12 June 2013

A few words of caution about the Great Rebellion

It may seem an obvious point to make, but one of the things we palaeoconservatives need to remember is that our conservatism is defined by what we seek to conserve and for whom, just as any liberalism has to be defined by what it seeks to liberate and from whom. We have to take care to think clearly and closely about what sort of society we are seeking to restore, what brand of justice, what manner of manners. This is not mere idle philosophising, though I am of the school which believes no philosophising, ultimately, to be idle. This cautiousness needs to be applied practically, and principally to the history and public remembrance of the American Civil War. American palaeoconservatives tend to fall into two very common traps with regard to the Civil War, and both of them need to be studiously avoided even as we strenuously assert the principles we genuinely and rightly want to associate with both.

The first trap is the more obvious and thus the easier to avoid, yet too many palaeocons stumble into it anyway: the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography. This is the school which attempts to portray the American South as having fought a brave and noble struggle for states’ rights and freedom from the North (a powerful, ominous and rapacious aggressor characterised by barbarous, crude wants and base lusts) and its utterly irredeemable tyrant Lincoln. It is a school which scoffs at any mention of slavery as a motivating factor in the war and which deliberately silences the voices of the common soldiery both North and South in preference of the grand visions of the politicians and the generals (though these too it is often content to cherry-pick). It is a historiography with a tendency to glamourise rebellion. It is a historiography which takes seriously the idea that victors write the history books, and which actively seeks the overturn of that verdict. It is a conspiratorial historiography which sees at best indoctrination behind any discussion of the facts in good faith, and at worst a Nietzschean struggle of history-as-domination.

A few of the problems for the traditional conservative in identifying with this school should be quite obvious. Firstly, in adopting this Nietzschean, proto-postmodern idea of history-as-domination, history-as-struggle, it relativises truth before power and right before might, and sees truth as contingent upon ideology – in particular the great moral truth about the evils of chattel slavery, which the Lost Causers (wrongly, given the preponderance of primary-source evidence to the contrary) see as a distraction or a non-issue at best, and an ideological weapon against the South at worst. Though I do see the appeal of the ideology of difference in this, conservatives need to be truly wary here. An historiography which discards truth as a transcendental and God-given principle is inimical to any conservatism worthy of the name. Secondly and yet more obviously once said, the project of glamourising violent rebellion – essentially treason – against what all parties prior to secession demonstrably held as the natural, legitimate and lawful government places the Lost Causers firmly in the same camp of political thought as the Jacobins, the Trotskyites and the Maoists.

As the great Catholic conservative American philosopher and man of letters Orestes Brownson put it:
Prior to the Southern Rebellion, nearly every American asserted with Lafayette, "the sacred right of insurrection" or revolution, and sympathized with insurrectionists, rebels, and revolutionists, wherever they made their appearance. Loyalty was held to be the correlative of royalty, treason was regarded as a virtue, and traitors were honored, feasted, and eulogized as patriots, ardent lovers of liberty, and champions of the people. The fearful struggle of the nation against a rebellion which threatened its very existence may have changed this.
In other words, the conservative force in the Great Rebellion – the one championing loyalty, stability and the organic continuity of political institutions under a higher law corresponding to the natural law, the law of God – was that of the North. Traditional conservatives do rightly seek to defend the validity of these ideas, but they need to seriously reconsider if they find themselves attaching themselves to an historiography and a political legacy which loudly and persistently claims the opposite: that loyalty to the Union was the correlative of ‘royalty’ (how often do we hear from them that Lincoln was a tyrant comparable to King George III?), that the treason of the secessionists was virtuous, and that the secessionists themselves were patriots, lovers of liberty and champions of the people.

More importantly, though, if the case that the Confederacy was a conservative force in American politics is to be taken at all seriously, we really have to ask ourselves what it was they were seeking to conserve. Palaeoconservatives have to be wary of the sweeping ideological claims: ‘states’ rights’ is every bit as much of an empty slogan as ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. We must look at the content of the use of those rights, the sort of society they wished to build. Taking at face value the idea that they wanted low (or no) tariffs and free trade as well as slavery, it appears that what they wanted was a Whiggish society in which a pauperised, rootless, fully-commodified labour force, severed irrevocably by the force of law from the natural institution of the family, serves in mines and factory farms to extract raw materials for cheap consumption abroad to benefit an idle and decadent mercantile elite with paper-thin pretensions to Old World nobility. In other words, the Confederacy (in spite of all protestations about localism and the Southern ‘way of life’) was fighting to become a globalist society. It is no accident that Sam Walton and Bill Clinton (who championed NAFTA, dismantled Yugoslavia and propounded a global neoliberal ‘Third Way’ along with some fellow named Anthony Blair) both hail from the Deep South.

There is a great deal to be said, on the other hand, for the ‘brother against brother’ narrative of Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman. The Civil War was indeed one of the most calamitous and tragic events in all of our history, and there can be no excuse for the excesses in bello against human dignity and against basic civil liberties perpetrated by both sides. And there does need to be some sort of radical counter-narrative with regard to the standard history of the Civil War, which sees it as a just war expiating our nation of its great original sin.

The reason is simply that it didn’t. And it is to the great credit of the ‘brother against brother’ narrative that it recognises this.

