Lit Crit

Being Dishonest About Abe

April 25, 2011

Multiple Pages
Being Dishonest About Abe

In what may be described as the Dell comic-book version of “the Civil War’s true beginning,” Allen C. Guelzo, seated as Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College (I’ll bet my hat that the neocons are paying for this oddly named chair), explains in the New York Post what really happened at Fort Sumter 150 years ago. According to Guelzo, the Great Emancipator maneuvered the Southerners into taking the federal fort in Charleston Harbor in order to push us into a morally redemptive war made necessary because the Southern “slave states” were a threat to democracy everywhere:

The newly minted Confederacy was only worried about preserving slavery and the stiffly ranked society slavery created—but in Lincoln’s mind the issue was larger: Secession was anarchy—and no friend of democracy.

Apparently Lincoln was agonizing over democracy’s future in general. He knew full well that in Europe “struggles for democracy had been snuffed out by kings, emperors and dictators of various sorts.” To make matters worse, allowing the South to leave the Union would strengthen anti-democracy in the Old World:

If the American democracy shattered itself because seven states weren’t willing to abide by the outcome of the presidential election, then every one of those kings, emperors and dictators would be able to say to their nations, “See what democracy gets you? Instability. Disorder….”

Let’s see if I understand Guelzo’s picture of nineteenth-century history: Victoria in England, Victor Emmanuel in the nascent Italian kingdom, Franz Josef in Austria, and all their fellow monarchs were just waiting for the South to win its independence in order to shout to their subjects: “We told you so! That’s what democracy gets you.” Somehow Lincoln’s more gruesome accomplishments after he created a casus belli at Sumter—such as getting 636,000 young Americans mowed down in battle and many more permanently maimed and signing off on Sherman’s deliberate devastation of Georgia and South Carolina—would serve to dispel any lingering doubt about democratic government’s beneficence. All the carnage would prove to everyone in Europe that democracies are peaceful and that their subjects get along swimmingly well.

“The Founders’ entire system of shared sovereignty was irretrievably lost when the states were shown to be mere tributaries to the central government.”

Equally questionable is Guelzo’s assumption that European monarchs took the South’s side against the “democratic” North. The most reactionary European power, Russia, was solidly allied to the Union side, as was Bismarck’s Prussia. In return Lincoln sided with Russian suppression of the 1863 Polish uprising against Russian occupation. Perhaps to their credit, President Lincoln and Secretary of State James Seward did not seem as driven as our modern “conservative” movement is to create democracy everywhere on Earth.

Guelzo sounds even more infantile when he describes Europe in the 1860s. Most Western European countries had by then developed or were developing constitutional governments in which the rising bourgeoisie played leading roles. France was under an authoritarian but not particularly repressive government run by Louis Napoleon, who was opening his regime more and more to civil liberties. By 1867 England and the North German Confederation under Bismarck’s leadership had nearly universal suffrage for male citizens. Other Northern European countries such as Belgium and Holland were moving rapidly in the same direction.

Interestingly, the February 1861 Patent issued by Franz Josef establishing a unified parliament for his empire unleashed some of the same tensions that were at work in the United States. The regional governments, which were in the hands of the magnates and ethnic minorities, opposed the Patent’s centralizing tendencies. They lived on the land and had stronger regional ties than national ones. But the professional and merchant classes advocated a constitutional parliamentary regime, which also included the supporters of a unified German nation (under Austrian rule). The centralizers, who were mostly bourgeois, were enthusiastic nationalists and favored a consolidated state power. In some ways, the American Civil War was not the exception but a particularly bloody manifestation of what was then a common struggle. What makes the American case stand out was its brutality—the way regional agrarian powers were defeated and the humiliation inflicted on them during and after the conflict. Apparently it was not enough to please Guelzo, Victor Davis Hanson, and other ghoulish neocons who salivate at the idea of all the suffering visited on the “slave class.” Unfortunately for this argument, most of those who fought for Southern independence did not own slaves, while Northern commanders such as McClellan and Grant did.

If the European franchises were still not universal in 1860, neither were they in many American states where suffrage was limited to white male property holders. I’m not saying this in a spirit of leftist condemnation. Extending the franchise has rarely increased the degree of self-government. It has usually produced the opposite result. Bloated voting rolls, especially those full of government workers, relief recipients, and those not rooted in established communities, have helped transfer power toward centralized bureaucratic administrations which are imagined to look out for the “people.”

Lincoln had claimed a right of secession in 1848 during the Mexican-American War, which he opposed as a freshman Whig congressman from Illinois. I’ve been told by neocon and other leftist acquaintances that Lincoln’s stand was OK because he opposed the war as the undertaking of Southern slaveholders, including then-President James Polk of Tennessee. Supposedly Lincoln took a strong stand against the war for immaculately progressive, abolitionist reasons. But there’s scant evidence for this. Lincoln attacked the conflict not as an opponent of slavery but because it was misrepresented by its government backers. It seemed to Lincoln and other war-dissenters that the federal government had bamboozled the public into the conflict with Mexico, from which it hoped to extract Western lands. Lincoln insisted that those states that opposed the war had the rights of nullification and secession. Presumably he changed his mind in 1861, when he ordered Union soldiers into Virginia, which had just seceded.

Guelzo conveniently omits from his narrative any account of the weakening of American self-government that resulted from the War Between the States. The Founders’ entire system of shared sovereignty was irretrievably lost when the states were shown to be mere tributaries to the central government. Lincoln’s notion of “consolidated government” would prevail in the twentieth century, leading to a centralized bureaucratic-judicial dictatorship, punctuated by periodic plebiscites, under the federal government’s watchful eyes. It is not the neocons but the law professor Bruce Ackerman who tells us the truth about Lincoln’s victory, albeit from a predictably leftist perspective. The Union victory created the conditions for a “constitutional moment,” that is to say, for a constitutional revolution eventually leading to other twentieth-century regime changes. Lincoln did not save an already established constitutional government. The force of events and his desperate resolve to hold on to the seceded South buried the original constitutional design.

But to our hyper-modernists in the conservative movement and the GOP, none of this really matters. Now we have a large, well-equipped military to “liberate” other countries in the name of “democracy.” Our rulers also have at their disposal a vast administration to oversee our behavior and to keep us from discriminating against designated victim groups. And that administration also collects our earnings and gives us back part of them as “entitlements.” Isn’t that what democracy is about? Who the hell cares if the country was bled white in order to achieve it? It was not our pasty-faced neocon scribblers who died in the disasters they celebrate. Other Americans did so that new rulers could prosper. Like other regime changes, democratic ones were and are about the circulation of elites.


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