Tag Archives: secession

Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

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America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory

The Orginal Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

The Original Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

Americans are still in the midst of celebrating (if indeed that’s the appropriate word to use) the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yet even after all this time, a good many aspects of the war and its legacy are difficult for some people to accept and process. This is especially the case regarding the central role of slavery in causing the conflict, and how the war’s losing side, the Confederacy, should be remembered. The Confederate States of America existed from 1861-1865, and the men who founded the southern nation did so for the express purpose of protecting slavery from what they alleged to be the abolitionist, pro-racial equality stances of the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

Thus, the Confederacy was, at its core, a paradoxical entity: it was a slaveholders’ republic; a democracy based on white supremacy, in which the existence of black slavery explicitly contrasted with, and nurtured, white freedom.

Of course, in some respects, the Confederacy wasn’t all that different from the United States at the time. Indeed, white supremacy in its various forms was the open guiding principle of American society throughout the majority of the nation’s history, and, on some levels, still remains so today. But the Confederacy was something different still. It was a nation that tried to beat back calls for America to repent for its original sin of human bondage. In this respect, the Confederate experiment was the ultimate in conservative counter-revolutions: its government protected, and its armies fought for, the freedom for one group of people to enslave another group. Ever since the end of the Civil War, it’s this core fact that’s been hard for some Americans to take.

A case-in-point is the recent snafu over the proposed removal of Confederate flags from Washington and Lee University chapel in Virginia — the burial site of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory notes, a group of black law students at the university understandably take offence to the preponderance of Rebel flags on the campus, and in a letter to the Board of Trustees, they demanded that the university “remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.” The students’ demands naturally attracted the attention of that wily group of Rebel flag-waving’ Gomer Pyles known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who, of course, were not happy about this latest alleged attempt to stomp all over their Dixieland myths.

Over at Crossroads, Brookes Simpson highlights some of the dunder-headed claims made by Ben Jones, the new SCV chief of heritage operations. “It appears that those who have a very simplistic view of American history have decided that the 150th anniversary of The Civil War is the right time to demonize the Southern culture,” Jones stated. He then made the usual spiel about how America was built on slavery (a statement so uncontroversial that historians have acknowledged it for decades) and he maintains that this point somehow makes it okay to deny that the fact that the Confederacy tried to perpetuate slavery indefinitely. But Jones’ most important point comes when he invokes Martin Luther King (talk about ballsy) to claim that Americans should reconcile “by accepting our past as it is.”

But, of course, for folks like the SCV, “accepting the past as it is” is, in fact, no easy task, because doing so means recognizing and accepting the fact that the Confederacy viewed black slavery and white freedom as intimately connected: one facilitated the other. In 1860, when the Republican Party came to power under the platform of preventing slavery’s extension into the western territories — but not touching it the states where it already existed — such a platform was too much for southern Fire-Eaters to bear. Indeed, the mere HINT that Abraham Lincoln — who was elected by an exclusively northern electorate — might try to free the South’s slaves was enough to justify a new southern nation in which slavery could flourish unencumbered forever.

As secessionists in Craven County, North Carolina told Governor John W. Ellis in 1860, “the people of North Carolina have a common interest with all the slave holding states and whereas in common with them the State of North Carolina has suffered from the aggressions of the North upon the institution of slavery until the burden has become intolerable.” In order to relive this “intolerable” burden, the majority of the slave-holding southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61. This was the cause for which Confederate armies fought, and its a cause that some modern-day Americans choose to conceal with an intentional historical fog.

In the twenty-first century, it troubles some Americans to think that their ancestors fought and died for such an odious cause. After all, America is supposed to be exceptional! America then, as now, was supposed to be the “land of the free.” How, then, could southern politicians form a new nation dedicated to protecting slavery? And how could they convince tens-of-thousands of southern whites to defend that nation to the death? The answer lies in the way black slavery legitimized white freedom in the antebellum South.

