The Civil War as Revolution

11 July 2019

Review of The Political Thought of the Civil War, edited by Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. (University of Kansas Press, 2018).


Americans tend to forget that our Revolution was also a civil war, and our Civil War was also a revolution. The War for Independence is overshadowed by the drama of inspired statesmen creating an entirely new Republic. Only military specialists care whether George Washington was lucky or skillful as a general. What matters is that he could have seized absolute power and didn’t. Our collective memory of the Civil War is exactly the opposite. The drama is in the terrible fighting, and the political results seem like an inevitable consequence of the Northern victory.


Reasons for the difference are not hard to find. Many leading loyalists in the American Revolution fled to Canada or Britain. Relative to the population, our Revolution produced more political refugees than France’s, and few who left ever returned. The Revolution’s losers were silent in defeat, and so easily forgotten. But the vanquished in the Civil War emphatically remained—an outspoken, implacable presence in the nation from which they had failed to separate themselves. An emphasis on the shared valor and suffering of the war helped staunch national wounds that would not heal.


More importantly, the winners of the Civil War did not like to think of themselves as revolutionaries. They were sincerely devoted to the Constitutional order established by the Founders. Lincoln and other Republicans claimed to have saved the Republic from the evil of slavery and the heresy of secession. Some wanted only to preserve the Constitution, others wanted to perfect it, but all Republicans claimed the original vision of the Founders as their own guiding light. None claimed to have established an entirely new regime on the ashes of the old. 


But were they merely deceiving themselves? That is the central question posed by a new volume of essays, The Political Thought of the Civil War, edited by Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr.  That the war revealed critical weaknesses in the political regime established by the founders is obvious. The question, as the editors phrase it in their terrific introduction, is this: “Did the war simply correct American institutions in order to bring them into accord with the true meaning of the original principles of the regime? Or did the war introduce new, perhaps better, principles?” This perspective promises a broader, richer exploration of the political thought in this decisive era than one focused on any one of the many vital issues at stake. Their query grapples with the essential nature of the American Republic, not with any one principle but with the edifice that encompasses them all—localism and nationalism, substantive and procedural justice, natural right and the rule of law.  


As the editors rightfully point out, this inquiry is both historical and philosophical—historical because it is precisely this question that leaders at the time confronted. And philosophical because the question they confronted so dramatically then is the timeless one we must all confront—whether the animating ideals of our regime are true, and whether our regime is true to its ideals. 


Perhaps inevitably in a volume of essays by multiple contributors, the thematic focus promised in the introduction is not quite delivered in the rest of the book. The fourteen essays are uneven in quality, and, despite the best efforts of the editors, they do not form a coherent whole. Beyond chronology there is no organizational logic threading the separate essays together. 


At the same time, the book has the strengths of its best contributors, beginning with Merrill’s fascinating essay on Thomas Jefferson’s reaction to the Missouri Crisis. No one, as Merrill notes at the outset, was more fond of claiming Jefferson’s legacy than Abraham Lincoln. In defense of free soil principles, Lincoln invoked Jefferson’s authority as the author of the Declaration of Independence and a champion of the Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory. The irony, of course, is that Jefferson subsequently reversed himself. Far better, Jefferson argued late in life, to let slavery expand across the continent, diffusing the acute problem as it existed in the slave states. 


Merrill artfully describes the “bitter moralism” at the heart of Jefferson’s later outlook, as he tried to defend himself and his class against a looming onslaught from the very regime he and his class had so effectively established. But the very strength of Merrill’s essay reveals a critical weakness. Nowhere does he consider the relationship between the contradictions of Jefferson’s natural rights doctrine and Lincoln’s. As a criticism of a stand-alone essay on Jefferson, this would be grossly unfair. But we are dealing here with a book on Civil War political thought. And no subsequent contributor picks up on the irony with which Merrill began his essay. 


