Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?

A couple of days ago, I found a mass mailing from the libertarian Independent Institute in my inbox.  It included these paragraphs:

The 150th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the U.S. Civil War

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, when Confederates fired on U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Although people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor (e.g., to the slavery issue or to “states’ rights”), the cause was more complex. Independent Institute Research Fellow Joseph R. Stromberg discusses one causal factor that often gets short shrift in public discourse (although he cites many historians who support his analysis): interest groups with material, rather than ideological, stakes in promoting the war.

Antislavery, Stromberg writes, “was one of many themes generally serving as the stalking horse for more practical causes.” The Republican Party Platform of 1860, for example, focused less on antislavery grievances than on proposals designed to benefit northeastern financial and manufacturing interests and Midwestern and western farmers–policies that would have become harder to implement if southern states were allowed to secede. Lest he overgeneralize, Stromberg hastens to add that northern trading and manufacturing interests that bought from the suppliers of southern cotton–“the petroleum of the mid-nineteenth century,” as he puts it–were aware that they would face severe disruptions if war broke out.

In a post on The Beacon, Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory argues that April 12, 1861, also marks the date of the federal government’s repudiation of the Founders’ vision of the American republic and the birth of Big Government. “The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians…. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war–throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern ‘masters.'”

“Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg (The Freeman, April 2011)

“The Regime’s 150th Birthday,” by Anthony Gregory (The Beacon, 4/12/11)

“The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (5/7/02)

“The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Henry E. Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (11/14/99)

“The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs (Liberty, May 1997)

It’s true enough that “people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor… the cause was more complex.”  Though I would not disagree with this statement, I would go on to say something subtly different as well.  Much public discussion of the US Civil War turns on a rather odd question.  This question is, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?”

As the press release above suggests, libertarians tend to say that the war was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”  Anthony Gregory’s description of the powers which the federal government first exercised during the war, and never renounced, gives an idea of the structure of this narrative.  Right-wing libertarians like Gregory focus on the conflict between the growing power of the nation-state and the unregulated operations of the free market, while left-wing libertarians like Joseph Stromberg point out that no unregulated free market has ever existed and focus instead on the role of the nation-state in forming the economic elites that actually have wielded power throughout history.

Most other Americans tend to say that the US Civil War was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery.”  In this narrative, the United States figures as the champion of Emancipation and the Confederate States figure as the champions of Enslavement.  This story elides the facts that Gregory and others point out, that six slave states remained in the Union, that federal forces enforced slavery in the South throughout 1862, and that President Lincoln took office vowing to leave slavery alone.  However, it is undoubtedly true that all the Confederate states were slave states and that its leaders bound themselves time and again to defend and promote slavery, while the United States did eventually move to abolish the institution.

It should be obvious that the question, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?,” is a meaningless one.  Of course the Civil War is a chapter of “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” of course it is a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery,” of course it is a chapter of any number of other narratives.  Why, then, is this nonsensical question agitated so intensely?

I blame the schools.  More precisely, I blame the tradition of presenting history to students as a grand narrative.  It’s natural for people who have spent a decade or so of their early life hearing history presented as a single grand narrative to go on assuming that every story is part of one, and only one, larger story.  Perhaps schools must present history this way; if so, I would say that it is a point in favor of a proposal left-libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock made early in the last century.  Nock recommended that schools should teach mathematics “up to the quadratic equation,” Greek and Latin, and a course in formal logic.  Equipped with this training, students would be able to educate themselves in everything else, with some here and there finding it possible to benefit from association with some advanced scholar.

Be that as it may, in US schools, the grand narrative of history is usually packaged under some label like “The Story of Freedom.”  The word “freedom” in these labels raises the question “freedom from what”?  For libertarians, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from state bureaucracy.  In the story of that freedom, the US Civil War cannot but figure as a vast reverse.  For others, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from white supremacy.  In the story of that freedom, the war may appear as an advance, albeit a rather problematic one.  For still others, the freedom most urgently needed today is the individual’s freedom from domination by irresponsible private interests, whether employers, families, or other groups in civil society.  In the story of that freedom, the war stands as a moment of triumph, perhaps the supreme moment in American history.