Weather we likeit or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Whether we like it or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Liberty in the antebellum South was built on slavery through the concept of “Herrenvolk Democracy” (a term derived from the German word for “master race”), which held that despite their inequality in property and status, all white men were equal in their shared racial domination over blacks. This concept offered a clear contrast between the free and unfree, as slaveholding and non-slaveholding whites alike measured their liberty against the millions of slaves that surrounded them. Poor and yeomen southern whites recognized a common kinship with planters and feared competing with blacks for land and labor in the event of slavery’s abolishment. Thus, Herrenvolk Democracy made southerners susceptible to “us vs. them” styles of political demagoguery.

And boy-oh-boy did the southern secessionists play the demagogue’s card in 1860. Consider the state of Texas. Its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union makes it clear that slavery was the bedrock of what would become the new Southern nation:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people…She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.

But for Texas, joining the Confederacy wasn’t just about maintaining slavery; it was also about upholding the racial dominance that undermined slavery, which the non-slaveholding northern states allegedly threatened. Thus, the Texas declaration further stated that:

 [I]n this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Here you see the very essence of Herrenvolk Democracy: a state in which “all white men are…entitled to equal civil and political rights,” regardless of their class or station, because “the servitude of the African race” ensured that all blacks would remain an enslaved underclass over whom whites could dominate. As historian Stephanie McCurry writes in her book Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (which EVERYONE interested in the Civil War should read), “What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”* White southerners in 1860 understood that their shared racial equality was bolstered by the fact that black slaves could never, under any circumstances, be their equals — the non-slaveholding states be damned.

This is why secessionist politicians argued that forming the Confederacy was a necessary bulwark against what they thought was Lincoln’s secret plans to end slavery and force racial equality on the South. They knew their audiences’ prejudices, and they played to them brilliantly. For example, in December of 1860, Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky, told Bluegrass state governor Beriah Magoffin that, “if the policy of the Republicans is carried out…and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes.” The key point in Hale’s letter is how “the slave-holder and non-slaveholder” alike would be threatened by slavery’s demise. Hale explained this point further when he wrote that:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama's secession commisioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulawrk against abolition and racial equality.

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulwark against abolition and racial equality.

This was hardly an accurate description of the Republican Party’s policy in 1860, but what matters is that secessionists BELIEVED that the increased sectional power of the northern states portended not just the end of slavery, but also racial equality. Even after the South seceded from the Union, Confederates continued to invoke Herrenvolk Democracy throughout the war as a way to shore up white support for the Rebel cause. In December 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer warned Kentuckians that the “Northern hordes” would overrun Kentucky, and that “[t]heir Government has laid heavy taxes on you to carry on this unnatural war, which is openly avowed to be to set at liberty your slaves, and the ensuing steps in which will be to put arms in their hands, and give them political and social equality with yourselves.”

In his November 1863 inaugural address to the Mississippi legislature (which begins on pg. 158 at the link), Charles Clark, the Magnolia state’s Fire-Eating Confederate governor, echoed Zollicoffer’s warnings that the North would force racial equality on the South. “Between the South and the North there is a great gulf fixed,” Clark stated, “Humbly submit yourselves to our hated foes, and they will offer you a reconstructed Constitution providing for the confiscation of your property, the immediate emancipation of your slaves and the elevation of the black race to a position of equality, aye, of superiority, that will make them your masters and rulers.” Clark claimed that only violent resistance could stave off racial armageddon. “Rather than such base submission, such ruin and dishonor, let the last of our young men die upon the field of battle,” he vowed.

When you consider how the long tradition of Herrenvolk Democracy helped construct the antebellum South’s racial order, you can see why secessionists were so threatened by any-and-all possible restrictions on slavery that might come from the Northern states. The idea that the Confederacy defined white freedom in explicit contrast to black slavery is what makes the SCV-types so defensive about the way Americans remember the legacy of the southern rebellion. The Confederate flag, as the symbol of the short-lived slaveholder’s republic, represents a nation that fought to preserve slavery and the system of racial dominance that bolstered the “peculiar institution.”

