11th Grade: The Politics of Emancipation

Greetings,

This week we put a special focus on the Emancipation Proclamation, in its context and meaning for its time and beyond.

Critics of Lincoln then and now point out that when the war began slavery, or ending slavery, was not seen as a motivating factor in the conflict.  In an immediate and particular context in 1860-61, this was undoubtedly true.  Before Lincoln even took office several Southern states seceded, but many (VA, NC, AR, TN, KN, MD) had not.  Lincoln believed he needed to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible.  To make the war about slavery might have driven every slave state out of the Union and made reunification impossible.

But very soon after the war started events began to take over and push policy in a different direction.  Slaves ran away and took shelter with Union forces.  England might recognize the Confederacy if the war had nothing to do with slavery.  If it did, Lincoln knew that England could never go against a country trying to end slavery when they themselves had already abolished the slave trade.  By 1862, Lincoln thought the time had come to make slavery an official issue of the war.

Historians have their fashions just as any other discipline, and opinion has swayed back and forth on Lincoln’s actions and motivations surrounding his famous Proclamation.

Most of us grew up with the idea of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves with the Emancipation.  In this view, Lincoln gets the lions share of credit for ending a great stain upon our democracy, culture, and so on.

More recently, however, scholarship has shifted.  Many critics, both from the “Long live the South” community and African-American scholars have pointed out that:

  • Technically, the Emancipation freed no slaves, since the only slaves that Lincoln freed were slaves in areas in rebellion — areas he did not control.  Slavery in the border states loyal to the Union remained untouched.
  • Some African-American scholars have argued that slaves had begun to liberate themselves by leaving plantations, finding Union armies, etc. long before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Thus, Lincoln only added window dressing to an already existing reality.  He jumped on the band-wagon and got credit he did not deserve.
  • Some constitutional scholars argue that Lincoln had no authority to end slavery by executive fiat.  The Constitution did not forbid slavery, therefore at the very least Congress would have to make a law regarding slavery, or more likely, a Constitutional amendment would be needed.

With these two extreme points on the pendulum, others have come down somewhere in the middle.  The Emancipation Proclamation, they argue, had no technical legal authority, and in this sense made no difference.  But the Emancipation did accomplish other things, i.e.

  • It freed no slaves but did transform the war into a war of liberation, giving extra moral impetus to Union armies.
  • It sent a clear message to England (who had at times seriously considered recognizing the Confederacy) that the war would now be about slavery, and England (having banned slavery and the slave trade themselves) could not now easily side against a country trying to end slavery in their own territory.
  • It did not start slaves freeing themselves, but it gave active encouragement to other slaves who may not have considered it otherwise.  Not only that, the Emancipation guaranteed slaves legal protection from Union armies.
  • While slaves in the border states could keep their slavery, Lincoln’s message surely implied slavery’s eventual demise across the nation.

But this “middle ground” position still leaves open the question of Lincoln and the Constitution.

Lincoln believed that he had a right and a duty to defend Constitutional democracy.  History told him that wars and democracies do not always mix well.  Athenian democracy destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War.  Many believe that Rome’s many wars brought down its Republic.  Machiavelli praised Rome for at least making the possibility of a temporary dictatorship a provision of its constitution, as it seemed better to do something drastic by law than otherwise.  But even this did not save them from the Emperors.  French Revolutionary democracy quickly turned into Napoleonic dictatorship.  Lincoln himself knew that some of his generals, like George McClellan, contemplated the possibility of military dictatorship.  Today we think of Lincoln as a strong war leader but many at the time saw him as weak, bumbling, inexperienced.  We can’t sit back comfortably this side of history and tell Lincoln, “There, there, it will be alright.”

Lincoln’s perception of the danger of dictatorship led him to embrace occasionally aggressive measures, and a “generous” reading of the Constitution.  The Constitution does allow for the suspension of habeus corpus, for example.  Article I, Section 9 reads,

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

This seems straightforward, but this clause is part of the section on the legislative branch of government, not the executive.  Of course, the Constitution does not explicitly forbid presidents from suspending the right themselves, but it could be said to imply it.  In fairness, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus, but the fact that he receives less criticism than Lincoln is probably fair.  We did not, after all, build a hagiographic memorial to Jefferson Davis.

