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Defending the Cause of Human Freedom

By Harry V. Jaffa


The Spring 1994 Intercollegiate Review featured a section entitled "Not In Memoriam, But in Affirmation: M.E. Bradford." I welcome this, or any tribute, to my departed friend. As many readers of Intercollegiate Review know, my eulogy of Bradford was published in National Review, and was well received by his Confederate friends as well as by others who, like myself, are devoted to the cause of the Union.

Mel and I debated the character of Abraham Lincoln, and the issues of the Civil War generally. Although we were on opposite sides, our conviction that the Civil War was the central event in American--and possibly in world--history, was a bond between us. Neither of us ever made the smallest concession to the other in the course of argument, and Mel would consider it a false sentimentality were I to do so now.

In "Defending the High Ground," Jim McClellan writes:

Lincoln, Bradford persuasively demonstrated, was more than simply wrong headed; he was a "dishonest" and "duplicitous" "pseudo-Puritan," and a disingenuous "opportunist" guilty of "calculated posturing," "historical distortions," and "high crimes"; he was indeed "the American Caesar of his age." "It is at our peril," cautioned Bradford, "that we continue to reverence his name."

In fact, Bradford never "persuasively demonstrated" anything of the kind to anyone outside his own circle of Confederate loyalists like McClellan. No serious scholar that I know of has ever given the slightest credence to language like this about Lincoln. Everything Bradford wrote about Lincoln has its antecedents in the Southern editorials during the Civil War. What made Bradfords diatribes so unusual is that they were written as if the war was still going on, as in fact it was, in his mind. In a sense, he devoted his life to keeping the passions of that war alive.

How wrong-headed he could be is apparent when McClellan cites his charge against Lincoln for having "mismanaged the commercial and business life of the North." Lincoln neither managed nor mismanaged the commercial and business life of the North. The United States was not a socialist state, or a corporate state, or anything of the kind, during Lincolns presidency.

Lincoln took office two weeks after Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. Davis, a West Point graduate, and Mexican War hero, had been Secretary of War for four years during Pierces administration. He knew every dockyard and arsenal in the country, and he (and the Southern governors) immediately set about appropriating all the federal properties within their reach.

The Union government under Buchanan had meanwhile been drifting in imbecility. Washington, D.C., surrounded entirely by slave states, was virtually bare of any military defenses, when Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. Only the fact that the border slave statesincluding Virginiawere still in the Union, and still stood between Washington and the Confederate states, kept the Confederate forces from sweeping the Lincoln government off the face of the map.

To extricate his government from this peril, and build the military forces of the Union, Lincolns administration had to set about buying supplies in a manner that can be called frenzied. What is more, he had to do this in large measure by improvising his own administrative structures, since the regular departments were honeycombed with traitors.

The two previous presidents had been radically pro-slavery and pro-Southern. The War Department was staffed largely with men who had served under Jefferson Davis. In bringing order out of the chaos he faced upon taking office, Lincoln performed a miracle. That there was some profiteering in the process, and some corruption, could hardly have been avoided. What Bradford resented, however, was Lincolns success.

Bradfords thesis that Lincoln waged a "Cromwellian" war of aggression against the South is without any foundation. He and I debated this a number of times, and he would never acknowledge the following facts. The "real" secession of the South from the Union came at the Democratic convention in Charleston, in April 1860. The seven states of the deep South walked out, when the majoritywho came to nominate Stephen A. Douglasrefused to accept a plank in the party platform calling for a federal guarantee of slave property in every United States Territory.

Douglas, who had defended the right of slave owners to migrate to the Territoriesand who had in 1854 legislated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise restriction upon such migrationinsisted that it was up to the settlers in the territories to decide for themselves what their "domestic institutions" would be. He himself, Douglas had said, didnt care whether slavery "was voted up or voted down." He believed only in the "sacred right" of the people to decide all such questions for themselves.

In point of fact, it was sheer folly for the Southerners to reject Douglas. He was a furious "Manifest Destiny" expansionist, and as president would have supported their demands for the acquisition of Cuba, and probably the rest of Latin America as well. In all these places slavery could have expanded, almost certainly with Douglass active support, and without any effective hindrance from the North. It was the rebellion of the deep South against Douglas that elected Lincoln. And the explanation is simply that their fanaticism on slavery would not permit them to tolerate anyone who did not actively share that fanaticism. Of the antebellum South it may truly be said, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

It cannot be too often repeated that the South seceded because of its demand for a federal guarantee of slavery in every United States Territory, then or thereafter existing. This demand was rejected by Douglas no less than by Lincoln. In fact, no one who endorsed it could have been elected dog-catcher in any free state.

