War is NOT the Health of the State (Sometimes)

From my friend, the libertarian Timothy Sandefur (you can find the entire post here).

“Libertarian sloganeers are fond of saying that war “is the health of the state,” but this is just as much untrue as it is true. While war is a major threat to freedom—bringing with it surveillance, conscription, confiscation, destruction, curfews, etc.—“peace” is just as often an effective excuse for censorship, spying, arbitrary arrest, forcible disarmament, and, yes, even conscription. Being forced into civil service has been justified as a means to ensuring peace. In the years before 1861, it was those who sought to preserve “peace” who aided and abetted slavery, who censored or ignored the abolitionists, who demanded the return of fugitives, and devised complex compromises to allow the belligerent Slave Power to expand—all so as to have peace. Fugitives have very often been handed over to their persecutors on the excuse that it will ensure peace. And war is often the opposite of the health of the state. The American Revolution was not the health of the British state. The American Civil War was not the health of the Confederate state. World War II was not the health of the Nazi or Japanese Imperial states.”

On the Radio

I was on the Brian Thomas radio show this morning from Cinncinati, Ohio. I have no idea how he found out about my book, but he was a gracious host. It was a short interview. We talked for only a few minutes, but I was grateful for the opportunity.

One thing that we discussed was comparisons of 1776 as “secession from the British Empire” versus white southern secession in 1860-61. I made the point that they were not the same thing, as in 1776 the American revolutionaries were in part revolting against lack of representation in Parliament, or their lack of a voice in the Empire’s affairs, they knew that they were fomenting revolution and expected to be treated as such if captured, and, finally, there was at least some sense that slavery was a contradiction to their ideals. None of these conditions, it seems to me, applied in 1860-61.

So, a good morning and thanks to Brian Thomas for having me on.

Harry V. Jaffa, Rest in Peace

I was so sorry to hear of the death of Harry Jaffa, author of Crisis of the House Divided, one of the most important books on Lincoln ever written. Jaffa was one of the central figures in my book, of course, but more significantly I think he was the man responsible for re-articulating the idea that the Civil War may well have been unavoidable (there were real issues at stake, after all) and that conservatives should embrace rather than reject Lincoln. He waged a lonely war in the pages of National Review during the 1960s (largely with the libertarian writer Frank Meyer) and, I think, convinced conservatives to rethink their traditional hostility to Lincoln. I have little to add to what some others have said except to say that I think the best tribute to this man’s life is simply to read his great work, Crisis, on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Abraham Lincoln: A Southern Student’s View

The following is a guest post on the blog from one of my students this past semester in History 1301 (Pre-Columbian America to 1877). Her name is Victoria Allums. Feel free to reply on the blog to her post. I’m sure Victoria will be more than happy to get back with you.

When I was in second grade, I understood Abraham Lincoln perfectly, – he was honest, he freed the slaves, and thanks to him our Union was preserved – and the only argument put forth about that was by a fellow second grader who claimed that Lincoln’s true virtue was the presence of the word “ham” in his first name.  Years later, I realized that Lincoln was a politician and, like all politicians, had to balance his personal motives with what was popular or possible based on his times.  But, I still felt I had a pretty good idea what kind of person he was.  High school and college have taught me otherwise.  I can now say with certainty, that I don’t understand Lincoln at all and probably never will.  He was a very complex person.  And, I no longer wonder about Lincoln’s motivations or character.  I believe a person is too much a product of their times to be judged fairly or accurately.  What I wonder more about now is his relevance.

Until very recently, I didn’t critically relate overheard comments to Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War era.  Comments such as, “Robert E. Lee Day, that’s what we should have, Martin Luther King was nothing but a troublemaker!” and “This is Virginia; we’re part of the South, not the North!”  And how did I not connect the dots to history every time our former neighbors had a Dixie Flag party and there were angry overtones and drunken shouts of “This is America, I’ll do what I want!”

The South is no doubt still angry. Many here still resent the idea of the North telling the South what to do.  Abraham Lincoln keeps being resurrected by some because he is easy to point to and blame for this “injustice.”  I thought crass materialism and the continuing amalgamation of our country had served to better homogenize us, but this North/South thing is not going away.  I think in our daily struggles to keep up with the Jones’ we want to imagine there was a time when we were at the top of society and I think some in the South feel  that Lincoln stole that place from them.  I now wonder how many people who express this desire for antebellum South would have been from one of the wealthy families and therefore truly lost a great deal, and not actually from one of the poorer families who were not much better off (economically speaking) than the slaves.

