Tiptoeing Across Quicksand

In a recent “Skeptic’s Collection” column I gave examples of beliefs that represent the principle that “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. The examples I cited were derived from physics, psychology, and literature. But history is no less susceptible to warped beliefs than other disciplines.  A recent issue of the Washington Post Magazine contains such an example of warped history. Problem is that the Post writer, while doing a sterling job of debunking the beliefs of lovers of the Confederacy, fails to note that liberals and progressives, in their zeal to repudiate such atavisms, fail equally to take into account their own myopia, and end up with a view of history – Civil War history in particular – that is equally warped, just in the opposite direction.

The article comprises an extended interview of a 62-year-old white man named Frank Earnest who is a vociferous defender of all things Confederate, including slavery, and presently international chief of heritage defense and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In reading the interview and Mr. Earnest’s response to the questions of the writer, Paul Duggan, I found myself wishing that every American, especially every American junior-high and high-school student, had such a command of Civil War history, even as I was conscious of how grotesquely lop-sided Earnest’s view was. In fact, Earnest is a walking and loquacious example of how a little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing. However, Duggan’s questions and objections – including the facts and issues Duggan omits from his article – are no less relevant. A few salient examples will suffice to show what I mean:

o At one point in Duggan’s interview Earnest pointedly asks where there are recruitment posters urging men to join the Union Army to free the slaves:  Where is the Union Army recruiting poster that says, ‘Join the army and free the slaves’? If that was the cause, where’s the poster? … You know it’s not here, don’t you? Because there wasn’t one!”

Earnest has a point here, but only to a limited extent. Initially – again, I said initially – President Lincoln’s primary passion was to preserve the Union. His justly famous letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune in August of 1862 – a little over a year into the War -- is justly famous in this regard:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union …

But Earnest omits consideration of how President Lincoln’s purpose evolved as the War progressed. By the time the war was all but concluded, Lincoln could – as we would say today – “pivot” from saving the Union to ending slavery. There is no inconsistency here:  the preservation of the Union had been achieved in all but name, so the primary purpose having been accomplished, President Lincoln was now free to turn to the secondary purpose of destroying slavery. Consequently, starkly different is President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address from his letter to Greeley of three years earlier:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

So of course, there were no “join to end slavery” recruitment posters at the time Earnest references! That is not why the Nation – and President Lincoln – were fighting at that time. But that changed.

o Duggan goes on to say [Earnest] explained to me why he thought the Civil War happened, beginning with his core belief that slavery wasn’t the main reason for the conflict. Instead, he argued, secession was a constitutionally permissible response to years of unfair tariffs and taxes imposed on the South by a tyrannical federal government.

This is far too long a story to tell even in a doorstop of a book, let alone in a single paragraph. So the following is the Cliff’s Notes version. A perennial controversy all through the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Framing, the Ratification, and the Founding of the Nation concerned the nature of sovereignty. What and where is the ultimate repository of national sovereignty? Does national sovereignty repose in the several States or in the Federal Government? There were two primary answers to this question:

John C. Calhoun

o The ultimate repository of national sovereignty is the several States.

This rationale says that the States pre-existed the Federal government, and that, while the Federal government, within its sphere of responsibility, serves an essential purpose, sovereignty ultimately rests in the States because, quite simply, the States were here first. The States were founded first, then the Federal government followed. The latter is the creation of the former, not vice versa. Therefore, sovereignty belonging to the States, the States may choose to nullify Federal laws that they themselves, i.e., the States, regard as in violation of the Federal Constitution. (One obvious problem with this argument, of course, is that if sovereignty is to be defined by temporal order, then the indigenous First Nations are sovereign over everyone, since they were, equally without dispute, here first. But that is a rant for another time.) The most prominent proponent of this radical view of State sovereignty was John C. Calhoun, whose Disquisition on Government is essentially the Bible of the State-sovereignty movement. Calhoun was also President Andrew Jackson’s Vice President, usually to Jackson’s chagrin, since Jackson was an ardent Federalist, even to the point of threatening to send Federal troops to South Carolina to dissolve the State legislature and run the State from Washington, DC, because of the tariff-nullification crisis of 1832 -- about which Earnest is also right.

