Standing at a constitutional crossroads, we should not cut ourselves off from the full American political tradition.
(By Buddy Phillips/Shutterstock)
Much of human life is bound up with memory: whether in school, when one memorizes dates, grammar rules, and mathematical formulas; or in relationships, when one remembers birthdays or anniversaries; or as we age, when we remember good people and experiences. We tend to associate memory with wisdom, too. We remember the past—whether it be the good, the bad, or the ugly—in order to live wiser lives in the present.
Thus, I was somewhat puzzled when I stumbled upon a piece by prominent historian Allen C. Guelzo, “Why We Must Forget the Lost Cause,” published on May 12, 2021, at the website of The Gospel Coalition. Guelzo has had a long interest in Southern things, even penning a book on Abraham Lincoln entitled Redeemer President. But I was struck by Guelzo—a historian—calling on people to forget.
Now, in fairness to Guelzo, the piece at The Gospel Coalition is mainly working to debunk what Guelzo sees as five key tenets of “Lost Cause” ideology, and is not—as least explicitly—a broad-side against the South. But for those who have eyes to see… Guelzo, to his credit, notes the apparent incongruity of a historian who calls people to forget aspects of the past, but his reflection on this question is oh-so-brief.
My purpose here is not so much to offer a detailed response to Guelzo, but to take his short essay as a stepping-off point to suggest why Americans might want not to forget, and indeed not to forget the South in particular. Features of the South—including, but not limited to, its literature, its political theory, and the way certain fundamentally American commitments were manifested in the South—are worthy of remembering and perhaps even re-appropriating.
The South has its problems, but even northerners and westerners are starting to head our way. I recently called a French restaurant in Chicago to purchase a gift certificate for someone who is tutoring me in French. The lady who answered was certainly not French, but had a wonderful Chicago accent (as far as I can discern Chicago accents). When I told her where I was from (Jackson, Tennessee) she immediately asked, “What is that like?” “Oh, do you mean Jackson?,” I replied. “Yes, what is it like?” I thought for a split-second, and for whatever reason felt I could be a tad unfiltered with this kind lady. “Well, it is a medium-sized town, the weather is generally great, it is a great place to raise a family, and it is sane. No Antifa, no riots.” “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she replied. “We are leaving Chicago.” “Oh, I understand,” I then replied. “I cannot imagine living there right now.” I quickly felt like I may have crossed a line and began to apologize, “Oh, I am sorry, I am sure Chicago has great aspects.” “No!” she quickly said. “Chicago is a disaster. We are ready to leave, and now.” “Oh,” I replied. “Well come on down. We’ll take care of you down here.”
It was an intriguing exchange, not least because in this brief encounter this lady and I connected because of a kind of common humanity—wanting to live in a sane place where it is at least generally possible to live a kind of sane life. And if this kind person and her family head down to Tennessee, I hope she and her family look us up. My family would be happy to have them over for a meal. And we mean it.
I myself was actually not raised in the South, but in Alaska. My parents were born and raised in Texas and New Mexico, but moved to Alaska in their 20s, and raised a family. They have now retired to the beautiful hill country area of central Texas. I went to school in Louisiana, Kentucky, and then Texas, and have now lived and worked in Tennessee for 23 years. I have lived twice as long in the South as I have lived anywhere else.
My purpose in this essay is rooted in my sense that Eugene D. Genovese was correct when he wrote in his The Southern Tradition: the Achievement and Limitations of American Conservatism: “The northern victory in 1865 silenced a discretely southern interpretation of American history and national identity, and it promoted a contemptuous dismissal of all things southern as nasty, racist, immoral, and intellectually inferior.” Indeed, it this “discretely southern interpretation of American history” which has already largely been forgotten, but is worthy of memory and attention. Interestingly, Genovese notes that that great conflagration of 1861-1865 “sanctified northern institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois world view and the suppression of alternative visions of social order.” If Genovese is right, it may be timely to explore this “discretely southern interpretation of American history.”
One way to begin to grasp a “discretely southern interpretation” is to think of two main tendencies that animated the American founding and the decades that followed: a Hamiltonian tendency and a Jeffersonian tendency (I first began to think in this way upon reading the work of Hume scholar Donald Livingston). These could be seen as centralizing (Hamiltonian) versus decentralizing (Jeffersonian) tendencies. This is a generalization, but it is assuredly generally true. Hamilton was an advocate of a central bank and a strong executive (the president). Jefferson was—at least when consistent—more interested in the decentralized nature of the United States.
What lies—perhaps philosophically—behind a “Hamiltonian” tendency in the U.S.? We might push our Hamilton-versus-Jefferson schema back 150-200 years or so, to then speak of an “Althusian” tradition and a “Hobbesian” one.
Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) was a German Reformed political theorist, most well-known for his book Politica (first published in 1603). In this work, Althusius argued that there are numerous and varied associations with overlapping authority. Political authority flowed from the governed outward to these varied overlapping authorities, and this authority could be retracted, as ultimate political “sovereignty” rested in the governed (i.e., the citizens themselves).
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), on the other hand, especially in his Leviathan, argued that persons come into the world as fundamentally individuals with no organic or natural political association. The situation into which we are born is virtually all-against-all, resulting in lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to gain some level of security and peace, individuals surrender authority to leviathan—what we tend to call the state. But this is a devil’s bargain. Individuals grant power and authority to leviathan, but it is a one-way transfer of power. Leviathan gets the power, “we” get security and peace.
These are two radically different visions of political order, and upon a moment’s thought it is not difficult to see which vision of political order—the Althusian or Hobbesian—has won in the contemporary Western world. We might then think, again to generalize, of a kind of Althusian-Jeffersonian tendency, and a Hobbesian-Hamiltonian tendency, a centralizing tendency and a de-centralizing tendency.
If one reflects upon the South, and especially upon the conflict with the northern states both leading up to, and including the war of the 1860s, one way of grasping that great conflict is to see it as a kind of epic battle between the centralizing, Hobbesian-Hamiltonian tendency and the de-centralizing, Althusian-Jeffersonian tendency. This becomes evident when we read the words of Abraham Lincoln himself. In a letter dated August 22, 1862 (but published August 25), Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune. In this letter Lincoln wrote: “I would save the Union…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it…What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
“Saving” the Union. While Lincoln may have had other motives besides saving the Union, it is clear that—in his own words—he was committed to an effort of centralization. Since Lincoln’s goal was to force the Southern states back into the Union, whether or not it meant freeing any slaves, one must ask: Why? At least a part of the reason would seem to be some sort of predilection in favor of centralization, and against decentralization. But why?
A new monograph by Italian political scientist Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government 1776-1865, may help answer that question. Professor Bassani argues essentially that from 1776 to 1865 the United States attempted to engage in a system of self-government different from Europe’s centralizing tendency of a large nation-state. In short, the U.S. was not (generally) like European nations, with their large central governments. That is, while Europe, in the 1800s, was captivated by the centralizing impulse or tendency, the United States tended to resist this centralizing tendency, at least up until 1865. As Bassani writes: “The motherland of the state represents a political universe that was in the beginning America’s ‘other,’ and, over the long run, it insinuated itself into the very fabric of the American republic.” But the U.S., while starting as a federation of quasi-autonomous republics (the colonies and then the states), has virtually abandoned the federalist order which existed from 1776 to 1865. Thus Bassani can write: “If anything, the current [U.S.] system is but a pallid reverse image of the one constructed by the Founding Fathers, which survived with varying fortunes until the Civil War.” If Bassani is correct, Daniel Hannan’s 2011 book, Why America Must Not Follow Europe, is about 150 years too late—we began to follow Europe in earnest in the 1860s.
Bassani’s thesis is that Lincoln’s war actually helped to destroy the federalism of the U.S., and certainly did not rescue or restore federalism. Christopher Caldwell says something a tad similar in his recent book, Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, when he argues that there are effectively two constitutions—the Constitution that emerged in the 1780s and the de facto constitution that emerged out of the 1960s. Bassani’s argument simply implies that Caldwell’s thesis is a bit off—by about 100 years. What Lincoln did—on Bassani’s reading—is reshape the American political system in a radical way. A federation of quasi-autonomous states, which had only given enumerated and limited and defined power to the federal government, was in fact replaced by a European-like nation state in which the individual states of the union were simply administrative units—and radically subservient to—the federal government.
In short, Hobbes, Hamilton, and Lincoln won. Althusius, Jefferson, and particularly the states of the American South, lost. We are all Hobbesians and Hamiltonians and Lincolnians now. Many honest persons recognize this. Bassani quotes Thurgood Marshall, who said: “The Union survived the Civil War, not the Constitution.” Historian George Fletcher could state matters quite directly, in his Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy: “The first constitution plays on the theme of distrust in government. We must secure our freedoms against potentially abusive officials seeking ‘rents’ by pursuing their own bureaucratic interests. The second [post-Lincolnian] Constitution presupposes trust in an aggressive government, a watchdog of transactions that might slide into the forbidden territory of ‘involuntary servitude.’”
In short, both friend and foe of Lincoln often concede what appears to be clearly the case: Lincoln’s war was a watershed in American history, and with that war there was a fundamental reorientation and change in America’s political make-up and structure. The federalism of the U.S. Constitution was in effect eviscerated, and thus—at least in one sense—the U.S. was no longer ruled by our Constitution in a meaningful way.