When Americans choose to remember the Confederacy by intentionally stripping it of its very ideological foundations, they are, in effect, fogging up the windows of the past with a present-day vision of what they WANT the Confederacy to be. This vision bears little resemblance to what the Confederacy actually was. This is also the reason why no amount of historical evidence that links the Confederacy to protecting slavery and white supremacy will ever convince those who have a vested interest in believing otherwise. They aren’t interested in learning about the past; rather, they’re so blinded by a belief in American (and Southern) exceptionalism that the notion that Americans once fought for slavery — the very antithesis of freedom — is an unpalatable fact that they deny at all costs.

But just remember, folks: we as Americans won’t learn anything from the past if we try to sugar-coat history with an idealized mythology. It’s better to have lived and learned than never to have learned at all.

* See Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.

Why Some Americans Just Can’t Handle the Truth About Slavery

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify  human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.

No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.

Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s  statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:

At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!

Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.

Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.

So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.

This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.

The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.

These individuals, known as "Tariffs," were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

These individuals, known as “Tariffs,” were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.

If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.

Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*

Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.

While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.  

* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.

Big Government and Race: An American Saga

Tea Party protectors are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which the prviledged complain about stuff.

Tea Party protesters are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which privileged white people complain about stuff.

With the Republican Tea Party-backed congressional orcs continuing to lay siege to the Helm’s Deep of the federal government, there’s been a lot of discussion of late, especially by Salon’s Joan Walsh and Think Progress’ Zack Beauchamp, about how deeply entrenched issues of racial resentment are at the heart of the government shutdown. Both point to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” that for several decades now has effectively convinced insecure white people that “Big Government,” steered by the Democrats, will redistribute state-supported goodies like tax benefits and welfare from the truly deserving ivory nobles to the allegedly mooching dusky rabble.

As I noted in a previous post, there’s a whole lot of truth to Walsh and Beauchamp’s points. Over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore cites recent focus group studies by Stanley Greenberg of Tea Party supporters to frame the current shutdown over Obamacare as the logical end-point of a conservative ideology driven in large part by fear of redistributive government policies. As Kilgore notes, Greenberg’s study concluded that:

[The argument against Obamacare that] is the most important and elicits the most passions among Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans—that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency—the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent.

Greenberg’s Republican Tea Partiers are terrified that black and brown minorities, whom they view as undeserving, will use “Big Government” to take from the deserving (read: whites). Don Swift of the Rag Blog echoed this argument during the 2012 presidential election, linking Tea Party nutbaggery to what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style in American politics,” in which self-described white “Real Americans” freak out over the thought of variously defined foreign elements taking what they perceive as rightfully theirs. The benefits up for grabs have ranged from tax breaks to suffrage, but the sentiment of “I earned it, you’re taking it” remains the same.

Swift sees the Tea Party, the current vice around the quivering gonads of the congressional Republican caucus, as part of a long streak of fringe, right-wing weirdo groups in U.S. history that also includes the John Birch Society and various Militia movements. These groups, Swift notes, “react against change,” and “they see the government as an agent of unwanted change and they set out to disrupt and replace it.”

The Tea Party is indeed radical, and nuttier than a Planter’s factory, but on thing they are not is fringe. Lest you need reminded of Tea Party conservatism’s political legitimacy, I point to Exhibit A: the Republican Party. There’s a bunch of historical factors that led up to the Tea Party movement, but the most significant of those factors is the resiliency of anti “Big Government” sentiment in American history.

Americans have always had a complicated relationship with government power. Often they have been, and continue to be, justifiably sceptical of it, but just as frequently, Americans of various stripes have embraced “Big Government” when it ensured that state power would be used to benefit white Americans at the expense of non-white minorities. This was especially true in the 19th century with regards to Native Americans and African-Americans. By contrast, when whites have perceived that state benefits would flow to non-whites, they have tended to rail against “Big Government” as the agent of tyranny. Thus, American fears of “Big Government” have been historically intertwined with racial prejudice, the Tea Party being only the most recent example.

Far from being a fringe idea, anti “Big-Government” paranoia is a deeply influential, deeply American cultural sentiment, with roots in the 19th century and wrapped in historical cloaks of hypocrisy and status anxiety. Its staying power attests to its long tradition.

