Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Getting the Civil War Right and Wrong, A Reply to Jeff Schweitzer
By Alexander Marriott
As we approach the sesquicentennials of the Battle of Antietam (17 September), Lincoln’s provisional emancipation proclamation (22 September), and the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January), people are taking time to consider what the American Civil War was all about, it’s outcome and immediate (unfulfilled) legacy, and the continuing relevance it has in American life and politics today. One such person, scientist and former White House advisor to Bill Clinton, Jeff Schweitzer, recently penned a short essay for the Huffington Post entitled “Slavery and the Civil War: Not What You Think.” In the essay, Schweitzer (without one quote or appeal to supporting primary source evidence) tells us that “what we are all taught in school,” that “slavery was of course the central point of contention” is not accurate and is, at best, fundamentally misleading. While slavery was, indeed, a prime example of what motivated Southern anger and morally destroyed any and all sympathy one could reasonably have for the Confederacy then and now, it was not, argues Schweitzer, “the issue...per se.”
Then what was the war all about? “The war was fought over state’s rights and the limits of federal power in a union of states,” says Schweitzer, “The perceived threat to state autonomy became an existential one through the specific dispute over slavery.” Of course, historians and Americans hear this argument all the time—it is neither new nor original. What makes this particular appeal odd is that we usually hear this argument in a delimited and obvious number of places. First, many of the Confederate leaders—Jefferson Davis for instance—downplayed slavery as only a point of conflict in a larger more principled disagreement: “The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of States subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognize in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented proceeded to form this Confederacy, and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained, the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent through whom they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations.” You would almost think there was no slavery.
Why did they do this if they were not sincerely correct (as most credible historians, myself included, maintain)? The first and most obvious reason had to do with foreign relations. The Confederacy’s surest path to independence was recognition and assistance from Great Britain—something that would have been quite out of the question had the chief public claim to the world for why the Confederates should prevail been the exaltation of human slavery. This is one of the reasons why historians focus so much on the contemporaneously embarrassing and revealing extemporaneous speech delivered by the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia in Savannah on 21 March 1861. At the end of explaining all the ways in which the new Confederate Constitution had allegedly remedied the errors of the Constitution of 1787 they had so recently abandoned, Stephens ended his elaboration in a remarkable indictment of Thomas Jefferson and full-throated defense of the Confederacy’s truly great innovation (it is a long speech, this is a long excerpt, but every utterance of it is absolutely essential):
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.
As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory."
The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders "is become the chief of the corner" the real "corner-stone" in our new edifice.
I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.
Stephens’s elaborate and euphoric exaltation of the new era his government heralded was a public relations nightmare internationally. Great Britain, the world’s leading power and arch-foe of international slavery could hardly make any moves against Lincoln on behalf of a power that purported to be ushering in a new millennium of chattel slavery.
Of course, after the war was over and lost, Confederates for the most part began to clean up their historical legacies. Stephens went so far as to claim that his famous speech was not actually his at all. Jefferson Davis, till the end, pretended the whole effort had a larger more grandiose purpose and sympathetic historians have, ever since, taken him at his word.
The next group, outside of bona fide Confederates, one usually sees this argument from are late 19th century reconciliation historians whose ideas—Civil War a tragedy with heroes on both sides, Reconstruction a horrible social experiment that did not end soon enough—lingered well into the 20th century (they are still with us in a marginalized, angry, and perniciously belligerent form). Why such people would endorse the notion that slavery was not the actual motivator behind the Confederacy and the Civil War is rather obvious given the aftermath of the war. While the North remained surprisingly committed to policing the South with an occupying army and guaranteeing the citizenship and voting rights of the freedmen, that effort eventually collapsed and white Northerners were all too willing to quickly slide back into a racially indifferent hands-off policy toward the Southern States—all of which were quickly “redeemed” by former Confederates completely uninterested in the civil rights of their poor black neighbors. Since whites nationally where not sufficiently outraged by this development to exercise federal power to do anything to stop it, the temptation to reconcile with Southern whites and share a common heritage that downplayed the festering problem of Black civil rights proved too good to resist. Slavery moved to the background—the war, indeed, was fought over States’ rights (right to do what precisely was left to the murky libraries that professional historians were content to ignore for decades).
The only people today that one usually sees this argument from are modern Southerners who, contrary to Schweitzer’s claim, are not taught the notion in schools that the war was all about slavery. One also sees it in “Politically Incorrect” histories published by hack historians looking to cash in on prejudice rather than scholarship and facts. It’s odd to see a modern Democrat on the Huffington Post repeating these tired lines from those whose motivations are typically soaked or tinged in racial animus.
I do not believe Jeff Schweitzer is a dupe or a racist. Instead, I think his essay has a very obvious contemporary political purpose that is revealed quite plainly to anyone familiar with the primary sources surrounding the Confederate theory of the Union and Constitution, as well as the intellectual justifications for nullification and secession. According to Schweitzer (and this is rather original, though it has been repeated by many on the Left, like Chris Matthews and Michael Lind), what was actually motivating the South was not some long gone moral crime like chattel slavery but something eerily familiar: “Specifically, eleven southern states seceded from the Union in protest against federal legislation that limited the expansion of slavery claiming that such legislation violated the tenth amendment, which they argued trumped the Supremacy Clause. The war was indeed about protecting the institution of slavery, but only as a specific case of a state’s right to declare a federal law null and void.” Now here is a claim that, surprise!, links a modern political agenda—the affinity of modern Conservatives, from Clarence Thomas to Ronald Reagan, for the tenth amendment as a tool to put the breaks on the federal government—to a cause that “was unjust, ... unseemly,” and “treasonous.”
