11th Grade: Bismarck and “Unnatural States”


This week we began to look at German unification, orchestrated under the brilliant and controversial Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck raises some important and perhaps uncomfortable questions about leadership.  What is the line between serving the interests of your country and serving God?  Should nations be treated akin to how one would treat individuals, and therefore punished and rewarded like individuals?  Or, should nations be thought of as artificial entities that do not have to play by the same rules as people?  Cardinal Richelieu said to this effect: ‘People are immortal and thus subject to the law of God.  Nations are mortal ] and are subject to the law of what works.’ That is, artificial and unnatural creations — one can’t imagine the universe as it is without gravity, but it would be the same universe without the United States.  This hearkens again to Richelieu who would have argued that while Frenchman are Catholic, France is not.  France can’t be Catholic any more than a cardboard box could be Catholic.  Frenchmen may be redeemed, but France will have no heavenly judgment or reward.  For better or worse, Bismarck would have agreed with him.  He also said,

If one wants to retain respect for laws and sausages, don’t watch them being made.

Politics for Bismarck was a dirty business, and there was no point pretending that success would not mean getting his own hands dirty.  But for Bismarck, the world of international politics remained essentially unredeemable, a conclusion Christians may not wish to share.

While there are many debatable aspects of Bismarck, a few things are beyond dispute.  He gained an advantage over some of his foreign political adversaries in part because he recognized what the Industrial Revolution would mean for politics before others.  He realized that

  • Mass production would lead to a ‘mass society,’ where mobilization of opinion could make a huge difference.
  • Old aristocratic Europe was finished, at least in the sense that kings and nobles could no longer act without direct reference to their populations.  The press and public opinion would be nuisances to others.  Bismarck saw them as opportunities for making Prussia’s actions much more potent.

Bismarck is  controversial because

  • He used democracy, but he had no time for it.  Democracy, he felt was for doe-eyed idealists. In the end for Bismarck, ‘blood and iron,’ not speeches, win the day.  Force and strength were the best projections of power, though to be fair to Bismarck, he believed in a limited/surgical use of force.
  • Bismarck was the ultimate realist.  He believed that concerning oneself with justice, for example, could lead one to get carried away, to lose focus.  The primary motivation for policy should be whether or not it serves the interest’s of the state.  Don’t first concern yourself with rewards or punishments.  Do what serves the ends of the state.  A foreign policy built primarily on  morality (an example might be punishing or rewarding a country based on their human rights record) was not proper for a nation, however much individuals should be concerned with it.

As an example of his policy we can look at his actions during the Polish bid for independence from Russia.  When the Poles attempted to break from Russia almost every major power gave speeches expressing their support for the Polish cause.  They did so, no doubt, for a variety of reasons:

  • The Poles vs. Russia was a great underdog story and everyone loves an underdog
  • Independence movements were rife throughout Europe and everyone loves to bandwagon.
  • Polish success would weaken Russia’s power, and most wanted Russia weakened whenever possible.

Bismarck shocked everyone by not supporting the Poles, but even offering public support — and troops — to aid the Russians in crushing the rebellion.  Why did he take such a position?

  • Speeches make you feel good and important, but speeches themselves will not help the Poles one whit.
  • These speeches, however, will serve to alienate Russia, and you would have gained nothing and angered a major power.
  • No foreign power would actually send troops to aid the Polish, so again, the expressions of support mean nothing in reality.
  • The Poles, without foreign aid, would certainly lose.

Thus, it seemed far better to Bismarck to go against the grain and actually aid his country by standing up for Russia in their time of need.  Yes, other countries would get momentarily upset at Prussia’s actions, but again, it would mean nothing.  Bismarck planned to cash in  the favor he performed for Russia later, and he did in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

To put Bismarck’s actions in perspective, think of the “Free Tibet” movement that we occasionally hear about.  Lot’s of people make speeches to end Chinese occupation of Tibet.  But . . . no one will actually do anything about it.  No one would risk war with China over this issue.  The words of sympathy given to Tibet 1) Do nothing for the Tibetans, 2) angers China, which makes them 3) not just worthless, but counterproductive.

To put Bismarck’s actions here in perspective, imagine if a U.S. president not only did not support Tibet, but publicly supported China.  “Yes — go China!  Crush the Tibetans!  Nature wills that they stand subject to your glorious might!”

It would be a bold move.

This does not mean that Bismarck was personally amoral.  Rather, if nations are essentially ‘pieces on a chessboard’ they cannot be sinned against.  You can sin against people.  But you cannot sin against shapes on a map.  This hearkens back to Richilieu’s foreign policy for France some 250 years prior, and to Machiavelli before that. In the same way, no one would call you a ‘sinner’ if you bluffed in poker.  The poker game is in a sense, an alternate reality where different rules apply.  For Bismarck, the same is true of politics.  We see this philosophy come through in his famous musings after Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War:

We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . . .Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the King of Prussia.

….To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He said that the Austria could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

If we wish to dismiss his ideas, we should pause first.  After all, it is wrong to kill, but a nation can commission soldiers to kill, and we do not say they sin necessarily by doing so.  People shouldn’t lie, but a nation can spies to disseminate false information.  Is this sin?  If we say no, we have a dilemma on our hands of how we think of states as they relate to ‘individual’ morality.

