavery as the single greatest evil in the country, abolitionism, while still a minority position in the North, rose to prominence. If the United States were to be a society ordained by God, to become the utopia that would bring on the millennium, the evil of slavery had to be eradicated. Southern efforts turned toward defending slavery against such assaults. White southerners quit apologizing for slavery and proclaimed it the best society. They argued that a patriarchal, hierarchical slave society was ordained by God and would help bring on the millennium. Both northern and southern religious devotees became unbending as they knew and obeyed God’s will. Passion precluded compromise. Until the election of Abraham Lincoln, statesmen had always compromised, finding a way to work through every crisis of the union. Most leaders, including Lincoln, expected a compromise short of war. Even the Confederate constitution was a document as much to invite an acceptable compromise as to forge a new nation.

1 comments:

Edward J Blum at: February 27, 2008 at 3:33 PM said...

What we really should vote on is who would like to be in Paul's class? I know I'd love to take that course (although I hear Harvey's a hard grader).

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