Few would say that the freedom most urgently needed by the United States today is freedom from foreign domination, but I would point out that if the war had ended differently this need might very well be felt very keenly indeed.  When the war broke out, Southern leaders claimed that their cause was the defense of slavery, while Lincoln disavowed any plan to interfere with slavery.  By the end of the war, Southern leaders were discoursing earnestly about the theory of state sovereignty, while Lincoln declared that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  What remained constant through all this flip-flopping was the Northern intention to protect the domestic US market with a high tariff, while the South wanted to trade on equal terms with the industrial centers of the North and those of Britain.  The world economy being what it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a nominally independent Confederate States of America would likely have been drawn into Britain’s economic sphere, and thus into the orbit of the British Empire.  We should therefore add “US Resistance to the British Empire” to the list of narratives in which the US Civil War figures as a chapter.

Seceding from the Nation

Eric Foner is a major historian of the mid-19th century USA and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.  In a recent issue, he reviewed two books about politics in the South during and after the Civil War, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Victoria Bynum’s The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  This paragraph of Foner’s got me thinking:

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: “an independent proslavery nation.” The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d’être. Abandoning euphemisms like “other persons” by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

I can certainly understand Foner’s exasperation with neo-Confederates who see the Old South as a proud symbol of liberty and elide the role of slavery in the Civil War.  In the legal documents he cites, the Confederate States of America advertised its cause as the defense of slavery.  In prominent speeches delivered at the outbreak of the war, such southern leaders as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate President Jefferson Davis said openly that the cause which justified secession was the threat that the newly ascendant Republican Party would free blacks from slavery.  While Stephens and Davis each spent a great deal of time after the war trying to explain his earlier remarks away and argue that he had been motivated by concern for something other than the maintenance of human bondage, it is hardly unreasonable to attach greater weight to the contemporary documents and to say that in the Civil War, the South fought to defend slavery. 

What is less reasonable is to leave it at that, with the implication that the North fought to abolish slavery.  The evidence would suggest that when the United States armed forces were sent to quash secession, the men who sent them had little interest in emancipating anyone.  Emancipation came later, propelled by the exigencies of war.  As Davis and Stephens would shift their public statements from prewar calls to defend slavery to postwar invocations of the rights of the states, so too did the leaders of the North change their stands very substantially as the war went on.  The most obvious example may be the contrast between Abraham Lincoln’s two Inaugural Addresses.  Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address in March of 1861, when the war had not yet broken out.  The Second Inaugural Address was delivered in March of 1865, a few weeks before the end of the war.  Lincoln spends much of the First Inaugural Address vowing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and leave slavery alone in all the states where it was a legal institution.  In the Second Inaugural Address, he looks back on the war as a struggle to emancipate the slaves and declares that it would only be just were God to decree that the war should “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” 

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln capitulates to every demand the South could possibly make in regard to slavery.  Time and again, of course, Lincoln would declare his belief that people whose ancestors came from Africa could not live among whites except in conditions of subjugation, and he rarely missed a chance to distance himself from Abolitionists.   These facts do not mean that the South was not fighting to keep blacks enslaved.   Seeing that the Republicans, a party which did include a sizeable antislavery bloc, could elect as president a candidate who did not receive a single vote in the ten states south and west of Virginia, slaveholders might well have drawn the conclusion that their grip on the national government was permanently broken and that some future president would lead the push for abolition.  While Lincoln himself might not in 1861 have had the inclination to take that task on, proslavery southerners may well have thought that it would have been unwise to wait for the crisis they feared.

What the First Inaugural does show, however, is that whatever the South may have been fighting for, the North was not at the outset of the war fighting against slavery.  Why did the North fight to keep the South in the Union?  Why for that matter did so many Northerners vote for Lincoln when it should have been clear that the election of a purely regional candidate would trigger secession?  I suspect Foner’s dismissal, in the paragraph above, of the tariff as a cause for the war applies only to the motivations of the South.  The South opposed a protective tariff because it wanted equal access to the products of industry in the North and in England.  Indeed, the South wanted Northerners to bid competitively with English interests for Southern cotton.  Since the chief goal of US policy since 1776 had been to get the British out of North America, the idea that the southern states of the USA would form an economic relationship with English industry that might very well lead to their absorption into the British Empire could hardly be expected to meet with general approval in the rest of the country.   

