Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Dinesh D’Souza writes a column praising Abraham Lincoln's leadership and scorning his modern critics, who break down neatly into left and right. This rhetorical trick puts the sainted president squarely in the center, navigating the nation between extremes, and casts him as a dynamic moderate in trying times. Yet it's no more convincing in this case than in any other argument based on "if both sides hate you you must be doing something right" (something news media organizations pride themselves in).

D’Souza is a conservative, and it's not hard to see the "Bush-as-Lincoln" meme emerging here. Really, there are a great many parallels between the two presidents -- including the nature of the virulent critics they faced. D'Souza artfully selects and arranges Lincoln's attackers in a way that makes them sound like Nancy Pelosi and Pat Buchanan:

What unites the right-wing and left-wing attacks on Lincoln, of course, is that they deny that Lincoln respected the law and that he was concerned with the welfare of all. The right-wing school — made up largely of Southerners and some libertarians — holds that Lincoln was a self-serving tyrant who rode roughshod over civil liberties, such as the right to habeas corpus. Lincoln is also accused of greatly expanding the size of the federal government. ... In an influential essay, the late Melvin E. Bradford, an outspoken conservative, excoriated Lincoln as a moral fanatic who, determined to enforce his Manichaean vision — one that sees a cosmic struggle between good and evil — on the country as a whole, ended up corrupting American politics and thus left a “lasting and terrible impact on the nation’s destiny.”

To answer this, D'Souza chooses a tactic that may seem odd at first. He goes back into history to try to pull the rug out from under the Confederacy. He tells us the only reason the South rebelled was to promote racist slavery. It's a common enough view, to be sure, but what's it doing here?

Apparently, D'Souza, like many others, finds this easier than dealing with the harder issues of the extra-legality of so much of what Lincoln did to keep the union together. D'Souza chooses to sweep all this off the table in a few sentences after he's devoted extensive text to mashing any notion that the Southern bid for independence was ever about anything except keeping blacks in chains. And since every argument against Lincoln's wartime administration is, we are taught to believe, a defense of the Confederacy, all such contra-Lincoln arguments are reduced to racism.

Yet people who choose this tactic find it frustratingly difficult to reduce American history to such a simplistic idea as "it was all about slavery." A shelf of books has been written on the topic, many attempting to prove this point, but it's not yet settled and never will be.

Naturally, people who want to regard it as settled will cut those corners. The easy expedient is to go in search of one zinger of a passage that, taken out of context, will seem to prove the case. Those willing to be convinced will look no further and those who disagree will be required to build up the cathedral of context, a tedious process. By the time they finish, the audience will have wandered off with the zinger lodged in their heads.

So they pick through the sources. Jeff. Davis's inaugural speech? No, it makes nary a mention of slaves or slavery. Robert Toombs' report to the Georgia legislature in 1860? No, that outlines how anti-slavery agitation in the North was exploited by political powers there to disguise economic motives.

The "Cornerstone Speech" by Alexander Stephens is their weapon of choice. Stephens, a Georgian who had served in Congress, was the new vice president of the CSA, and in this speech he explained the new Confederate constitution and the prospects of the new nation, as he saw them, to an audience in Savannah in the spring of 1861. D'Souza cherry-picks the usual cherries from it:

Stephens said that the American Revolution had been based on a premise that was “fundamentally wrong.” That premise was, as Stephens defined it, “the assumption of equality of the races.” Stephens insisted that, instead, “our new [Confederate] government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. Slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great and moral truth.”

Again, it's hard to imagine why this is here -- it has nothing to do with Lincoln -- except as a quick and dirty tactic to debase the moral legitimacy of those who criticize Lincoln from a Southerners' perspective, by implying that they are really just defending racist slavery.

D'Souza makes this more implicit by linking the Cornerstone Speech to Stephens post-war writings, which downplayed the importance of slavery in the sectional conflict, and which formed much of the foundation of the first generation of defense of the Southern nation -- the so-called "Lost Cause" view of the war.

Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, published a two-volume history of the Civil War between 1868 and 1870 in which he hardly mentioned slavery, insisting that the war was an attempt to preserve constitutional government from the tyranny of the majority. But this is not what Stephens said in the great debates leading up to the war.