Subsequent presidents have also suspended the writ, perhaps FDR most famously during W.W. II.  Lincoln felt that this expansive use of power helped him seize firm control of the government, which in turn he felt would prevent the far worse evil of military dictatorship.  Lincoln’s critics argue that in order to achieve this, he assumed semi-dictatorial powers.  How one evaluates Lincoln depends on. . .
  • How grave you feel the threat was to the Constitution
  • How flexible your view of the Constitution is
  • To what extent you feel that strange times call for unusual measures, or if it is during those times that absolute discipline must be maintained even if it a worse evil results.  As many have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”  But of course, we established a Constitution specifically to protect liberty and put restraints on the powers of government.
  • The extent to which you feel that “America” means a certain process of separation of powers, or a more nebulous idea of freedom.

Other issues exist besides the problem of Habeus Corpus, such as his establishment of martial law in Missouri.  In some ways, Lincoln felt that the Constitution established by the founders had not been sufficient to deal with the crisis.  It proved insufficient to deal with slavery.  Thus, he felt he had the right and the duty to act outside the system.  On this view, Lincoln did well to preserve so much of the original founders vision for America while facing an unprecedented crisis that no other president has faced.

Lincoln also believed that the American people would quickly revert back to normal after the war.  A sick man will take necessary medicine, but once cured he stops.   The overall result proves Lincoln correct in his assessment, but events in Missouri (where governors and state officials refused to give up martial law in spite of Lincoln’s orders to do so), for example, showed that granting extreme powers and giving them up are two different things.  Sometimes, people get addicted to prescription drugs.

Blessings,
Dave
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11th Grade: “Fire all of Your Guns at Once”

Greetings to all,

This week we began the actual battles of the Civil War.  In previous years we tended to look at battles as isolated incidents unto themselves.  Last year, I wanted to begin to broaden their understanding of conflict at a deeper level.  We started to do this somewhat when we looked at Napoleon towards the end of last year, and we continue to deepen our understanding as they go farther in the rhetoric stage of learning.

I wanted the students to consider the following:

Who had the most important advantages in the conflict?  The traditional view usually argues that the North, with its larger population, established economy, and industrial might had the edge.  The picture below, for example, shows the differences in respective railway capacity:

Recently, however,  scholarship has tended to see the South as having the strategic edge.  After all, they merely had to ‘not-lose.’  The Union not only had to win, but win to such an extent that the South would not consider secession again.  The South also had a huge amount of territory, along with the psychological edge of defending their ‘homeland.’  A quick glance shows us that the Civil War had some of the same dynamics as the Revolutionary War, with the Americans playing the role of the Confederacy (to some extent) and using their advantages to victory in that conflict.  The North certainly had its hands full.

These respective advantages did not come about via magic, but by the accumulation of various conscious and unconscious choices made by each society.  The South, for example lacked industrial capacity in part because they wanted to avoid the inevitable cultural and political changes that come with industry.

Related to the idea of cultures, I wanted the students understand a few of the dynamics present in the conflict.

For the South:
We discussed that the South’s main advantage was that it could play on the defensive, play up their psychological ‘home field advantage,’ and merely, ‘not lose’ the war.  They would also have to be careful with resources.  They would not want to cede ground in this area to the North, as the North could easily overmatch their industrial production.

So far, so good.  But one of the tensions in this conflict would be how this strategy would fit with the notions of honor usually prevalent in more aristocratic, honor oriented societies.  De Tocqueville reported a conversation that surprised him in his travels in the South in the late 1830’s.  Even for a Frenchmen, the sense of honor he encountered surprised him.  While on a train, he asked the following of a gentlemen next to him. . .

Q. Is it true, then that people in Alabama are as accustomed violence as is said?

A. Yes, there is no one here who doesn’t carry weapons under his clothes.  At the slightest quarrel he’ll have a knife or pistol in his hand.  These things happen constantly, the state of society is half-barbarous.

