Saturday, February 23, 2013

Deconstructing the Unreconstructed

It’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – has been for a couple years now – and you know what that means, don’t you? 

If you guessed “persistent efforts by unreconstructed traitors to claim that the South 1) was justified in seceding, 2) tried to destroy the Union for some other reason besides the preservation of human slavery, 3) could/should/would have won the war based on unwarranted extrapolation from extraneous data, and/or 4) actually did win the war,” then congratulations – you win a prize.  Make sure to claim one that is good and sturdy so when you hit yourself with it right between the eyes you will actually lose consciousness and not have to deal with the idiocy that such persistent efforts display.  Otherwise all you’ll do is give yourself black eyes and you’ll still have to listen to the unceasing flow of nonsense from the unreconstructed, because they’re not really good at the whole “shutting up” thing.

It’s been a century and a half.  The South lost.  It deserved to lose.  The world is a better place because it lost.  And by all that is good, true and holy, its supporters should be over it by now.

But they are not.

Recently I had the dubious privilege of reading an announcement from The Tenth Amendment Center that accused Lincoln of starting the Civil War for his own nefarious purposes.  He “brutalized the country and shredded the Constitution,” announced The Tenth Amendment Center in the sort of hyperbolic and breathless tones employed by those who believe that manufactured outrage can overcome the sheer stupidity of their positions.

In today’s political climate, such people are common.  We live in an era that has no regard whatsoever for facts, evidence or truth so long as the outrage moves units and sells advertising.  There is, after all, no other explanation for the fact that Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the rest of the Teabagger media machine continues to exist.  Outrage sells and reality doesn’t, and if you keep that in mind you will find that a lot of what passes for politics in this country makes a whole lot more sense.

But that doesn’t mean I have to put up with it.  It doesn’t mean I have to respect it.  And it sure as hell doesn’t mean I have to take it seriously.  I know too much about American history to give to such nonsense anything other than the contempt it so richly deserves. 

Even so, it really is worth looking at The Tenth Amendment Center’s announcement in some detail because it is a sterling example of what happens when the willfully uninformed are given access to a list of historical terms and a keyboard.

Let’s examine this collection of words (many of which are correctly spelled), shall we?

First of all, you know you’re in trouble simply from the source.  Anything that names itself after the Tenth Amendment is immediately suspect because such a name is simply a dog-whistle to the sorts of people who think the Founders were Ayn Rand libertarians such as themselves.  Somehow – and it is never fully made clear how – I am supposed to believe that the Founders spent several months if intense and often contentious debate coming up with a plan for a new national government with the capability of playing an active role in American society, one specifically designed to replace the powerless one that preceded it, debate which took place at a Constitutional Convention specifically called into being because the previous government was too powerless to govern effectively, then spent several more months strenuously fighting for its passage against entrenched opposition by states’ rights advocates who still wanted the Articles of Confederation and its powerless national government, then moved into positions of authority within that new federal government so they could turn this blueprint into a functional state by using the power they had specifically designated the federal government to have, all in order to have a new government that could do nothing. 

It boggles the mind.  Seriously, it does.  You’d almost suspect that such people had never actually read the Constitution or studied its history, but instead have had specific talking points drilled into their heads by commentators.  Imagine!

I know!  Who would do such a thing?

Don’t even get me started when such people start yammering on about “original intent.” 

First of all, the Founders had a number of original intents – that’s why they spent most of the 1790s fighting about what the Constitution meant.  And unlike the self-professed clairvoyants of the modern age, the Founders were there at the time!  You’d think they’d know what they meant better than The Tenth Amendment Center does.  And you’d be right!  Go reward yourself with the tasty beverage of your choice, informed person!

Second, none of the intents bandied about by the current crop of malcontents are among the options presented by the Founders.  It’s like these people went to a fish-shooting contest and couldn’t even hit the barrel.

So right off the bat a thinking reader approaches this press release with some trepidation.  But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so perhaps this document has something worthwhile to contribute to our current understanding of the Civil War.

