"As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this." -- George Mason, 1787.
In one sense it is doubtless true that nobody, in 1775, wanted war; in another sense it is almost equally clear that both the Americans and the British were aching for a showdown. -- Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six, 1958.
I have long been warning that given the collectivists who seek to impose their will upon the rest of the country with their appetites for other citizens' rights to liberty and property even at cost of the lives of those who disagree with them -- and especially with their designs upon the right of the people to keep and bear arms -- civil war is not only possible but probable. My hope has always been to prevent that war by pointing out to all that it IS possible and that the bloody costs will accrue to everyone, especially the war makers and decision takers, if we are stupid enough to go down that path for the third time in our history. (And, yes, I count the Revolution as our first civil war.)
To that end, I have been studying HOW civil wars start. We like to think that such fratricides happen after long periods of consideration -- that no one would be so foolish as to wade into such butchery with little thought. Yet we have only to look at the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia to see a modern example of how swiftly such butcheries can happen.
I was making this point to a friend the other day and he objected that Yugoslavia had been an artificial construct of Versailles in 1919, that it was a "lash-up of a nation" (to use his words) that was bound to fail. The United States, he felt, was not nearly as close to civil war as I feared from the evidence of the Yugoslavian disaster. I pointed out to him that the compromise that was the Constitution was a similar "lash-up" -- a compromise that was forced upon the Founders, despite the advice of men such as George Mason, who wrote as early as 1773:
[Slavery is] that slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentlemen [sic] here is born a petty Tyrant. Practiced in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity, & all the finer feelings of the Soul. Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man, which the Hand of Nature had implanted in us, for great & useful purposes. Habituated from our Infancy to trample upon the Rights of Human Nature, every generous, every liberal Sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our Minds. And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers. The Laws of impartial Providence may even by such Means as these, avenge upon our Posterity the Injury done a set of Wretches, whom our Injustice hath debased almost to a Level with the Brute Creation. These Remarks may be thought Foreign to the design of the annexed Extracts - They were extorted by a kind of irresistible, perhaps an Enthusiastick Impulse; and the author of them conscious of his own good Intentions, cares not whom they please or offend.
Mason, himself a slave owner, struggled to reconcile his own Whig beliefs in liberty with what Bruce Catton once called "the indigestible lump" of chattel slavery. Yet we know from our own experiences in the Twentieth Century, that collectivism is an even more evil form of slavery than that practiced by Mason and other Founders from southern colonies. This is not to excuse Mason and the others, yet Mason must be credited at the least with the struggle with his conscience. In that, the Founders stand up pretty well to collectivist butchers such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mason warned his fellow Founders:
This infernal trafic originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Govt. constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union…. Slavery discourages arts & manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich & strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities….[It is] essential in every point of view that the Genl. Govt. should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.
His fellow Founders did not listen to him. And we now know from the experiences of the 1860s how prescient Mason was.
In The Presence of Mine Enemies, Edward L. Ayers describes the almost instantaneous resolve for war that formed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line in the aftermath of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for volunteers to impose the will of the national government on the Southern states. I present this not to relitigate the issues of the war or to defend or attack the morality of one side or the other. The striking thing in Ayers' account is the rapidity with which what had been uncertain became set in stone, leading to a war that nobody wanted or expected.
