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.