But, since Schweitzer provides absolutely no evidence for this claim, what—if any—evidence is there that the Confederates believed the tenth amendment trumped the Constitution’s supremacy clause and allowed them to secede, and that this is why the war came? According to Schweitzer, the war could just as easily resulted from the Federal government passing a law to do anything that Southern states decided was beyond the pale (in the case of the war, of course, they seceded largely before Lincoln was even inaugurated into office, the rest after he called for volunteers after Sumter). This is a very large claim. Now, I, of course, believe that it is quite plain, historically, that the doctrines of secession and nullification were inventions of political expediency, first to try to scare off interference with slavery within the Union and finally as a way of getting out of the Union “legally.” That is, without a war that Southerners had known for nearly a century would destroy slavery entirely. I have covered this development broadly in a post entitled “The History of Nullification: Origins, Context, and Dangers (Part One)” and which will be completed shortly in a concluding essay.
As Mr. Schweitzer has provided no evidence to substantiate his claims, he is somewhat at my mercy, so I will be brief. First, let us consider the South Carolina declaration of why they were seceding. There is one, non-specified mention of the tenth amendment but that was not the linchpin of the South Carolinian argument. In fact, mention of the tenth amendment (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”) was quite unessential for Confederates. They grounded their theory of secession on the nature of the Union as a compact between co-equal states. Much of the South Carolinian declaration thus hinged on the notion that if any of the parties violated the compact—in this case, Northern States hampering enforcement of the constitutionally legitimate Fugitive Slave law of 1850—the offended parties were free to exit: “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” Yet, Schweitzer claims that us reading these documents is simply tunnel vision: “We understandably focus on this specific while ignoring the broader issue in contest. But a subset of a set is not the set. An example of an issue in not the issue. Slavery was a specific issue of a perceived violation of a state’s rights, over which the country went to war. Claiming the Civil War was about slavery alone is like saying that the recent revolution in Egypt was about unseating Mubarek and nothing else.”
I will come back to this central claim about slavery in relation to the constitutional arguments that Confederates came up with to try to save it within the system and then from war outside the system in a moment. First let’s take a look at another state’s formal declaration of what it was doing and why: Mississippi. “Our position,” said the seceding delegates, “is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Here there is not one iota of tenth amendment talk—the entire salvo is slavery top to bottom. Mississippi purported to leave the Union as a harried fox pursued by ruthless dogs: “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.”
So, slavery was merely a “specific issue”? Did those in the North reject the tenth amendment or believe that the Constitution’s supremacy clause was in conflict with it? If we take Lincoln’s first inaugural address as evidence, that seems entirely unlikely: “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade, are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, cannot be perfectly cured; and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections, than before.” The only substantial dispute. Either Schweitzer believes Lincoln improperly diagnosed the problems of the Union—his perspicacity is one of the things for which he was and is most famous—or decided to gloss over the “real” issue at stake in the most important speech he had ever given in his life up to that point.
The constitutional filibustering of the Confederates, before and after the war, as well as their historical apologists, should not blind us to the plain truth that slavery—and its feared death through restriction to the States where it already existed, perpetually under real and moral assaults from the North—was what agitated Calhoun, Toombs, Stephens, Davis, Ruffin, Hammond, and all the rest of the intellectual leaders of the Old South. The Constitution first served Calhoun as an aegis through which he might carve out a space for slavery’s perpetual protection. In the decade after Calhoun’s death, most of his legatees gradually abandoned that notion and instead embraced an alleged Constitutional corollary of nullification that would allow them to legally break up the government while—hopefully—avoiding a war that was sure to destroy slavery. It was a long shot, but after Lincoln’s election provided evidence that the South could be forever dominated by a more dynamic, wealthier, and more populous North whose inhabitants had no interest in the peculiar institutions of the South, many Southern leaders felt it was a gamble they could no longer afford to ignore. And the war came. But the issue was—and always was, from Missouri, through the Nullification fight, and the crisis of 1850—slavery, slavery, and slavery. The rest was nefarious and obscuring subterfuge, and still is to this day.
 Speech in Montgomery, Alabama (Inaugural Address as Provisional President), 18 February 1861, Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings, ed. William J. Cooper, Jr. (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 199.
 Alexander Stephens, “Corner-Stone” Speech, Savannah, Georgia, 21 March 1861, American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Library of America, 2006), 721-724.
 South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession, Charleston, 24 December 1860, The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It, eds. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (New York: Library of America, 2011), 153-154.
 Mississippi Declaration of the Causes of Secession, Jackson, 9 January 1861, The Civil War: The First Year, 183-185.
 Abraham Lincoln: First Inaugural Address, Washington D.C., 4 March 1861, The Civil War: The First Year, 216.