As the New York Times reports this morning, not a single Republican presidential candidate has the courage to tell South Carolina to stop flying the Confederate battle flag from its state capitol. It is a bit late for that, to be sure; public display of any kind of the symbol of the slaveholders’ rebellion should have been banned after the Union victory in 1865. Removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s seat of government has become an African-American cause in the wake of last week’s Charleston church massacre. It may be incommensurate with the crime, but black Americans are entirely justified in their rancor against official sanction of a symbol of slavery.
On moral grounds I sympathize with the African-American view, but there is an even more urgent reason to rip down the Confederate flag. Our refusal to look squarely at the evil character of the American Confederacy turned us into idiots. It may be a bit late to remedy this national lapse in mental capacity, but one has to start somewhere.
America never recovered from its Civil War, which killed nearly a million combatants on both sides. The Union won on the battlefield but conceded a cultural victory of sorts to the defeated South, spinning a myth of Southern gallantry in a lost cause. This myth dominated the popular culture from D.W.Griffiths’ 1916 epic “Birth of a Nation” (which celebrates the rise of the Klu Klux Klan) to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind with its romantic image of antebellum plantation culture.
This concession to a wicked cause cut America off from the principles of its Founding and ultimately turned us into idiots. It was not always so, as Angelo Codevilla explained in his masterful 2014 book “To Make and Keep the Peace.” John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln performed brilliantly in the foreign policy arena; Lincoln’s alliance with Russia kept Great Britain from joining with the Confederacy to carve up the American republic.
I wrote not long ago on the anniversary of the Southern surrender at Appomattox Courthouse:
The white churches, though, were three generations ahead of the black churches in distancing themselves from the dangerous passions of the Civil War. When Julia Ward Howe of blessed memory sang in”The Battle Hymn of the Republic” of “grapes of wrath,” she invoked the terrible words of Isaiah 63, in which God comes from Edom with his garments stained red, saying, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.” By the turn of the 20th century, the apocalyptic Protestantism of what Lincoln called an “almost-chosen people” had turned into Social Gospel and universal salvation.
That is American exceptionalism: the belief that America can be a better kind of nation than the ethnocentric nations of Europe, in emulaton of the biblical Israel. That was the impulse of the Founders, born, as Harvard’s Eric Nelson explains in The Hebrew Republic, of the English Revolution’s attempt to design a polity on biblical principles. The Civil War destroyed this impulse, because it killed too many of the New Englanders who believed, as Lincoln put it, that America was “an almost chosen nation.”
Protestantism in America shifted from saving souls to social engineering. The sin of the South was too great to acknowledge; after the sacrifice of nearly 30% of its military-age man and the reduction of its standard of living by half, the defeated white South could not admit to itself that it had gotten precisely what was coming to it for wickedness of slavery. It is revolting to read Southern writers’ rationalizations for Southern wickedness, for example, David French last week in The National Review. French argues:
When the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Union quickly accomplished its war aims, slavery would have endured, at least for a time. When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country.
That is nonsense: the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, offered to keep the southern states in the Union after Lincoln’s election in 1860 if only Lincoln would agree to the annexation of Cuba as a new slave territory, a history I reviewed here. The South fought for the dream of a slave empire stretching southwards, and the 90% of Southern soldiers who owed no slaves hoped to get them–like Wallenstein’s mercenaries or Napoleon’s foot-soldiers with field marshall’s batons in their rucksacks. Like Wallenstein’s and Napoleon’s armies, the Confederates fought with desperate courage, but for rapine rather than right. Crushing them was the noblest thing the United States ever did.
The South could not live in the knowledge that its heroic sacrifices were offered in a wicked cause, and its response was to excise from religion the notion of sin and virtue, and replace it with social engineering. Woodrow Wilson’s father was a Southern clergyman who preached a biblical justification of slavery; as president, Woodrow Wilson replaced American foreign policy with social engineering on a global scale. The North could not live with its own enormous sacrifice; as I argued elsewhere, “Americans decided that they would rather not have a God who demanded sacrifice from them on this scale – 10% of military-age Northern men, 30% of military-age Southern men. They did not want to be a Chosen People held accountable for their transgressions. They wanted instead a reticent God who withheld his wrath while they set out to make the world amenable to their own purposes. The New England elite went to war as convinced Abolitionists singing of the coming of God who trampled out the vintage of the grapes of wrath and wielded a terrible swift sword. They came back convinced that no idea could be so righteous or so certain as to merit the terrible sacrifices of their generation.”
Americans are not inherently stupid. The Civil War made us stupid. It persuaded us that we were better off playing God than leaving the outcome to a God who might demand such terrible sacrifices of us once again. The most brilliant physicist will go mad if he becomes obsessed with perpetual motion, and the most brilliant statesman will go just as made if he devotes his life to perpetual peace.
Abraham Lincoln told Americans in his last major utterance, the Second Inaugural Address: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” That isn’t what Americans wanted to hear. Instead, they wanted to hear that clever social engineers could fix the world’s problems and obviate the need for such sacrifices in the future.
The trauma of the Civil War drove us towards Wilsonian Universalism, which lives on in the form of George W. Bush’s “world democratic revolution.” America confronts a number of cultures that are bent on genosuicide. We fail to recognize the symptoms, because we shut our eyes to one of modern history’s most striking examples of civilizational self-destruction, namely the American South. America can’t hope to make sense of the world if it refuses to think about its own history.
Intelligence begins with emotional acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions.
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