Thursday, November 19, 2009

Should Lincoln Have Let the South Go?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.  [From]

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863

I had to memorize this when I was a kid in school.  I do think that memorization is a discipline we ought to practice more often.  Not for many things, but for enough so that we remember that we are capable of such feats.  It was not quite the 100th anniversary of the Address when I had to memorize it.  I tried today, the 146th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, to see what I could remember before looking it up.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal established this great nation.  We are now engaged in a great battle to determine whether that proposition shall stand.  Few will remember what we say here, but what they did here will long be remembered.  Those who fought here have consecrated this ground with their blood so that this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

I've condensed Lincoln's already minimalist speech, but remembered key passages and the basic idea.

But I'm also wondering whether sanctifying this speech isn't just part of the United States' general sanctification of war.  Was the Civil War justified?  What if Lincoln had allowed the South to secede? 

After the 2000 US Presidential election ended in such a split nation, I mused about the possibilities of the internet. Why not let both win and let the right wing media and blogs follow the world of the Bush presidency and let the left wing media and blogs follow the world of the Gore presidency? We could have two virtual realities. Each side could live its fantasy.

Well, I didn't realize how much that would actually happen. Right wing media covered one world and left wing media outlets covered a totally different world.  Some people seem to be living in totally different worlds.

Well recent events, culminating in right wing commentators saying the President of the United States shouldn't be allowed to address school children have pushed me to the limit. I mumbled to a friend that the civil war was a great mistake. The North should have counted its blessings when the South departed. Is it too late now? She sent me a link to a site that stated these ideas much more forcefully in 2004. It begins - well I cut out a couple of expletives - like this:
We should have let them go when they wanted to leave. But no, we had to kill half a million people so they'd stay part of our special Union. Fighting for the right to keep slaves - yeah, those are states we want to keep.
And then it goes on to give lots of reasons why we'd be better off without them. Back in the 1860's certainly one key reason not to just let them go involved the 3.9 million slaves they would have kept in slavery. While that was about 11% of the whole US population of 27 million then, the percentages in the Lower South were much greater. offers a series of tables. Here's the one for the Lower South.

While others suggest that slavery would have petered out due to a natural cycle that made it economically unsustainable, it would have taken a while.

Some white supremacist groups already expect a new bloody civil war to lead to a split in the US. At this point I'm wondering whether we might want to spare the bloodshed this time and just do it. I already posted this example from a white supremacist group on a post in early August on how to gauge legitimate protest:
Within our lifetimes, the United States of America as we know it will cease to exist as one united country. Rather, it will Balkanize into several racially-based smaller states after an awkward period of racial civil war. It will be unpleasant. It will be bloody. It will be messy. Millions of people, both innocent and guilty, White and nonWhite, will die. But, it is inevitable. Multiracial democracy founded on the myth of racial equality cannot succeed. What cannot fly, should fall, and what is falling, we should still push, and say, fall faster!
Watching the meanness, the blatant distortions, and other tactics being used to incite people's worst fears into hate and license to do violence, I'm beginning to think these guys might be right. Let them have their own country. Let them take their creationism, their guns, their religion, their ignorance, and show us how they could run their own country. And let us have ours back. (Hmmm, that sounds strangely like their plea.)

OK, this is the 'easy', quick fix way out. I'm not sure I'd like a country like that on our borders. (But it could be better than having those people in our country and voting.) There'd be a giant fight over what states they could have. The original confederacy would be a lot of states, and Virginia is just across the river from Washington, DC.

Map from

What about Idaho?   Oh sorry, I forgot, Idaho doesn't exist. How would we decide? Would each state get to vote? What if they weren't contiguous? Would we have a Gaza - West Bank situation or a Lower 48 - Alaska situation? What would happen to people who weren't happy with their state's decision? Would the move be like the Muslims and Hindus moving  Pakistan and to India at partition?

Would there be preconditions such as "people who want to emigrate can get into the US and vice versa?"  Would minorities and gays be allowed to get out if they found themselves stuck there? Could they be allowed to have a white only country? How would they define and test for whiteness?

But there are other options. As I've said before, people's willingness to believe demagogues relates to their fears, their insecurities, their never having actually grown up. We could address those issues - both forcefully with those who refuse to allow rational debate and the others by treating the underlying problems.