The Second Inaugural is among the most widely read of all Lincoln’s writings, certainly the most widely read of his state papers.  That is no surprise.  Not only is it an extraordinary specimen of eloquence, but it also flatters Americans’ national self-esteem.   The Second Inaugural caters to Americans who want to look at the Civil War and see a moral awakening to the evils of human bondage and to the possibility that black and white might live together in equality.  Beyond that; it also allows us to cast that moral awakening as a drama in which our enlightened twenty-first century selves have the leading role.  The Civil War, Lincoln invites us to believe, was fought so that later generations of Americans could be untainted by the guilt of slavery.  In other words, the dead had to die, so that we could look down on them.

If, instead of reading the Second Inaugural and congratulating ourselves on our superiority to our ancestors, we Americans read the First Inaugural and put the Civil War in the context of international Realpolitik, we might shed some of our national narcissism and be warier next time some group of con artists try to sell us another war.  We wouldn’t necessarily be any less proud of our country- opposing the British Empire was a mighty project in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it isn’t every country that would have the patience to stick with such a project until the UK’s prime minister openly declares his country to be the USA’s junior partner in world affairs.  But we might learn to express pride in our country without pretending that the country itself has some divine commission to institute a world order based on pure justice.

Looking back, and further back

nostalgiaThe June and July issues of Chronicles, the rightwardmost of my regular reads, include a couple of pieces that seem to acknowledge that the basis of conservatism is nostalgia.  That isn’t so bad, I suppose; everyone feels nostalgia, and people who are nostalgic for the same things can share a bond, and can sometimes nurture a gentleness together. 

June: Roger McGrath reminisces about his childhood in a thinly populated, mostly rural California.  He makes it sound like paradise, or like a place a rambunctious boy might have preferred to paradise.   

Thomas Fleming builds a scholarly argument to the effect that early Christians were not pacifists.  I often suspect that Fleming has a grudge against Quakerism.  I’m not sure where he would have picked up such a grudge- he grew up in a family of atheists, so it isn’t rebellion against his parents.  But this article seems like a detailed response to some or other Quaker tract.  And he frequently denounces many practices that are associated with Friends, such as silent worship.     

In a piece lamenting the rapid decline of global birthrates over the last 20 years, Philip Jenkins makes an interesting suggestion.  Most demographers claim that when religious beliefs lose their social power, people choose to have smaller families.  Jenkins suggests that the arrow of causality should point in the opposite direction.  Perhaps it is the fact that people have fewer children that disinclines them from taking religion seriously.  “Without a sense of the importance of continuity, whether of the family or of the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective.”  He quotes the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski.  Safranski claims that a drop in birthrate

results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives… For childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance.  Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last, and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain. 

George McCartney praises Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road as a biting satire of self-styled “nonconformists” who congratulate themselves on their superiority to others while they are in fact utterly conventional.  McCartney condemns the recent film of the same title as an example of the sort of thing Yates was ridiculing.  He praises Eran Riklis’ film The Lemon Tree, the story of a Palestinian woman who insists on taking care of the lemon grove she inherited from her father even after an Israeli cabinet minister appropriates the land in which it grows for his own private use.  Her refusal to give up her ancestral claim is the sort of thing that warms the reactionary hearts of the Chronicles crowd, and I suppose it reflects the kind of nostalgia that a person really could build a humane politics around. 


The Nation, 30 March 2009

nation-30-march-2009A review of The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills mentions  Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism,” introduced in his Causes of World War Three to explain how a group of highly intelligent people could come to believe that each step in a course of action certain to lead to their destruction was the safest, most prudent one possible.  Mills feared that “citizenship was obsolete”; “Modern society made freedom in the liberal sense of autonomous and reflective citizenship increasingly impossible.” 

