Blast from the past: Remarkable echoes from Independence Day at the onset of the Civil War

Blast from the past: Remarkable echoes from Independence Day at the onset of the Civil War
Our forefathers, with the short-lived 33-star flag. The 34th star was added on 4 July 1861. Lincoln, Wikipedia, Library of Congress. Douglass, Wikipedia, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, Link

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day in 2018, a new poll shows that only 32% of Democrats are “extremely proud” to be Americans.

This marks a profound difference between Democrats and Republicans.  By contrast, 74% of Republicans are extremely proud to be Americans.

A number of news sites have reported the overall figure of 47% of Americans being extremely proud, as if it reflects a generalized ambivalence or malaise.  But in reality, it’s the result of a deep partisan divide.  (It may or may not be fully accurate, for that matter.  Opinion polls routinely overcount Democrats in their data-norming adjustments.)

Another poll in late June found that 59% of respondents were concerned that anti-Trump agitators might incite a civil war.  That’s a healthy majority expressing concern about the same people – presumably related to the pattern of increasingly incontinent protests, and even violence, from the anti-Trump left.  See, for example, just in the last few days, attacks by Antifa on a “Patriot Prayer” march in Oregon; a chaotic clash of anti-ICE protesters with police in Philadelphia; “Abolish ICE” vandals throwing a brick through the window of a GOP office in Nebraska; and a would-be attacker outside the White House, following the immigration rally on Saturday, 30 June, assaulting a Secret Service agent after screaming at officers and demanding to know where the president was.

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It didn’t help that, during this period, a man was arrested for threatening to chop up Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) family with an axe.

Everyone has an opinion about what’s going on here, and it isn’t the project of this post to hash that out or settle it.  For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced there has to be a civil war.  (And I would most certainly prefer that there not be one.)

As an interesting – bracing – antidote to “civil war” thinking, I can recommend an opinion piece by Walter Russell Mead at the Wall Street Journal from Monday evening.  With his characteristic good sense, Mead reminds us that “our institutions show an unrivaled capacity for weathering disruptive change.”  America has withstood a great deal that undid other nations.  Mead puts to us this proposition:

It is the union of sound institutions with a strong national spirit—ordinary Americans’ patriotism, democratic faith and enterprising ambition—that has made America such a force in the world.

Noisy extremists on the political fringes notwithstanding, that spirit still rules in America today.

May we take heart from this?  With rumors of civil war circulating, I wanted to test the political atmosphere at the outset of our Civil War of 1861-65 for a comparison.  Just a few samples of commentary and rhetoric from the time are a forcible reminder that tremendous upheavals in the life of the Republic give off surprisingly similar echoes.

An editorial complaint

First up, a sour, indeed pessimistic reflection by the New York Times on the condition of the Democratic Party, published on 4 July in the presidential election year of 1860.

Screen cap, author from

The opinion piece speaks for itself.  But what a passage this is, describing the state of the party that had dominated America at that point for more than 30 years:

The Democratic Party has been in power so long, that it has degenerated into a faction.  It has ceased to consult or respect the people, but aims only to plunder and use them.  Corruption, intrigue, the most open prostitution of public power and patronage to party and personal ends have become the law of its action.

The piece speaks of a split party, without vigor, suffering the indifference of blank despair in its ranks.  In 2018, we must honestly say that there is more than a whiff of this in both major parties.

The Democrats seem to be in the craziest meltdown at the moment, seemingly pinning their hopes and future on a youthful socialist whose “landslide” primary win last week involved garnering a grand total of some 16,000 votes.  Many high-profile Democrats are properly skeptical that emphasizing socialism and radical “race” politics is a winning approach for a national party.

But the Republicans are divided and troubled in their own right, suffering some of the same “corruption and intrigue” problems as their Democratic counterparts, and having real trouble uniting principled tending of a political philosophy with actually governing.

When Lincoln was elected in 1860, the Republican Party was in large part a newly-forming reaction to the moral collapse of the Jacksonian Democrats lamented by the New York Times.  The notable sensation for our ears in 2018 is the resonance of that editorial complaint.

An extraordinary affirmation of the U.S. Constitution

In a different spirit – closer to that invoked by Walter Russell Mead – we can review a speech made by Frederick Douglass in 1860, at a time when the topic of the speech, slavery and the Constitution, was foremost on every American voter’s mind.

Douglass was a highly effective public thinker and left a lasting legacy through the cogency of his arguments and rhetoric.  He did so in this speech, using the founding principles of the Constitution itself to demolish every political argument of his time that the Constitution enshrined slavery, or was at least meant to.

The entire article at the link is worth the read.  It is a reminder of how patterns endure in political discourse on contentious topics: speciousness, special pleading, bait-and-switch lines of argument.  The crystalline clarity of Douglass’s counterarguments demonstrates, in the brief survey of this one speech, why he is a national treasure.

