The Treasury of Counterfeit Virtue
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!”
A few years ago, a well-known conservative historian lamented that the American public was not morally engaged to undergo sacrifice after the September 11 attacks, unlike it was in its heroic response to Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor.
Wait a minute. Pearl Harbor and September 11 were massive sneak attacks by foreign enemies. The reduction of Fort Sumter was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, was bloodless, and the garrison was allowed to depart with honor. It would not have happened at all if Abraham Lincoln had not maneuvered to bring it about. Think about this. Why should Southerners (free Americans) permit a fort that had been built with their tax money for their protection to be used as a base to conquer and extort taxes from them, when every other federal post in the South had already been peacefully transferred pending a political settlement of the issues raised by secession? One can become outraged at Fort Sumter only by placing a higher value on the will of the political party controlling the machinery of government than on the core purpose of a free regime to protect the people.
Nor did Lincoln’s call after Fort Sumter for 75,000 troops to suppress “the rebellion” evoke unity and determination. The (illegal) call was either a deliberate deception or the most terrible miscalculation in American history, since over a million men would be required to complete the conquest of the Southern people and the destruction of their self-government. The immediate effect of Lincoln’s mobilization was to drive four more states out of the Union and to put the border states into bloody play. The long-range effects were military rule in much of the North, a staggering cost in blood, and systematic terrorism against Southern noncombatants.
It is true that Lincoln got a temporary boost of morale from having forced the Confederacy to “fire on the flag,” but that did not last. The number of Northern men who evaded service in Mr. Lincoln’s war in one way or another was in the hundreds of thousands. Others signed up for the minimal time allowed: There were examples of whole regiments going home on the eve of battle. Compared with complete mobilization in the South, no affluent or connected Northerner ever saw service unless he wanted to. A recent study suggests that Lincoln could not have raised his armies if it had not been for widespread industrial unemployment at the beginning of the war, an immense expenditure on enlistment bounties, and unlimited access to foreign recruits who made up a fourth of the military manpower. More Northerners voted against Lincoln in 1864 than had in 1860, even though the army was dispatched to control the polls. Lincoln and his friends never put complete trust in the Northern public and saw conspiracies under every bed. They behaved with the ruthlessness of a revolutionary cadre. After victory history was edited to portray a unified righteous North.
It is a wonder that the historian mentioned above would even allow Southerners to fight beside real Americans in later wars, since he equates Lee and Jackson with Tojo and Bin Laden. Perhaps it has always been this way in Boston, which happens to be the location of the scholar referred to. But in general it has not always been so. Franklin Roosevelt had no objection to being photographed with Confederate flags. Harry Truman chose a romantic equestrian portrait of Lee and Jackson for the lobby of his presidential library. Dwight Eisenhower went out of his way to correct someone who called Lee a “traitor,” and John Kennedy chose Calhoun as one of the five greatest senators.
For a long time Americans North and South observed a truce. It was agreed that the war was a great tragedy with good and bad on both sides, from which a stronger and better country had emerged. In this scenario, Lincoln is the great martyred Peacemaker who would have “bound up the nation’s wounds” and avoided the evils that followed the war. This is a dubious estimate of Lincoln, but one in which it was useful for all parties to believe.
Things have changed in the last few years. There is a concerted effort to banish the South into one dark little corner of American history labeled “slavery” and “treason.” Here in the Lincoln bicentennial, we can note that there has been an accompanying literature that celebrates Lincoln not as the Peacemaker but as the great Hero of Democracy who was justified in using any means necessary to destroy evil (i.e., kill recalcitrant Americans). This accompanies and justifies America’s turn toward a mission to impose “global democracy” by unlimited force and preemptive war. Even General Sherman is once more being celebrated as a great military hero for his ruthless campaigns against civilians. (There has been a countertrend, exemplified by Thomas DiLorenzo’s and Ronald and Donald Kennedy’s best-selling books as well as a number of solid monographs exploring the uglier aspects of Northern motives and actions in the war. If my e-mail correspondence from above the Potomac and the Ohio is any measure, a great many non-Southern Americans now regard Lincoln as the fount of the excessive centralization and imperial war-making under which we now live.)
