Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

I Was Born a Rambling Man and Not Even in the South...

Here are some rambling thoughts I put together to the discussion below--mainly between dain and dale--about the Southern identity politics. My hope and even fear is that this is the stuff that inspires spirited discussion:

Well, Dale has said a lot, but here’s one thing I agree with: You can love the South while hating slavery and thinking the Confederacy was really a stupid idea. (See Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Shelby Foote, William Faulkner, and even numerous African-American intellectuals, musicians, artists, and ordinary untalented people like you and me. O’Connor’s and Percy’s work criticizes northern universalism from the perspective of southern particularism and vice versa; the result was genuinely Thomist realism that transcended the limitations of the North’s abstract individualism and the South’s honorable, unjust, excessively manly self-assertion.)

Let me add, to fuel the fire, that the much-maligned Alexander Stephens of Georgia REALLY thought the Confederacy was a dumb idea (and so opposed secession and sat out most of the war sulking), and the subtext of his notorious corner-stone defense of slavery was ambiguously negative concerning the actual behavior of southern masters. He said what he thought had to be said to make sense of both the South’s "peculiar institution" and the Confederacy claim to a distinctive purpose and to bolster racial paternalism with racial naturalism to humanize as far as possible the master’s treatment of the slave. (God and nature made the African inferior or incapable of self-government but still human; the duty of the white master is to protect--not ruthlessly exploit--him etc.) And his post-war (exceedingly borng) constitutionalist defense of the Confederacy was all about saving Southern pride; he knew he was abstracting from slavery as a cause. Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Stephens genuinely adhered to scientific racism--a monstrous mixture of modern materialism and aristocratic pride--but he was not a monster. He really was deeply troubled by and aimed to mitigate the most brutal excesses of the institution of slavery; he "paternalistically" didn’t participate in that brutality himself, although he did have lots of slaves. I write not to make Stephens anyone’s hero but only to add that, given the horribly, blindly unjust intellectual climate of his time and place, even this strange and brilliant man did give us something, at least, to admire. And don’t forget: He was Lincoln’s good friend.

Discussions - 31 Comments

A lot of people, both Northern and Southern, were torn at slavery and could not figure a way out that would make everyone or most people somewhat satisfied nevermind the slaves themselves, of course.

The argument that one must hate the people of the South if one hates the Southern Confederacy is a canard. It is used to shut debate down and to make those opposed to the Confederacy appear full of hate for their fellow man.

Yep, I have said a lot, but I felt it needed to be said ... again and again and again.

If that is bad, then so be it and ignore me, I will go away, but apparently there are at least two folks who will not or can not ignore me ... at all.

You are a brave man, Peter, and toward us altogether generous!

One recalls that Stephens and L*****n were friends.

Peter that was a very thoughtful post. Stephens and Lincoln had once been in the same party and shared many of the prejudices of that party. It`s nice to see someone on this website point out that fact for once.

I know you think that secession was "a really stupid idea." But you also think that Jefferson "was too indiscriminately pro-revolution...." You wish that he had been more like Franklin, who demonstrated "that the American revolution could have been avoided if only the British hadn`t been so darn stupid." I see a connection here.

My personal belief is that slavery was a great sin, and it subtracted from the cultural greatness of the Scotch-Irish and British settlers of the Southern States. On the other hand, I think the old-style factory system, the open-borders immigration policies, and the raw exploitation of industrial capitalism were also sinful. Capitalism is good only so long as it is reined in by other cultural institutions (family, religion), and frankly the Yankees weren't all that good at it.

I see the warts on both sides of that great conflagration, but I also see the greatness of spirit. If you venerate one side, you must venerate both sides. Anything less demonstrates ignorance and mean-spirited partisanism.

People forget Stephens was a Southern Whig. His "Institutions" speech was very Whiggish and conservative in its own way.

But, of course he is remembered for his "Cornerstone" speech. If you read that speech carefully he was not really saying that slavery was the "cornerstone" as is often asserted. He was saying that the rejection of equality was the cornerstone.

