Why the hottest Civil War takes fail to acknowledge New York City's racist past

The 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse has inspired a series of myopic and revisionist attempts to tie the present day Republican Party to the racism and insurrectionism of the Confederacy.

This is not a unique occurrence. The left is forever in pursuit of evidence to support their preconception that the right is inherently and historically racist. The same desperate desire to disassociate the Democratic Party from the South has sparked frantic and unconvincing attempts to rewrite the history of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” If the GOP’s 1968 presidential campaign was aimed at appealing to vestigial racial resentment in the South, it was spectacularly unsuccessful given that an actual racist on the ballot in that year dramatically outperformed Nixon in many of the former Confederate states.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s conclusion has similarly sparked a variety of due recriminations of the South, its racist past, and its antebellum way of life. A childish litmus test the left imposes on modern political commentators requires us to acknowledge from the outset that American black slavery was bad, and its banishment following an unimaginably bloody civil conflict was both just and righteous. No one not relegated to the darkest fringes of American life would disagree with that assertion.

For political columnists, however, nothing is so rewarded as a counterintuitive “take,” and a particularly irksome one has become vogue on the left this week. In blogs and respected opinion pages alike, the tortured claim that today’s Republicans are the inheritors of the legacy of the Civil War’s Democrats is in fashion. Matt Vespa crafted an important dissection of one of these juvenile attempts at self-validation via The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson.

Fueled by the mega-donations of the mega-rich, today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis. It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.

While Meyerson might be the least subtle in his recrimination of the GOP as the racist heir to the Confederacy’s legacy, he isn’t alone. A slightly more nuanced version of this argument was advanced by University of Texas Prof. Euan Hague in Politico Magazine. The contention rests on the notion that suspicion of the federal government, a sentiment shared by two-thirds of the American public, is not all that much different from neo-Confederate sympathy.

More recently, in 2014, the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald reported a poll that found 29 percent of Mississippians would support a new Confederacy if there was a Civil War today; 50 percent would stay loyal to the United States of America; and, 21 percent were undecided. This support for the Confederacy in Mississippi was primarily from whites, men, and Republicans, and the numbers had the Sun Herald’s political blogger “Crawdaddy,” concerned: “I know there is some anti-federal government sentiment out there, but I was surprised it was this strong. But, even more than that, I was surprised that question even has relevance in this day and age.”

Despite the revelation that a majority in the prototypical Southern state of Mississippi would reject an anti-Union rebellion today, the author suggested that the fact that a minority would is somehow evidence of encroaching Southern revanchism. The notion that pro-Confederate sympathies are on the rise rests primarily on the appeal of vulgar Confederate flag license plates, and not an increase in support for nullification, ethnic homogeneity, and the repeal of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. If the South is rising again, it is a rather muted ascension.

But for all of the white-hot takes regarding the GOP’s favorability toward the Confederacy, I have yet to read one that tackles the North’s sympathies for the Confederate cause. The primary locus for this sympathy was that bastion of urban liberalism and home to many of these aggrieved columnists, New York City.

The Empire City had firmer political and economic ties to the Confederate States in the antebellum period than it did with the North. Facing a choice between the export of beaver furs and African slaves, the former having lost much of its value after the beaver top hat fell out of fashion, the city quickly began to rely on the latter in order to make a living. It was not long before New York City had a stronger relationship with the South and the Caribbean than it did with the Northern states, with which it was only connected via unreliable overland routes prior to Dewitt Clinton’s successful campaign to dig the Erie Canal.

Following the fascinating 1860 election, one which is rivaled in terms of factionalism and intrigue only by the 1912 presidential cycle (I recommend Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors if you’re interested in the topic), the Confederacy was born after a candidate who didn’t even appear on the ballot in many of those 11 states was elected to the presidency. In solidarity, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood recommended that New York City join its fellows in rebellion.

“It would seem that a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable,” Wood wrote in an address to “our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States” in January of 1861. “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master—to a people and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her, take away the power of self-government, and de¬stroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

Wood joined New York-based U.S. Marshal Isaiah Rynders, a brutal slavery advocate who regularly broke up abolitionist clubs in the city with force, in supporting the practice of human bondage and the slave trade inside the city, despite its illegality. This was only possible due to the support of the city’s wealthy residents, its opinion-makers, and its tenement-dwellers alike. “The City of New York belongs almost as much to the South as to the North,” wrote the editor of the New York Post in the spring of 1860. For its part, the South was unimpressed with New York’s displays of fealty because, despite the city’s influence, it had failed to check the rise of Republicanism in the North.

Jealous protectors of their investments, the creditors of New York City eagerly begged Lincoln’s government to pursue a path of peace with the new nation south of the Mason-Dixon that would allow slavery to survive. When Lincoln refused, a mutinous sentiment took hold in the city. “Dark rumors even swept the city that a force of New Yorkers planned to seize Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette, two forts guarding the entrance to New York’s harbor, and turn them over to Southern sympathizers,” Clint Johnson wrote in A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City. “Federal authorities were so concerned about the wild story that they warned the post commanders to be vigilant.”

When, in the summer of 1863, the city was engulfed in what became known as the Draft Riots, blacks were routinely targeted and killed by a mob that blamed African-Americans for the suboptimal state of affairs. After three bloody days of armed rebellion in the city, the Union subdued the riots, but only after much bloodshed. The riots could have changed the course of the war. They broke out as the Army of Northern Virginia had just unsuccessfully invaded Pennsylvania. Had the unrest occurred just a few days earlier, Union troops might have been needed to secure the city, leaving the way open for Lee to wheel right and lay siege to or even sack Washington D.C.

New York City’s checkered race relations did not end with the Southern rebellion. The periodic race riots that have a habit of overtaking the city once every thirty years or so are a testament to the city’s internal ethnic tensions. Few on the left dare confront this condition as it strikes at the heart of the myth of the urban progressive’s moral superiority. New York City has been my home as it was my father’s home. Its capacity for wonder and great good is virtually unparalleled. The city’s history of assimilating all the peoples of the world, who have managed to live together in relative harmony for two centuries now, is unrivaled in human history. But one cannot help but wonder if the left’s myopic obsession with foisting the legacy of disunion and slavery onto Republicans is an elaborate effort to avoid confronting the dubious legacies of their own ideological progenitors. We are all imperfect creatures and the products of our time. Northern urban centers like New York City – the jewel of the Western Hemisphere and the greatest city on earth, in my view – is no exception.