o The ultimate repository of national sovereignty is the Federal government under the terms of the US Constitution

The primary rationale for this position begins with the Preamble: We the People of the United States … References to the States are conspicuously absent from the Preamble, which sets forth the fundamental purpose of the Constitution:  “We the People” not “We the States” or even “We the People of the several States”.  According to this account, certain functions hitherto performed by the States as independent sovereignties were transferred to the Federal government. That government was to be a government of “enumerated powers”, and only the powers not specifically and explicitly enumerated were to be reserved to the several States and / or to the People thereof. This principle of enumerated and reserved powers – enshrined in the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution – is the bedrock of the American federalist political structure – provided that we always bear in mind that “ultimately ultimate” sovereignty in the American Republic always rests with the People, as Alexander Hamilton reminds everyone in Federalist #78.

The point of this whole paragraph, however, is that the question of the locus of ultimate sovereignty is still a matter of vociferous debate. Hence, the walk-out by the States’ Rights Party – the “Dixiecrats” – at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Hence the recurrent practice of “jury nullification” today. The question was never settled. It was only determined by force of arms – a process we today refer to as the “Civil War”. The most that can be said -- which is virtually certain -- is that, in defending such a radical view of State sovereignty, aficionados of the Confederacy like Earnest are, in fact, taking a serious argument about the nature and locus of national sovereignty and using it as a fig-leaf justification for the perpetuation of slavery. This is arrant intellectual dishonesty, but it in no way detracts from the seriousness of the essential question, which remains legitimate even when misappropriated by Earnest & Co. But that is no excuse for correlative intellectual dishonesty on the part of progressives / liberals, who usually skate over the issue of State sovereignty in favor leaping immediately to the conclusion that Calhoun, Earnest, & Co. have no historical arguments, however pervertedly self-serving, on their side. Simply repeating the mantra that "Slavery was the cause of the Civil War," as Duggan seems to be arguing, short-circuits the whole dialogue by glossing over very subtle, and still-controversial, historical and philosophical issues about the nature of federalism.

o Finally, Duggan's gloss on the Emancipation Proclamation is outright misleading:  The historic decree — which isn’t discussed anywhere else in [Earnest's history] book — was issued after 21 months of war. Frank said he will argue to his “dying breath” that it was conceived as an appeal to anti-slavery sentiment in the European public, to discourage England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.

Partly right and partly wrong. The Proclamation consists of two executive orders (EOs):  (1) an EO proclaiming the freedom of all slaves in the Confederate States that had not returned to the Union by 1 January 1863; (2) an EO declaring that, in slave States that were not a part of the Confederacy, e.g., Maryland, slavery could continue. This has the apparently paradoxical effect of freeing the slaves where the Federal Government had no military / coercive power to free them, i.e. States still in the Confederacy, while allowing slavery to continue in States where the Federal Government could have freed them, e.g., Maryland, but did not. Aside from President Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, giving the Union Army the authority to treat escaped slaves in Confederate States as free people, the Proclamation has essentially no practical effect ... except ... and this is where Earnest is right ... in the autumn of 1862, the Confederate States of America were actively campaigning for international diplomatic recognition as a distinct country. Despite the lack of practical consequences, the Proclamation had the effect of placing the moral onus of slavery on non-slave European nations, especially Great Britain, where slavery had been abolished some decades before. That is why the supposed paradox is only apparent.

Reading Earnest's interpretation of Civil War / Confederate history and Duggan's critique thereof are alike exercises in crossing a field of quicksand by stepping from one rock to another:  do not assume that your next step is safe and secure. Each party to the discussion glosses over nuances and circumstances that complicate each issue. Each assumes he knows too much, and that his opponent knows too little. Each party's argument is an exercise in oversimplification. Each is a case study, in opposite ways, of "A little learning is a dangerous thing".

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Confederate flag ... Pablo Sanchez ... CC by 2.0
Abraham Lincoln portrait ... White House -- State Dining Room ... Public domain
Robert E. Lee ... Library of Congress ... Public domain
John C. Calhoun ... Billy Hathom ... Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
Whipped slave ... National Archives ... Public domain
Slave handcuffs ... Max Pixel ... Public domain

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