During the Civil War centennial, Robert Penn Warren wrote a little book called The Legacy of the Civil War. He had some critical things to say about the tendency of his fellow Southerners to use the war as an excuse for their shortcomings. But for our purposes, what he had to say about the American majority is more pertinent. The éclat of having “saved the Union” and freed the slaves had left Northerners with “a Treasury of Virtue.” This is the basis of a kind of plenary indulgence that automatically prejustifies the motives of American wars and the goodness inherent in America’s acts to force the world into conformity with America’s ideal version of herself.
The Treasury of Virtue renders Americans immune to simple truth. The war was one of conquest against other Americans. It was not a righteous crusade or a family spat. “Government of the people” would not have suffered if a war of coercion had not been launched against the Southern people. The opposite is true. The fundamental purpose of the war was to protect the prosperity of the ruling elements of the Northern states by keeping the South captive as a market and a source of raw materials and exports. The philanthropic Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker announced that war was being waged for the supremacy of “Northern industry.” European observers took this for granted. The primary goal of the Republican Party was permanent installment of Hamilton’s “blessings”—a national debt, a protected market for industrialists, and a collusion between bankers and politicians. Many Northerners said plainly that they wanted emancipation because “free labor” was cheaper and more disposable than “slave labor.”
Orestes Brownson, a strong supporter of the Union, lamented that the war had been sustained not by patriotism but by patronage, profit, and a trumped-up hatred of Southerners. The last was exemplified by the bigotry and blasphemy of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and more than a few New England clergymen calling for the extermination of wicked Southerners. The Republican Party’s war was accompanied and sustained by immense corruption. Americans seem to have persuaded themselves that the postwar corruption of “the Great Barbecue” somehow mysteriously erupted after Lincoln. No, it was a creation of the war for the “Union.” At least one major military expedition was mounted to steal cotton to enrich Union commanders. Plunder of the government and the South made many of Lincoln’s supporters wealthy. Lincoln himself encouraged various acts of corruption for political purposes if not for personal profit.
The Lincoln hagiography that is an essential part of the Treasury was a post-assassination creation. As one Southern wag put it, Lincoln had so many admirers when he was dead because he had none when he was living. When looked at coldly, the man Lincoln and his career contains much that is tawdry. The strongest supporters of his cause regarded him as incompetent and temporizing. The possibility cannot ever be dismissed that they were implicit in his assassination. One would think that the event would have received exhaustive investigation. Instead, the alleged conspirators were quickly and secretly seized and murdered by the Army. Confederates were not angels. Unlike their conquerors, they never claimed to be. But by comparison they shine with honor bright, something much of the world has sensed.
In the history books and in popular imagination Americans are in denial. They cling to their Treasury of Virtue—the belief that the war was waged with righteousness and philanthropic motives and in defense of “government of the people.” Realities do not register. In the North, on the whim of an Army officer, people were dragged from their homes and held incommunicado in military prisons, without any formal charges or right of counsel, and with no set duration. Sometimes these people were guilty of nothing more than a “disloyal” word in private conversation, being the object of some anonymous spite, or even whistling the wrong tune. Overwhelmingly, the arrests were not for acts but for opinions. In the case of newspaper editors, they were held until they agreed either to dispose of their presses or refrain from further criticisms of the Lincoln administration. This “American Bastille” was more oppressive and unprecedented at the time than it seems now. Republican mobs were also active in punishing dissenters.
In Kentucky and Missouri and the early seized regions of Tennessee and Louisiana, occupation involved executing innocent civilian hostages, uprooting the population of extended regions, and imprisoning women wholesale. From the first step of the federal army across the Potomac, the people of the South were seen as fair game for looting and vandalism. (One Northern critic of the war wondered what law gave federal soldiers the right to steal Southern pianos, watches, and silver tableware.) This soon became systematic policy. Houses, barns, tools, livestock, stored food, standing crops, children’s pets, schools, churches, convents, libraries—these were systematically destroyed, the houses usually being looted first. A Georgia lady recalled how Union officers’ wives went through her home and divided up her furniture for shipment north. This policy was not directed just at wealthy planters, as some recent apologists have claimed, but at the entire population, white and black. Old men and blacks were tortured, and fresh graves, of which there were many in the South, despoiled to reveal the location of valuables. “Historians” on public television recently claimed that Sherman’s depredations were limited to “military necessity”—despite his announced desire to make the women and children of the South howl in misery. Not to mention the bombardment of cities and the deliberate destruction of undefended cities that had already surrendered. As General Lee wrote, “These people delight to destroy the weak and those who can make no defense; it suits them.”