In the end, Bismarck’s creation of a unified Germany would radically change European politics.  Germany became the greatest land power on the continent immediately.  But the change went deeper than that — the rationale for how a state comprised itself changed.  The idea of a “Germany for Germans” would spread and eventually undo European empires, and sow the seeds of the militant democracies of the early 20th century.

One bittersweet moment for me was the class’s viewing of the last episode of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series last Friday.  Beginning in 9th grade, I show students at least parts of all the episodes in this series.  Clark has a wonderful eye for discerning the meaning of an age through art, architecture, and music. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I am always challenged by them.  I believe all episodes are available on YouTube should you be interested yourself.

Clarke’s take on the industrial world is a sobering one.  In the opening lines of the last episode he says as the camera pans on New York City ca. 1968 (I paraphrase),

‘New York City in its present condition took almost as long to build as the Gothic Cathedrals.  This begs a comparison.  While the cathedrals were built for the glory of God, it appears obvious to me that our cities are built to the worship of money.’

AJ Toynbee also discusses the industrial age in his book, ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion.’  For him, the industrial age is simply the outgrowth of western civilization’s “Idolization of the Technician,’ which he believes began in the mid 17th century.  If we acquire the ability to do a thing, that in itself becomes it’s justification.

Clarke and Toynbee’s ideas may not call for agreement, but they do call for a response.  We shall see the effects, good and bad, of the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again,

Dave Mathwin


Rebels Against the Future

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.


According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.


*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129



11th Grade: The Civil War: Causes and Conclusion

For the coming test I want the students to think about the following question: ‘How did the causes of the war impact  how the war was fought, and how did these factors help lead to the ultimate victory of Union forces?’

The first thing they need to do is to discern what they believe to be the root cause of the war.  The three main options are:

1. Some say that slavery is the root cause of the war.  While slavery was not a direct issue in 1861, it influenced all the political controversies of the time, and all the previous political controversies, going back to the Declaration of Independence itself (where a section condemning slavery was removed from the original text).

2. Some say that the root cause of the war was growth of federal power that came to erode a proper constitutional balance between state and national government.  This theory sees the Confederacy not as radicals but as preservers of a truly American vision.

3. Both of the previous theories have good guys and bad guys (in the first, the South is the bad guy, in the second, the North), but there is another approach to the war that does not see good guys v. bad guys, what I will call ‘The Cultural Opposition Theory’ of the conflict’s origin (if nothing else, the name makes me sound smarter than I really am :).

This theory sees both sides drawing upon the founders vision.  We tend to think of the founders in 1787 having one coherent vision for the country, but this was not so.  The North latches on more to Alexander Hamilton’s idea of the U.S. having a strong national government with a manufacturing base.   The South adopts Jefferson’s vision of limited national power with an agricultural base.  Thus, both sides were right in a sense in claiming to be the inheritors of what it meant to be “American.”  These different ideas produce different societies that have different values, practices, and cultures.  These opposing cultures each have their merits, their strong and weak points.  But — they would inevitably come to blows at some point.  In this view the war doesn’t have a good guy or bad guy.  The conflict started because one of these visions had to win out in the end, though neither vision was “right” or “wrong” per se.

To the best of my knowledge these are the theories with the most prominence among historians.  There are a few others, such as those that historically see conflict inevitably associated with territorial expansion (in this case, the Civil War had its roots in the huge expansion after the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War) or those that use economics as the key to explaining human behavior.  If students are not satisfied with any of the suggestions I offered, they are welcome to come up with their own.

After making a case for the war, students then need to link the cause with how the war was fought, and then link again the fighting to the eventual Union victory.  This means that they have to synthesize what they know from 1800-1865 and create a unified narrative.  This is a challenge, but I hope that students will enjoy that challenge and rise to the occasion.

As always, students are welcome to show me any rough draft or outline of their thoughts before the test.

Dave Mathwin

A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum.  I see this throughout my own life.  Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius.  But then you think again . . . after all, he lost.  And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia?  And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.

After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due.  Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil.  Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army.  And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight.  Napoleon put them there, after all.

But . . . he lost.

Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls.  As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats.  Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none.  Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative.  They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.

Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative.  He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes51tuzkutcjl that of course, Lee was a great commander.  He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field.  He deserves much of the credit he receives.

But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.

Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.

We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict.  As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.

In  A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point.  A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs).  Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training.  Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time.  In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle.  He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.

The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.

Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations.  Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers.  Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage.  Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one.  Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.

Lee both understood and embodied this himself.  Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly.  Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly.  They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back.  We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.

But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.


Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars.  Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom.  But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit.  Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.


Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect.  They tended to run hot and cold alternatively.  Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline.  The army at time looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment.  Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”

Honor and Ego:

The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers.  The bickered for position and rank.  At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted.   Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.

All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult.  Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863.  It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.

Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.”  I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect.  But I surmise that he meant more.  The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle.   To make their situation worse, the Confederacy fought their weaker opponent in ways that favored their slim strengths.  The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of their slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^

Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war.  He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well.  Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war.  In Chapter 24 of his musings, Tocqueville comments that,

In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.

We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.

It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.

A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.

. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.



*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies.  Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents.  Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men.  Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on.  Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.

In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.

**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman.  Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army.  And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.

^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.

11th Grade: The Politics of Emancipation


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.


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.