This means that the United States, and conservativism especially, is in a significant intellectual, if not existential, crisis. While we may speak of this or that being “constitutional,” we live in an era in which the Constitution plays virtually no meaningful role in governing our country. Examples could be given from both major political parties. When Republicans vote for this or that budget—year after year—in which a multitude of budget options have no constitutional warrant whatsoever, they are showing complete disregard for the plain meaning of the Constitution. And when Nancy Pelosi was asked by a reporter where in the Constitution the federal government was given the authority to virtually take over the American health care system (Obamacare), Pelosi simply laughed at the reporter. And she did so rightly, in a sense.
We find ourselves in a dilemma. Should we actually seek to live in accord with—at the political level—our own Constitution? Is it worth it? If we do not seek to re-establish the Constitution as the law of the land, then what is the law of the land? These are not minor questions.
And so, I also ask: Could it be the case that what was defeated at Appomattox was not “traitors” nor “seditionists” but actually a better understanding of the American federalist system than that which exists today?
Herman Melville (1818-1891) published a number of poems related to the War Between the States. His Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War was published in 1866. A particularly interesting poem is “Lee in the Capitol.” In this poem Melville “recreates” a scene where Robert E. Lee appears before a Reconstruction Committee of Congress (spring of 1866). Melville took what he called “poetical liberty” and wrote a poem about this event, and in the poem “recreates” Lee’s testimony.
One of the most interesting aspects of the poem is where Melville poignantly draws out the relationship (conceptually and principally) between George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
The key lines read as follows:
Who looks at Lee must think of Washington
In pain must think, and hide the thought,
So deep with grievous meaning it is fraught.
Melville asks us: Is it possible that when one “looks” at Robert E. Lee one is—in fact—looking at George Washington? Indeed, when one “looks at Lee” can one “see” Washington? Lee did what Washington would have almost assuredly done if Washington had been living in the 1860s: He would have defended his homeland. Lee was committed to the Union, and wanted to see it thrive and prosper; Lincoln had even asked Lee to play a leadership role in the Union army. However, once Lincoln raised troops for the purpose of invading the South, there was no real question of what a principled Virginian like Lee had to do. Lee, as he ought, chose to defend his land and family and neighbors against invasion.
I suspect that in the line above, “In pain must think, and hide the thought,” Melville is closing in on a difficult reality: If there is that much similarity between Washington and Lee, then what does it mean to be an American? That is, if Lee was simply being faithful to the principles and realities of constitutional government, is it possible that Lee was the better heir of being a true American in his time? Is it possible that Lee was actually right? And if that is the case, it is tempting (and perhaps almost existentially necessary, in Melville’s words) to “hide the thought.” For, if Lee—and not Lincoln—was the true heir of the best of American thought and principles, the implications are quite grievous indeed.
We now live in a Hobbesian (and Lincolnian) world. In one sense things do not have to be this way. There are other models, and there were other historical options which might have been pursued. I recommend brushing off, or finding copies of, Althusius as well as the Kentucky and Virginal Resolutions by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the U.S. Constitution. Along the way, pick up Eugene Genovese, and ask: Why did this former Marxist, who wrote one of the most seminal works ever written on slavery, have such a love for the South? And pick up Russell Kirk, one of the founders of 20th century conservatism, and ask: Why did Kirk sing such high praise for the South Carolinian statesman John C. Calhoun? Kirk once wrote of Calhoun: “Calhoun was the best exponent of the idea of political order that underlies both the written constitution and the unwritten constitution of the American Republic.” No small praise. Didn’t Kirk know better? Perhaps Kirk did know some things, and perhaps we should listen to him.
If, then, we seek to remember our history, and the South, and choose not to forget its Jeffersonian and Althusian tradition, then we might work for the recovery of key insights and instincts: an emphasis on decentralization, a recognition of the centrality of the states (in accord with the Constitution and especially the Tenth Amendment), a recovery of the notion that the states preceded the federal government, an acknowledgement that it is best for political problems to be solved—whenever possible—at the most local level (something both Protestants and Catholics have affirmed in their own ways), and that there may be times when the wisest and most prudent option is for various regions, states, or groups of states to peacefully go their own way.
As Christians seek wisdom in how to live good and honorable lives in the present, and likewise travel as pilgrims to the celestial city, we need all the friends—and help—we can get. And I think it will require revisiting (and certainly not forgetting) aspects of our nation’s history that might indeed be easier to forget. It will require rethinking whether we must (and should want to) live in the Lincolnian or a Hobbesian universe in which we now live. There are other paths, and they are worth remembering.
Bradley G. Green teaches theology and philosophy at Union University (Jackson, TN) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), and he and his wife Dianne are co-founders of Augustine School (Jackson, TN), a Christ-centered liberal arts school.