But he was wrong in his assertion that the Confederacy was the first so founded. I would argue that almost all (all?) civilizations have been founded on the rejection of equality, and that equality was the novel idea. I do not mean that all societies believe that they are superior and others are inferior although that is a common belief and is arguably a belief that leads to in-group social cohesiveness. But the societies were founded on the belief that they were for them and not for everyone. So political and social equality did not have to be extended to the alien and outsider.

Now whether that is what the Founders had in mind is the essence of the argument, is it not?

Stephen’s letter to Lincoln is also instructive. He originally opposed secession, but argued that Lincoln should not oppose it by force. On this he was entirely correct, so I will forgive his less than Fire Eater pre-War stance.

I think explicitly basing inequality on race, Dan, was something pretty new. Citizen vs. alien is quite different from white vs. black. And of course no citizen of Georgia could favor Lincoln's resisting secession by force, and so Stephens had no choice but to sign on with the Titanic that was the Confederacy. He still thought secession was dumb and so was the very opposite of the honor-crazed Fireater. (Instructive here is the anti-war message spoken by the sensible male heroes Ashley and Rhett--both of whom fight nobly for the South--near the beginning of GONE WITH THE WIND--which is a very funny and smart movie I just saw all the way through for the first time. It's quite possible to end up fighting, out of loyalty, for a cause you think is quite likely lost and quite definitely misguided. Robert E. Lee--much if not all of the evidence suggests--did that. [It's certainly part of genuine southern honor to believe that Lee opposed both secession and slavery but still followed Virginia, although in real life his views were more complicated and not altogether consistent.])

Yankee me, I dont see how Stephens nor Lee were forced by anything to fight, in their respective political and military capacities, for the Southern insurgency once Lincoln decided to resist it by force. And if Stephens is somehow the semi-good guy that Peter says, then his responsibility was even greater than Lees, as the statesman/Legislators responsibility trumps that of any generals.(Lee, it should go w/o saying, was apart from his serving the Confederacy, a dauntingly good guy.) But no, friendship w/ Lincoln or not (and let's specify how long and how deep a friendship, and at what particular time period it occured), I find it very hard to see Stephens as a good guy. Not only does the Cornerstone Speech endorse scientific racism as the foundation of the new regime (and one which, for all Stephens knew, might really have lasted for many generations)but it does so by blasphemously equating this foundation with Jesus. Cc. the way Lincoln's House Divided Speech makes a point about the U.S. without equating our regime with God's kingdom. And oh "Straussians", IF that was esoteric winking trickery on Stephens part, then it was such of the very worst kind, the kind that leaves your audience utterly convinced of the worst lies they ever told themselves, and your political action committed in advance to defend such lies.

P.S.: NLT underling grunts, don't ya think it'd be a good idea to fix this annoying &Apos problem?

A duel w/ steely swords has been fought. Two men lay on the ground, bloody and groaning, their wives leaning over them wailing. But expert doctors are present and both men will survive. The man in gray has had both his legs sliced off, and one of his arms. They man in blue has had a hand and a foot sliced off. Both will live handicapped and in pain the rest of their lives.

When the man in blue is asked, "Why did you fight a duel, a very unChrisitan thing, against your brother?" He replies, "I did it to defend the cause of justice, I could see no other way, and I knew I could win. Also, I eventually cut off my brother's legs off because I knew, doctor, that they contained a peculiar cancer of an infectious kind."

When the man in gray is asked, "Why did you fight a duel, a very unChristian thing, against your brother?" He replies, "I did it to defend my honor, I could see no other way, although I knew I would probably lose, and I knew that my cause was not really just."

Carl, thou art full of it. The South left the Union because its people thought it was a right and increasingly a necessity. Moreover, I dare you to look at the casualties the Southern armies suffered and tell me that they thought they were fighting for a lie. What you just wrote is the purest bunch of crap I've yet seen on NLT.

Lawler and Scott,

What exactly is "scientific racism?" As many of us have argued before, everyone in 1861 was a "racist." Was Jefferson a scientific racist? Was Lincoln?