Contrary to a common mistaken opinion, this demand of the South, made in the name of states rights, represented a demand for an unprecedented extension of federal power. It meant that federal troops, if necessary, would be sent to any Territory to protect a slaveholders property, in the same way that President Pierce sent federal troops to Boston to recover a runaway slave in 1854. Or in much the same way that President Eisenhower would one day send federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the desegregation order of a federal court. This meant using federal police power to enforce slavery on a community that did not want it.

So much for the vaunted claim that the South was defending self-government against the tyranny of federal centralism. The South did not therefore secede in 1860 and 1861 in order to defend self-rule within their own boundaries. That was never threatened. They seceded in order to be able to spread slavery beyond the boundaries of the slave states themselves into any American territory, present or future.

The only antislavery policy ever advanced or advocated by Abraham Lincoln was one designed to keep slavery from spreading to territories where it had not already gone. He opposed as unconstitutional any attempt to interfere with slavery in the states where it was lawful. All charges against him of intending a forcible overthrow of slavery were and are absolutely false. The Civil War came because the South would not accept the results of the 1860 presidential election, although that election was conducted in strict conformity with the rules of the Constitution.

When the states ratified the Constitution of 1787, they pledged themselves to accept the results of elections conducted according to its rules. What came to be called the right of secession meant a right to break up a government after an election because the secessionists had not won the election. It was however an absurdity to call this a right of self-government. And the South could not point to a word in the Constitution protecting the rights of minorities that Lincoln had either violated, or had threatened to violate.

The precedent set by the seceding Southerners would have been fatal to the very idea of free government. The lesson that Lincoln had to prove to the world was that those who lose elections must seek their redress in future elections, not in attempting to set aside elections themselves. Ballots must not be destroyed by bullets. If the constitutional majority cannot rule through the ballot box, the only alternatives are tyranny and anarchy. The defense of the Union was then, in the fullest possible sense, the defense of the cause of free government.

It is difficult to understand how anyone can with a straight face defend the cause of the Confederacy as the cause of limited government. The government of slaves was not limited government. Spreading slavery was spreading despotism. The Constitution did not enumerate among the powers of Congress the power to spread slavery to the Territories.

McClellan mentions Alexander Hamilton Stephens Constitutional View of the War Between the States, which was and remains probably the best defense of the Confederate cause. It is all about states rights, and the defense of the minority against the tyranny of the numerical majority, although the "silent minority," the four million slaves, are never counted. It is substantially the book that Calhoun would have written had he been alive to do so. Stephens, who was Vice President of the Confederacy, had also been widely knownNorth and Southas one of the intellectual luminaries of his time.

On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, Stephens gave an address that has come down to us as the "cornerstone" speech. It is remarkable, not least because of how markedly it differs from Constitutional View, written after the war. It was delivered after Lincolns inauguration, and before Fort Sumter, during that "deadly hiatus" when it was possible to think the Confederacy was destined for a peaceful and permanent future.

What then, according to its learned and scholarly Vice President, was the essential and fundamental distinction between the "old Constitution of 1787, and the new Confederate Constitution? Since Bradford was tireless in abusing Lincoln for clothing his language in biblical phrases, it is noteworthy that the cornerstone speech is built upon a theme from Psalms 118:22.

The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.

This verse is repeated at least three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus himself. In every case, it is Jesus who is the "cornerstone." Here are some leading excerpts:

The new [i.e. Confederate] Constitution has put to rest forever all agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutionAfrican slavery as it exists among usthe proper status of the negro in our forms of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Italics in the original.] The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of the day was, that somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time.

We pause here to note that what Stephens calls the "prevailing ideas" of the time of the adoption of the "old" Constitution corresponds exactly with the political thought of the Founding Fathers, as Lincoln represented itabove all in the Gettysburg Address. What Stephens says about the antislavery character of the political thought of the Founding era contradicts the Kendall thesis (followed by Bradford, Garry Wills, and McClellan himself) that the Gettysburg Address had "derailed" the American political tradition, and foisted a novel conception of equality upon the nation. It did nothing of the kind. It preserved the authentic principles of the Fathers against their violent overthrow by the proslavery South.

Stephens continued.

The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantee thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.

Contrary to Bradford (not to mention Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun), the guarantees of slavery in the Constitution in no way belie or contradict the essentially antislavery opinion of those who framed and ratified the Constitution. Once again, this gives unequivocal support to Lincolns position. Now we come to Stephens peripateia, the reversal of the direction of his argument.

Those ideas [viz., of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the Constitution] however were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a government built upon it; when the 'storm came and the wind blew, it fell.'

We pause to note that the parable of the house built upon sand comes from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:28. Lincoln was never more "biblical" in his rhetoric than Stephens. According to Stephens, the doctrine of human equality was the sandy foundation upon which the "old Constitution was built. What then is the cornerstone of a house, or constitution, that can last?

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not the equal to the white man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth.