Q. But when a man kills another like that, isn’t he punished?

A. He’s always brought to trial, and the jury always acquits.  I don’t remember a single man who was at all well-known to have to pay for his life for such a crime.  Besides, I’m no better.  Look at all these wounds [showed the traces of 4-5 deep scars].

Q. But surely you lodged a complaint?

A. My God, no!  I tried to give back as good as I got!

For the North:
No one doubts that there immense advantages of men and material, coupled with the need not just to win but really pulverize the South, should have committed them to a long term ‘anaconda’ like strategy.

But Lincoln, initially at least, eschewed this path, largely because of how he saw secession.  He believed that secession resulted from the manipulation of a wealthy elite — that the average southerner wanted back in the Union, but had been temporarily deluded.  He felt, therefore, that he needed a quick and dramatic victory to prevent the concrete of secession from settling, so to speak.  This victory would also serve as a kind of smelling salt to wake up the south, and bring them back into the fold.

Union General Irwin McDowell told Lincoln that the army stood nowhere near ready for offensive operations, but Lincoln’s political beliefs pushed McDowell to go for a quick victory.  “If you are green, so are they,” he reportedly told McDowell.  But of course, offensive maneuvers are always much more difficult than defensive ones, and the disaster of the Battle of Bull Run ensued, when the Union forces crumbled into nothingness.

Lincoln misjudged the South badly here.  Secession, as we saw last week, was supported by most Southerners, and one victory would not have swung the tide in any case.  Victory, if it came, would have to mean a longer, more rigorous, and grinding conflict.

Bull Run shows that the outcome of battles almost always has deeper roots than the fighting itself, and I hope the students saw this in class.

The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, also wanted compromise at the beginning of the war.  For example, he offered mid-western farmers the use of the Mississippi and pledged them access to New Orleans.  He, like Lincoln, figured that the Union did not really want to go through the trouble of war, and one quick victory would show them the folly of their ways.

But Davis, like Lincoln, misjudged his opponent.  For many in the North the issue went beyond economics or jilted pique.  Many felt at the time that democracy itself would be considered an international and historical failure if secession worked.  If Constitutional democracy meant one leaves the moment things don’t go your way, democracy had no future.  Secession would only serve as the first step in a broader conflict that would only serve, in time, to make America just like Europe, where wars broke out at regular intervals.  The misperceptions of both sides meant in part that the early phase of the war had little overall strategic effect.

When we remember that both the Puritan revolutionaries in England, and the more Enlightenment oriented philosophes in France, both entirely failed to bring about constitutional democracy, this attitude makes more sense.  In 1861 only England, of all European nations could claim some kind of viable democracy.

From the beginning then, Lincoln had a “cause,” or a grand ideal to fight for, but it was abstract.  In time, he would seek to transform the war even more, turning the nation’s eyes toward the slavery question.  This will give the North something more tangible to fight over.  Next week we will examine this as well as Lincoln’s attitude towards the Constitution.

Many blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

I posted this originally back in 2012.  While I could have added some new thoughts to the post I wrote directly on Eric Voegelin’s Science Politics, and Gnosticism (found here), I thought it better to include in this post as a sub-set on the idea of territorial expansion.

It may very well be that to read Eric Voegelin is to be confused.  I have had my struggles with his book Order and History: The Ecumenic Age.  But, remembering that he made a special study of gnostic ideas and philosophy, I found his thoughts on the origins of Gnosticism and its relation to territorial expansion very intriguing.

Gnosticism has many permutations, but at its core it propounds an opposition of matter and spirit, the soul and the body, and so on.  Some biblical scholars believe that the Apostle John may be attempting to counter Gnosticism in his epistles. Those who have read St. Augustine’s Confessions know that he involved himself in the gnostic ideas of Manicheism before converting to Christianity.  But gnosticism as a general philosophy pre-dates the coming of Christ by many centuries. Voegelin writes on its origins,

The genetic context to which I refer is the interaction between expansion of empire and differentiation of consciousness.  In pragmatic history, Gnosticism arises from six centuries of imperial expansion and civilizational destruction (p. 21).