A few glaring examples of this phenomenon should suffice. Take one of the most odious instances of racial injustice of the 19th century: the removal of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. The policy of Indian Removal had its greatest champion in one the towering figures of limited government: President Andrew Jackson. For the most part, Jackson favored laissez-faire economics, states’ rights over federal power, opposed a national bank, and mouthed a general distrust of a government monopoly by “elites.” But, like nearly all Americans of his time, Jackson also believed in white cultural and racial superiority, and was willing to use federal power to enforce those beliefs.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

In the 1820s and 30s, the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, Chickasaw, and Seminoles still lived on the lands of the Old Southwest (GA, AL, MS, LA, AK) that had been guaranteed by federal treaties which (ostensibly) recognized Indians as sovereign people. White Americans in these southern states, however, regarded “savage” Indians as barriers to white settlement and economic gain, and resented federal Indian policy as an affront to white democracy and states’ rights. Whites, especially in Georgia, complained that the federal government lacked the authority to recognize sovereign peoples within states and demanded that it kick the Indians out.

When the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, upheld Indians’ rights to occupy southern lands and denied the states’ rights to kick them out, President Andrew Jackson defied the court’s orders, supposedly sneering, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Jackson thus emerged as the champion of white grievances. After signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law, he ordered the “savage” tribes to remove to Oklahoma, threatening to use Federal power in the form of the U.S. army if they refused to voluntarily relocate. The tragic “Trail of Tears” is Jackson’s legacy.

In one of those great and shameless historical ironies, Jackson, the small government proponent, used big government to enforce the racial and economic whims of states’ rights favoring white southern Americans, who were all too happy rely on federal power to open up lands for white settlement.

White southern Americans, erstwhile supporters of “Big Government” when it was used to their advantage against “savage,” non-white Indian “others,” nonetheless threw the biggest political fit in U.S. history when, in 1860, it appeared that Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party would gain control of the federal government and use it to force the emancipation of slaves and subsequent “negro equality” on the helpless white South. To prevent this impending doom, white southern secessionists decided that “Big Government” was now the enemy, and leaned on states’ rights as the last buffer against Lincoln’s coming tyranny.

The Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama were the first to secede from the Union in 1860-61. In an effort to convince other slaveholding southern states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia to follow their lead, the already seceded states sent secession commissioners out to convince the rest of the Slave South to join the southern Confederacy. Historian Charles Dew documents the secession commissioners’ work in his stellar book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

South Carolina's Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed "Big Government" as the diabolical agent of "negro equality."

James Orr, South Carolina’s Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed “Big Government” as the diabolical agent of “negro equality.”

The secession commissioners gave mind-blowingly racist speeches to convince white southern good ole’ boys that the Republican Party would use the government to enforce black whims as whites’ expense. Take the following lines from a December 17, 1860 speech delivered in Georgia by Mississippi commissioner William Harris. “Our fathers made this government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race,” Harris stated. “This new [Lincoln] administration comes into power, under the solemn pledge to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union…and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”*

A December 27, 1860 letter written by Alabama commissioner Stephen Hale to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin framed a Republican domination of government in equally apocalyptic racial terms. “If the policy of the Republicans is carried out,” Hale warned, “the slave-holder  and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes…stripped…of that title to superiority over the black race.*

Its nary much of stretch to compare the rhetoric of the 19th century secession commissioners, who warned that the Republican Party would use its control over the federal government to force “negro equality” on the beleaguered white South, to that of contemporary Tea Party Republicans, who warn that the Democratic Party will take money from hard-working (read: white) Americans and give it to undeserving, shiftless black and Latino minorities. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party draws most of its strength from the old Southern Confederacy; like the southern secessionists, they fear that state benefits will be transferred from “us” to “them.”

The circumstances have changed, but the broader sentiments remain: “Big Government” is fine when it gives land to white settlers, enforces white racial superiority, and gives “earned” benefits like Medicare and Social Security to whites. But its tyrannical when it threatens to recognize Indians’ rights, mess with slavery, or extend state benefits like Obamacare to lazy racial “others.”

