On a recent visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and other Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, I learned that because the Union armies won the Civil War, slavery was abolished in the United States. The docents and wall labels made it sound as if everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Slavery was evil, and it was ended by the victorious Good Guys.
But things could have gone the other way. For a while, the secessionist Southern States were winning battles. They could have won the war. If they had won, slavery would have been around longer than it was. It might be with us today. If the South had won, museum visitors would probably be told that the Confederate victory proved that slavery was indeed a good thing, and that everything had turned out the way it was supposed to.
Throughout history, our museums and schools have taught us that we won wars because we were right. Lincoln himself said that “right makes might,” so the fact that we are mighty proves that we are right. Which is really the same as saying “might makes right.” Or, put another way, might is all that matters, whether you are right or wrong.
Some people have been saying, however, that might and right are independent of each other. We defeated the Native Americans because we were more powerful. There was nothing right about our victory. We wanted the land and we took it. Period.
More recently, we have had to explain how it could be that we have been losing our military adventures. We lost in Vietnam. Were we wrong? Some people think so, but I haven't yet seen a schoolbook or museum label that said so. The books and museums try to pretend that we didn't really lose, or they say that we weren't really at war, or they say that we would have won, but we gave up. They never say that the other side won because they were right. As a country, we never say we were wrong.
The Civil War has been over for 146 years. And still, the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are not willing to admit that their side was wrong. They are still arguing for “states' rights,” which during the civil war meant slavery, a hundred years later meant racial segregation, and today means no social programs for Blacks, expulsion of Mexicans, denial of reproductive rights for women, and repression of Muslims.
Although we would all like to think that we will not have another civil war, our schools and museums continue to teach us that if you can win a war, you not only can impose your will on those whom you defeat, you can also claim that it was God's will that you won. So, as we hear that sales of guns have increased since a black man was elected president, and that the right to carry concealed weapons in public has been affirmed in all but one state, we ought to ponder just how close we may be coming to the day when angry people will once again set out to prove that they are right by declaring war on what they see as an illegitimate domination of their states that has gone on since the surrender at Appomattox Court House. If that day comes, we can expect that our schools and museums will teach that whoever won was supposed to win. And if slavery once again becomes legal, we will be taught that everything is the way it is supposed to be.