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Historian highlights effects of Civil War on modern American democracy

Dr.+Jeremi+Suri+talks+about+his+book+%E2%80%9CCivil+War+By+Other+Means%E2%80%9D+and+how+history+will+help+us+understand+our+current+world+at+the+annual+Furniss+Lecture+held+by+the+Colorado+State+University+history+club+April+12.
Collegian | Julia Percy
Jeremi Suri talks about his book “Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy” at the annual Furniss Lecture held by the Colorado State University history club April 11. A quote from Suri’s book reads, “Democracies do not come together when they glorify their past but when they strive to repair it.”

An open and captivating figure transported listeners back to the Civil War era. With each point, historian Jeremi Suri moved through the lasting effects of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, which is still felt in modern American democracy.

Part of Colorado State University’s Democracy Summit, the 2024 Furniss Lecture heavily drew from Suri’s recent book, “Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy,” in which he explores the racial tensions and political strife that followed Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the lasting effects it had on American society.

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“When thinking about history, I like to think about archaeology,” Suri said. “There are layers from the past, and those layers we might not see at all times. But in certain moments, they pop up in the soil, and we’re living through one of those moments today.”

Suri’s research particularly focuses on investigating lesser-known Confederate figures, including Maj. Gen. Joseph O. Shelby, who oversaw southern soldiers in the Texas region, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Confederate emissary to Britain. Many Confederates fled to Mexico at the employment of Maximilian, the appointed emperor of Mexico, but they came back.

“They returned to the United States,” Suri said. “What do you think they do? They declare themselves heroes. Because they said, ‘See, we never sat down and begged for power from the authorities. We resisted it. (We) never gave in to Yankee authority.’”

“There’s a difference between unity for change and stale moderation. Stale moderation is actually what got us to where we are. Just accept things as they are. I’m not saying you have to be a radical. I’m saying bring people together by actually seeing the historical problem and making change.” –Jeremi Suri, American historian and “Civil War by Other Means” author

These men were not on the outskirts of society. Shelby was appointed U.S. marshal by President Grover Cleveland and led the Democratic Party in Texas. He was responsible for the “white primary,” which prevented Black Americans from voting in the Democratic primary elections until 1944.

“This is significant,” Suri said. “These men come back from the war. And they reinstituted Confederate programs throughout the country. That’s the point here.”

The influence of former Confederates was far-reaching, as it became a basis for building commonalities among groups, Suri said.

“They actually were honest about what they had done,” Suri said. “That’s the interesting thing in the research — it’s not hidden, but it was valorized. It was defending the status of white men that they (felt) was under attack. They were building community around that.”

American society and democracy then became more multiracial following the Emancipation Proclamation. These communities that were originally based around Confederate ideology felt more threatened while continuing to expand, even when the crimes of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were common knowledge.

Suri continued to map the threats of these effects up to the Compromise of 1877, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president following disputed electoral votes. This only occurred because the federal government removed all forces from the South, which had previously guaranteed the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments in the southern states.

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“You have a 70% Black population and a 5% Black participation in elections, and the story we’re told is that those people were lazy,” Suri said. “That’s not what’s going on. It still happens, just in different ways.”

While these actions aren’t as forward facing nowadays, long-standing causes still have an effect. Suri argued these effects are still present in American society, but corrections can be made.

“There’s a difference between unity for change and stale moderation,” Suri said. “Stale moderation is actually what got us to where we are. Just accept things as they are. I’m not saying you have to be a radical. I’m saying bring people together by actually seeing the historical problem and making change.”

This message resonated with audience members after the presentation came to an end.

“It was really interesting to see just how he was able to trace that (history from) the World War, the Civil War, through to the modern age,” doctoral student Julie Hartung said. “And we can see those connections and build them.”

Others focused on the call for intentional change.

“(We need to understand) the history of where people came from and (do) your best to move forward with it,” CSU History Club President Soloman Westcott said. “Acknowledge the past, but keep moving forward. If that is radicalism now, that will eventually be what is necessary for the future to move forward.”

Reach Katie Fisher at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.

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