This is why, as CBS news’ Timothy Noah reported last year, Tea Partiers supported arch Ayn Rand drone Paul Ryan (R-WI), despite his plans to destroy Medicare and Social Security: because 70-75% of them are AARP eligible. The Tea Party geriatrics, Noah writes, “are against government benefits for other people,” but rely on anti-government rhetoric  to “convince themselves that Medicare and Social Security benefits are different because they’ve already paid for them through payroll taxes (when in fact beneficiaries take out far more than they put in; that’s why both programs need periodic adjustments).”

By supporting “Big Government” for themselves while denying it to “others,” Tea Party Republicans are continuing a long, mainstream American tradition in which views about state power have been highly contingent on who draws the benefits of state power. As the ruling demographic majority during the United States’ entire existence, white people have been able to walk a hypocritical line, embracing state power in the name of caucasian rights while rejecting the federal government as tyrannical and antithetical to states’ rights when it threatens to serve Indians, Blacks, and Latinos.  But don’t accuse conservative white America of hypocrisy in this matter because…FREEDOM!

* Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 98-99.

Government Shutdown and the Return of the Fire-Eaters

Virginia's Edmund Ruffin, a fire eater who, early in the Civil War, vowed that he would would go down with the Confederate ship. And the son-of-gun did it, too.

Virginia’s Edmund Ruffin, a Fire-Eater who, early in the Civil War, vowed that he would go down with the Confederate ship rather than submit to Yankee rule. And the son-of-gun did it, too, with a gun.

History is sort of important. We as humans consistently look back on the dunderheaded actions our species took in the past and often vow that we’ll never again jump onto the bad idea train even when it passes by at a slow pace with open side cars. Some folks, however, can’t resist: they don’t just want to ride the bad idea train, they want to run it full speed into the gaping, boulder-strewn gorge of failed historical trends. We describe these people as being on the wrong side of history.

Such is the case with the radically conservative Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, who are gleefully doing all that they can to turn the governmental train into a smouldering heap of wreckage. The current GOP-led House may validate the Greek philosopher Plato’s claim that all democracies must fall prey to the whims of society’s loudest, most dim-witted, authoritarian-minded nematodes, eventually collapsing into anarchic chaos before control is reasserted by a tyrannical ruler. The U.S. isn’t there yet, but the Tea Party caucus is sticking up the conductor, and it may just be a matter of time.

Over a the New York Times blog, Timothy Egan sees the House Republicans who have shut down the government in a desperate bid to destroy Obamacare as clearly one of those factions who are on the wrong side of history’s arch:

About 30 or so Republicans in the House, bunkered in gerrymandered districts while breathing the oxygen of delusion, are now part of a cast of miscreants who have stood firmly on the wrong side of history. The headline, today and 50 years from now, will be the same: Republicans closed the government to keep millions of their fellow Americans from getting affordable health care.

They are not righteous rebels or principled provocateurs. They are not constitutionalists, using the ruling framework built by the founders. Just the opposite: they are a militant fringe of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government trying to nullify an established law by extortion. This is not the design of the Constitution.

Egan goes on to compare the House GOP to the staunchly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of the 1850s and to the right-wing nut bars that opposed Social Security and Medicare in the mid-20th century. These comparisons are apt, but Egan misses a comparison to another group to which the current House GOP bears an uncanny resemblance: the Fire-Eaters.

The Fire-Eaters were a rather unorganized group of extreme, unyielding, southern, pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s and 1860s who advocated for the protection of slavery from northern threats at any cost. During the build-up to the Civil War, the Fire-Eaters embraced immediate secession from the Union and the formation of a Southern Confederacy as the best means to protect and extend slavery in perpetuity. Northerners dubbed these guys “Fire-Eaters” due to the pompously over-heated rhetoric they brought to the slavery debate.

As historian Eric Walther explains in his definitive study of these pro-slavery southern radicals, some of the most famous Fire-Eaters, like Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, and William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama helped mould southern public opinion in 1860-61 towards accepting the necessity of disunion in the name of slavery’s defence. The Confederate States of America — the bloody, failed experiment in southern independence — is their great legacy.

