Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”



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