Hence slavery is to true government what the Gospel is to true religion! However, it is not religion, but science, upon which Stephens relies.

This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science...It was so with the principles of Galileoit was so with Adam Smith...it was so with Harvey and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now they are universally acknowledged.

May we not therefore look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon principles of strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. The negro, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.

It is a fatal blow to Bradfords proto-Burkean idea of "ancestral wisdom," or the wisdom of "our fathers," that the cornerstone of the Confederacy should be a recent discovery of modern science, one to which our ancestors were not privy. Not tradition, but scientific racism is then the cornerstone of the Confederate Constitution. That Stephens can compare this great new "Scientific discovery" to Galileos or Harveys proves how completely the mind of the South was perverted by its passion for slavery. The Confederate States of America was a genteel anticipation, but an anticipation nonetheless, of the Third Reich.

We note that Stephens, in passing, mentions that it may also be "by the curse against Canaan," that the Negro is destined to servitude. While an alleged progress in science is the main basis for Stephens convictions with respect to Negro slavery, it was not "reason" but "revelation" that led Jefferson Davis to the same conclusion.

I commend as a comprehensive account of Davis convictions concerning slavery, his speech before the Democratic state Convention, at Jackson, Mississippi, July 6, 1859. It is fascinating, but too long for extended quotation here. Suffice it that it is in the story of Noah and his sons (Genesis 9:20-27) that Davis finds complete and sufficient justification of Negro slavery. Never did Lincoln draw on the Bible for support of any position of his own as Davis does. It is important here that we recall precisely the story Davis draws upon.

Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japeth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their fathers nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slave shall he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. God enlarge Japeth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave."

Now the foregoing is fraught with the greatest interest to all of us who draw sustenance from the Bible. Talmudic scholars have undoubtedly filled many volumes with their commentaries on it. One wonders why Noah cursed Canaan the son, when Ham the father seems to have been the offender. These are deep waters into which we do not propose to go. The story certainly seems to have something to do with the fact that one day the Israelites would have to conquer the Canaanites in order to take possession of the Promised Land.

Jefferson Davis is categorical in pronouncing four million Americans, and all their descendants for all future time, to be "the degenerate sons of Ham," fit only to be slaves. This implies that Negroes were descended from the Canaanites. But the Canaanites were not black! Neither were the great majority of the many millions of slaves in the ancient world. We mention these facts as conclusively refuting Davis thesis, even if there is someone not under legal constraint who is inclined to accept the lunatic notion that anyone today can be justly enslaved because of the episode described in the ninth chapter of Genesis.

The vice-president and the president of the Confederate States of America grounded their justification of American slavery on the grounds of a fraudulent science and a crazy fundamentalism. No sane person today can regard them as other than pathetic reminders of a societylike Nazi Germanymentally unbalanced by its commitment to human inequality.

John C. Calhoun was the philosopher-king of the old South, the spiritual mentor of Stephens, Davis, and most of the political leaders of the Confederacy. Bradford and McClellan (following Willmoore Kendall) are obsessed with the utterly false notion that Lincoln was somehow responsible for the permissive egalitarianism of the contemporary welfare state. But equality as such was no less important to Calhoun than to Lincoln. It was just a different kind of equality. Consider:

I am a Southern man and a slaveholdera kind and merciful one, I trustand none the worse for being a slaveholder. I say, for one, I would rather meet any extremity upon earth than give up one inch of our equalityone inch of what belongs to us as members of this republic! What! Acknowledged inferiority! The surrender of life is nothing to sinking down into acknowledged inferiority! (In the Senate, February 19, 1847.)

It never occurs to Calhoun that black human beings might also resent, with equalor much greaterreason, "acknowledged inferiority." That is because he does not think of them as human. Calhoun simply assumes that blacks have neither the reason nor the passions that are characteristically human. They are chattels, that is, cattle, for all intents and purposes. Once again, Calhoun:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them. (In the Senate, August 12, 1849.)

We see here the essence of the Southern understanding of equality, why it was so highly prized, and why so resolutely defended. Every white man can be proud of himselfcan consider himself an aristocratnot because of his virtues or accomplishments, but simply because he is not black! By rejecting the principle that all men are created equal, by keeping "the degenerate sons of Ham" under foot (and under the lash), one need never do anything to become important, like members of the royal family. It is not without reason that Lincoln compared slavery to the divine right of kings! Calhoun demanded equality no less than Lincoln. But his equality required a "cornerstone" of slavery.

Compare this with Lincolns beautiful and profound application of the Golden Rule of the Bible, that we should do unto others what we would that they should do unto us, and, of course, that we should not do unto others what we would not have others do unto us.

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

Here is the true ancestral wisdom upon which alone free government can be built.

Harry V. Jaffa is a Distinguished Fellow of The Claremont Institute.

All pages copyright © 1999 The Claremont Institute