Although the current House GOP isn’t advocating slavery (at least I’m pretty sure they aren’t), they are, like the Fire-Eaters before them, a “militant fringe” hell-bent on subverting the traditional rules of government as defined by the Constitution in order to assert the demands of a minority faction over the power of an elected majority. In another echo of the Fire-Eaters, the GOP House caucus, a group that no-less a right-wing luminary than Charles Krauthammer called the “Suicide Caucus,” is largely a southern-flavored bunch: half of their districts are in the South, while the rest represent rural districts in the West and Midwest.

The term “Suicide Caucus” is rather apt for this group; like the Fire-Eaters, they are incapable of rationally examining the effects that their demands might have on the country as a whole. Just as the Fire-Eaters’ constant badgering for secession and Confederate independence blinded them to the possible bloodbath of war that such demands entailed, the GOP caucus has been willing to shut down most of the federal government — and may default on the national debt — to achieve the goals of their minority faction.

Consider this section from an August 21, 2013 letter that congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), speaking for the radical Tea Party caucus, sent to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), urging the Speaker to risk a shutdown over Obamacare:

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that the “power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon … for obtaining a redress of every grievance…” We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time and to restore patient-centered healthcare in America.

See what’s going on there? Meadows is claiming that the basic separation of governmental powers, as outlined in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, justifies the right of one branch of government — in this case a branch in the clear minority — to essentially hold the entire government hostage by clinging to the congressional bag of money that keeps the government running. This is not a separation of powers; it’s a rejection of government itself; an extortion attempt by a minority to subvert the will of the majority.

The House Republican caucus: the inmates have the keys.

The House Republican caucus: the inmates have the keys.

This is precisely the kind of blatant shenanigans the Fire-Eaters pulled when justifying the need for the South to secede from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election. Consider these lines delivered in 1860 by arch-Fire-Eater William Lowndes Yancey to the Democratic Party Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, it which he urged the South to hold firm on its pro-slavery-or-else stance in the face of northern political power:

The South is in a minority, we have been tauntingly told to-day…We are, therefore, in a numerical minority. But we do not murmur at this; we cheerfully accept the result; but we as firmly claim the right of the minority—and what is that? We claim the benefit of the Constitution that was made for the protection of minorities…

Bear with us then, while we stand sternly upon what is yet a dormant volcano, and say that we can yield no position until we are convinced that we are wrong.

Yancey and other Fire-Eaters, a political minority in 1860, claimed to be standing on a “dormant volcano,” unwilling to budge unless their demands were granted — or the volcano blew into the Civil War. Now, in 2013, the GOP congressional caucus finds itself in a similar position, in which they’ve already let the volcano of a government shutdown blow, and are willing to risk another explosion in the form of national default unless Obamacare is defunded — a concession that President Obama and the Democratic Party refuses to grant.

This radicalized conservative GOP caucus has already caused a good deal of collateral damage by shuttering multiple federal government functions, and even the Republicans’ traditional allies on Wall Street are fearful of the dangerous consequences of a national default. While the shutdown won’t reach the catastrophic bloodbath that was the result of the Fire-Eaters’ called-for Civil War, the principle remains the same: radicalized minority factions are a danger, both to the idea of democracy and to the functioning of it via the mechanisms of governmental operations.

If the GOP doesn’t want to prove Plato right by plunging the U.S. into turmoil followed by tyranny, they’d better bash some sense into their collective noggins…soon. Let’s hope they don’t follow the example of Virginia Fire-Eater Edmund Ruffin, who, on June 18, 1865, faced with the reality of Confederate defeat in the Civil War, declared his “unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule…& to the Yankee race” before placing his rifle in his mouth and using a stick to pull the trigger. Ruffin, true to convictions, gave himself fully to the principles to which he was devoted, but he took with him to the grave 600,000 plus dead Americans.

Let’s hope the Tea Party GOP caucus doesn’t do the same by taking the country down in flames in the name of “conservative principles.”