But this is the passage – directly from his speech – that stands out for me.  Author Tony Williams has excerpted it in the original:

What, then, is the Constitution?  I will tell you.  It is no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to one’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing.  On the contrary, it is a plainly written document, not in Hebrew or Greek, but in English . . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself.  No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom.  It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can be altered, amended, or added to by the people.

Again, what a passage.  Why did Douglass say the Constitution was “no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to one’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing”?

Because in 1860, as at other times in America’s history, there were those who wanted to treat it precisely as a vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal “something.”

In 2018, there are such people again.  The urge to subvert constitutionalism by denaturing the Constitution is a recurring one.  The New York Times – 158 years on from its lugubrious editorial on the Democrats and the 1860 election – came out only days ago with a full-throated chorus of doubt about the advisability of the First Amendment.  (One critique of that article here.)  The Second and Fourth Amendments are under constant, insidious political assault now, and have been for several decades.  The same may be said of some provisions of the basic Articles of the Constitution.

Frederick Douglass saw it clearly: the Constitution was not an aspirational paroxysm of political feeling; it was meant to govern.  But there will never be a time when its governing force of restraint won’t require defending, because people are forever wanting to turn government to specialized, self-serving, extra-constitutional uses.

The purpose of our blunt, plainly written document was to guard against that.  The Constitution was intended to carry answers within itself: within its logic, its letter, its evident premises.  In this silliest of years, 2018, what a spine-tingling encounter with Frederick Douglass, to hear his voice across time, from the height of the pre-Civil War debate, laying that out for us.

The nation goes to war – with itself

The final echo is Abraham Lincoln’s address to a special session of Congress on 4 July 1861, the 85th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Just three months earlier, shortly after Lincoln took office, the crisis at Fort Sumter had reached its peak, with the first shots fired on 12 April 1861.  The secessions of the Southern states had been underway since December of 1860.  By the time of Lincoln’s address, which functioned as a situation report and an appeal for funding and conscription to prosecute his strategy, the war had become a reality: the South was under armed blockade.  About two weeks after Lincoln’s address, the Union Army would meet the Confederates under Stonewall Jackson at Bull Run, and suffer a stinging defeat.

It sharpens and straightens one’s perspective to read through Lincoln’s account of all that had happened during the spring.  There are thresholds we don’t seem to be anywhere near crossing in 2018 – and, God willing, need not cross.  The tale Lincoln tells is a parade of very human incidents: good faith, bad faith, one after the other transforming the Union day by day into a nation at war.

Who is to say at this late date whether it could have been stopped?  The point is unadjudicable now.  But this is what stood out to me: another passage with echoes for our own time, in which Lincoln expounds on the Southern partisans’ vocabulary of resistance.  2018 is by no means the first time we’ve seen political premises so embedded in the lexicon of “resistance” discourse that they couldn’t be blasted out with bunker-busters.

It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and Government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the National Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.

With rebellion thus sugar coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the Government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretense of taking their State out of the Union who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.

There is never any end to the special pleadings entered as to why you and I must sit still for the fellow over there to violate the law according to his taste, and then define our passive quiescence as the condition of “peace” or true righteousness.  All he has to do is choose for his violation a preemptive, usurping name.

Lincoln’s speech also contains a bracing reminder that these self-justifying rebellions are routinely undertaken by minorities.

It may well be questioned whether there is to-day a majority of the legally qualified voters of any State, except, perhaps, South Carolina, in favor of disunion. There is much reason to believe that the Union men are the majority in many, if not in every other one, of the so-called seceded States. The contrary has not been demonstrated in any one of them.

And this paragraph is a poignant reminder that we have wrestled before with angels for the very soul of our nation:

Whoever in any section [of the nation] proposes to abandon such a [unified] government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words “all men are created equal.” Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit “We, the people,” and substitute “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.” Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?

We tend to forget, if we were ever taught, that the Confederacy left “We, the people” out of its constitution.  The formulation “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States” was doomed precisely because it was like every other constitution devised by humankind.  In appealing to a basic political unit other than the morally accountable man or woman, the Confederacy knee-capped itself at birth.

Any attempt to re-charter the United States in such a way – invoking the representation of group identities, as we can be absolutely certain today’s identity-driven leftists would do – would be a hopeless one.

I think most Americans can see that clearly, if it is laid out for them.  Here, on Independence Day, are voices from the past that illuminate for us how enduring these human quandaries are, and how blessed we are to have been founded with a supply of touchstones to solve them with.

We are in a strange and bizarrely unfamiliar time.  But we are not alone.  America has always beaten the odds, for reasons we may not – and in many ways need not – all agree on.  We can do so again.

Let freedom ring.

For our Liberty Unyielding tradition of posting the Declaration of Independence and Patrick Henry’s famous speech, see here from 2017.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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