Rants and Raves

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Second Guessing History: This Lincoln Garbage, Part 2

Part 2: Don't Call Me No Goddam Yankee!

“Free men are aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, and so on are far from absolute, that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestations of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance and equity.”

Eric Hoffer

On the question of the Civil War and Emancipation, some indignantly ask, "How do you explain that every other country in the Western Hemisphere abolished slavery without a war?" (They usually forget to mention Haiti.)

I don’t have to explain it. It’s not true.

What destroyed slavery throughout the western hemisphere wasn’t a full-scale land war but a prolonged, unglamorous campaign against the slave trade fought largely on the high seas by the US and Royal navies. A campaign that included intercepting and seizing ships sailing under foreign flags and amphibious assaults against slave trading ports on the African coast.

When Great Britain abolished slavery, were Jamaica or Barbados in a position to resist the overwhelming might of the British Empire? Only in America were the opposing forces equally matched enough to make war an attractive possibility.

(And by the way, navy men get rather irritated when you describe what they do as “not war”.)

And now that some of you are darkly muttering “Goddam Yankee” (I’m not) I’m going to defend the South. With the example of Haiti we come to the crux of why the South was so reluctant to abolish slavery, quite apart from free labor and the ability to discretely keep harems in a nominally Christian and monogamous land.

The example of Haiti was horrendous. The first country in the hemisphere to follow the lead of America and throw off its colonial yoke, resulted in ruin for almost every trace of culture and civilization in the country and the slaughter or exile of the entire White population. Haiti is to this day a basket case, even as Latin American countries go and shows no sign of getting any better in the near future.

This is what the South feared would be the result of universal manumission. And they had every right to, there were no examples to the contrary and in some areas slaves outnumbered whites as much as five to one.

But it wasn’t so bad after all, compared to what it might have been.

“The relations of the Southern people with the Negro are close and cordial. We remember with what fidelity for four years he guarded our defenseless women and children, whose husbands and fathers were fighting against his freedom. To his eternal credit be it said that whenever he struck a blow for his own liberty he fought in open battle, and when at last he raised his black and humble hands that the shackles might be struck off, those hands were innocent of wrong against his helpless charges, and worthy to be taken in loving grasp by every man who honors loyalty and devotion.” (Grady, loc. Cit)

Notice, once you get past irritation at the patronizing tone, the gallantry of that acknowledgement. A Southerner speaking to a Yankee audience of his just pride in the recovery of the South from an incredible devastation and he felt himself obliged to give credit to the contributions of the former slaves.

This was the kind of gallantry shown by Robert E. Lee, who Winston Churchill, with good reason called, “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived”.

In his later years, when Lee was a professor at Washington (now Washington and Lee) University, during the presidential campaign of Ulysses S Grant a Southern professor spoke scathingly of General Grant. Lee turned to him and said, “Sir, if you ever presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence again, either you or I will immediately sever all connection with this university!”

In what is I hope a like spirit, as one proud of his Southern heritage, I say to those who compare Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, “Sir, you are no gentleman!”

And now we get to the point alluded to in the quotes at the beginning. What does all this say about us?

Libertarians appear to have problems with ambiguity. There are many among us who demand unambiguously good solutions to problems of this magnitude.

Sorry, you can’t have them.

The result of the war was that liberty was achieved for many – and diminished for others. The fatal compromise of the Constitution was resolved, and violence done to principles of organization that many of us hold dear. A tremendous evil was abolished, and evil precedents set in doing so. A slaveholding civilization was destroyed, and with it much that was gracious, cultured and noble in the finest sense of the word.

You could have done it differently? You think an evil of this magnitude could be done away with without a tremendous and lasting cost?

What a pity you weren’t in charge! Perhaps when you are, you’ll consent to lead us all to the Promised Land.

(Without an appreciation for ambiguity there can be no sense of tragic irony. I sometimes wonder if this is why Ayn Rand for me, just maddeningly misses being great literature. She’s a great technician with the English language, remarkable in one who learned it as a second language, but what is meant to be tragic in her work comes across as pathos and she appears to have no sense of humor - closely related to, and derived from a sense of tragedy.)