The new Library of America volume The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on his Life and Legacy from 1860 to  Now draws  a review titled “Sallow, Queer, and Sagacious.”  Dissenters from the celebration of Abraham Lincoln as America’s great secular saint are well represented in the volume.  Among them are Edmund Wilson, whose portrait of the sixteenth president in 1962’s Patriotic Gore has reminded more than one critic of Stalin, and Lerone Bennett Jr, who since the 1960s has been arguing that Lincoln was no friend to black America.

Chronicles, February 2009

lincoln-coverChronicles is often criticized for its “neo-Confederate” bent.  The two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth draws that side of the magazine out in force. 

Joseph E. Fallon quotes extensively from Lincoln’s friends and associates to the effect that the sixteenth president had little use for Christianity.  He then analyzes Lincoln’s use of religious imagery in his speeches, arguing that he exploited beliefs which he did not share to browbeat his countrymen into supporting a policy of extreme violence and unaccountable executive power.  Fallon dwells on the Second Inaugural Address, claiming that the famous passage saying that we must acquiesce in God’s will to punish us for that sin even if  “all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword” represents a particularly gruesome moral inversion.  “Lincoln assiduously promoted the idea that, while he was blameless for the war, its death and destruction served some higher good.”  Fallon closes with a paraphrase of a well-known line which he attributes to Voltaire, that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. 

Thomas Fleming asserts that the Civil War cost the lives of “600,000 American soldiers and perhaps twice as many noncombatants (most of them black.)”  I’ve often heard the figure 621,000 as the number of combat fatalities in the Civil War, the other two claims in that sentence were news to me.  I don’t know all that much about the Civil War, so for all I know Fleming could be right.  He goes on: “Some years ago, when I was debating Lincoln’s legacy, a graduate student asked if I did not think the war that freed the slaves was worth the cost.  He was actually shocked that I did not think that hundreds of thousands of dead slaves would have agreed with him.” 

The cost of the Civil War to southern blacks is also a major theme of Clyde Wilson’s “The Trasury of Counterfeit Virtue.”  “The notion that soldiers in blue and emancipated slaves rushed into each other’s arms with shouts of Glory Hallelujah is pure fantasy,” writes Professor Wilson.  Instead, the historical record shows one case after another when Union forces tortured, raped, and slaughtered blacks with impunity.  Wilson cites Ambrose Bierce to the effect that the only blacks he saw with the Union army were those whom officers were using as slaves. 

Joseph Sobran mentions Lincoln’s statement, from the First Inaugural, that “the Union is much older than the Constitution,” only to dismiss it as evidence that “Lincoln’s knowledge of history was shaky.”  I think there’s a bit more to be said for this claim than Sobran allows.  Certainly the thirteen colonies that broke away in 1775-1783 had by that time for many years been much more closely linked to each other than any of them had been to other parts of the British Empire. 

Justin Raimondo, editor of antiwar.com, looks at the comparisons between President Obama and his predecessor that one hears so often these days and takes them with undiluted seriousness.   Lincoln, Raimondo reminds us, “suspended habeas corpus, jailed his opponents, and closed down newspapers that displeased him.”  Raimondo evidently fears that Mr O’s praise of Lincoln might mean that he plans to follow this example.  Lest this fear seem overdone, Raimondo does refer to the powers that presidents between Lincoln and Mr O have claimed for themselves.  One rather silly moment in Raimondo’s article comes near the beginning, when he quotes a description of the similarities between these two Illinoisan presidents that mentions the fact that they are both quite thin.  “Two thin men?  What normal person would make such a comparison?  To our elites, thinness is a sign of moral virtue.”  Well, perhaps the mention of it is also a sign that Lincoln and Mr O don’t really have that much in common, so that likeners have to draw on the most superficial resemblances. 

Daniel Larison, of the Eunomia blog, goes into depth on a theme that Professor Wilson also addressed, the role of Lincoln in fusing Big Government with Big Business and laying the foundations of the corporatist-militarist economic and political system the United States has today.  Larison mentions Canadian philosopher George Grant, a critic of bigness in both economic and political institutions.  “Over 40 years ago, Canadian philosopher George Grant said that American conservatives must oppose economic centralization if they seriously hope to pursue political decentralization.”