Thus, we may assume that gnostic ideas had their roots in the first great ecumenic empire of the Persians, and this fits with the Zoroastrianism and its adoption by Darius I as the semi-official religion of his court.

As to the “why” behind the link between expansion and Gnosticism, I am less able to penetrate Voegelin’s thoughts.  But I believe that we can surmise the following:

  • Significant expansion destroys our sense of proportion.  If the empire is everywhere, it is nowhere.
  • Lacking perspective, we lack attachment to place.  Without attachment to place, we lose our attachment to creation itself.  As an old Irish proverb states (I’m not quoting exactly), “Those who travel much lose their faith.”
  • The power that comes with empire inflates one’s sense of self and distances us from others.  As Chesterton stated, one should pray in valleys, not mountaintops.

Related to the original post below, the disconnect from creation might form the spiritual basis of the problems faced by expansion.

Having recently glanced over The Goebbels Diaries I wondered —  did Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to withdraw at El Alamein, and his “fight to the last bullet” order to Von Paulus at Stalingrad arise not from hope of victory but desire for the extinguishing of matter?  As Germany’s territory increased, Hitler seemed more focused on a “refining” cataclysm for creation than in actual victory.  Once separated from creation, we come to hate it, with death as the (perceived) only escape.

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

While I have not been overly compelled by the story, there have been several interesting tidbits.  Regardless of one’s feelings toward the Victorian age in general, or the Brits in particular, one can’t help but admire the sheer will and energy of the second great wave of western exploration (the first being in the 15th-early 16th centuries via the Atlantic).  Many hundreds of men risked everything for the sheer thrill of discovery, and yes, for the glory of it as well.  In the early phases from ca. 1840-1860’s, most of this exploration seemed to me to have a generally innocent tinge to it.  The more acquisitive imperialism came later.

This energy and striving for glory reminded me of late Republic Rome, and the quote from Sallust in The Jurgurthine War, which reads,

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus Publius Scipio, and other distinguished men of our country were accustomed to declare that, whenever they looked on the masks of their ancestors, their hearts were set aflame in the pursuit of virtue [i.e. worthy deeds].  Of course they did not mean that the wax or the effigy had any power over them, but it is the memory of great achievements that kindles a flame in the breasts of eminent men that cannot be extinguished until their own excellence has come to rival the reputation and glory of their forefathers.

It struck me that it was during the later phase of the Republic that Rome grew the most in size.  If we look at a map of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first Punic War in 264 B.C. . . .

Mediterranean, 264 BC

we see that Rome, though decent in size, does not dominate.  They have their sphere, along with Carthage, Egypt, Macedon, etc.

If we fast-forward 100 years we get a different picture, and as the map below indicates, Rome continues to grow almost geometrically down to the death of Caesar in 44 B.C.

Roman Growth Timeline

While Rome had a Republic at this time, I agree with Toynbee that while the government had democratic elements, it was for all intents and purposes an oligarchy.  The aristocratic senate dominated policy, however much voting by the masses took place.

Is there a connection then, between oligarchic democracies and expansion?  As time marched on from Charles I, England did by fits and starts become more democratic.  But 19th century England surely was not democracy in our sense of the word, and instead like the Republic showed strong oligarchic tinges.  As a monarchy, England’s overseas holdings were modest compared with the rest of the world, ca. 1800. . .

Colonisation, 1800

But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:

British Empire, 1920

As in late Republic in Rome, we have a near doubling in size.  Of course, something similar could be said of the other major European powers during the same time, many of them become more democratic after 1848, though again, like England, not fully so until after W.W. I.

Two examples do not really suffice to prove the connection.  But three will!

America gets accused of being an imperial power, but I think the charge false in our current, strongly democratic time.  It might have had more merit in the more oligarchic 19th century, however.

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

When America became more democratic in the 20th century, our expansion rapidly slowed.  Now, to be fair, we acquired Louisiana “fairly” from France by buying it, and Alaska fair and square from Russia.  But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, or the vast territory taken from Indians, including territory in Louisiana.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant thought that our war with Mexico in 1846 to be manifestly unjust.