A point proceeding from this: libertarians often seem to have trouble with the idea of trade-offs (also a notable problem with the Looney Left).

Liberty can be broadened (extended to more people) or deepened (more liberty within a fixed group of people). Historically the advance of liberty often occurs when a segment of society, usually an aristocracy or a rising middle class, wrested a greater share of it (i.e. deepened liberty) from the center of power (e.g. a monarchic state or established church) without intending to spread it outside their own class, for example, the Magna Charta, Declaration of Arbroath or indeed the Declaration of Independence.

But once the justification for it was explicitly stated, it could not be denied that it applied to all individuals. As an old black blues man once put it, “Don’t tell me Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner! He wrote the Declaration of Independence!”

What many libertarians just can’t seem to deal with is the fact that gains in one area must often proceed at the expense of another. Better get used to it, I believe it’s called “Economics”.

Moreover, libertarians seem to have a problem with the fact that liberty must often be advanced by military force – some in fact deny that it ever can be. However note that the claims to liberty made in all of the aforementioned documents were furthered by force or the threat of it.

Often libertarians lionize military actions far enough away in time or space to obscure the gritty realities of armed conflict, or they approve of warfare when conducted by partisans and irregulars but disapprove when conducted by anybody in a uniform. The American Revolution meets with universal approval, and almost no other war in our history.

Sorry folks, tyranny is seldom talked to death, it’s too much fun being a tyrant.

Another motive seems to stem from the Romanticism of Heroic Failure. There is something dreadfully appealing about this. Among other things a Lost Cause will never win and disappoint you. (Remember the Armenians? Nobody thought they’d ever get their country back.) You don’t have to worry about the unromantic details of what you are going to do with your victory.

Listen, I’m a Celt by heritage and I absorbed the Romanticism of Heroic Failure in the songs, stories and poetry I was raised on. You buy the beer and I’ll sing and recite poetry from every lost battle and uprising in Ireland and Scotland over the last eight hundred years*. And you know what? I’m sick of it! Screw heroic failure, I want to win!

Libertarians and libertarian-leaning scholars have made tremendous intellectual contributions to historical research, economics and legal theory but aren’t strongly represented among career military personnel. What we do have is a lot of theorizing from people without experience in physicaly violent, as opposed to verbal/intellectlual conflict. It’s only human to stress the importance of your own field of expertise and downplay that of others.

Since war is a special case of the use of political power, it would seem that many libertarians have trouble dealing with the use of power in general. Some deny that there is any rightful use of power (beyond immediate self-defense) and would abolish it entirely.

Sorry, that doesn’t happen in the real world, the desire for power is too much a part of human nature. And here I’m going to really offend some people but, if you don’t understand power you don’t understand liberty either.

In fact, I’d have to say that they’ve lost sight of the crucial insight of the Founding Fathers; that to secure a reasonably free and just political order you must work with human nature, not against it.

When George Washington made that incredibly honest and perceptive remark, “Government is not reason, it is not persuasion, it is not eloquence… it is force. And like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a terrible master”** he was not suggesting that we do away with either fire or political power. The radical idea was that power should be controlled by being limited, distributed and balanced.

How limited, distributed and balanced is a whole study in itself, and there do not appear to be any final solutions. Balance, as any athlete can tell you, is dynamic not static. After Lincoln the limits, distribution and balance were different, but the principle was still intact.

You don’t think the Fed should ever interfere in the internal affairs of the states?

Not even when they are dispossessing Indians of treaty lands inside their boundaries?

Not when a territory is trying to secede from the United States for the purpose of establishing a despotic theocracy?

Not when black people can’t get justice because the local police forces are controlled by the Ku Klux Klan?

The problem of slavery was one on which action had been delayed to the point where something finally had to be done, by which time a peaceful resolution was impossible.

“Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered.” Sometimes it cannot be simply talked to death. And since talk is what they're best at, this appears to offend the delicate sensibilities of some libertarians.

