Mike Kueber's Blog

April 17, 2011

African-Americans and the Civil War

In a previous blog, I mentioned a recent survey that found white Americans thought the principal cause of the Civil War was slavery whereas black Americans believed the principal cause was states’ rights.   The survey surprised me, and I was surprised again yesterday when an article in USA Today reported that African-Americans aren’t very interested in celebrating the Civil War.   

I wonder why African-Americans don’t celebrate the Civil War.  Perhaps it could it be that most of the fighting was done by white Americans.  Perhaps it could be that the Union states were so complicit in the institution of slavery that their eventual “seeing the light” was too late to deserve any credit.

From a different perspective, I wonder why non-Southerners don’t celebrate the courage and honor of all of the Union soldiers.  The NY Times recently had an article about the thousands of Union volunteers who, shortly after the firing on Ft. Sumter, clamored to get in on the action.  Although the South won a lot of battles, obviously the Union won its share, too.  Why don’t Americans feel like celebrating those victories?

I’m the wrong guy to ask because I have an emotional attachment to the South.  Although I grew up in the north (North Dakota) and feel that the antebellum South had few redeeming virtues, I believe in States’ Rights and invariably root for the underdog.  If Utah had insisted on leaving the Union because of its belief in polygamy, I would have said, “See ya.”  If California wants to go because it believes in legalized marijuanca, I would say, “Have a good life.”

August 16, 2010

Remedial Texas history – the Alamo

Because I grew up in North Dakota, my high school education included a mandatory course on North Dakota history, learning about Lewis & Clark and the socialistic Non Partisan League.  But that knowledge doesn’t help me much when discussing the history of my adopted home state of Texas.  So last week, when I got into an argument about the Alamo, I was at a distinct disadvantage.  Occasionally, I didn’t know whether I was referring to an actual event or merely something that was a part of John Wayne’s movie.  This weekend, to remedy my historical deficiencies of epic proportions, I went to the local library and picked up three new history books on the Alamo (listed below).  After reading those books, I believe I know as much about the Alamo as the next Texas guy.

Prior to starting my reading, I had two questions that I wanted to answer because they related to the argument that I was having about the Alamo – (1) were the Alamo defenders mercenaries, and (2) were there more Anglos or Mexicans in Texas at the time of the Texas Revolution?


The answer to the mercenary question turns on how we define “mercenary.”  Under Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, a mercenary is a person fighting in a war:

  • Who is neither a national of a party nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict, and
  • Who is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party.  Article 47

Based on my readings, it is unreasonable to assert that the Alamo defenders were mercenaries.  Although many of the defenders had recently arrived from a different country (i.e., the United States) and hoped to eventually claim some free land, they were current residents of Texas and were not being paid in excess of the pay to Army regulars.  More importantly, the Alamo defenders clearly had “bought into” the idea of a Texas republic free from the tyranny of Mexico’s centralized government, and that was their motivation.

The “mercenary” question is important for two reasons:

  1. Mercenaries are not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war and can be executed.  That was Santa Anna’s rationale for refusing to give “quarter” to captured combatants at the Alamo and Goliad.  Instead, he had them executed, and his conduct caused some Texians to respond in kind at the Battle of San Jacinto, with the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad.”
  2. The term “mercenary” negatively connotes that a person is fighting for money and not for altruistic reasons.  (A rare exception is Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.”)  By classifying the Alamo defenders as mercenaries, critics are attempting to justify the refusal to consider them as heroes.    

Ethnic composition

The question about ethnic composition is important because critics of the Battle of the Alamo contend the battle was an example of American imperialism, with Americans taking land away from Mexicans.  My readings, however, reveal that the great majority of Texas residents were Americans:

  • 1820 – fewer than 2,000 Mexicans in Texas
  • 1821 – Mexico wins its freedom from Spain
  • 1822 – first American settlers in Texas (“the 300”)
  • 1824 – Constitution of 1824 adopted
  • 1827 – 12,000 Anglos vs. 7,000 Mexicans
  • 1829 – Emancipation Proclamation was issued to slow immigration
  • 1830 – 16,000 Anglos and 4,000 Mexicans
  • 1835 – 30,000 Anglos and 7,800 Mexicans

Thus, Americans clearly led the way to colonizing Texas and did not displace Mexicans.  Americans were invited by the Mexican government to immigrate to Texas because most Mexicans were unwilling to settle so far from Mexico City.  Americans settled in Texas under Mexico’s Constitution of 1824, which provided for decentralized, local authority.  When Santa Anna abrogated the constitution in 1835 and attempted to establish a centralized tyranny, Texans refused to give up their liberty and war followed.