If we believe Thucydides, and call Athenian democracy in its golden age really a Pericles-led oligarchy of the best (a claim, to be fair, disputed by the great classicist Donald Kagan), we again see this principle of growth.  In 490 B.C. Athens stood as one city-state among many.  Not so 50 years later. . .

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

As to why oligarchic democracies have such expansionistic tendencies, I cannot say.  Perhaps it can be the subject of another post filled with wild theories.  But it does seem clear that this period of expansion leads to a “Time of Troubles,” for all parties involved.

For England and the rest of Europe, expansion gave way to the two World Wars.  America had its Civil War, caused largely by the exacerbation of the slavery issue.  The inflaming of the slavery question in its turn had its roots in the Mexican-American war in 1846.  Athens and the Greek world faced the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Though the proximate causes and results of these conflicts differ, they each have an age of expansion to precede it.

Any thoughts from anyone else, with more examples, or a connection between oligarchic democracies and expansion, are heartily welcome.

Blessings,

Dave

11th Grade: Civil War Voices

Greetings,

This week, I include without comment a handout I gave the students which includes thoughts on both sides about slavery and secession.  Many thanks,

Dave

Thoughts on Secession

Pro-Secession Quotes

 No one can now be deluded that the Black Republican party is a moderate party.  It is in fact a revolutionary party.  – the ‘New Orleans Delta’ newspaper

[Secession] is a revolution of the most intense character, and can no more be checked by human effort than a prairie fire by a gardeners water pot. – Sen. Benjamin, Louisiana

Secession is an act of revolution, a mighty political revolution which will result in putting the Confederate states among the independent nations of the earth.’ – Vicksburg mayor

I never believed the Constitution recognized the right of secession.  I took up arms upon a broader ground–the right of revolution.  We were wronged.   Our properties and liberties were about to be taken from us. – Confederate Officer

Were not the men of 1776 secessionists?  – Alabama delegate

If we remain in the union, we will be deprived of that which our forefathers fought for in the revolution. – Florida delegate

Will you be slaves or independent?  Will you consent to being robbed of your property, or will you strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life? – J. Davis

We left the union to save ourselves from a revolution–a revolution to make property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless. – J. Davis

[Our founders were wrong] if they meant to include Negroes in the phrase ‘all men.’   Our government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and normal condition. ‘ Alexander Stephens, VP of the Confederacy

I am fighting for the rights of mankind–fighting for all we in the South hold dear. – Confederate soldier

We cannot wait for a ‘overt act’ by Lincoln.  If I find a coiled rattlesnake in my path, do I wait for his ‘overt act’ or do I smite him in his coil?’ – Alabama editor

If you are tame enough to submit, abolitionist preachers will descend to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.  Will you submit to have our wives and daughters choose between death and gratifying the hellish lust of the negro?  Better ten thousand deaths than submission to Black Republicanism. – Rev. J. Furman

Democratic liberty exists because we have black slaves, [whose presence] promotes the equality of the free.  Freedom is not possible without slavery.  – Richmond Enquirer, editorial

When secession is inaugurated in the South, we mean to do a little of the same business here and cut loose from the fanatics of New England and the North generally, including most of our own state. – New York lawyer, speaking in support of Mayor Fernando Wood, who wanted New York City to become independent.

An Interesting Quote that falls into Neither Camp Directly

Secession is nothing but revolution.  The framers of our constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by any member of the Confederacy at will.  Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved, the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people.  Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more. — Robert E. Lee

Anti-Secession Quotes

 The great revolution has actually taken place.   The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders. – Charles Francis Adams

The founders fought to establish the rights of man and principles of general humanity.  The South rebels not in the interest of general humanity, but of domestic despotism.  Their motto is not liberty but slavery.  – W. Cullen Bryant

The framers never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were the guilty of providing for its own dissolution.  [If secession stands] our 33 states may resolve themselves into as many petty, jarring, and hostile republics.  By such dread catastrophe the hopes of freedom throughout the world would be destroyed. – James Buchannan

I would hang every man higher than Haman who would attempt to break up the Union by resistance to its laws.  – Stephen Douglas

I hold that the election of any man on earth by the American people, according to the Constitution, is no justification for breaking up the government. – Stephen Douglas, commenting on the states that seceded after Lincoln’s election, but before he took office.