So, who do I think these people are who want to oppose Obama at any cost? People who fight with out-and-out-lies;  and a Congresswoman, with barely concealed racism calling for the Great White Hope!  I'm guessing there are a variety of people in the Beck/Palin/Limbaugh fan club:
  • The scared and insecure
    - those who have lost their jobs and homes and see no future
    - those who see a black president as the symbol of the non-white takeover of the USA
    - those who generally see their privileged positions slipping away as women gain
  • those who are biologically unable to grasp reality
  • those who learned at home that violence and aggression were the only ways to deal with conflict
  • those under the sway of religious institutions, some mainstream and some clearly renegade groups led by self-proclaimed interpreters of God's word
  • those who simply have been around right wing fanatics all their lives and haven't been exposed to other views
  • those who will do anything to hurt the President in hopes of a Republican victory in future elections
  • Sociopaths
  • Capitalists who simply want to make money and prevent government regulation of how they do it
  • Capitalists who don't care about politics, but make money from conflict
  • Criminals who benefit from weak government
This is just a starter list. I suspect a number of people who called their school superintendents to protest the president's speech in the schools could check off three or four or more of these characteristics.

Can you imagine what would have happened if people protesting George W had brought semiautomatic assault weapons with them? People opposed to Bush were harassed for carrying signs. If someone had flashed a gun at a Bush rally, the Secret Service would have been on top of them in an instant. These are people who would cheer if someone shot Obama. They have to be taken very seriously.

So are there paths toward reconciliation short of splitting the union? Is this merely a demographic waiting game? The teabaggers and the rest are a small minority, but they seem to be seriously inflamed. And a small minority can do a lot of damage. Do we want a fanatic minority that really feels oppressed and is willing to fight within our borders, constantly preventing progress? This is like having severely disturbed kids mainstreamed into regular school classes. The teacher can't do any real teaching because she's always dealing with the kids who can do nothing but disrupt. [There are many situations where mainstreaming is both the morally and practically right way to go.  But there are situations where the mainstreamed kid hinders everyone, including itself.]

It seems to me that if we separate out those who are not terminally anti-social, the problems and needs of the others could be resolved. That still seems like the best option. Better than two separate nations. But I think that option needs to be on the table too.

While letting this piece sit a while, I did consider that there must have been people who were opposed to the civil war before it began. I did find one article on that. It would be instructive to know more about their arguments and why they lost. Here's the beginning of an article by Sheldon Richman and was published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies in 1981 that looks at abolitionists who were opposed to the Civil War:
Since the victors of warfare write the histories, one must look long and hard to find recognition of the radical critics of any given war. No matter how
substantial or respectable anti-war sentiment may be as a conflict approaches, once the pro-war spirit gets rolling, like a snowball down a mountain, it sweeps aside everything in its path. The War between the States is no exception. In most accounts, the necessity of the War, as in most other wars, is taken for granted. Those who argued against it in advance are ignored (or forgotten) on the grounds that, since the war occurred, they must have been mistaken.1 This is not to say that all the critics are dispensed with. Some serve useful purposes. The Copperheads, with their softness on the slavery issue and conservative longing for the status quo, cast a flattering light on the pro-war Radical Republicans in
some observers' judgment.
It's time to all start studying non-violent conflict resolution, as well as studying the split of Czechoslovakia, the split of Yugoslavia, the creation and splitting of Pakistan, the split of Korea and Germany and the Soviet Union. We also need to learn a lot more about mental health, about how people learn conflict resolution, about debate. My sense is that a little more tolerance on everyone's part, a little more respect to others, a little less greed and self-centeredness would take care of a lot of the problems. But I also recognize that you have to take action against those who refuse to let others live in peace.

I wonder what Lincoln would counsel us today.


  1. I also memorized the Gettysburg Address when I was a kid growing up in the public schools of Tennessee and proudly stood in front of the class to recite them. The Gettysburg Address sounded good to me and I assumed the things it said were true. That's when I was a child.

    Looking back, from the perspective of having studied American history for more than sixty years, I realize how false Lincoln's speech really was. Dishonest Abe Lincoln was a master of political spin, whose words were the polar opposite of his deeds. Government of the people, by the people and for the people was exactly the thing he was trying to crush in his unconstitutional and brutal attack on the Confederate nation. It was the Confederates who, to the point of laying down their lives, believed in government of, by and for the people.