As if.  Although it does a masterful job of contributing to our understanding of just how misunderstood that event remains today and how twisted for current political purposes it has become among a certain subset of right wing extremists, so that might be worth a look.

Let’s start from the top.

Right at the beginning – the very first sentence of this diatribe, in fact – there is this observation:

Up until Lincoln’s war, the states assumed they had the right to leave the Union, and, in fact, they did have that right.  Neither the 1777 Articles of Confederation nor the 1789 US Constitution prohibited secession.

Leaving aside the fact that the US Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, this is still a bizarrely inappropriate view.

For one thing, what relevance the Articles of Confederation have here is a mystery.  The whole point of the Constitution is that it replaced the Articles, rendering them null and void.  To appeal to the Articles for any judgment on the nature of the Union under the Constitution other than “this is what the Founders were trying to fix by writing the Constitution” is thus at best a red herring and at worst – i.e. most likely – an attempt to confuse the issue with irrelevant nonsense.

Further, the author has it entirely backward – the Union is permanent.  The relevant fact here is that the Constitution has nothing in it that authorizes secession.  Short of the successful use of armed force to destroy the Union and undo the work of the Founding Fathers (which the author seems to venerate as a shiny but incomprehensible thing in much the same blind and uncomprehending way that a beetle might venerate an iPad), there is no legal way out of the Union as the Constitution was constructed in 1787, as it existed in 1861, or as it exists today.  Now, it is possible at some future point to amend the Constitution to allow secession – the Founders specifically built an amendment process into the Constitution and did not declare such an amendment off limits – but until that happens secession is treason.

This was something clearly understood by most people at the time.  Not all, of course – the Fire Eaters and the Calhounites and their misguided brethren operated on a level of ignorance that conflicted directly with such understanding, but to argue, as this author does, that states assumed without contradiction that they could leave any time they wanted to and that only Lincoln saw it any other way ignores the rather pointed evidence of the Nullification Crisis of 1832. 

When South Carolina seemed to be headed down the road toward secession in 1832 – in theory to protest high tariffs but, if you actually go back and read what they were saying, in fact because they feared that a federal government strong enough to raise such tariffs would also be strong enough to abolish slavery (it always goes back to slavery, every time, no matter what the rhetoric) – President Andrew Jackson flatly declared, “Disunion is treason!” and very nearly led the US military into South Carolina personally in order to crush this rebellion before South Carolina backed down.  Jackson was not known as a man who disparaged the rights of states.  But neither was he known as a man who tolerated treasonous assaults on the Constitution.

The press release continues: Slavery was not the reason for the War Between the States.

First of all, note the rhetorical card that has been palmed here: “War Between the States,” as if this were some kind of random conflict between sovereign nations.  The Civil War was not a war between states.  It was a war within a nation.  If you can’t figure that out you have no business making comments on anything related to the conflict.  But the unreconstructed often use this phrase to hide the treason of the South, to elevate its actions into something approaching respectability, and to divert attention from the fact that this was a civil war and not an international conflict.  As such it is an immediate indicator that anything that follows (or in this case, precedes) ought to be viewed with deep skepticism.

This is especially true for claims that the Civil War was not, at its root, caused by slavery.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, the single most overriding fact about the Civil War is that it was, in fact, about slavery.  Northerners knew it.  Southerners knew it.  It wasn’t a secret, for crying out loud.  It was shouted from the rooftops.  It was written in proclamations.  It was declared for the world to hear, time and time again.  All of the other things that the unreconstructed claim are the root cause of the war instead – tariffs, politics, even the supposedly sacred notion of states’ rights – are, at their roots, about slavery.

The South seceded in order to protect its right to keep human beings in chains, to live off the product of their uncompensated labor, and to spread this evil beyond its borders into places where it was neither welcome nor economically viable. 

They weren’t ashamed of this.  By 1861 the sense that slavery was a necessary evil – tolerated because it was the foundation of Southern culture, wealth and society but due to pass unmourned in the way of such things, a view not uncommon even among slaveholders in 1787 when the Constitution was written – had long since vanished.  The Pro-Slavery Argument that emerges in the second quarter of the 19th century established in the minds of most Southerners the notion that slavery was a positive good, a benefit to both master and enslaved, and as such it was the duty of Southerners to protect and promote it.  Read George FitzHugh’s Cannibals All! if you think I’m kidding.