The reason inequality in the South was based on race is because we artificially imported large numbers that belonged to another race who otherwise would not have been here. This is a historical anomaly since the races historically did not often mix. But if societies were historically based on extended kinship, then citizen vs. alien was inherently like us vs. not as much like us. So why was white vs. black more problematic than citizen vs. alien when citizen vs. alien historically meant the less obvious distinctions of same race ethnicity, tribe, language , culture, etc.?

Well, this is getting good. Carl, you haven't quite dealt with my claim that Stephens used the Bible and science to ground racial paternalism, which was preferable to the alternative actually available in his time and place. And to tell the truth I can see why anyone would resist being invaded, which is not to say that Lincoln wasn't right to invade. The charge of blasphemy has the most weight. Race, class, gender etc. really are inessential to the personal Creator, and the Bible really does teach the equality of persons under God. So the worst thing Stephens did was to use the Bible to find a basis for racially-bsed superiority. On the other hand (and to provoke you all), St. Augustine did remind us that some of the holy fathers in faith had slaves, and he concedes that if they treated them in a genuinely paternalistic way and afforded them religious liberty they were doing their Christian duty. And the history of the world since the coming of Christianity has been one blasphemy after another--distortion after distortion of the Bible for political goals. Filmer and Locke were both blasphemers.

the Bible really does teach the equality of persons under God

Kind of beside the point, since we are talking about inequality on Earth. And that's a completely different matter. The Bible certainly doesn't teach the equality of women, and what are we to make of St. Paul's remarks in Ephesians 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ,?

Here in windy C-ville, w/ one park dedicated to Lee, and another to Jackson (no, not the one who opposed Calhoun!), the power is flickering on and off. I will respond later on to whatever remains of the discussion. And I will swing hard at a lot of this equivocal nonsense, this what-would-the-Christians-living-under-the-ROMAN EMPIRE-without-the-remotest-prayer-of-a-vote-have-done?

Oh, I see, fear made them endorse slavery. Those mean ol' Romans.

Race, class, gender etc. really are inessential to the personal Creator, and the Bible really does teach the equality of persons under God."

The Bible does suggest spiritual equality in the eyes of God. (Staying away from the election debate.) But that does not mandate nor does the Bible require social and political equality. One has to only look to Old Testament Israel to see that equality was not required.

2000 years ago when the New Testament was written, modern notions of equality were unheard of. To take modern thoughts and impose them on the Bible is wrong, and leads to a lot of problems. (This area requires a lot of nuance, but I hope you see what I mean.)

I don't think Filmer was a blasphemer. He was just wrong on some things. The Bible does not require a King. In fact, I hate to say it, but Paine was closer to correct here in that the Bible initially discouraged it. Nor is it necessary to presume the direct connection between Adam and the King and all other authentic rulers. Where Filmer was right was that the basic political entity of society is the family, not the individual, and that authority does not ultimately rest on consent alone.

Well, dain, if we're going to cherry-pick Bible verses why not point out to the Southerners that Jesus commanded that we render unto Caesar what is Caesar's? With all that in mind, the Southerners could have kept their slaves and Lincoln could have kept his Union - without any bloodshed (which Lincoln's First Inaugural desperately attempted to accomplish).

That said, people who know more on this subject, please continue this interesting conversation . . .

I think the Southerners wanted a change of Caesar.

The fact is, Christianity is about personal salvation and the Kingdom of God. Those who would use it to reform the here-and-now may do a useful thing, but Peter and Paul would have considered such efforts a distraction from what really matters.

Christianity has to be about more than personal salvation. It is also about how the person who gets the gift of salvation relates to the rest of the world. Salt and light, anyone?

Was slavery in the Old Testament a chattel slavery? It reads more like indentured servitude to me.

Hasn't been a power loss for a while, so here goes a first response, that will be my one effort to curry some favor with Confederacy apologists.

Here's a quote from my own dissertation work on Plato, specifically commenting on 563b of the Republic, where Plato seems to criticize the democratic regime for leading people to want to abolish slavery. "Plato is suggesting that, despite slaverys arbitrary character, it is almost as impossible for a polis to avoid as the distinctions of sex and species, and democracys unwillingness to recognize this is an example of its ideological blindness. Given ancient technology, and the prevalence and character of ancient warfare, we are probably forced to confess that Plato was right--the polis required slavery. And if Rousseau was correct that the participatory nature of polis democracy particularly depended upon it, (Social Contract, III, 15, #9) the ideological blindness here becomes all the more plain, even if it wins our sympathy."