[Note, please, that the Savannah speech was not a "debate." The debates were over by this time. Stephens was educating the people of his state and preparing them for a fight he had tried desperately to keep them out of. In the state legislature in July 1860, he fought hard against Georgia's call for a secession convention, then at that convention Stephens spoke out against secession so vehemently that the North circulated copies of his speech as propaganda during the Civil War. If he's already not sounding like a typical Southern fire-eater, it gets worse.]

The "Cornerstone Speech" is, in its slavery passages, a personal justification of Stephens's career, and the post-bellum history book ("Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States") is the same. They are public, political rhetoric. D'Souza and others like him treat the one as an utter lie and the other as absolutely true, without showing any reason for choosing the one as true other than its convenience to them.

Both the speech and the book are delivered in language many people would and did accept as true, but to see the speech as some defining Genesis moment of the Confederacy, out of the mouth of the eternal spirit of the nation instead of one political man, is a gross absurdity.

A brief glance at Stephens' life and career shows how far this remarkable man stood from being representative of the leaders, or the common citizens, of the Confederacy. Even his position as the Confederate vice president was a matter of old-fashioned ticket-balancing, not a proof of his centrality in the Southern cause. He was, in most ways, an eccentric.

Stephens was a small, sickly, prickly, brilliant man, perhaps impotent, in a time and place where leaders were expected to be strong, handsome and virile. He stood barely 5 feet tall and never reached 100 pounds weight in his life.

From the start of his career, he identified himself with the Whig party, and their platform was his natural ideology. But this set him apart from most Southerners, who were Democrats. It gave his politics some of the oddity of a modern-day Red State Democrat. By nature and necessity he partook of the values of the people in his community, and he had to wrestle his broad ideology into alignment with the local realities.

Yet as far and as long as he was capable of it, he kept his political convictions. Stephens "defended slavery apologetically where it already existed, in much the same manner as [Henry] Clay" [Howe, "Political Culture of the American Whigs," p.244]. Clay, by the way, was Lincoln's ideal, too, and they shared the same view of American slavery. Stephens also vehemently opposed the war on Mexico, which most Southern slavery-advocates supported, and denounced it as illegal and unjust.

In the 1850s, as North and South grew increasingly bitter toward each other, the bridges between Stephens's ideals and the South's realities stretched and broke. The Whigs fell apart over sectional issues, and many of Stephens's party friends from the North, including Lincoln, gravitated into the new, radical, sectional Republican Party. The Southern Whigs were hopeless, paralyzed by the limp drifting quality that always seems to infect a party that has accepted its minoritarian status. Stephens refused to drift with them. He cast his lot with the Democrats.

One result of the sectional rift was that the South gradually hardened in its defense of slavery. Stephens followed it, and became, for a time, among the most strident believers in slavery as ordained by nature and a "positive good" to both races. In this he outran the bulk of Southerners. This is the face he showed in the Savannah speech. And his digression into slavery apologetics there was the result of his need to reconcile his embrace of slavery with his essential Whig ideology.

That moral contortion required him to fit slavery into a social context based on order and philanthropy. The "cornerstone" passage is a reflection of his internal struggle to maintain consistency of social thought. He spoke extemporaneously, as the words flowed, and the tumult in the lecture hall must have been matched by inner turmoil. Here was a man who had publicly reversed most of his earlier political positions. He seemed to be talking of himself, primarily, when after justifying slavery he said, "Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago."

The "cornerstone" image is hardly original to Stephens. It was a standard one in defense-of-slavery rhetoric at least from the 1830s. In 1845, for instance, James M. Hammond wrote, "I endorse without reserve the much abused sentiment of Governor M'Duffie, that 'Slavery is the corner-stone of our republican edifice' " ["Letter to an English Abolitionist"].

And by that, of course, Hammond (and M'Duffie, and others who used the phrase) meant the American republic. They were writing and speaking in both economic and social terms; slavery was widely understood to be a necessary adjunct of a republican form of government, as it had been in Greece and Rome, because it freed a class of men from pursuit of money by labor or commerce and allowed them to devote time and energy to political life and to "preserving a reasonable and well ordered government. ... Hence, Slavery is truly the 'corner-stone' and foundation of every well-designed and durable 'republican edifice.' " As wrong as that is now, Hammond at the time had the partial evidence of history on his side.