Throughout my education, along with the simplistic stories about Honest Abe, there have been, and are, undercurrents about what the North did to the South and that it was wrong.  But, I believe the end of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable and I believe that due to the nature of the South’s economy, the South put itself in a vulnerable position.  When the South saw slavery was becoming extinct in other parts of the world and chose not to voluntarily restructure themselves with great immediacy, they became their own worst enemy . . . it’s just a lot easier to blame Abraham Lincoln.

Confederate “Freedom”

[At the national Democratic Convention in Charleston in April, 1860, Alabama secessionist William Lowndes Yancey asked why northerners found slavery distasteful]
“I have no doubt, gentlemen, that each of you here enjoys most pleasantly the hospitalities of this city–even such hospitalities as you pay for so magnificently,” he suggested. Black slaves in Charleston waited on them, attended to their comfort, and waited for their further command. Yancey promised northern delegates that the same advantages awaited them in the territories if they would but endorse the proslavery plank. “If we beat you, we will give you good servants for life and enable you to live comfortably,” Yancey promised. Poor whites would find themselves elevated from menial chores that denigrate “the highest order of civilization,” and take their proper place “amongst the master race and put the negro race to do the dirty work which God designed they should do.”
Eric H. Walther, William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 241)

Settler Empire and Abraham Lincoln

A few years ago, in the middle of the debate over passage of the Affordable Care Act, one of my conservative colleagues told me (and I’m relying on memory here) that Americans “were free before we were wealthy” and that because of President Obama we would now be neither.

I recalled this comment last week as I read Aziz Rana’s magificent book The Two Faces of American Freedom, for unlike my conservative friend, it is Rana’s argument that American freedom has always been dependent upon “suppression” and “the control of subject communities” (page 3). In other words, “settler empire.” Now, this idea that American freedom has always, to one degree or another, been dependent upon “subordination” of others, is not new. Indeed, Edmund Morgan wrote about this long, long ago. But it is Rana who provides us with a broad historial sweep of this paradox, as Morgan calls it, from the arrival of the first Europeans on American shores down to the present-day and the costs it has entailed. “Empire,” Rana writes, ” has become the master rather than the servant of freedom” (page 4).

On a related note, and this is where I think his book becomes relevant to Lincoln, Rana thinks that we live in a country where “ideas of [American] exceptionalism and constitutional perfection” combine with a “literary culture in which the most popular historical works are panegyrics to great statesmen of the past, seen as larger-than-life figures [Abraham Lincoln?] to whom we are collectively indebted” (page 6). Consequently, “the mythology of exceptionalism and democratic equality disregards a historical record riddled with ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion, not to mention real class inequalities and conflicts” (page 7). To a large extent I would agree with Rana, but would add that it was Lincoln and the emancipatory movement of which he was an integral part that struggled mightily to confront these problems. Rana thinks there were “decisive historical moments” that “led some Americans to imagine a republicanism that was both inclusive and disconnected from territorial conquest” (page 14).

In this sense, I think it is unhelpful to focus on Lincoln exclusively as the “Great Emancipator.” Rather, it is better, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1876, to see Lincoln as “the head of a great movement, and [who] was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.” Or, as I put it at the end of Loathing Lincoln:

Americans need to remind themselves that Lincoln’s principled stand against the monstrous injustice of slavery and the slaveholders’ advocacy for its perpetuation “in all future time,” combined with his belief that recurrent elections as opposed to secession were the best, most peaceful method for solving political disagreements, were not only the hallmarks of democratic politics and Lincoln’s political career but essential aspects of “the better angels of our nature.” Consequently, Lincoln’s aim in asking Americans to fight a war to preserve a relatively democratic Union eventually cleansed of slavery was courageous and noble, perhaps even necessary, and the country remains indebted to those who fought to ensure that the United States was not forever split apart in the 1860s. This is not to say that Lincoln was either a god or a saint; obviously, he was neither, and he would in fact have been the first to scoff at such a notion. Nor was the president a demon, the progenitor of all of America’s ills. Both views are an oversimplification of an extraordinarily complex man and movement dedicated to ending slavery in America. In fact, there is no shame in saying that Lincoln was a gifted, prudent politician who, with the help of millions of antislavery Americans, including the slaves themselves, enthusiastically issued the Emancipation Proclamation and, in public letters and speeches that contained some of the most beautiful language ever written, explained why the United States should attempt to fulfill the better ideals of its founders. And because of the war those ideals were, at least for a time, realized. The “new birth of freedom” of which Lincoln expectantly spoke at Gettysburg occurred, as African Americans became citizens in the new American nation born from the conflict, with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In this particular instance federal power broadened rather than diminished freedom, and it became another of the war’s heartbreaking tragedies (in addition to its hundreds of thousands of casualties) that human liberty shrank as the nation’s commitment to a more pluralistic democracy withered in the face of state and local resistance to the postwar era’s egalitarian possibilities. Such inegalitarian consequences persisted for far too long yet were thankfully impermanent because Americans, especially African Americans, realized they were inconsistent with the nation’s increased commitment to freedom and equality forged in the 1860s and 1870s. As they have in the past, so will Americans in the future continue to grapple with the Civil War and the president who led the nation through that conflict. But to loathe Abraham Lincoln would be to lose, or loathe, an essential part of the nation that he thought should allow all its inhabitants “an open field and a fair chance for . . . industry, enterprise and intelligence,” one that would give his fellow Americans “equal privileges in the race of life,” a country Lincoln hoped would become, as he said in his last written words, “a Union of hearts and hands as well as of States” (page 341-42).

Although Rana sees Lincoln’s economic vision as limited – “For Lincoln, so long as the market was left to its own devices, individuals would be able to achieve economic independence” (page 173) – he is nevertheless clear that “the Civil War promoted political and economic practices that threatened the old settler paradigm and raised questions about how to sustain republican freedom under condtions of corporate concentration and greater social inclusion” (page 183) I think this is a good point. Still, the quote from Lincoln above is from 1859 and had he lived (the perennial question, no?) perhaps the president would have been influenced by the experience of Reconstruction and more radical members of the Republican Party to reconsider, or alter, such views.

One final point. In a wonderful disquistion on Randolph Bourne (see pages 290-96), Rana writes that “for Bourne, this rejection of empire was just as thoroughly a rejection of isolationism and nativist sentiment; it rested instead on the diffusion of borders and the cultural integration of America with the world at large. In effect, Bourne sketched a vision of a U.S. metropole, economically prosperous and dynamic, which relied on no peripheries – traditionally marked by colonized subjects or satellite states – to maintain its position. Both noninterventionist and universally inclusive, American identity would reject any ‘narrow “Americanism” or forced chauvinism.’ As a consequence, it would disarm political and economic elites of a central tool – parochial nationalism – in the extension of state perogatives” (page 295). Would it be too much of a stretch to argue that Lincoln, in his rejection of an empire of slavery, his rejection of prosperity and home for some rather than all, his rejection of nativism, and his rejection that the Civil War was only about Union and slavery, helped make Bourne’s argument possible?






An Extraordinarily Good Book

I just finished this morning Aziz Rana’s brilliant and fascinating book, The Two Faces of American Freedom and wanted to make a quick post and tell readers to buy and read this book. It presents a grand sweep of American history centered around the central idea of freedom. I’ll have more to say on this in subsequent posts, I hope, but his central point that “internal liberty” has, throughout American history, depended upon “external subordination – the two faces of American freedom,” (page 13) seems to me uassailable and worth pondering. It will certainly influence how I teach my History 1302 course next semester. For now, here is an interview with Rana.


What Should We Call Jefferson Davis?

Historian Steven Hahn has a review in the New York Times Book Review of James McPherson’s new book, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. He concludes with these excellent paragraphs:

Yet, there is a larger and more unsettling issue. Treating Davis as commander in chief risks lending the Confederacy a legitimacy it never achieved at the time. No foreign country accorded the Confederacy diplomatic recognition, at least in part because of an unwillingness to openly support a slaveholders’ rebellion. Only after the war, as part of a reconciliation process, were Confederates spared serious punishment and then tendered respect as a cause and a state, enabling men like Davis and subsequent devotees of the “lost cause” to get a hearing for their version of events.

To be sure, McPherson calls Davis a “rebel” and avoids comparing him to Lincoln, but like most historians who write on the war, he effectively structures the struggle in a way Lincoln never would: between two states and countries. Over time, this has enabled some Americans brazenly to fly the Confederate flag while denying its association with slavery and treason. Union soldiers had a better take when they sang of hanging Jeff Davis.

How about this for a book title?

Jefferson Davis: Defender of Slavery