You see, as an academic I'm willing to put it on the line and say that many regimes in history may have depended on the existence of slavery. So why do I think the Confederacy was indefensible? More later, but yes, Christianity has a lot to do with it.

This is an excellent thread and thank you, Peter, for opening it. I wish I had the time right now to fully digest everything that I see here. But I must say that I find it exceedingly odd that you have only just lately seen all of Gone With the Wind, Peter. Still, I am glad that you did because I had forgotten your point about Ashley and Rhett which, indeed, is quite true and an excellent point upon which to reflect. For my part it is an odd coincidence, perhaps, that I just finished watching Gods and Generals last night--although I read the book years ago. It was not everything a film ought to be (too long and laborious) but I believe that it was more or less faithful to the book. Many of the battle scenes were quite thrilling without being too gruesome. And the portrayal of Gen. Jackson was quite moving. The courage and the resolve of the Confederate troops was admirable, if pitiable. But it bespeaks a character that I am happy now to call a part of my country. And the sincere belief of many that they were continuing the principles of the Revolution should never be dismissed.

It also happens that I am now listening to David McCullough's biography of John Adams. His discussion of the first meeting of the New Englander Adams and the Virginian Jefferson, their similarities and their differences, their virtues and their vices is very, very instructive in light of what would come between them in later years, bring them together again and continue to fascinate our minds for the ages. It was as if their lives were an allegory for what was to come for the country they created. Perhaps a war between the two sections was, if not predestined in the cradle, at least prefigured? But I do hope that in our wiser older years as a nation and on into eternity we will remain united in our real purpose and mutually respectful of what is different in our natures but necessary to the overall good of the whole to retain unmolested. Still, had slavery not existed--though passions might be inflamed and rivalries ensue--I think the war might have been avoided.

It's not clear what Peter's semi-defense of Stephens amounts to. Stephens embraced scientific racism, and he rejected the equality taught by the Declaration, but apparently by overtly making the case for racial paternalism, he paved the way for better treatment for blacks, and did what he could to found the Confederacy on solid ground. Hmm... And there is some “alternative” that Peter says was too awful to pursue. Well, Lincoln freed the slaves, and that alternative didn’t result in the race war many Southerners feared. Peter's point is perhaps that, given his political environment, there were a limited number of options Stephens had in which he could remain a public figure with any influence over the opinions and actions of his fellow Southerners. But what good political deed did Stephens do? Or what least evil of several pretty evil evils did he reluctantly but wisely choose from? So, Im asking for clarification from Peter.

Im willing to see him as a sadly calculating figure, forced by A) the limitations of his intellectual environment, and B) his political one, into the wildly imprudent strategy of secession, and then doing what was needed to try to make the best of it, but in contrast to Lee, I’m unwilling to see him as a tragic figure. In Lee, we see shortcomings of political wisdom fatally undercutting personal and martial virtue. A great man serves an evil end out of good motives. But Stephens was a man who helped formulate the evil end, and one who did so knowing it was imprudent. In him we perhaps see a man who could have taught the South better had he and other likes him adopted a stiffer resistance to the tides of public opinion. Maybe it was impossible to fight it, but going along with it was something else entirely.