State sovereignty is a sophism.  The Union is older than any of the states, and in fact created them as states.  Having never been states, either in substance or name, outside the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of State rights, asserting a claim of power to destroy the Union itself? – A. Lincoln

Revolution is a moral right, when exercised for a morally just cause.  When exercised without such cause revolution is no right, but a wicked exercise of physical power.  The event that precipitated secession was the election of a president by a constitutional majority.  We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.  – A. Lincoln

Disunion by armed force is treason, and treason must be put down at all hazard.  The laws of the United States must be executed–the President has no discretionary power of the subject–his duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. – Illinois State Journal.

Other Thoughts

Slavery is the divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave – ‘Richmond Whig’

The free labor system educates all alike, and by opening all fields of employment to all classes of men.  It brings the highest possible activity all the physical and mental energies of man. — William Seward, Governor of New York

Free society!  We sicken at the name.  What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, and moon struck theorists?  They are hardly fit for association with any Southern gentlemen’s body servant.  – ‘Muscogee Messenger’

Slavery is the natural and normal condition of society.  The situation in the North is abnormal.   To give equality of rights is but giving the strong license to protect the weak, for capital exercises a more perfect compulsion than human masters over slaves, for free laborers must work or starve, and slaves are fed whether they work or not. – G. Fitzhugh, Virginia politician

Slavery is destined, as it began in blood, so to end. – Abolitionist Thomas Higginson

Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, and imbecility of the South.  Slavery is against education.  – Hinton Helper, North Carolina author

“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.

Dave

*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.

11th Grade: Who Owns the Past?

Greetings,

This week we brought some of the  events leading up to the Civil War to a close, and examined a few different issues.  Studying the Civil War usually brings strong political passions to the fore, and this class has been no exception.  I wanted to try and cut to core of what divided the country, and reduce the argument to its essentials.

The past formed a key battleground between the North and South.  Both sides claimed sonship from what it meant to be an “American,” and both had different ideas on the meaning of liberty.

The South claimed to be the “heirs of the American Revolution” because

  • Our founders feared strong central authority, and set up a government designed to give primacy to the states.  Lincoln’s Republican administration would (in their view) upset this balance by restricting slavery and inserting themselves into their private lives.  The federal government had no right to arbitrate moral questions like slavery for the states.  For them to do so amounted to tyranny.  “Don’t tread on me,” might have been their motto.
  • The founders had a vision that was primarily political in nature.  They spent a great deal of time discussing the structure of government, and much less on its purpose.  If the structure of government changed, what it meant to be an American changed.

The North countered with

  • The founders vision obviously had political overtones, but primarily had a moral character.  The phrase, “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” gives birth to our nation.  The founders did not fully follow through on that vision.  Therefore, a political system that seeks the perpetuation and extension of slavery can have nothing to do with what our country should be about.
  • The American Revolution did not fully finish until we found a stable government in the Constitution.  The Constitution, ratified by all southern states, sought to form “a more perfect union,” and increased the power of the federal government.
  • While many founders owned slaves, most of them believed (erroneously) that slavery would die out on its own.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 banned slavery in the newly created mid-western states, showing that the Federal Government did have jurisdiction over slavery in new territories, and showing that even slave states understood that slavery would not expand into new territory.

These differences have their resonance in many hot-button issues of the day.  Should the federal government make you wear a helmet on a motorcycle?  Should the federal government have the right to ban gay marriage or abortion?  What role do we want to give them in our private lives?  How much power should they have to stop evil?