Stephens, however, gave the trope a particular twist. He took it one step further and put it into the Biblical image of "The stone which the builders refused" which "is become the head stone of the corner." [Psalms CXVII:22]

As late as the 1860 election, Stephens had backed the moderate Douglas, not the South's hard-line choice, Breckenridge. He considered secessionists "demagogues," and he defended Lincoln, with whom he had served in the House. Lincoln, he wrote, "is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as Fillmore did and better too in my opinion." Lincoln, for his part, actually considered inviting Stephens to join his cabinet.

But Stephens cast his loyalty with his section, not his principles. If he could not correct the South, he would try to guide it and, by compromising some, attempt to save the rest. He failed, and the South failed.

The Savannah speech is a sad affair, not just because of the blunt racism of that one passage -- the racism itself, it ought to be noted, would hardly have offended any white audience in 1861 America, North, South, or West, outside a few abolitionist circles. But sad because it shows a politician who has so twisted himself to try to hold the reins of a revolution that he has got tangled in them and they now rule him. He embraces what he once scorned, and he mocks positions he once held. He has thrown away his ideals, and the "cornerstone" passage, to me, reads so much more accurately as an odd eruption of a warped and very personal ideological struggle.

It really has no place in the overall speech, which is essentially a practical laying-out of the political and military situation the Deep South faced in March 1861. The "cornerstone" rhetoric doesn't deserve such prominence in a treatment of the Confederate Constitution, which pretty much was a carbon copy of the U.S. Constitution except that it stipulated the government could not impose protective tariffs, grant subsidies, or finance internal improvements. (But then, D'Souza tells us economic points like that were just a cover for slavery promotion). On the matter of slavery, it specifically asserted the inviolability of that institution. This was more clear than the U.S. Constitution, but not at odds with it, and Lincoln and many in his camp publicly declared they were willing to amend the U.S. Constitution to make it say the same, if doing so would end the rebellion.

Other than that, you can read the two constitutions side by side for long stretches and not be sure which is which. The CSA Constitution banned slave imports from Africa, proscribed international traffic in slaves, kept the three-fifths clause, and even allowed non-slave states the option of joining the new nation.

Compare the Southern revolt of 1860 to the colonial uprising of 1776. What moved the colonists to break the ties with the "mother country?" Taxes? Tea? George William Brown, mayor of Baltimore in 1861, was a non-partisan politician and an opponent of secession (Lincoln jailed him anyhow). Yet like many people in his day he understood the move, in the light of the American Revolution, and how small points of disagreement can be the flashpoints of broader conflicts:

"The men of '76 did not fight to get rid of the petty tax of three pence a pound on tea, which was the only tax left to quarrel about. They were determined to pay no taxes, large or small, then or thereafter. Whether the tax was lawful or not was a doubtful question, about which there was a wide difference of opinion, but they did not care for that. Nothing would satisfy them but the relinquishment of any claim of right to tax the colonies, and this they could not obtain. They maintained that their rights were violated. They were, moreover, embittered by a long series of disputes with the mother country, and they wanted to be independent and to have a country of their own. They thought they were strong enough to maintain that position."[George W. Brown, "Baltimore & the Nineteenth of April, 1861," N. Murray, for Johns Hopkins University, 1887]

No one can deny the importance of slavery to the feud that split the United States, or that the CSA states made protection of slavery one of its central purposes. But the secession of 1860-61 and the shooting war that followed were the climax of a long interplay. Like a couple heading into divorce, the regions fought often, in the open and in secret. But they nursed grudges, and what they argued out loud was not always the real issue. During the 1840s, slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question."

So far from slavery being the cause of secession, the fact is many thinking men in the South knew that secession would be the doom of slavery. Slavery could not be economically viable or legally enforcable where freedom was just a river away. They had pushed the North so hard to enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws for just this reason. Stephens was among those who judged "slavery much more secure in the union than out of it."

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