Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Lost Cause

This week marks 150 years since the beginning of the Civil War. And in light of that struggle that tore our nation apart, as well as the recent resurgence of nullification, some words must be said about the conflict.

Some time back at a used book sale I picked up a book by Burton Hendrick entitled Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis And His Cabinet. Unfortunately, I have never made it very far past the preface. That preface, however, is worth well more than $1 I paid for the book. For the author makes a very important, yet often forgotten, point about the Civil War: the war was won not by the military leaders, but by the North's superior statesmanship and superior political philosophy.

While I originally attempted to summarize the argument, I am not sure I can improve upon Hendrick's original. So without further ado, here are excerpts from the preface of Statesmen of the Lost Cause.
Significantly [the South's] hero of that conflict to-day is Robert E. Lee, not Jefferson Davis. Just as significantly the hero of the North is Abraham Lincoln and not Grant or Sherman. . . . Thus does the popular mind, working instinctively, perhaps subconsciously, arrive at a great historic truth, For the fact that the North emphasizes statesmanship in the Civil War and the South military achievement goes far to interpreting the events of 1861 – 1865. In particular, it may answer a question much debated in that era and since. Why did the South lose the war?
. . .
The courage and ability of the Southern armies aroused the admiration of their foes; that Southern generalship, at least in the first two years, surpassed that of the North, stands upon the surface; other facts than an inferiority in military strength must therefore hold the secret of Confederate failure. We shall probably find it rather in civil than in military affairs. Had statesmen ruled its domestic and foreign policies with the same skill that Lee and other generals guided its armies, the result might have easily been very different. In one respect this assertion may look like a reversal of history. Statesmanship was a quality on which the South had always prided itself. Its political thinkers had played a leading role in framing the Constitution. For nearly forty years following 1789 it gave the Union its Presidents. It seems strange, therefore, that at the supreme test of 1861 – 1865 this region should so disastrously fail in exclusive possession. But perhaps there is a solution to the mystery. It may be found in the particular South that organized the Confederacy and plunged the nation into war. The fact to be kept always in mind is that the South which started the Confederacy, and dominated its government for four years, was not the South that wrote the Declaration of Independence, played so important a role in framing the Constitution, and provided so much leadership for the United States in its earliest days.
. . .
The Southern commonwealth chiefly famous for statesman – Virginia – had no hand in organizing the Confederacy. Neither had North Carolina or Tennessee, other states distinguished for political leadership in the Union. These older states came in three months afterwards, for particular reasons; they had no part in framing the Southern constitution, organizing the government, and had little to do in the civil department for four years of war. . . . the new-rich Southwest contributed the political leaders, the old traditional South the military captains.
. . .
Probably the political philosopher would find an even more significant study in the effect exercised upon the Davis experiment by the constitutional ideas that formed its reason for existence. State Sovereignty, the Right of Succession – these were the foundation stones on which this new nation was built. They had provided the theme of impassioned argument for seventy-five years. Now at last Southern statesmen had before them the opportunity of testing the worth of these principles in the practical conduct of a government. Was a nation possible composed of independent units, teach claiming to be a “sovereign state,” joined to a central power only by the loosest ties? Could a Confederacy assert the authority necessary to vital existence in which each “sovereign republic” asserted the right to withdraw at will? The Federalists and Hamiltonians had always objected to Jeffersonism on pragmatic grounds; such theories were preposterous simply because they would not work. They could produce no orderly society – only chaos. The failure of Davis and his colleagues has an important bearing on this point. It seems to prove that the “consolidationists” had the practical argument on their side. . . . Professor Frank L. Owsley, of Vanderbilt University, has probably said the final words on the subject. “There is an old saying that the seeds of death are sown at our birth. This was true of the Southern confederacy, and the seeds of death were state rights. The principle on which the South based its actions before 1861 and on which it hoped to base its future government was its chief weakness. If a monument is ever erected as a symbolical gravestone over the ‘lost cause’ it should have engraved upon it these words: ‘Died of State Rights.’”
Thus the Confederacy failed for two reasons. It produced no statesmen, such as the South had produced in the revolutionary crisis of 1776 and afterword, it was also founded on a principle that made impossible the orderly conduct of public affairs.
Of course, this leaves the question of whether the South could have succeeded with either good statesmen or good political theory - and if the strength of one could have overcome the deficiencies of the other. Or maybe it is simply two sides of the same coin - good statesmen craft good policy, and the South's weak theory stemmed from its poor statesmen.

But more fundamentally, Southern sympathizers today - those who long for the "states rights" model to be implemented more fully - often paint it as an idea prevented by Lincoln and the Civil War. Yet if Henrick is right, and his analysis appears correct, then it is a political idea that has been tried and failed. Indeed, if one includes the Articles of Confederation, it has been tried twice in US history, and both times proved unworkable. Theoretically, at least, the Confederacy's cause was not lost during the Civil War, but during the ratification debates.

Some may object that I have not yet addressed the root issue of the Civil War, that of slavery, and rather painted it entirely as an issue of state's rights. While the theory of the Confederacy was an attempt to implement state's rights, slavery was the issue that brought the theoretical differences between North and South to a head. This is demonstrated by the various secession documents, most notably those of Texas and Mississippi, the later opening with "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." So for the Confederacy, the general issue was state's rights, but the specific application was the preservation, and expansion, of slavery.
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