Northerners, correctly sensing the hypocrisy and double-think that this line of argument rested firmly upon, didn’t buy it – Abraham Lincoln once noted, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – but it wasn’t meant for their consumption.  It was an argument designed by Southerners for Southerners in order to make those Southerners feel better about the fact that their entire culture rested on what Thomas Jefferson (himself a Southerner and slaveholder) had referred to as a violation of fundamental moral truths.  Recognizing this, Jefferson – a “liberal Christian” in the eighteenth-century sense of that phrase, like most of the Founders, and man who was repeatedly accused of atheism during his presidential campaigns because of it – wrote in 1784 an astonishingly Calvinist lament for the nation he had helped to create and which was so mired in slavery.  “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probably by supernatural interference!  The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

By 1861, Southerners had become convinced that Jefferson was wrong – that slavery was a moral duty, that they had the right to destroy the Union created by the Founders if that was what it took to defend slavery, and that their version of God would in fact take side with them for doing so.

“We went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” said John Mosby, one of the most feared Southern military commanders during the Civil War.  “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.  Men fight from sentiment.  After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine they fought.”  Mosby later changed his views on the justness of slavery, but he never apologized for fighting to defend it, nor did he ever see a need to do so.  And he certainly wasn’t going to use a fanciful theory to cover his tracks.

This fanciful theory, invented after the fact, is the notion that the South fought for states’ rights, a view that emerged after the Civil War as a way to justify the treason of the South in more high-sounding terms.  It was invented by Southerners as a way to hide the fact that they had attempted to destroy the Union in order to preserve slavery.  It was accepted by Northerners who simply wanted to move on and – so long as the South acknowledged defeat and did not return to its secessionist ways – were happy to let the South have its fiction.  And it has been propped up by apologists for slavery and treason ever since.

In 1907, disgusted by such posturing, Mosby wrote an angry letter to Samuel Chapman setting the record straight.   “The South went to war on account of Slavery,” he flatly declared.  “South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln.  South Carolina ought to know what was the cause of her seceding.”

And indeed South Carolina did.

South Carolina was the leader of the treasonous movement to destroy the Union and had been since the Nullification Crisis.  The rest of the South was simply following South Carolina’s lead.  And it is therefore instructive to look at South Carolina’s explanation of it own actions, a document rather straightforwardly entitled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”

After some pro-forma preliminary recitation of the prevailing theory among Southerners that the Constitution was a compact among sovereign states, as the old Articles of Confederation had been, rather than the much broader and stronger declaration of the people of the United States that it actually was, South Carolina gets down to business.

The only cause given by South Carolina to justify secession is the notion that the North has been insufficiently protective of slavery.  Really – the only one.  Even if you drink the Kool-Aid and accept the whole “sovereign state” theory of how the Constitution came about, the pointed fact here is that this particular “sovereign state” cared only about its right to own slaves and was seceding solely because it felt that right to be threatened.

A full quarter of the document is devoted to Northern efforts to thwart the capture of fugitive slaves in the years leading up to secession.  A quarter!  No other single issue described in the document takes up that much space. 

Finally, its careful rehearsal of grievances finished, South Carolina comes to the point: slavery will be threatened under Lincoln’s administration, and therefore it is seceding. 

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Mississippi’s explanation of its actions – a document with almost the exact same title as South Carolina’s, oddly enough – was also clear:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

The only right the Southern states cared about enough to destroy the Union over was the right to own slaves.  The Civil War was about slavery.  You either know that or you don’t, and if you don’t know it by now there is no reason for anyone else to take you seriously on the subject.

Thus we move on, although to be honest this has gotten quite long – we’re over 3000 words into this and we’ve only looked at the author and first 47 words of the press release!  At this rate I’m going to be spending the rest of my days unpacking the nonsense within the views of The Tenth Amendment Center for all to see, and life is just too short.

