In Church on Sunday we sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to open the meeting. The “Battle Hymn” has a kind of earnest Victorian-esque zeal worthy of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Until recently, I always thought that this rousing Christian hymn predated the uncouth and irreligious “John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave” and that the good Christian version was the original.
But I was wrong. “John Brown’s Body” was a folk song, and like all good folk songs, has no identifiable author, but is the anonymous collective product of the great mass of un-elite humanity. It originated during the civil war among union troops who would sing it to lift their spirits and to convince themselves that they were fighting for the end of slavery.
Later, the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army Christianized “John Brown’s Body” by rewriting it, removing those pesky, possibly idolatrous references to Osawatomie Brown and replacing the marching of Brown’s soul with the marching of God’s truth. But even with these variations on the original theme, the origins of Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are anchored squarely in the Civil War and specifically, with the call to end slavery. When Howe admonishes “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” it isn’t just some abstract kind of freedom she is talking about, but real physical, freedom. This makes the hymn more visceral to me, and therefore, more powerful.
And it seems, to quote another Civil War text “altogether fitting and proper” that I should commemorate Independence Day by remembering not just Lexington and Concord, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, but also Harper’s Ferry, Antietum and Gettysburg. 1776 was the birth of American freedom, but Lincoln hoped the Civil War would bring a “new birth of freedom.”
His hope was prophetic. It is not hyperbole to call the Civil War the second birth of this country. The country we live in now owes as much to the Civil War and the subsequent reconstruction as it does to the Boston Tea Party and the Constitutional Convention. The Civil War did two things: it created the legal system that defines questions of individual rights in this county, and it unified a loose group of states into one solid nation. Brown vs. Board of Education, arguably the most impactful court decision of the century, was based in the civil war amendments. Virtually any Supreme Court decision dealing with individual rights goes through the 14th Amendment. Before the Civil War, history books said that the United States are or were. Now, we say that the United States is or was. Ungrammatical, but significant. The revolution made us free, but the Civil War made us a nation.
But isn’t just the impact of the Civil War, it is also the substance of what that war was about that makes it meaningful to our independence. The second paragraph of the founding document of independence codifies what was later called our creed, that all are equal. If equality is the creed our independence, then slavery was our great national blasphemy. The causes of the Civil War are complex. It is too simplistic to just say that the Civil War was caused by slavery. But even if the war wasn’t about slavery when it started, it soon became a war about slavery. It was about slavery to the troops who sang “John Brown’s Body” and it was certainly about slavery to the emancipated African-Americans.
And it was about slavery to the confederate leadership itself. It is often said that the confederacy was only concerned about states rights. But the right the secessionist states were asserting was the right to keep human beings as property because of race. Consider confederate Vice President Alexander Stevenson’s assessment of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence:
His ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error ... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.
The secessionists were not just conservatives who failed to progress beyond slavery with the rest of the country; they were reactionaries who had actually repudiated the first of the self-evident truths that were articulated to justify American independence. This position essentially killed the revolution in the secessionist states. Its defeat, then, is appropriately called a “new birth of freedom.”
So tomorrow I will not just celebrate the war that won our political independence from a foppish monarchy. I will celebrate the war that won our economic independence from a racist ideology anathema our national creed. Together with the birth of freedom, I will celebrate the new birth of freedom that caused us to take that creed seriously enough to make it a part of our constitution. For those who, like me, believe that the principles of the Revolution are God's truth, and that they apply to all people, not just to America, Howe's prophetic phrase is hopeful and optimistic. Racism isn’t dead yet, but “His truth is marching on.”