The Civil War not only didn’t solve the question of the place of black men and women in American society, the regional enmities which caused that great fratricide were deepened and entrenched by it, and blacks were made the national scapegoat on whom those enmities could be reenacted with impunity. If we look at what happened to the real communities both North and South which were uprooted by the war, and the Gilded-Age corporate monstrosity which took their place, a narrative of senseless loss actually makes a great deal of sense.

At the same time, we need to be very wary of this narrative. As historical hermeneutics go, what is left unsaid is often as important as what is said. If we hold to the axiom that truth is a transcendental and more than simply a perspective, we cannot afford to remain agnostic on the issue of what form that truth takes – that is a trap of a very different sort. A quarrel between two brothers which comes to mortal blows over a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication is not of the same ethical quality as a quarrel between one brother and another over matters of principle. The distinction we have to make is a subtle one: acknowledging the truth of the Union’s position without asserting the triumph in its martial cause. It is the same subtle distinction we have to make about World War II: fascism and ultra-nationalism were indeed grave moral wrongs which had to be righted, but we can and should criticise the historical memory of our wartime leaders and the role they continue to play in our national mythologies; question the decision to go to war when and how we did; and lament and condemn the way in which we carried out that war, in particular fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You could say, then, that I hold fairly closely to the Berry-Kauffman narrative, with the one important distinction being that I hold out the inherent justice of certain aspects of the North’s casus belli (yes, Fort Sumter was Federal property), even if the war itself was further made unjust by the comportment of that war. You may see these as the remaining self-justifications of an ex-liberal Yankee Johnny-come-lately to the traditionalist conservative banner. But even as I was making my Tory turn, I found the Lost Cause to be ever more indefensible once I came to see the incipient postmodernism of its method and the vulgar Whiggism of its assumptions and political conclusions. And the attachment many who proclaim themselves to be traditionalist conservatives show to the Lost Cause never ceases to baffle me.


  1. Excellent commentary. The South is also the locus of a fraudulent "libertarian" ethic that liberates mainly those in possession of land and capital.

  2. The South has extremely high levels of illegitimacy and of serial monogamy, married and otherwise.

    The huge levels of military spending and recruitment there also give the lie to any claim to be opposed to big federal government, of which large numbers of Southerners live as effective wards throughout their adult lives.

  3. Hello Matthew,

    Great piece. Would you say that paleoconservative infatuation with the Confederacy is an example of traditional conservatives taking respect for tradition too far? One of the arguments I often encounter against traditionalism is that some traditions are often objectively pernicious no matter what era you live in and should be discarded in the name of reason or Christian values. I think this is a valid argument.

    I sometimes get the impression that Southern paleocons take the side of the Confederacy out of a distorted sense of respect for their past. It strikes me as a bit like Sicilians who are apologists for the Mafia and the vendetta culture of that island because it is their “heritage,” never mind how destructive these aspects of the culture were.

  4. Wow; I didn't expect this post to garner such a response! My apologies about being so late to respond; the last couple of days have been quite hectic.

    Dr Médaille, many thanks for coming by to visit my blog, and I am incredibly glad you appreciate this post!

    Yes; you are quite right about the libertarian political project many of these revisionists attach themselves to. Thomas Woods comes readily to mind here - needless to say, in Chris Ferrara's debate with Woods on issues economic I fall quite readily on Mr Ferrara's side. I had planned to get a bit into the anarcho-capitalists' political ploy to win traditionalists to their cause by using the language and imagery of the Lost Cause, but I never got around to it in this piece. Perhaps that would be good material for a follow-up, yes?

    David, thanks very much for the comment, and for linking my piece on your own blog! The South is an incredibly bizarre place that way; again, I think I have you and John to thank for linking me to that piece by Michael Lind about the economic model all too much of the South chooses to employ - the pauperised, rootless and fully-mobilised working class serving in extraction, industrial agriculture and retail for cheap consumption.

    Of course, it is easy to imagine how the costs of such a model would end up being fobbed off onto an easily-scapegoated Federal government.

    John, thank you for your insights! I can understand the Lost Cause's appeal in some sense to the postmodern / historical-school doctrine of difference which seeks to place traditional differences as prior to and thus immune from any transcendental and universal concept of the Good. Still, as a Christian and a Platonist, I have to reject that doctrine - at least in the extreme form the Lost Causers seek to employ it.

    Perhaps you would enjoy my Solidarity Hall colleague Ms Susannah Black's Straussian-flavoured discussion of this topic, here. She says,

    'And there is real good here, real charm: still, such accounts of rights are not enough, and they are dangerous. He sees in this tradition, I think, a flavor of German Volkisch romanticism, what you might call Sonderweggery. It is a tradition that avoids the evils of the French revolution, but a) leads you occasionally to decide that it’s a good idea to worship Odin and perform human sacrifice [or perhaps enslave black people], and b) cuts off your ability to stand apart from your society and say, I see that this is your tradition, this is an expression of your national spirit… but it is wrong.'

    But we don't have to reject traditionalism, just as we don't have to reject communitarianism merely because some communitarian expressions are unhealthy and evil (the Hindutva movement in India, for example, or the KKK in the US). As Ms Black points out, it is a matter of holding traditions up to the light of proper human ends.