Last week, Joe Biden did something unusual for an American politician: He told the truth about the civil war.
In a speech delivered in Scranton, Pennsylvania last week, Biden focused on his economic plans while slipping in a criticism of Donald Trump’s affinity for statues and military bases honoring Confederate generals. But he took things a step further and described those traitorous Americans as . . . traitors. The “generals who rebelled,” said Biden “were treasonous against the United States of America.”
When I heard Biden’s words my ears perked up. I could not remember hearing a national politician, no less a presidential nominee, use the “t” word to describe the Confederacy.
However, it wasn’t the first time Biden said it. Last month he defended America’s slave-owning founding fathers, noting the differences between George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and those who were “in rebellion committing treason trying to take down a union to keep slavery.”
In recent weeks, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley have gotten in the act too. “They committed treason against the United States,” Pelosi said of Confederate leaders. In congressional testimony Milley called the civil war “an act of rebellion” and “an act of treason” and said Confederate generals had “turned their backs on their oaths.”
All of this is unquestionably true, but it’s an element of history that has been whitewashed by generations of American politicians. According to Harold Holzer, who has written numerous books on President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, “there has been an effort from North as well as South to on the one hand recast the war as a ‘brother against brother’ misunderstanding about differing ways of life rather than a struggle between freedom and slavery.”
Indeed, Lincoln’s magnificent second inaugural address cast the war not in terms of us versus them, but rather as divine punishment to both the North and South for allowing slavery to continue for so long in the United States.
While it’s true that many Republican politicians “waved the bloody shirt” of Southern secession or as the famous orator Robert Green Ingersoll reminded voters in 1876, “every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given you by a Democrat,” things have long since changed.
The imperatives of national unity and political expediency demanded that the victorious side in the Civil War play down the notion of treason when it came to discussing the war. Southern historians pushed a dishonest view of the war as a “Lost Cause,” driven by a desire to maintain regional heritage and uphold “state’s rights.” Indeed, much of the reason we’re still debating monuments to Confederate generals is the PR push by “Lost Cause” adherents to cast those who took up arms against the Union as noble, principled patriots, fighting for a just cause.
For decades, it has become an inconvenient truth to cast the South’s rebellion in harsh, but honest terms — as a treasonous exercise intended to ensure the continued enslavement of Black people. Even President Obama, when calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina capitol in 2015, described the act as “an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong,” but he also made clear doing so “would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.”
While there has been recognition of slavery’s crucial role in the war, the painting of Southern soldiers and generals as traitors motivated by racism has rarely been heard.
Indeed, coming from a political leader, particularly a presidential nominee, a charge of treason is nearly as harsh as saying the war was about slavery. It takes away any shred of legitimacy from the South for waging the war — and in a region so outwardly patriotic - both genuine and performative, as well as high-levels of military service, it’s the kind of comment that hits particularly hard.
Since Biden had spoken these words extemporaneously I sought clarification from his campaign. I asked if it’s Joe Biden’s view that those who fought on behalf of the Confederacy committed treason? And would he call them traitors?”
The response: “In a word, yes.”
This is the kind of language Americans need to hear. For far too long, the ugliness of American history — and, in particular, white supremacy — has been obscured under clouds of euphemism and gainsaying. Fear of offending white sensibilities has led us to America’s long-standing devotion to white supremacy and the systemic mistreatment of Black Americans as less equal. If Southerners were fighting for a noble cause, what does that say about the people they were seeking to ensure remained enslaved?
Biden might not have intended to change the way we think about the Civil War, and those who continue to defend the losing side, but his words have the power to have precisely this effect. The opportunity for rehabilitation and the goal of national unity are clearly important, but so too is truth and honesty. That has long been missing from how we talk about and teach the Civil War, and kudos to Biden, Pelosi, Milley, et al., for speaking unpleasant but much-needed truths.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.