The passing of George H. W. Bush might be a cause to reflect more deeply on his famous civility and its relation to the coming of a new civil war with which we are threatened today. Was his own “thousand points of light” and his son, W’s, “compassionate conservatism” the best response to the threats posed by the Clintons, John Kerry, and their allies in Congress and the bureaucracy? Or were those merely dodges serving to paper over the inevitable struggle with the worst and the most powerful yearnings of the 60s? (I credit that philosopher of the administrative state, John Marini, with this provocation.)
With all the talk of a new civil war among Americans today, we would do well first to understand the original one. In the ordinary understanding, that war was about slavery. The coming conflict is over multiculturalism and the politics of identity.
Although the multiculturalists would have us believe that the saga of American slavery was a struggle over the narrow question of race from the start, the more intelligent, more profound, and more American understanding of the conflict takes it to be a manifestation of the ancient struggle between tyranny and freedom. This is why those wrapped up in identity politics cannot embrace the notion of American exceptionalism. To them, it ignores this brutality of racism that was, they claim, at America’s heart.
Fake Civility or Brutal Truth?
So which America are we: The America of liberty-loving emancipators or the America of tyrannical masters? Civility might urge the suppression of such divisive questions, even if the dodge evokes the odious visage of Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty. But if we answer these questions untruthfully, however artful the dodge, of what use is investigating any other questions?
Our precedent in understanding the Bushes’ lost opportunity can be seen in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, in which FDR made this shocking comparison: “. . . if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.” The Republicans of the 1920s, FDR charged in effect, were the equivalent of Nazis.
Would it have been so difficult for the Bushes to fire back a similar charge against the Clintons and Kerry? Should not the World War II hero Bush have been justified in returning FDR’s insult against his parents and grandparents? Should he not have taught his sons about true nature of Democratic partisanship? This was a time to confront the worst generation of Americans with perhaps its greatest generation.
America has been in a civil war for generations but we have turned a blind eye to the violence it has perpetuated, not only in literal terms, but also to the truth.
The first step in coming to a more productive understanding of where we are today is to know and understand the Civil War that no one disputes already happened.
What Civil War History Can Teach
Of the more than 1,000 books published annually on the Civil War, two promise to offer guidance for the current one: Forrest Nabors’ From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction and a collection of essays, The Political Thought of the Civil War, co-edited by Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. Both books present America as a republican nation, one at least intended for self-governing citizens. Moreover, they instruct us in the nobility and justice of Lincoln and of others who supported his republican principles, defying their sophisticated opponents as well as those favoring slavery or professing indifference to it.
Nabors, making the audacious claim of fulfilling the work of his teacher, Harry V. Jaffa, details the oligarchic character of the South, and not just among those who held slaves. The majority of white Southerners did not hold slaves, but the whole of Southern society felt the ill effects of the master-slave relation. As Alexis de Tocqueville illustrated in his stunning contrast between slave state, Kentucky and free state, Ohio—America was becoming a nation of two contrasting versions of republicanism, with the Slave Power dominating national politics.
Nabors illustrates the distinction on several scores: Southern indifference toward public education, vastly larger size of farms, slaveholder dominance in Southern State legislatures, and constricted conceptions of rights (recall that Lincoln was not on the ballot in most of the slave States in the election of 1860). Withholding freedom for blacks had dire consequences for whites as well. Blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs.
The Civil War and Reconstruction amendments did not even restore black Americans to the status of free blacks at the time of the American Revolution. For example, in most Southern states blacks were not barred from voting at the time of the Revolution. Nabors is correct to acknowledge the American founding principles of natural rights, government by consent, and constitutionalism most clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence as the touchstone for Reconstruction. We have failed our forefathers. Nabors is correct to claim he has in many regards fleshed out the work of his teacher.
The diverse essays of The Political Thought of the Civil War, many of which appeared in American University’s formidable Political Theory Institute annual lecture series, reflect the work of 14 of the leading scholars on their subject matter, as the table of contents reflects. Their topics cover a wide range, including natural rights, jurisprudence, scientific racism, Lincoln’s rhetoric and statesmanship, Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction, and the Confederate constitution and legacy. These essays will remain for some time the leading ones on their topics.
Rather than single out particular essays, I will reiterate some leading themes. Though diverse, they all point toward the centrality of the American Founding. The question of whether natural rights is a sufficient basis for just governance is a question Americans of all generations have had to face, most vividly at the Founding and during the Civil War.
The South, with the growth of slavery, delayed, rationalized, and came to protect and even honor that original flaw. Even the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was not exempt from this temptation. But wasn’t the Civil War little more than Thomas Jefferson arguing with himself? Aren’t the requirements of perpetuating the republic something above and beyond the conditions of founding? The challenge is risible in the greatest statesman of the South—its vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who declared slavery to be its “cornerstone” and claimed the authority of modern science, a science superior to that of the Declaration. (Beware those who assert science as their foundation.)
Lincoln instead read human nature as he read Shakespeare and warned Americans that their self-interest required them to acknowledge the fundamental equality of slaves with their masters, and obliged them to treat the masters with charity as well. This logic won over Frederick Douglass, among others. Lincoln’s strategy with the Emancipation Proclamation remains a model of statesmanship. While the military order freed no slaves under Union control, once it was done the need to return to the founding was clear as was the need for the 13th Amendment.
Lincolnian statesmanship, which recognized the political necessity as well as the nobility of charity, was sorely lacking during Reconstruction. Behind the book, as one of the editors noted in a panel on the volume, loomed Harry V. Jaffa, who was likewise the inspiration for Nabors’ work.
Yet both of these outstanding books fall short in different ways of Jaffa’s emphasis on Calhoun, not only as the South’s defender of slavery but as well the assailant of the Founders’ thought in his own books on political theory. In that sense, Calhoun emerges as a major inspiration for Progressivism. How someone who took pride in racial slavery and ridiculed the Declaration inspired Progressivism is a long story, but Americans today need to be reminded of it. This collection of Harry Jaffa essays, due out shortly, may help Americans to understand their duty.
The Long Game of the Civil War
The South may have lost the battles, but its leading theorist imposed “the yoke of its own thought” on this nation in the form of Progressivism. Natural rights has lost its hold on Americans. Equality is about socialism. Government is unlimited in its powers—unless used in support of traditional morality. Thus, the “reconstruction” in Nabors’ subtitle threatens to become John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, that is, a perpetual, growing, ultimately postmodern disconnection from the American founding.
Such a “reconstruction,” changing America beyond recognition, is behind the party of the Clintons and Kerry, and much worse in today’s “fundamental transformation.” It is not enough to be anti-oligarchic; tyrants and mob rule are perfectly capable of mustering that sentiment as well, and oligarchs may come in many different flavors. To be republican is more difficult. But this is America’s often unpleasant task.
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Photo Credit: Engraving From 1881 Commemorating The Surrender Of Robert E. Lee To Ulysses S. Grant Marking The End Of The American Civil War