I read somewhere once that journalism is the first draft of history. That may be true. It would explain some of the gross mistakes and distortions of facts that can be found in our history books.
Here is an example: Pick up any history book about the conflict between the Northern and Southern states that begin in April 1861 and you will find it identified as “The Civil War.” That description of the conflict as being a “Civil War” was the invention of journalists of that time. In fact, it was not a civil war. There is no definition of the term “civil war” that will apply to that conflict.
The government of the United States of America never referred to it as a civil war in any of its officeial documents. Throughout the conflict, the Union called it “The War Of The Rebellion.” Confederate officials simply referred to it as “The War.”
Another great fallacy spread by journalists of that day was that Confederate President Jefferson Davis was dressed in his wife’s clothes when he was captured in Georgia. The story, once created by a Northern reporter, was spread around the world and included numerous cartoons showing him wearing women’s clothes as a disguise.
Equally important are the distortions of history brought about when key parts of the story are not reported. For example, only scattered reports can be found in period newspapers about the Morrell Tax, the most important factor that forced the Southern states into rebellion.
The principle source of tax revenue for the federal government at that time was an excise tax on all imported goods. Because the Southern economy was based on agriculture, most of their manufactured goods had to be imported. The best, and most economical goods came from England. Because of the taxes that existed at that time, the South was paying up to 80 percent of federal taxes. Four Southern states contributed half of all federal revenue.
Following the sinking of the steam ship Central America with a fortune in California gold off the coast of North Carolina, Northern businessmen decided that a railroad across North America was desperately needed and that the federal government should finance the effort. In order to raise the money it would take to build the railroad, they persuaded Congress to enact a large increase in the excise tax rates. The result was an even greater tax burden on the Southern farmers for a project that would be of little benefit to the South.
But if you read the Northern newspapers of the period, you will find little of this information. European reporters often reported the adoption of the Morrell Tax as the cause of Southern unhappiness, but seldom was it mentioned in newspapers in the Northern United States.
Today there is once again great unhappiness among working classes in America over federal use of tax money to “bail out” big business. Once more, financial and manufacturing giants of our nation are in economic trouble and are demanding that the federal government rescue them using tax money paid mostly by working people. And once again, many taxpayers are looking for ways to rebel against these policies.
Many students of Southern culture are aware of the Bonnie Blue Flag. This simple banner consists of a blue field with a single white star in the center. It was the first flag of rebellion following the abusive tax system that punished agricultural production in favor of the rich industrialists. It was frequently flown at the conventions of the Southern states as they voted to withdraw from the federal government and establish their own nation.
If you look around, you are likely to see that flag flying again especially in the rural South. But how many journalists will report the meaning of that flag? Most will not, partially because they do not know its meaning, but mostly because it would force them to tell the entire story and that they do not wish to do.
It is true that journalism writes the first draft of history. But they seldom get it right.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His website can be accessed at http://frankgillispie.tripod.com/