Next: Why No Goddam Yankee Peckerhead is Every Going to Make Me Ashamed of Being Southern

*OK, just this once for free. (Think lachrymose bagpipe music in the background and no foolin' my voice is pretty good for this kind of thing.)

Dool and wae for the order
Sent our lads to the border.
The English for aince by guile won the day.
The flowers o' the forest,
That fought aye the foremost,
The pride of our land lie caud in the clay.

**When I first quoted Washington to my wife, she said "Why can't anybody write like that anymore?" Perhaps that's why she consented to naming our first child "Jerzy Waszyngton Browne."


  • At 7:59 PM, Blogger Ted said…

    It's never ceased to amaze how many "southrons" have been carping the garp you just sweetly laid low under some grand delusion that their ancestors' starting a war was all sweetness and light; that the defense of enslavement for the economic gain of a tiny minority was actually some sort of glorious cause.
    It's truly sad how deep delusions of grandeur can run.
    For the majority of them that still don't get it, let me break it down:
    You started a war with the USA and lost: Get over it and deal with it already!

  • At 9:35 PM, Blogger James A. Donald said…

    You ask:
    "When Great Britain abolished slavery, were Jamaica or Barbados in a position to resist the overwhelming might of the British Empire?"

    Brazil and the rest of latin America were in a position to resist just fine.

    Fact is, slavery was already on its way out. Had the North seceded from the South, as it should have, rather than forcing the South to attempt to secede from the North, slavery would have ended soon enough.

  • At 4:35 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    In Brazi the conditions of slavery were such that their mortality rate was actually higher than their birthrate. That - and the US and RN blockade is what made slavery ultimately a loosing proposition.

    Naval War remember - neither Brazil nor anyone else was a match for Britain in the seas then.

  • At 1:26 PM, Blogger James A. Donald said…

    If naval blockade is what ended slavery in Latin America, then the fact that import of slaves had long been forbidden in North America should have been sufficient to end slavery in North America.

    The effect of a ban on import is to raise the price of slaves, the effect of a rise in price is to improve conditions for pregnant and nursing slave girls, ultimately increasing supply.

    Rather, ask yourself how it was that that importation had been banned, and why that had been peaceably accepted.

  • At 2:27 PM, Blogger Delcides said…

    Brazil passed a law abolishing intercontinental traffic in 1850 ( Lei Eusébio de Queirós, named after the State Secretary that proposed it), on the grounds that a sovereign country should act on its own, rather than simply obey the Bill Aberdeen from England. I should note that in Portuguese there's an expression "para inglês ver" ( literally: "for an English man to see", "for English eyes") that means to pay lip service.

  • At 3:27 PM, Blogger Jabo said…

    It's one of the pitfalls of an analytic society that it looks for either/or answers: either the Civil War was about slavery or it was about Federalism. Either economics or principles.

    In my view, it was many, and perhaps all, of these things. Certainly the war was about slavery-- but slavery itself was about many things: Southern values, Federalism, economy, fear, etc.

    For Lincoln, the war was also about many things, and it came to be about many others. I think initially, it was that the South (or certain Southern states, rather) broke the law.

    Lincoln was opposed to slavery without question, but was by no means a slavery hardliner or "radical" like some of his cabinet members (Salmon Chase and even Sec. Seward). Rather-- and this is the beautiful thing about Lincoln-- he was about intuiting the will of the people in terms of American law. It's as if he used the Constitution and Dec. Independence to give a definite shape, in terms of policy, to the zeitgiest. (Imagine an American leader doing that today!)

    One of the things I read that most crystallized Lincoln for me was a quote of his in which he says that, essentially, the war was about the minority of the polity undermining the rule of law just because it disagreed with the law.

    The truly great thing-- and this is where Libertarians start to look like children in their politics-- is that Lincoln had the courage to give meaning to the above principle with force. Without force, it would be so many words and, of course, the death of a young nation.

    (Sorry for the verbiage.)

    I can only say that Americans should relish this willingness to use force, when it's necessary, to protect not just the country, but the nature of the country, i.e. the nation. It's a sign of a still-healthy nation, of a nation that is truly sovereign. And, from where I type, it's one national characteristics that I envy terribly.


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