Dain baselessly accuses me for disrespecting the noble sacrifice of the Confederate soldiers, by asking me how I can dare think that they fought for what they understood to be a lie. To which I respond, no, sir, I see all too well that they thought it the truth, which damns all the more those who convinced them it was the truth, and who had the means to know otherwise. Anti-war types are right about the logic of supporting the troops by not sending them to die in bad wars, if wrong about particulars of the Iraq conflict. Impassioned appeals to home and hearth and honor, selective quotation of the Bible, and outright denial of the Declaration by so-called leaders like Stephens sent Southern manhood to face the bullets. Yes, most of them made their own judgments on the matter--but in the context of a manipulated high-tide of secessionist opinion. The fire-eaters very deliberately and very succesfuly sought to channel public opinion to the end they felt necessary precisely at the moment public opinion was most volatile. Real leadership failed. But the truth was that secession was, best-case scenario, legally dicey, that is, always open to question, and in terms of prospects, an imprudent gamble. But the truth was slavery was wrong, and the Republicans were right to want to contain it and encourage its gradual dwindling. But the truth was that the worst thing that could have ever happened to the citizens of the Confederate states would have been to have won—by losing they were spared the invasions of Cuba and Mexico, the endless new secession-attempts of various states and counties, the later Marxist efforts to foment slave revolts, and the real threat, in response to these problems, of military despotism. And, strangely enough, the truth was that they and maybe even their great grandchildren could have kept their peculiar institution, or at least benefited from a very gradualist emancipation scheme, had they not listened to the fire-eating, let’s gamble all now lest we lose bit-by-bit later, secessionists. The Confederate soldiers fought against their own interests. And against justice. Such facts give all the honor in the world a bitter aftertaste, even if yes, the natural response to a threatened invasion of one’s community is to defend it.

Stephens is consistent: in the Cornerstone Speech he says of the “anti slavery fanatics” that “their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume 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.” You either ditch the Founders on equality, or your Confederacy cannot stand. Stephens faced plainly what so many today who bitch about Lincoln and the North are unable to: a workable Confederacy had to be founded on a PRINCIPLE. All the arguments about Lincoln, about the constitutionality of secession, about tariffs, have to fade into the background, because for a viable post-secession state, these would become “old-time” grievances, has-been history. To back secession at the time, that is, in the serious manner and not in this grudge-match after-the-fact one, one had to deny equality outright like Calhoun did, or to deny it for blacks only by way of a strictly defined racism. So no, there would be no returning to any Burke-like practice of organic rooted-in-ancient-Anglo-culture Southern political life after successful secession—-rather, there would have to be a highly organized commitment to racialism. Stephens’ rationalism would replace Jefferson’s.

Dan Phillips is consistent too. If secession was right, then Stephens’ fault was being moderate and hesitant about it when the issue was first raised. One later speech cannot make up for this. Contrariwise, if you admire Stephens’ “moderation” and mixed feelings you must do so because you know at bottom that secession was imprudent and/or wrong. And then you must judge Stephens as either a timid wishy-washy man eventually talked into secession, or as man wise enough to see through it but so craven as to lend his voice in its favor. And so wrong in his craveness as to try to found it upon the cornerstone of racism.

Peter Lawler is not, as far as I can see with what he’s given us here, consistent. It is true that Stephens implied that the servitude of the blacks would serve as a school to gradually civilize them, and while that would work as a non-racist version of Calhounian theory, and toward an eventual emancipation, its brightest prospects run right up against rascist theory, particularly when Stephens' logic was going to further entrench race categories in the law. Racialist theory says: no matter how civilized you become, black and inferior you remain.

And now I'm off to tour Monticello w/ my folks. A few of us at NLT have our serious reservations about Jefferson, but I think today he's going to look pretty darn great to me.

More later perhaps, but one last about Christianity. If the golden rule applies at all to the political realm when we have substantial say over the political realm, then slavery simply cannot be what God prefers. I'm aware that both sides used the Bible, that Lincoln implied that, well, given the evil in men, the Bible can't decide things. But the Golden Rule, plus democratic say, just cannot equal slavery is okay. Jesus taught us we are more than polis-animals.

Carl, no one is saying that Jesus preferred slavery. Peter implied that Scripture teaches worldly equality, but that's simply not true. As for the Golden Rule, it is not unique to Christianity, and like many injunctions in the Bible, it is often impractical in the real world. Should we "sell all" and follow Him as well? Should we have "turned the other cheek" to the Japanese after Pearl Habor? Inferring a broad social reform movement from the Golden Rule is rather like using the Articles of Confederation to deny the right of secession...both are vaporous assertions.

As for your "respect" for Southern soldiery, how about respecting them enough to concede that they thought for themselves? These men were not sheep, and slaveholders weren't leading them by the nose (that's a bit of Marxisn revisionism, by the way). Perhaps they were wrong by our standards, but don't reduce them to automatons.