In terms of policy, Lincoln’s response to the problem of slavery was exactly the opposite of the one Jefferson advocated late in life. But as Jefferson himself famously said, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” And the philosophical premises of Lincoln’s antebellum position on slavery were essentially the same as Jefferson’s. Lincoln, like Jefferson, believed slavery was wrong but he, too, was unsure how to abolish it where it already existed.  Jefferson compared the dilemma to holding a wolf by the ears; Lincoln compared it to a cancer that could not be removed without possibly killing the patient. This view made Lincoln grateful that slavery had been prohibited in Illinois, but it did not offer much consolation to those, like Jefferson, who lived in slave societies. 


Slavery was both a system of labor exploitation and the institution responsible for maintaining white supremacy in a bi-racial society. In their attacks, Republicans emphasized the former, but Jefferson’s attitude, along with that of most Southern whites (who, of course, owned no slaves), was entirely preoccupied by the latter consideration. The Republicans’ position was thus compatible with the Jeffersonian tradition, condemning slavery as an evil violation of natural rights and yet unwilling to take responsibility for incorporating former slaves into an egalitarian democracy. The war compelled Republicans to depart from that tradition, but it remains an open question whether their response represented a temporary aberration or a permanent transformation. 


Subsequent essays consider different facets of this essential question. But Merrill’s fine opening still highlights a missed opportunity. The philosophical ambiguity and ambivalence of those who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are never expressly compared with those that tormented the author of the Declaration of Independence.   


The concluding essays in the volume are also some of the strongest. In “The Politics of Reconstruction and the Problem of Self-Government,” Philip B. Lyons shows a capacity that is exceedingly rare among scholars of Reconstruction—the ability to hold contrary ideas in his head at the same time. The problem Republicans confronted in the postwar South was whether black political rights could ever be secure without disenfranchising whites, most of whom refused to recognize those rights. If one half of a political community is unwilling to recognize the rights of the other half, then genuine democracy is an impossibility and the only question is who will despotically govern whom. Republicans who recognized this dilemma had to choose between two basic alternatives. They could establish political rights for blacks while treating most whites as conquered enemies. Or they could treat Southern whites as necessary partners in the new order. The tragedy of Reconstruction resulted, in part, from the failure of Republicans to commit themselves to either of these alternatives. Radicals recognized the implacable hostility of Southern whites to the new order they wished to impose while grossly underestimating their capacity to resist it. Moderates and conservatives recognized the necessity of winning over most Southern whites while grossly underestimating their entrenched hostility to even the most basic rights for black Americans. Lyons’s essay provides an exceptionally nuanced discussion of the intellectual blindspots evident in every proffered solution. 


Finally, two issues that apply to the book as a whole are worth noting. One is the relative absence of any serious attempt to answer a key question raised in the introduction. “In the American regime,” the editors ask, “who is the final judge of disputes between citizens—the federal government, the states, or citizens taking matters into their own hands?” The essays consider the distinctive answer supplied by Southern secessionists, but there is no consideration of how the nationalist position changed as a result of the war. 


A related problem, hardly unique to this book, is the teleological argument that the war “completed” the Constitutional framework begun by the founders. That claim is very different from arguing that the Republicans reformed or revolutionized their government. The original Constitution was a compromise between competing political visions and interests. Inevitably, that compromise has shifted through time, along with the interests and visions sustaining it, and the Civil War certainly represented the most dramatic adjustment in our history. But it is simply misleading to argue that what happened in the 1860s revealed the true intentions of the framers in the 1780s. 


For all its shortcomings, however, The Political Thought of the Civil War conveys with rare clarity the essential intellectual significance of the war, both for the leaders involved and for ourselves: Whether the worst evils of American society can be addressed without also altering the most sacred ideals inherited from our past. For that reason alone the book is well worth the attention of all scholars interested in the Civil War—and all citizens concerned about our own increasingly fraught political regime.


Photo Credit: Augustus Tholey, Kearny’s Charge, Battle of Chantilly, via Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain.


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