On Wednesday, 13 May 2020, blogger Audre Myers posted a piece at Nebraska Energy Observer entitled “What Do You Think?” The piece prompted readers to answer the question “Would we be the America we are if the Civil War had never been fought?”
Below is my response, which you can also view here. The TL;DR summary of my answer is that, while it was good that the Union was preserved and that slavery was abolished, it came with some heavy fees—the expansion of federal power (and the loss of liberty inverse to federal expansion), the erosion of States’ rights, and—most importantly—the triumph of Yankee progressivism over Southern traditionalism.
The temptation is always to reduce the American Civil War to being ONLY about slavery. Slavery was, obviously, a huge part of the Southern economy and culture, and motivated a great deal of Southern politics at the national level. But slavery was not the be-all, end-all of the “Lost Cause.” There were legitimate constitutional questions at play. Indeed, an open question—one the American Civil War closed by force of arms—was that, having opted into the Constitution, could States later opt out? John Randolph of Roanoke, among others, seemed to believe this question was legitimate, and such an exit was allowed—even acknowledged.
Of course, the slavery narrative serves modern progressive ends. It allows for throwing the baby—States’ rights—out with the bathwater. Suddenly, States’ rights becomes “code,” in the progressive mind, for justifying slavery or segregation. Yes, States’ rights was invoked to support wicked things. Nevertheless, it is fully constitutional—just ask the Tenth Amendment.
Nullification and secession were dangerous doctrines, but the loss of them also meant that the federal government could expand with far fewer limits on its power. The States lost the nuclear option, so to speak, of bucking unconstitutional acts (although, to be fair, States can challenge such acts more peacefully through lawsuits against the federal government—even if those cases are heard in federal courts). Seeing as we’re living in times when a peaceful separation between fundamentally opposed ideologies may be the most attractive option for the future of our nation, it’s worth reviewing the history of these ideas.
Well, that’s enough preamble. After two days of self-indulgent, girly navel-gazing, it’s time for some substance:
A very interesting question, Audre! It’s also one open to many interpretations.
I think the biggest legacy of the American Civil War was that it marked the victory of a certain Yankee political philosophy and political economy over the rest of the country. The North and the South took fundamentally different views of the world. Slavery was certainly a big part of that, but it was one piece of the broader Southern worldview.
Richard Weaver addressed this worldview well in one of his Southern Essays. His contention is that the American South was the proper inheritor—despite its Protestantism—of the medieval Catholic European worldview, one in which everything exists in relation to God. Weaver was a literary critic and English professor, so part of what he was addressing in that essay was the profundity of poets and writers in the South. His basic argument was that Southerners, seeing the world as an interconnected whole, being part of God’s Creation, were more apt to draw “mythopoetic” relationships (metaphors, essentially) between things in that Creation. But the larger point was that the South existed in a far more traditional version of the world than the Yankee.
The Yankee, instead, came from a Puritanical/Calvinist perspective. Weaver argued that the Southerner recognized and named evil, but rather than try to stamp it out—thereby breeding a multitude of smaller, more insidious evils—he sought to fence it off, to mark it. The Northern Puritan sought to eradicate evil–thus the radical abolitionist impulse (in the context of the Civil War), on down to the modern-day “Puritanism” of the SJWs, for whom nothing is ever good enough.
Immediately after the Civil War, the South, being out of national politics in the Reconstruction Era, could not stop the political-economic alliance of the North and West, which put into place high protective tariffs and expanded federal authority (in the latter case, sometimes legitimately, in order to protect the rights of black Americans in the South). There was also the somewhat colonialist “New South” movement in the early twentieth century, itself a latter-day incarnation of the Radical Republicans’ desire to completely transform Southern society during Reconstruction—to remake the South’s agrarian traditionalism into Northern progressive industrialism.
The other big legacy is the expansion of federal power. I do not think that nullification was a valid constitutional doctrine—why would the Framers create a mechanism for destroying the document they were writing, especially given the number of opportunities offered to amend it—but the question “Having opted into the Constitution, can States later opt out” was an open constitutional question until the Civil War resolved it by force of arms. Whether nullification and its logical successor, secession, were valid, the Civil War answered with a resounding “NO.”
For good or for ill, the effect of that is that it removed a powerful potential check on the federal government. Virginia, for example, could no longer plausibly exert the same influence on national politics as it had in the antebellum period (it is worth noting that nullification and secession were, originally, New England Yankee ideas—see also the Essex Junto and the Hartford Convention, the latter of which sought to secede from the Union over objections to the War of 1812, which was deeply unpopular among the pro-British New Englanders).
Of course, that’s a Southerner’s perspective. I am NOT a neo-confederate, or one of these latter-day revisionists. I think it’s good that the Union was preserved, but I also think there’s a lot more nuance to this debate. Slavery was certainly one of, if not THE, major causes of the war, but slavery itself was but one aspect—and, again, to be clear, a significant one—of the Southern worldview and way of life. Preserving the Union was a positive outcome, but it carried with it many deleterious effects, both material and spiritual—a century of economic devastation in the South, and the ultimate victory of an ever-progressing, ever-changing Yankee progressivism and reformism that never sleeps, and is never content.
Just look at the frustration the rest of the country has with the South, because we stubbornly cling to our traditions, our faith, and our constitutional rights. We’re the warrior-poets of the nation, yet our Brahmin elites mock and ridicule us, and perpetually scold us for making two evil mistakes (upholding slavery, and endorsing segregation).
But the South today has managed to modernize materially while still holding onto its spiritual core, although I fear that is changing rapidly. We are, I would argue, the most tolerant part of the country. We still have our problems, of course, but we take much more of a “live-and-let-live” approach. It does bug us when Northerners ruin their States with their bad policies, then move down here and lecture us about how things are “supposed to be done.”
That said, I would encourage all of y’all to come here. South Carolina has beaches, mountains, and everything in between. We also have the prettiest girls in the world—not to mention the friendliest people (well, East Tennessee might have us beat there)—and the best food. Taxes and real estate are cheap, and there’s plenty of countryside to enjoy.
God Bless the United States of America, and God Bless Dixie!