The Union cause

Regional pride doesn’t make one side wish to re-prosecute the Civil War; philosophy does.  States’ rights in their politics and strict constructionist in their jurisprudence, Confederate apologists are apt to see the war’s sesquicentennial as a gift – as a megaphone for their argument in favor of a federalism based on the states’, and not the people’s, consent.

The Union side will not be as vocal.  The Unionists’ near-silence will not come from a victor’s apathy; indeed, Lincoln found the Union cause just as unarticulated as we find it today.  Slavery – the sole cause of the war – was argued vociferously by abolitionists and slaveholders alike, but Lincoln made clear that the North wasn’t fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln felt at all times that the Union cause would advance emancipation, but he never believed that the North was fighting to accomplish emancipation, as much as he favored it. The North fought to preserve the Union.

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnick reports on the results of a recent poll demonstrating New Yorkers’ ignorance about the Union statues and memorials in their midst.  He argues that the ignorance is indicative of the misconceptions over the war’s cause and aims perpetuated, at least in the first instance, by Confederate sympathizers.

While accurate in other respects, Gopnick’s The Talk of the Town essay implies that the Union cause did not long precede the Civil War.  “And Union Square is confidently identified [by those polled] as being named for the Union cause when in fact its name long predates the war.”

The Union cause, like the Confederacy’s, was based on a philosophical argument.  The Union cause is the cause of self-government, as Lincoln rightly pointed out in his Gettysburg Address and as Hamilton rightly pointed out threescore-and-some-odd years earlier in his preface to the Federalist.  Can a people govern themselves? Calhoun, who provided the philosophical framework for the South’s secessionist movement, thought mankind in general was too benighted to be trusted with government.  People weren’t born with rights, Calhoun believed; a race or nationality of people had to earn the right to govern themselves.  Madison’s view of man, on the other hand, while it was as dark as Dostoevsky’s, was based also on a hope as bright as Dostoevsky’s – a hope springing from natural law’s notion of the divine mark on, or spark in, human nature.

The Union cause is based neither on strict adherence to the Constitution’s base compromises, which is the heart of today’s strict constructionism, nor on a rejection of the Constitution as a racist document, which is the heart of today’s “living constitution.”  The Union cause was based on the values of the Declaration protected by the Constitution – Lincoln’s “apples of gold in pictures of silver.”  The Union cause was the spread of liberty and self-government.  Gopnick correctly points out that “The world saw the Union cause as a promissory note, to use Dr. King’s image, of a republican movement yet to be fully cashed.”

Would that the Union cause would be advanced with as much voice and interest as that employed by the states’ rights advocates this sesquicentennial.  It isn’t likely, but Gopnick’s thoughtful and inspiring essay this week is a start.


  1. Thank you, Peter. Having just visited Gettysburg, I was struck by how deeply the Union side of the Civil War had grieved over the loss of its sons and brothers. All of the statues and monuments at each of the Civil War battlefields are essentially a form of grief and rememberance.

    The American public today has largely forgotten that the Union cause had just as much of a philosophical underpinning as the Confederate side. The split of the nation necessarily meant a loss of liberty. For example, northern landowners had their land in the South confiscated by the southern states. Marriages between northern and southern men and women (such as between Gen. Thomas, VA, and his wife, NY) suddenly became restricted from associating with one side of their families or the other. Union army officers from southern areas who chose to honor their oaths found themselves cut off from their homes. And mail that had flowed freely and without censorship now was subject to prying eyes as it moved between the Union and the Confederate mail systems. It’s easy to forget this loss of liberty that was caused by the rise of the Confederacy. To top it off, the Confederacy had an internal passport system, something unheard of in U.S. history. Americans today have forgotten this loss of liberty and why the Unin side was so powerfully motivated to restore it to an undivided nation.

    1. Thanks, Bill, for your thoughtful comment. I wasn’t aware of the passport system.

      On the Northern side, I recall that Lincoln’s unprecedented suspension of habeas corpus also disturbed many lovers of liberty (including those arrested!). Of course, the Northern states, especially D.C. and the states nearer the South, were obsessed with the possibility of Confederate spies.

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