    Famous American writer H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), said of the Gettysburg Address:

    The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination - that government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

  2. How you do scare me! The hate has been allowed to percolate and is encouraged by religion, politics, and greed! We are a better country than this. The republicans need to stand up and stop the madness before real problems overwhelm our country. The resulting "mess" would not be worth the temporary power. Don't push us back a century or the world will overtake us and we will fall like Rome fell and no one will be able to save us.

  3. Steve. Dark waters, your words. Yet as I begin to study and hope for the realization of the EU here, I am taken by your suggestion. You know that I've toyed with the idea of Alaska ceding to Canada. Unfortunately, the America's Civil War answered that considerable constitutional confusion through deadly kinds of conflict resolution.

    How much more complex is the European situation! Why I am excited by the EU supranational solution to conflict is precisely because of Europe's history. Its the American Confederation in advanced stages, really, and it's still (fingers crossed) largely working.

    As I study the legal questions of the US 'civil war', I'm afraid I'm more with Steve and the South's side--they had a strong claim to separation given the stated American right to revolution. Do I wish the USA had let the South go--yes--for many more reasons than I have space or inclination to address here.

    The appeasement by the North toward Southern politicians that started immediately after the reconstruction period of the 1870s secured the real hope of that conflict--manifest destiny. The war never really reunited the disparate parts of a country divided along too many lines. It did help realize America's goal of political empire.

    As Gene and I were swept up in what was called a passing 'culture war', we came to see and know its effects. It has long been a factor of American culture. But we must understand great power status is history's prize. Losing the South would have defeated that ambition. It's interesting that a writer here alluded to Rome; there is a connection.

    We think of places we might wish to live in if we were to come back to the US. Admittedly, there are some; but as we say, a bad day in Britain is better than a good day in the USA (and I just had a bad day before reading your post).

    I rarely put these kind of words to print with American friends. It is so readily viewed as ideological apostasy, some form of treason. I fear you'll hunt us down. We know Americans are armed.

    And that's the problem, Uncle Sam. I'm just an American who sees your anger problems differently now.

    Think I'll stay on this side of the Atlantic, thank you.

  4. Today the first permanent President of the European Union was elected.

  5. this is an interesting quewstion I have pondered for some time. While the constitutionality of the South's secession was never addressed by the courts, as far as I know, the larger question is whether the SSuthern states' decision to secede was democratic. Granted most decisions by the U.S. Senate or House, or by individual state assemblies was never democratic in any real sense since elected representatives were granted the power under our reputblican form of goverhnment, to vote on behalf of their constituenciies, nevertheless the question must be considered: did the Southern decision(s) to secede constitute that of the majority of Southerners? The answer is probably not, if one includes the slave population, women, and other dispossesed groups. But since all Amnerican political decisions at this time, and since, have been taken by elected "representatives", the question of the Southern states' decisions to secede must be measured by then existing political legalities. On this level, a decision to secede taken by a state legislature or by a group of such was not in violation of any provision of the U.S. Constitution and could have been seen as a valid exercise of a state's rights. While most states' rights theories (including the rationale behind the decision to secede) camouflaged racist views, that did not make them unconstitutional. While it may have been politicallly impolitic for Lincoln to accede to the South's secession votes, it would not have been impossible. Lincoln made a decision for war to save the union with the consequent loss of one half million men. The Southern decision to secede was no less catastrophic. The course of history might have been for the better if the War had not come, but the question is moot since the war came.

  6. cmeneken, thanks for your thoughts. I hadn't even considered the the legality of secession.

  7. Ropi the first permanent President of the European Union was Elected? strange

    strange... i don't remember voting or even being given a chance too, oh wait only the political classes where allowed to decide not us plebs we might do something crazy and vote for some one the political elites disprove of like all those no votes
    that the we gave.

    nope the EU cant afford to risk the people of Europe messing up their top down supranational and increasingly corporatist style of government with direct elections can they.

    jay in uk and others might like the co-operation and see it as an end to European war I'm no confederate but i fear unless their is a right to succeed their could one day be a European war of succession(well it couldn't be called a civil war could it), peace is a wondrous thing but first and for most to me is freedom from those directly elected and more importantly those who arn't.

    for their to truly be peace their has to be freedom for to take someones freedom away who peacefully insists upon keeping it requiters the threat or initiation of unwarranted force.


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