What It Was All About

On this, the 150th anniversary of the second day of the War Between the States, let us pause to reflect what it was all about. But this has been done so many time before, you say. Yes, but we still take opportunities like great round number anniversaries to reflect. However, it is also relevant because of the various civil wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is further relevant because of the cadre of newly elected officials in Washington who align themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The War of Northern Aggression, or as it is sometimes called, Mr. Lincoln’s War, was about one thing. Political self-determination. There is no question that the issue of slavery divided the country, but the war wasn’t about what divided the country. It was about what to do with a divided country. And it is all well and good to look back with 20/20 hindsight and make the moral judgement that the lives of 600,000 men and boys was worth the speeding up of the emancipation process, thus laying the groundwork for the hostility of many whites toward blacks for the next hundred years. However, justifying the war by the result does not explain why it happened in the first place.

Mr Lincoln was only interested in one thing. His single goal was to save the Union. A friend reminded me recently of his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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 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; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The turn of phrase “save the Union” sounds very noble, but what does it mean? It means that people who freely chose to associate themselves in a particular political arrangement were no longer free to change that arrangement. They bound future generations in perpetuity.  In Mr Lincoln’s view, the Constitution abrogated to words of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Mr Lincoln had no regard whatsoever for the consent of the governed. The men of the Confederacy were not anarchists.  They had lawfully constituted and constitutional state governments. This was not good enough. Thousands upon thousands of young men were marched to their deaths to restore the national authority – to enforce at the point of a bayonet that Washington DC, not Montgomery or Jackson or Little Rock or Nashville or Austin or Richmond, was the source of civil authority.

This was made all the clearer during the so-called Reconstruction, when the Southern States, which according to the Northern States had never (and could have never) left the indivisible Union, were run as military departments. Their constitutional governments were suspended until such a time as it was determined that they had been re-created in the way the victors demanded.

Since this time, the power of the national authority has been steadily increased. The Supreme Court often gets the blame for this, but all the branches of government have played their part. Almost every day I come across provisions in the U.S. Code that should be left to the States. And those who decry the executive acts of the Obama administration overlook decades of incursions and usurpations of state sovereignty but administrations of both parties.

At the height of the hypocrisy is the support for self-determination in other countries by a government that refuses to follow its own Constitution and limit itself to specifically delegated powers. This is the legacy of the War Between the States.

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