On Revolutions and Civil Wars

In a recent essay for American Greatness, Ken Masugi refers to my book on American’s past Civil War in order to shed light on the question of whether we are already engaged in a new civil war, or will be soon.

First, civil wars are of two types: Those in which the fundamental form of the political regime is at stake, and those in which control of the ruling offices is in dispute but not the form of the political regime. In other words, the former is revolutionary in the deep sense of the word, but the latter is not.

This difference was understood and acknowledged by the Republicans during the Civil War-Reconstruction era. This was the point of Union veteran and Harvard graduate Charles Devens when he contrasted the English Wars of the Roses to our recently concluded Civil War. In the former, the houses of York and Lancaster both accepted monarchy but fought each other for control of the throne; whereas in the latter, Confederates and Federals fought for oligarchy and republicanism, respectively. My book explains and defends this Republican analysis of our bygone conflict.

Second, the patrons of genuine republicanism—by which I mean the improved American version of republicanism—do not fight civil wars among themselves. By definition, republican citizens agree on the fundamental question of sovereignty, which is that they themselves should rule by majority vote. The only kind of questions leftover that could motivate them to kill each other concerns policy, and only a very few are willing to kill fellow citizens over the question, say, of whether the highest marginal tax rate should be 28 percent or 36 percent.

But if after free campaigns and fair votes, those defeated at the polls are unable to acquiesce in the will of the majority, their claim to republican partisanship is false by definition. Therefore, when steps towards civil strife threaten to engulf a republic of the American kind, we ought to be wary of who is fomenting this strife, and of what form of political regime commands their allegiance. It is likely that the followers of such a movement are deceived, conscripted, or bought and that its leaders are revolutionaries—or, in the words of James Madison, they “can not be within the pale of the Republican faith,” but rather are “the avowed disciples of Aristocracy, Oligarchy or Monarchy.”

John C. Calhoun, Revolutionary Oligarch
My book and the Republicans of that era argued that such was the case with John C. Calhoun and the Southern statesmen on whom he stamped in his image. They were revolutionaries, contending for rule of the few over the many, which they had already secured in their own southern states and sought to secure in the United States generally. Thwarted by the normal operations of republican institutions, first the election of a Republican plurality in the House of Representatives and then by the election of Abraham Lincoln, they seceded and began building their own independent, oligarchic empire. The Civil War ensued, pitting republicanism and revolutionary oligarchy against each other.

Masugi surprisingly writes that my book falls short in reckoning Calhoun an “assailant of the Founders’ thought.” In fact, I explicitly ascribe to Calhoun the role of philosopher and statesman of oligarchy, in direct opposition to the Founders’ republicanism. I go even further: I do not agree with Masugi that the political regime for which Calhoun and his followers contended was a version of republicanism. No doubt they cloaked their best regime in the language of republicanism, but in substance it was, as Madison wrote, beyond “the pale of the Republican faith.”

That brief defense is probably acceptable to Masugi, because his real criticism is directed at me for not recognizing Calhoun as a “major inspiration for Progressivism.” Certainly, this is an interesting question and I acknowledge the value of the late Harry Jaffa’s work contrasting Madison and Calhoun. But if scholars of political philosophy and American political thought wish to do the most good in defending and restoring our republicanism, then our inquiries must be directed by the topic at hand, the one that Masugi raises, which concerns civil wars and America today. Is Progressivism revolutionary? In what respects? What does it have in common with the revolutionary ideas that fueled the Civil War? How is it different?

In short, we must move from studying political theory to philosophical studies of the political regime in front of us, then explain what we see to the scholarly community and to the American people, so as to rescue the deceived from the ranks of the revolutionaries.

A Different Kind of Revolution
By my reckoning, both the Calhounian and the Progressive movements were genuinely revolutionary, aiming to replace the model of the American Founders with a fundamentally different model of government.

Not all revolutionary movements precipitate violence and civil war. The Calhounian movement eventually did. For the most part, the Progressive revolution has peacefully altered the American political regime, spent its force and reconstituted itself in cycles since 1912. That movement has weakened Congress, strengthened the presidency, and has invested power in administrators whose dependence on popular choice is remote. It has flouted federalism, and has supplanted self-government with centralized, imperial rule by encouraging an increasingly unaccountable federal government to usurp powers not authorized by the Constitution.

These are tremendous changes, all losses to republicanism. They have reshaped the American republic into something more akin to elective monarchy administered by a new aristocracy. It is remarkable that up to the present time we have witnessed as little violence and civil strife as we have, as these regime-altering changes have been engrafted into our system of government.

I agree with Masugi and Jaffa that Progressivism and Calhounism share some points of similarity, but we should not overstate them. If we wish to understand the unique character of these unique revolutionary movements, we must understand and explain their differences with reference to the regime they intended to displace.

There are many differences. Calhoun and his disciples averred that the seminal statement in the Declaration of Independence was folly, false and a self-evident lie. Woodrow Wilson and his disciples went further, contending the principles undergirding the Declaration were obsolete, and that its truths had swept away by History. Although both Calhoun and Wilson smuggled their new models of government into the Constitution, the former did so by covertly breaking from its text while openly insisting upon strict adherence to it, whereas the latter did so by openly insisting on breaking from its text on principled, historicist grounds.

Calhoun’s project was to annul the growing power of popular national majorities over properly national questions, by strengthening the rule of the few rising from the states. Wilson’s project was to diminish the power of national majorities by strengthening the rule of the few rising from central government over the states. Both flouted federalism or the line separating the constitutional powers assigned to state and federal government, but from different directions.

Calhounism and Progressivism might appear to us to be more similar than they are because those movements, like aristocratic and royalist movements of all kinds, share an anti-republican character. Earlier Americans had collapsed the traditional catalogue of regimes into two fundamental forms—republics of various constructions and all others; the former, good; the latter, bad. Hence John Adams maintained that “there is no good government but what is Republican.”

What a Stable Republic Looks Like
The defining attribute of republics in the American lexicon is that, however their institutions are arranged, the people must be sovereign in fact and by right, and their natural rights to life, liberty and property must be secure. We can abstract this revised catalogue of regimes from Lincoln’s reply to Douglas at Alton, when he identified the principle justifying slavery with “the divine right of kings,” and its opposing principle with “the common right of humanity,” and that these two principles “have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.”

The American view, validated by history, was that everywhere and at almost all times the few had ruled the many through force or fraud. The few times that republicanism had been tried, it had failed because its most prevalent species, democracy, had served as a brief halfway house to rule of the few. Majorities oppressed minorities, and oppression supplied aggrieved minorities with ample reason to abandon their patronage of republican forms.

The Americans resolved this by building a constitutional order that was intended to subject policy questions only, but not the question of natural rights, to normal politics, and that would prevent the likelihood of oppression by enlarging the republic. Although minorities might be disappointed by electoral results, their rights would be safe, and the safety of their rights bound their allegiance to those results and to the regime. Citizens and government could count on all respecting each other’s rights.

This describes the settled state of a stable republic of the American kind. That description ill-fitted the American republic in 1860. Does it now?

Photo Credit: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images

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About Forrest Nabors

Forrest A. Nabors is Associate Professsor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage and author of From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction. and Reconstruction.