The Nation, 26 January 2009

26-jan-nationEric Foner finds much to praise in Abraham Lincoln, chiefly his “capacity for growth” and his belief that “there was a bedrock principle of equality that transcended race- theequal right to the fruits of one’s labor.”  Foner dwells on the Second Inaugural, asking us to imagine the moral courage it must have required for Lincoln to name the evil at the heart of the Civil War not as Southern treason, but as “American slavery.”  The famous passage saying that we must acquiesce in God’s will to punish us for that sin even if  “all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword” raises Foner’s special approbation.  “In essence, Lincoln was asking Americans to confront unblinkingly the legacy of bondage and to think about the requirements of justice.”

Two other pieces deal with the relationship between modern institutions and the ancient past.  Britt Peterson‘s  review of several books about looted work from southwest Asia and southeast Europe that has made its way into museums around the world begins with a story that raises a basic question.  In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was forced to send acollection known as”the Lydian hoard” to Turkey, since the artifacts had been stolen from sites in that country.  However, the Turks had not yet come to Turkey when those artifacts were produced in the seventh and sixth centuries BC.  Therefore, the artifacts are not especially interesting to nationalist-minded Turks.  They are now housed in a small museum in the town of Usak.  This museum receives barely 100 visitors a year, fewer than the exhibit used to recieve in a typical  hour at the Met.  Some pieces have been stolen and replaced with obvious copies.  Do the artifacts have a value intrinsic to themselves?  Or is their worth a function of the use we make of them and the concern we have for them?  If the latter is the case, then what, exactly, was stolen from the Turks when the Hoard was originally looted? 

Anthony Grafton’s review of the recently published correspondence of Gershon Scholem and Morton Smith revolves around the question of whether Morton Smith’s greatest claim to fame was a forgery.  In 1973, Morton Smith published a document that he claimed to have discovered fifteen years before.  This Greek manuscript, apparently written in the eighteenth century, Morton Smith identified as a copy of a second century letter from one of the fathers of the church, Clement of Alexandria.  The letter consisted of a complaint that a group of heretics were giving Christianity a bad name by following practices outlined in a text they called “the secret gospel of Mark.”  The letter allows that there was in fact a secret gospel of Mark, which added to the canonical gospel stories about Jesus initiating select followers into mysterious kinds of knowledge.  The heretics, the letter claims, have taken this secret gospel and added even more to it.  In fact, they claimed that Christians were exempt from all moral laws and could find salvation by committing sins.  Their favorite sins seems to have involved homosexual behavior, and their version of “secret Mark” seems to have suggested that Jesus also had a fondness for such behavior. 

As soon as Morton Smith published the letter, there was suspicion that it was a forgery.   Red flags went up when it was noticed that every single word in the letter appears somewhere else in the extant works of Clement of Alexandria.  Students preparing assignments for ancient Greek and Latin prose composition classes have traditionally been required to imitate the style of one or another ancient author.  Those students will typically draw their vocabulary from lists of words their model used.  But of course the author himself would not have had such a list in front of him. Writing in his native language, he would have been at liberty to use whatever word seemed best to him.  Indeed, no ancient text of any substance consists exclusively of words the author uses elsewhere.  The fact that this letter does makes it look more like the work of an outstanding Greek prose comp student, which Morton Smith was, than like a genuine ancient text.  As a clincher, a writer named Stephen Carlson pointed out that a reference to the packaging of salt in “Clement’s” letter makes no sense in the context of ancient practices, but is intelligible only in light of the anti-clumping process patented in 1910 by the Morton Salt Company.  Thus, Morton Smith may have signed his work.

UPDATE:  It’s in this issue that Stuart Klawans praises Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ film about Mennonites in Mexico, and delivers one-paragraph slams against Oscar contenders The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Doubt.   I’ve seen Doubt and liked it, but his description is as funny as it is unfair:

Doubt: It was a dark and stormy night in American Catholicism, when Sister Meryl Streep and Father Philip Seymour Hoffman settled in for 104 minutes of shouting at each other. Co-starring Amy Adams as the sweetest young nun in the parish–a role I’d be happy to see her play, if John Waters were the director. Maybe in the new year.