The Civil War did not approach the border like a slowly building storm. It came like an earthquake, with uneven and unpredictable periods of quiet between abrupt seismic shifts that shook the entire landscape. It came by sudden realignments, its tremors giving no indication of the scale of violence that would soon follow. People changed their minds overnight, reversing what they had said and done for years.The crisis came in a strange way. It was rehearsed through debate and deliberation, through what Abraham Lincoln called "airy" and "theoretical" concerns. People on the border, dedicated to peace and moderation, imagined all the permutations and outcome, calculating carefully what would be won and lost by each strategy. Border Unionists gained momentum after the first secession, pulling Virginia and its neighbors toward compromise and reconciliation. Partisans in the border North fought with one another over every petty issue until the day the Confederate troops fired on Ft. Sumter. Abraham Lincoln bent over backward to appease the border South, giving in on everything except slavery in the territories and the fort at Charleston.Then everything changed because Lincoln sought to resupply that fort. Actually overnight, the Virginia Convention, so cautious and plodding, threw itself to the Confederacy with the support of the great majority of the voters east of the Allegheny Mountains, including the Valley. By doing so, they gave themselves to a war that they had every reason to dread. Over the border in Franklin and Pennsylvania, the Democrats abandoned arguments that war with the South would be wrong, unconstitutional, stupid, and unmanly. They gave themselves over to the new cause.Each side had a simple explanation for the other's sudden change: the people on the other side were hypocrites, claiming to fight for one thing while really fighting for another. The South felt certain the North fought for dominion and abolition born of sheer spite, envy, and a puritanical self-righteousness. The North felt certain the South fought to extend slavery like a disease throughout North America, infecting white people in the established states with its black slaves. Both knew the other side used the language of the Constitution as a mere shield and excuse.Indeed, the inconsistencies were striking. The North went to war to keep people in a Union based on the consent of the governed, to maintain connection with a slaveholding society it despised. Northern leaders expressed barely a word of concern for the millions of people currently enslaved. The south, for its part, went to war under the flag of freedom to maintain a massive and growing human slavery. The South risked war and the disintegration of a nation it had dominated to maintain rights that remained unchallenged in any concrete way.But both sides had reasons that seemed deep and compelling to themselves. The North clearly believed in the global importance of the Union, the anarchy that would follow in the North if the South were permitted to to leave and other parts of the Union broke away, and the illegality of secession. Northerners believed that the Confederacy did not speak or act for most white Southerners, that a white Southern Unionist majority only awaited help and a signal to step forward. The South clearly believed that the safety and integrity of the entire society were challenged by the Republicans, a party that had arisen for the express reason of dominating the South. The south believed too that the Constitution gave states the right to leave if they so wished and that the election of Abraham Lincoln had been nothing other than an attempt to drive the South away through electoral means. The south now wanted to leave, whether the Republicans offered an immediate threat, a long-term threat, or no real threat at all.People defended their actions through the words of the Constitution. Like a prism, the Constitution focused and intensified the sectional struggle. Rather than fight for slavery, the South said, it fought for the right of slavery, a right won and decreed by their ancestors who helped create the United States, and the right to remove itself from a union it had voluntarily joined. Rather than fight against slavery, the North said, it fought to preserve the government the Constitution created, to stop outlaws and traitors from usurping it.Slavery lay at the the root of the South's actions, and white Southerners were not squeamish about saying so. Since all civil society in the South, everything touched by the public realm of law and government, rested on slavery, that civil society necessarily defended slavery as a crucial part of itself. White Southerners did not isolate slavery as the "real" reason they were fighting because slavery could not be separated from the rest; it was so tightly bound up with their sense of who they were that it could not be isolated. They spoke easily, as they had for decades, of God's plan to use the South to Christianize Africans. They spoke of enslaved people's love for their masters and mistresses, of the bonds that tied them together. They spoke of the waste and bloodshed that would accompany emancipation, of the desolation of the South, of the slow death of the former slaves.Along with the Constitutional language and the language of slavery emerged another language, a language of elemental loyalties, a language of loyalty to family and locale, of native soil and the sacrifices of the fathers. It was a language everybody knew how to speak. It was a language older than the Constitution. It drew on cultural memories even older than the Bible, memories of Greeks and Romans. It spoke from instincts embedded in the human mind and body. It was a language made for wartime, and people on both sides of the border spoke it fluently.Both the North and the South claimed the sanction of God. They read their Bibles selectively, turning to the language of retribution and vengeance in the Old Testament rather than the language of forgiveness and brotherly love in the New. They defined righteousness as they wanted to define it, as they needed to define it, not for His name's sake but for the sake of worldly ends.Law and right, duty and honor, fate and history, so tangled only weeks before, suddenly aligned for both the North and the South. The paths of righteousness suddenly appeared straight and smooth.
And so a nation disintegrated in rapid events that few wanted or thought possible. I present this as cautionary tale to those who think that civil war cannot come to this country overnight. It can. It requires only one or two incidents to crystallize both sides -- to kick it off into bloody fratricide. We were faced with one possible flashpoint earlier this year at the Bundy Ranch. We face the threat of others every time there is an armed civil disobedience in opposition to the tyrannical laws brought about by Bloomberg Rules. We face the same threat every time a federal raiding party forms up for some stupidity that could rapidly devolve into another Waco. Civil war can come to this country overnight. The only thing that might prevent it is when those who would victimize others believe that it can and that it will have immediate and deadly repercussions for them. That is the only thing. But it is not the way to bet.