Although the treaty following the Texas War for Independence guaranteed that Mexicans living in Texas (Tejanos) would retain their property, there is evidence that following the war, many Tejanos were separated from their property and marginalized in their new country.  These actions were probably analogous to Jim Crow laws in the South and are a negative stain on Texas.  I don’t think, however, they should stain the sacrifice of those who died in the Alamo.     

(The ethnic composition of Texas was similar to that of the entire southwest.  After the Mexican Cession in 1848, following the Mexican-American War, the 1850 census revealed that Mexican-Americans comprised about 20% of the population of the ceded area.)


Critics of the Alamo contend that slavery caused the Texas War for Independence, just as slavery caused America’s Civil War.  Although there were about 5,000 slaves in Texas in 1836, and although Mexico was in the process of phasing out slavery in Texas, there was no strong evidence in my readings that slavery was a dominant reason for the Texians to fight Santa Anna’s tyranny.   

Why do some Mexican-Americans hate the Alamo?

According to one of the books that I read (Remembering the Alamo, by Richard R. Flores), the Alamo was not initially the great symbol of liberty that it has become today.  He suggests, I think, that it became a symbol in the 20th century as a time when Anglos needed something to symbolize their dominance over Mexican-Americans.  His theories were too deep for me to understand.

According to Rosie Castro, our mayor’s mother, the defenders of the Alamo included mostly despicable men.  I didn’t see any evidence of that, but there were reports that many of the later-arriving immigrants (not  Austin’s original 300) had checkered, unsuccessful pasts.  This, however, should not be surprising because people in solid situations are not likely to take a chance in the wilderness.

The books

Remembering the Alamo,

Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol

Richard R. Flores


Lone Star Rising,

The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic

William C. Davis


Alamo Sourcebook 1836,

A Comprehensive Guide to the Alamo and the Texas Revolution

Tim J. & Terry S. Todish


June 13, 2010

“Our peculiar institution” and abortion

Filed under: History,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:47 am
Tags: ,

As I previously mentioned, I am reading A Patriot’s History of the United States to refresh my recollection of a subject that I last studied formally more than 30 years ago in college.  My reading has progressed to Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War.  

For several decades leading up to the Civil War, American politicians struggled with “our peculiar institution,” which was a euphemism used by those who didn’t like the term slavery.  Unfortunately, because our politicians failed to do their job successfully, 620,000 American soldiers died. 

As the authors of A Patriots History, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, described the various efforts by politicians to resolve the slavery issue, I was struck by the similarities of slavery with America’s current political disagreement regarding abortion.  Both issues involve an individual’s personal morality, there is no middle ground, and an individual’s position is not susceptible to reasoning, analysis, or persuasion.  Abolitionists believed that slavery was immoral, just as pro-life people believe that abortions are evil.

During my readings, I was also struck by the slavery position taken by Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.  You may recall that Douglas was the Illinois senator who defeated Lincoln in a 1858 senatorial race, but then lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.  Douglas was a pragmatic politician, and he argued that the voters of each state should have the right to decide whether to allow slavery in their jurisdiction.  That happens to be exactly the position I took on abortion during my congressional race. 

As a congressional candidate, I argued that Roe v. Wade should be reversed because this issue should be decided by the people, not by judicial legislation.  And consistent with the Tenth Amendment, this issue should be decided by each state, not the federal government.  Furthermore, there is already precedent for the states successfully handling another comparable issue – i.e., the death penalty. 

A lot of Americans think the death penalty is immoral, but most are comfortable with allowing each state to decide how it feels.  My home state of North Dakota does not have a death penalty, but my adopted state of Texas does.  Even though there are occasionally a few out-of-state protestors outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville for executions, the practice is generally accepted as a legitimate state power even by those who personally oppose it.   

Douglas’s position in favor of state sovereignty over slavery was never tested because Lincoln took a stronger anti-slavery stance and won the election.  It is doubtful, however, whether the southern states would have stayed in the Union even if Douglas had won.  They felt that their “peculiar institution” would never be accepted by the northern states and that secession was an inevitable necessity to maintain their way of life.  As Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.  Or as Mao Zedong said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”  Let’s hope that the abortion issue can be resolved civilly over time without war.

May 22, 2010

A Divinely-inspired U.S. Constitution?

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:22 am
Tags: , ,

Americans have a healthy, common-sense cynicism about its government.  Nothing is perfect in life except for God. 

Christian are taught that the Bible is perfect, too – i.e., biblical inerrancy/infallibility.  Because they believe the Bible is divinely inspired, Christians study biblical passages and try to glean wisdom that can be applied in a practical way. 