Classical theorists on government like Aristotle drew rationale for the state based on the family, so an analogy of the family might help us.  We can imagine the parents as the originators of the family and those most interested in preserving family unity and harmony between siblings (i.e., the federal government).  We can put states in the role of grown children.  Some children seem to be leading wayward lives.  But what control should parents still have?  They might urge a child to stop doing ‘x’ behavior, but what if the child did not listen?  What power should the parents have?  Should they have access to a means of force to compel their 30 year old children to come to a family reunion or face punishment?  What kind of punishments can a parent of a 30 year-old mete out anyway?

Obviously the analogy breaks down at points.  But for the federal government to assert that slave-owning states must not own slaves sounded to southern states, “You do not have the ability to govern yourselves.  You are not equal to us, who have that ability.  You are lesser, and therefore we can dictate to you.”

Those against slavery might have used a different analogy.  Perhaps here the children are teens, not independent adults.  Independent adults are akin to separate nations with their own families, but the U.S. is still a family of 50 states.  Parents grant their teens a certain measure of independence.  But parents would grant their teen so much freedom that the integrity of the family unit gets jeopardized.

In the excerpts from Democracy in America that we discussed this week, De Tocqueville talked about how the ideals of liberty and equality ultimately compete against each other.  We cannot have equal amounts of liberty and equality, so we must choose where the balance lies.  Different people would give different priorities to either liberty or equality.

Scholars have debated for years the cause of the war.  Some say that war was about slavery, others say that slavery had nothing to do with it, and instead the war centered on the rights of the states.  I prefer to split the horns of the dilemma.  In 1861 the issue boiled down to Union v. Secession, but slavery formed the vast majority of the subtext related to this question.  It lurked underneath most every significant political debate from at least 1846 on, and in some ways, dominated discussions decades before that.  Economic issues did play a part, but they too had a lot to do with slavery.  The map below shows the concentration of slaves in the various states.  The darker the color, the higher the concentration.

We see how slavery concentrated near water, or in low lying tidewater areas (i.e. Southeastern VA and MD).  This in turn led to the predominance of labor intensive cash crops like cotton or tobacco.  Below is a map of how various southern counties voted on the secession question.  Obviously, not all wanted secession.  The South was not monolithic.  But there is a striking link between the counties who voted for secession and the presence of slavery.  Clearly, the moral question of slavery and the political issue of slavery went hand-in-hand in 1860-61.

Slavery was an issue in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, in 1820, 1848, 1850, 1854, 1856, it was the main topic of discussion in the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 — why did the various compromises on the issue fail?  In fact, could they be said to have made things worse? As time went by and slavery became more prevalent, their attitude went from ‘necessary evil’ to ‘positive good.’  What can explain this shift?

I think we can say the following:
  • Industrialization in England and the north gobbled up cotton produced in the deep south and helped solidify the power of large plantation farms.  The North implicated themselves to a degree in this and did not mind getting cheap cotton from the South.
  • I don’t think we should miss the psychological/moral component.  Shakespeare’s line of “Methinks he doth protest too much,” applies here.  Those of you have (or remember having) smaller children know that when you say, “It’s time for bed,” and they immediately whine and shout, “I’m not tired! I’m not tired!” are in fact showing how tired they really are.

This hardening of their views on slavery covered over many contradictions.  Masters supposedly civilized their slaves, but they constantly feared slave insurrections.  Masters claimed to “enlighten” their slaves but often actually educating them was forbidden by law.

As I mentioned earlier a “North=Good, South=Bad” paradigm will not help us understand the period or the war itself.  Many northerners differed little in their view of blacks from the South.  Had the North treated blacks better, some of the evils of slavery might have been exposed sooner.  Of course, there were those in the south who respected blacks and treated them with dignity.  But it is still true to say that the North had an anti-slavery bent even if many had ambiguous feelings about abolishing it.  And it is still true to say that many in the South wanted not only to preserve, but extend an institution that broke up families and and allowed masters to use other humans as they saw fit.

These differences over slavery also had links to broader cultural differences rooted in the typical differences between urban and rural societies.  Generally speaking. . .

Urban areas

  • View change as a positive
  • Believe that we “should not stand still”
  • Look more to the future than the past

and Rural areas

  • Seek to avoid change whenever possible
  • Like to be guided by tradition
  • Look more to past than the future

These different values form different priorities, and this may also help explain the conflict.