I only have a moment, but let me say only three things: 1. Carl's too-ideological criticism of Lee and Stephens remains too ahistorical and so too vulnerable to the "Walk a mile in my shoes" criticism. 2. Carl is right that the best thing that ever happened to the South is to lose the war. 3. Christianity, even more than natural rights, changes the equation about slavery through its true teaching that ordinary people are more than either polis fodder or philosophers' fodder. Having disrupted forever conventional slavery, Christianity seemed to compel the Southerners to take refuge in a natural or scientific argument. Modern or racist slavery is better than ancient slavery in that most people are permanently exempt from the possibility of becoming slaves. It's worse because, not being conventional, its scientific foundation had to be willed into existence through what Tocqueville called "spiritualized despotism" agains the very souls of blacks. So Stephens was searching for a reconciliation of modern science with a reinvigoration of the the "Stoic" or paternalistic view of slavery in the modern world. Needless to say his effort was misguided and it failed, but it was still there. Southern Stoicism (kept alive today by Tom Wolfe) is a real "American alternative," a real natural excellence best cultivated in the American South (actually particularly after the CW on the literary front).

Peter, I just don't see how anyone can say that losing the war was the "best thing" that every happened to the South. Hundreds of thousands dead, the country in ruin for decades, the centralization of the American state...surely you can't be serious.

Well, ok, that makes sense, dain. Let's say the fact of defeat more than the long and horribly bloody way defeat happened. The evils Carl describes were very likely if the South had won. Maybe we should be more open to hypothetical statesmanship that would have avoided it altogether.

Fair criticisms, Peter and Dain. After posting I sort of thought, "well all I really know about Stephens is the Cornerstone Speech, the fact that Senator Webb praises him, and some discussion of his plight in Potter's excellent The Impending Crisis, and so if someone out there really knows Stephens' story, I may be in for some correction." From previous debates, that person might be Dale Michaud, but I'm open to hearing from anyone.

Dain, what I was trying to convey was that the Confederate soldiers were thinking about the politics, and deciding for themselves, but that most were heavily influenced by a political climate that others had a much greater degree of control over. Many Southern states kept a lot of information out. And the fire-eaters were all about seizing and molding the public mood of the moment. That is, there was a political elite in that day that shouldered a higher degree of responsibility, and which had far more influence over the larger climate than the fragmented elites of our day do. But yeah, at the end of the day the Southern man in the street decided to support those elites.

It wasn't just Marxist scholars, Dain, who thought that the masses in the South were led into the war by the landed Aristocracy. Andrew Johnson was also of this opinion. One could argue that he so hated them and blamed them for the war that he destroyed his own Presidency supporting that hatred. But he was really a Jacksonian and was never comfortable being a Republican. And, of course, he lacked all of Lincoln's judgment and charm.

BTW, Peter, I was born in the South . . . the deep South, as a matter of fact. Admittedly, however, I was born to Yankee parents and lived in Florida and North Carolina, only for a short time and (regrettably) I cannot remember much about it.

Stephens was a very short and physically odd man who never married. He was in many ways quite the loner and quite a genius. But really befriended his slaves, who kept up with him and asked for him advice well after they had been emancipated and moved on.

Davis was also very kind to his slaves (that had been a family policy, in fact). Perhaps this is why they failed to understand the immorality of it all. Indeed, it is easy to exaggerate the nastiness of slavery, but American practices were far more benign that Carribbean slavery (or Arab slavery, for that matter). The irony is, as slaves these people were extremely valuable -- after emancipation, (other than political manipulation) few white people valued their presence. And, in another irony, most of them ended up as share-croppers...a situation not greatly different from slavery. The whole process of emancipation was far messier than it needed to be, and that's mostly because it was brought about through violence (IMO).

As for Confederate soldiery, whether Marxian or not, the notion that these men were led astray is nonsense. Most had a palpable sense of being a separate nation, and that's what they were fighting for. Review Pickett's Charge and tell me that these men were simple dupes who were led to their own destruction. They were men in the full sense of the word, and their dedication to the cause (whether you agree with it or not) really cannot be matched today.

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