Despite their common-sense cynicism, many Americans, especially conservative Americans, treat the U.S. Constitution as divinely inspired.  They act as if God helped our founders write it, so that if we examine its words closely enough, we will find the answer to a more perfect government. 

I believe we are giving the Constitution more credit than it is due.  Yes, its authors were educated, pragmatic idealists, but there is nothing magical about them or the document that they produced.  The fact that we have amended it 27 times suggests that it was not divinely inspired, especially the part that recognized slavery and authorized voting only by white males.  The fact that other, less-successful countries have drafted constitutions modeled after ours suggests that the people and resources of the U.S. had as much to do with America’s success as the governing document did.

Much of the credit for good governance in the United States should go to the federal courts.  They have done an excellent job through the years in elaborating on and clarifying the meaning of the broad principles established by the U.S. Constitution (all 4,543 words of it).  But there is a danger that the courts are becoming too politicized today.  There shouldn’t be campaigns to interpret the constitution one way or the other.  The judiciary is supposed to be separate from politics, so we should allow judges to do their job without political influence.  Then, if we disagree with the judicial interpretation, we shouldn’t call for the replacement of judges.  Instead we should amend the constitution by the onerous process described in the Constitution – a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and then ratification by three-fourth of the states legislatures. 

Our founding fathers gave Americans a great starting document, but that document is not some mystical/magical formulation that we dare not tinker with.  American progress is due to the character of its people, and those people can determine the kind of government that is needed today as well as a bunch of rich white men from 227 years ago.

April 20, 2010

Johnny Reb and Confederate History Month

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:33 pm
Tags: , ,

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) recently got in trouble for issuing a proclamation that recognized April 2010 as Confederate History Month.  The proclamation upset some people because it failed to acknowledge that the Confederacy was forever stained by its precipitating raison d’être – i.e., slavery in the South.  McDonnell apologized for the oversight and revised the proclamation to include a paragraph acknowledging the stain of slavery on the Conferacy, but before the controversy could go away, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) exacerbated the situation by asserting that the original proclamation was not a mistake and that every mention of the Confederacy does not require an anti-slavery caveat – “I don’t know what you would say about slavery, but anyone who thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing – I think it goes without saying.”  Not coincidentally, Barbour routinely issues similar proclamations in Mississippi without an anti-slavery caveat.

I have attached below a copy of the amended proclamation, and I believe the amendment was appropriate.  I understand Barbour’s assertion that every mention of the Confederacy doesn’t require an anti-slavery caveat, but the inclusion of a caveat in the context of this proclamation seems appropriate. 

Disputes like this are certain to erupt again and again until we either discuss our way to a consensus or, more likely, we agree to disagree.  Can we have a consensus on the following:    

  • Should white Southerners be proud of Confederate war heroes?  Clearly, yes.  Although many Americans failed to show proper respect to our servicemen who returned from Vietnam, our nation has clearly evolved so that now servicemen who return from Iraq are honored even by those who vehemently oppose the Iraq war.  Johnny Reb unquestionably was a gallant and brave soldier serving his state, and he deserves honor for his conduct. 
  • Should white Southerners be proud of the Confederacy?  I think, no.  Although some white Southerners argue that the Civil War was about States’s Rights, I believe the general consensus is that the Civil War was fought because the South felt the North was threatening the long-term viability of slavery, and Governor McDonnell’s amendment acknowledges this – “the institution of slavery led to this war.”  Thus, secession over slavery is nothing for white Southerners to be proud of. 
  • Should white Southerners be proud of the ante-bellum South?  I think, yes.  Although slavery was, as Governor McDonnell recently stated, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights,” the stain of slavery should not blot out everything else that was good about the old South.  Let’s not forget that Washington and Jefferson were Southern slave owners who made immense contributions toward making America what it is today – a beacon of liberty for the entire world.  We can continue to honor them without routinely including an obligatory anti-slavery caveat.

Emotionally, I stand squarely on the side of honoring Confederate heroes even though my home state of North Dakota didn’t exist at the time of the Civil War and it is stocked with people who emigrated from northern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Thus, the Civil War and slavery are not directly a part of my heritage.  Yet I have always been attracted to the thought of Johnny Reb, the underdog who rebelled against the heavy hand of the federal government (even before I learned about States’ Rights).  This attraction came to full bloom during college when I was exposed to Gone With The Wind.  I became so enamored of Rhett Butler and the South’s rebel cause that I briefly considered changing my name to Rhett Ezekiel Bayou, or REB for short.  However, because slavery was not directly a part of my heritage, and because I have no close African-American friends, I am probably not sufficiently sensitive to the stain that slavery has left on people or institutions, and I need to occasionally remind myself of that, just like Governor Bob McDonnell did.   


Confederate History Month

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS,  Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.