We’ll skip ahead, then.  One more example to go into in some detail, perhaps?

But what?

Well, we can skip lightly over the attempt to pin the deaths of over 620,000 Americans on Lincoln – “even as high as 850,000”! – because despite the fact that those numbers are indeed horrific, the idea that this is Lincoln’s fault rather than the fault of the treasonous South for trying to destroy the Union in the first place is ludicrous and can be dismissed out of hand.  If you commit a crime and people get killed, don’t blame the law for damages sustained in bringing you to heel.

We can also safely ignore the contention that a low-tax Confederate States of America would have siphoned off European trade from the North.  The paragraph containing this assertion has three sentences, not one of which have anything to do with either of the other two, with that one being the most flat-out weird of the bunch.  Other than cotton – which European nations had no trouble whatsoever finding alternate sources for once the Civil War started, much to the dismay of Southerners who had rather counted on their importance to European economies as a way to entice them into supporting the treason of the South – the South had absolutely nothing of any value that anyone in Europe wanted, nor were European powers likely to invest in Southern manufacturing at a time when they were busily building their own manufacturing economies.

Perhaps the idea that “Lincoln … provoked the Confederacy into firing on federal tax collectors at Fort Sumter in South Carolina”?  Well, not really.  Other than the sheer idiocy of describing the US military personnel manning Fort Sumter as “tax collectors,” is there anything of interest in that statement?  I suppose the rhetorical slight of hand used by The Tenth Amendment Center in referring to the assault on Fort Sumter as coming from “the Confederacy” – as if this were a legitimate organization – rather than the more accurate “Southern traitors” is interesting.  One wonders what The Tenth Amendment Center would call a bunch of similar folks firing on a US military base today.  “Terrorists,” no doubt.

Part of the problem with trying to narrow down something to focus upon is that this document is a target-rich environment for stupid.  Non-sequitor follows non-sequitor, error follows error, weirdity follows weirdity, until finally the intelligent reader comes to the sad realization that there really isn’t any there there.  It’s just a pastiche, a collection of half-remembered buzzwords and poorly constructed paragraphs, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And the thing about it is that it isn’t even directed at Lincoln.  Not really.  Oh, that’s what the surface is all about, but again – it’s just a dog-whistle to the Ayn Rand libertarians who make up the core audience for nonsense like this.  The real target of all this is the New Deal.  The real target of all this are the Progressive reforms of the 20th century, the ones that reined in the brutal excesses of the Gilded Age, set the foundations for the broad middle class that dominated the 20th century, and made this country the most across-the-board prosperous nation on earth for decades before the World War II generation began dying off and people forgot that such things were accomplished by government action, not by the grace and generosity of the private sector or the magic of the free market.

If people like that can rewrite American history to suit their own partisan agenda, then they can claim a legitimacy that they otherwise do not have.  They know this, which is why their efforts have been so unstinting.  And in some ways they are succeeding – there are a lot of Americans who buy into the myths and fairy tales spread by the extreme right wing about American history.

But I’m not one of them.

No, I am not.

4 comments:

John the Scientist said...

Reading this reminds me that the Southern oligarchy are still at it, trying to live off the labor of others. When I read that article, I was immediately reminded of Sam Watkins's line in Company Aitch "Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight".

Have you read Deer Hunting With Jesus? It's a great book, and it deals extensively with the Southern class system and how it dupes the lower class Scots-Irish today in the very same way it duped them into fighting for the Lost Cause.

I think you are a little harsh on the treason charges, as I think there were a number in both North ans South who saw their first loyalty to their state in those days. I was struck by Condoleeza Rice's comment in Ken Burns's film that before the War, people said "The United States are", and after the war they said "The United States is". Whatever the political realities of the Union in 1861, the sentiment had not caught up to it in every demographic. Mosby is a classic example.

I have ancestors who fought for Mosby, but my Great great grandfather was one of the organizers of the Loudoun Rangers, the only Union unit from Virginia (too bad they were not as skilled as Mosby's men). His name was James Filler, and he's mentioned in this article. (I grew up with a number of Snoots, and I can well imagine one of them wanting to shoot his brother :D).