Since the mid-20th century Americans have been obsessed with race, and it has become de rigueur to declare that the war was about slavery and nothing but slavery. Earlier generations knew better. Emancipation was a byproduct of the conquest of the South. The mass of the Northern public and army was far more antiblack than antislavery, and the destruction of the South was as hard on the black population as on the white. The notion that soldiers in blue and emancipated slaves rushed into each other’s arms with shouts of Glory Hallelujah is pure fantasy. Ambrose Bierce, who fought for the Union the entire war, said the only emancipated slaves he saw were the concubines and servants of Union officers. He respected Southerners but had only contempt for the foreigners in his army.
Nor was slavery (domestic servitude) in 1860 at all the horror that it is now imagined to be. In 1860 in New York City there were women and children working 16-hour days for starvation wages; 150,000 unemployed; 40,000 homeless; 600 brothels (some with girls as young as 10); and 9,000 grog shops where the poor could temporarily drown their sorrows. Half of the children did not live past the age of five. Further, half of the free black people in the country were in the South and generally lived better than the despised free blacks of the North. One Southern Unionist testified to his belief that half of the black population of his state had perished in the deprivations and dislocations of invasion. In Louisiana free blacks pleaded in vain that their hard-won property not be destroyed. Federal soldiers had been told that no black people could own property in the South. New England shippers got rich in the illegal African slave trade to Cuba and Brazil right up to the war, and Bostonians owned slave sugar plantations in Cuba even after the war.
A Southern planter who reflected on the circumstances in which he had been born, observed everyday life around him, and examined his Christian conscience saw no reason to accept the hatred and abuse of strangers who claimed moral authority over him. The abuse had been going on for 30 years before the war and was a main cause of secession. A great man of the North, John Adams, had observed that the only distinction between the slaves of the South and the poorest workers of the North was in the label.
Secession should have been an occasion for constitutional negotiations such as the Confederate government sought, especially by a President whose position had the support of less than 40 percent of the people. Instead, Lincoln declared that the solemn, open, deliberative, democratic acts of the people of 11 states were merely “combinations” of criminals too numerous to be put down by the marshals. He supported his position by a false American history and the transparent lie that the “people” did not really support their states. On the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, the Constitution died as a governing document. It became a mere rule of thumb for politicians and lawyers, who continue Lincoln’s heritage of twisting it to suit their ends. After all, the Constitution defines treason against the United States as waging war against “them” (the states), not as resisting the federal government. Lincoln’s very intent to coerce required that Southerners be deprived of citizenship and their states destroyed. It was Lincoln who was engaged in a rebellion to overthrow the Union. He had to dispense with the real Constitution because it disallowed not only a war of coercion against Americans but most of the acts of central power in favor of private profit that his party was determined to make permanent.
In fact, Lincoln’s campaign to “retake the seditious states” could only rest on the tacit assumption that the Southern states, resources, and people were and always had been the property of the federal government—or more properly, of the politicians who had got control of the federal machine. And that the South existed not for herself as a self-governing part of America but for the benefit and disposition of the North. Consent of the people could only be given one time, and they were ever after bound to obey the federal machine. Thus, the primary principle of the Declaration, that governments rest on the consent of the governed, was abolished. A Northern critic of the war remarked, “If this war is right then the Revolution was wrong.” The Union could not have been preserved under such assumptions, any more than a marriage can be properly preserved by battery.
Lincoln’s pretty words in the Gettysburg Address managed to have it both ways—he was, he claimed, preserving the sacred old Union and at the same time promulgating a “new birth of freedom” that was somehow necessary to save government of the people. But these were not the arguments normally used by the spokesmen of his party to justify their war. They spoke instead of conquest and authority, of empire and punishment of disobedience, of the removal of obstructions to their designs. This is not a Southern accusation; it is the overwhelming evidence of their own words, both public and private, evidence refused by the American consciousness. Lincoln’s icing has been mistaken for the cake. Karl Marx agreed enthusiastically with Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the war to be a rebellion of “slave drivers” against the “one great democratic republic whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued.” Marx, like many other supporters of Lincoln’s war, also regarded it as a rebellion against progressive German immigrants who somehow were better Americans than the Southern sons of patriots and founders.
It is unlikely, but if Americans could ever come to recognize and admit how much counterfeit is contained in their Treasury of Virtue, they could have a more realistic view of themselves and play a more humble and responsible role in the world. They would realize that they are not above history or immune to sin.
This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.