11th Grade: Lord Grantham vs. the 49ers

Greetings,

This week we looked briefly at the California Gold Rush of 1848-49, where I want to touch on a few different issues:

1. The link with land and opportunity

Americans since early colonization often associated this country with opportunity – be it economic or religious in nature.  The Gold Rush did not present the lure of an easy life with easy riches.  Travel was long and dangerous, finding gold was not guaranteed, nor could you be sure to protect your claim.  Still, the possibility of changing your circumstance, of making something for yourself, proved irresistible to thousands.  The idea of opportunity has always been powerful for Americans. Often this idea of opportunity was linked with land.  We talked last year about how absurd the Americans must have seemed to the British with our near obsession for land.  After all, even before the Louisiana Purchase we far exceeded England in terms of size.  Today we still link home ownership, for example, with independence.

We can trace part of the difference in our approach to land in the different cultures.  In England many lived and worked due to the patronage of a benefactor, usually someone in the aristocracy.  In America the idea of patronage ran counter to our “do it yourself” mindset of personal independence.  There is a lot to say for our attitudes.

But we should not view this European mindset as mere laziness.  Many felt that if one had the means to hire a maid and a gardener, you had a duty to hire them and provide jobs.  It could be considered part of the duties of one’s “station in life.”  At its best, this mindset produced a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Mrs. Mathwin is a big fan of Downton Abbey, and I saw one scene where Matthew (who feels that all the servants are waste of time and money) is upbraided by Lord Grantham, who asks Matthew to think about where the butler will go if he had no job at Downton.  The best aristocratic tradition saw having servants as a means to provide for others.  But without a “benefactor class” in America, individuals had to make their own way, and land always played a key role in making that happen.

It is this belief in independence and opportunity that led many to oppose slavery who were not necessarily generous in their attitude to blacks.  This attitude can be just as puzzling to us today as those who favored slavery in the name of liberty.  But many Californians opposed slavery because slavery represented being rich enough to hire someone else to do your dirty work.  In this line of thinking, slavery stood against the “do it yourself” ethic inherent in the 49ers, and so stood against the idea of independence and liberty.  But we should be careful of thinking too highly of their motives.  Again, many of them had no love for blacks per se, however much they opposed slavery.  Others in the North shared this same attitude.  Unfortunately, strict abolitionists were a distinct minority.

2. Institutions Travel

It is probable that many of the 49er’s simply thought of themselves as seeking their fortune.  But institutions and economies would inevitably travel with them.  With money came the need to protect it, and for that you ultimately need political institutions (unless you would prefer lawlessness and spoils going to the strongest).  On Friday the students played a ‘Gold Rush Game.’  I hope they had fun, but I also hope they saw how 8 separate fortune hunters would inevitably want to create institutions.  This was not always, however, a squeaky clean process, as violence became part of the picture — not unlike the real life of the old west.  In fact, for at least one team, crime did pay!   On the whole, this class strongly resisted forming any institutions that might limit their mobility on the board.  The game will have to be tweaked a bit more next year to give more incentive to the formation of banks and towns.

3. Cultures Linger

As a curious side note, the names of the towns created by the Gold Rush reveals a lot about the people there.  In contrast to much of the rest of the county that named towns with European associations (i.e. New York), Biblical references (i.e. Providence, Rhode Island), virtues (Philadelphia) or a virtuous past (i.e. Cincinatti for the Roman Cincinattus, and Columbus, Ohio).  Gold Rush towns had very different names like Devil’s Thumb, Rough and Ready, Hangtown, etc.  Clearly, many came to California with entirely different goals and outlook than those that settled North America initially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  There are those that say that California today marches to a different drummer than other parts of the country, and clearly this has its roots dating to the Gold Rush. The culture of a particular place will often have deeper roots than we think, and our actions have longer ripple effects than we usually imagine.

I will look forward to updating you next week, when we delve deeper in the slavery question and other issues that began to split the country in the 1850’s.

Dave Mathwin