David said...

I’ve not read Deer Hunting With Jesus - I’ll have to add that to my list. I would agree with you that the Southern oligarchy since the Civil War has done everything in its power to replace one form of powerless exploited labor with another equally so – the anti-union extremism in the South is no coincidence, after all.

I strongly disagree with you regarding the charge of treason. Treason is defined in the Constitution. Anyone who takes concrete action to destroy the Union set up by the Constitution is a traitor under that definition. It’s very simple. It is possible to fight nobly and well in a treasonous cause, but it is still treason. It is possible to be duped into fighting for a treasonous cause, but it is still treason. Bluntly, I think too many people are not harsh enough with the treason charges, which is one of the reasons there is so much idol-worship of the Confederacy today. I will not take part in such nonsense, nor do I see a reason why I should.

Rice was absolutely correct when she said that prior to the Civil War, most people said, “The United States are” rather than “The United States is.” It’s not until well into the 19th century that the “U” in “United States” is consistently capitalized, also. How this excuses treason is beyond me. In either case, whether the United States is or are, it exists and is defined by the very Constitution that Southerners tried so hard to destroy in 1861.

I think part of the reason why we made the switch from “are” to “is” after the Civil War is that so many Americans spent so much time marching over so much of the place. Part of it also is that the Civil War gave Americans a tremendous focus on the Union – the North fought to preserve it, the South to destroy it in the name of slavery, but with all that emphasis on Union the singular verb may just have made more sense.

I have one ancestor who fought for the Union, as far as I know – one of the 90-Day-Wonders at the beginning of the war, when everyone thought it would be quick and glorious. We have his discharge paper. By all accounts he seems to have learned his lesson well, as we have no evidence of him volunteering further. He did his service, though. I'll check out your links - thanks!

beatrice in Paris said...

I was taught that the war was over the spreading of slavery and not slavery itself. The teacher talked about the series of deals met between the North and the South -- letting two new states in at a time, one slave, one free.
The theory says that as long as there was a balance, the Union was fine, but once we couldn't keep that balance, war was inevitable. What do you think of this theory?

David said...

Bea, that's both true and incomplete.

The single biggest issue leading up to the Civil War was slavery in the western territories. Both North and South saw it as vital for their interests that the West reflect their societies. Thus the North wanted to keep slavery bottled up in the South and have Free Soil in the West, while the South - fearing that slavery had to expand or die - aggressively sought to expand it into the West.

The people in the West were generally not consulted, as their opinions mattered little. This is why, for example, the South was so adamant that slavery be expanded into California (against the express wishes of Californians, who wanted no blacks, slave or free, in their territory). This is why they wanted slavery in Arizona and New Mexico, where there was simply no way to make it economically viable.

So long as this was an open competition, most Americans could live with it. And yes, there was a concerted effort made to keep a balance of new states - slave and free - to preserve the Union and continue to sweep that issue under the rug.

Few Northerners were abolitionists - Lincoln certainly was not one. They simply wanted slavery to stay where it was in the South and not expand. Southerners, for their part, dreamed of a nation dominated by slavery - even in the North. This came to a head in the 1850s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act repeals the Missouri Compromise, kills the Second Party System, and threatens to spread slavery into areas where it had previously been agreed to be off limits. And most importantly, the sweeping language and logic of the Dred Scott decision would have invalidated abolition laws even in Northern states - something both North and South understood. The South celebrated this triumph of national government over states' rights (oh, the irony...) as making the entire nation safe for slavery.

But when Lincoln was elected on a Free Soil platform (NOT an abolitionist platform) without a single electoral vote from the South (he wasn't even on the ballot in 10 of the 15 slave states), the South understood that they were expendable - that the North didn't have to worry about what the South wanted anymore. Rather than accede to democracy, they seceded from the Union - to protect slavery, to protect their right to freeload off the uncompensated labor of others. Everything else is smokescreen.