To the Editor:
Aaron D. Wolf’s essay in “Defense” of “Southern Symbols” (“Southern Symbols: Not in Memoriam, but (Once Again) in Defense,” AQ, Winter 2018) went well beyond its stated intention, blaming Abraham Lincoln for setting into motion the centralization of federal power that was really the work of the Progressives, who rejected our sixteenth president’s principles root and branch.
I was prepared to give Wolf’s thesis a sympathetic response, as there is nothing to admire in the mindless destruction of Confederate statues. Had Wolf paid more attention to Lincoln’s forgiving spirit and less time distorting the House Divided Speech he would have merited a respectful attention.
But by taking three words--“all one thing”--completely out of context from Lincoln’s famous 1858 speech accepting the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against Democrat Stephen Douglas, he tries to make better mileage than his weakly argued case could.
The political and moral context of Lincoln’s admittedly militant speech was the attempt by the Democratic Party to extend slavery into all of the western territories and ultimately into the free states of the North. He made a powerful case that Douglas, Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney labored to remove all constitutional barriers to that evil object, thereby rendering impossible further compromises on that nation-threatening issue.
Lincoln’s point was that the nation was having a choice forced upon it, that because of the Democrats’ reckless endeavor, the nation would not remain divided between freedom and slavery, but would become “all one thing or all the other.” It was never “Lincoln’s nationalist demand.”
While Wolf rejects Eric Foner’s attempts to put John C. Calhoun in the same category as Joseph Goebbels, he has no difficulty putting Lincoln in the camp of the authoritarians, if not worse. He reduces the majesty of the Gettysburg Address to mere “dogma,” ignoring the “new birth of freedom” which the “proposition that all men are created equal” alone makes possible.
Not surprisingly, Wolf even makes the same tired and discredited arguments of the Left that the Founders did not even know the meaning of (much less intend to carry out) the promise of the Declaration of Independence grounded in the “self-evident truths” of equality, liberty, and government by consent.
Yet Calhoun declared the founding principles to be unscientific, having allegedly been disproved by the “progress” of science, holding instead that slavery was a “positive good” rather than a necessary evil to be countenanced for the sake of national unity.
Wolf also distorts the meaning of William Seward’s use of the term “accidental” in reference to the race of the slaves. That in fact was a reminder that slavery historically was not based on race, as all races at one time or another enslaved their own members even more than members of other races. Slavery itself was hardly accidental but the incarnation of injustice.
There are numerous other questionable arguments made by Wolf, including the agrarian thesis, diversity, regional balance and so on, all adding up to an attempt to rationalize the unreasonable and unjust system of chattel slavery, the nettlesome fact hidden in plain sight.
Richard H. Reeb Jr.
Aaron D. Wolf Responds:
I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage with Mr. Reeb’s critique, although I predict that space here, as with my initial essay, will not suffice to develop every argument. Then again, the finitude of space applies equally to his criticisms, which amount to assertions of dissatisfaction, or “[dis]respectful attention.”
It is a curious thing that Mr. Reeb declares I’ve transgressed by moving beyond my “stated intention.” What was that, and how did I violate it? My title, an allusion to Stark Young’s concluding essay in I’ll Take My Stand (a profoundly relevant collection even today, which Mr. Reeb dismisses by simply calling agrarianism “questionable”) alerted readers to my intention. Put simply, it is unjust for aloof outsiders to tell Southerners what their own intention was in erecting their symbols in the first place, and arrogant to debate them with Puritanical zeal when they disagree with the unasked-for psychological diagnosis that accompanies efforts to tear them down. I also suggested that reverence for the dead, local self-determination, and agrarianism—what we might call the autochthonous meaning of the symbols in question—are values that benefit all Americans, especially the minorities whose resentment is regularly stoked by white Leftist politicians eager (as always) to consolidate their own power.
I do not repent of my less-than-hagiographic treatment of Abraham Lincoln. He was a complex figure, as are all human beings who are the subjects of history. Indeed, his was a forgiving spirit, and had he not been murdered he might have prevailed in moderating the effects of Reconstruction. Or not—we cannot know. But yes, he was willing to forgive those whose sons had been slaughtered by Federal troops on Southern land and whose houses were reduced to smoldering rubble when Tecumseh Sherman endeavored to “make Georgia howl.” In that vein, General Sherman commented that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Who is “the Lord” who strikes fear? We needn’t wonder.
Which brings me to Mr. Reeb’s exegesis of Mr. Lincoln’s 1858 speech, whose meaning I have allegedly distorted. This entire line of critique is an exercise in question-begging, which was in fact Mr. Lincoln’s own rhetorical approach, barely hidden beneath his King Jamesy language. Jesus Christ first said that “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” In quoting the Lord and applying the Lord’s contrast of Himself with the kingdom of Satan, Lincoln appealed to a general truism (division means conflict) but assumed and imposed the very terms that were themselves under debate. What was the “house” that was “divided”? Were (plural) the United States a single household?
Lincoln argued in the House Divided speech that a grand conspiracy was afoot in which the South was plotting to force all free states to be slave states through the enforcement of fugitive slave laws, laws which were (regardless of our present judgment of the institution of slavery) Constitutional.
But more to the point, when the Southern states two years later began to withdraw from the Constitutional compact, they put paid to any claim that they had designs on imposing their will on the settled way of life in Illinois and Massachusetts. Lincoln, even while casting the long sectional conflict as a crisis foisted upon the North and its righteously sectional Republican Party by a conspiratorial South, had already shown his hand: Consolidation—“all one thing”—was a card he might be willing to play. I do not think he aimed to play that card, as his support for the Corwin Amendment showed, but that hardly mattered once he as President called for troops to invade the South. Why not simply let the Southern states go peacefully? Why not, except for his nationalist vision of industry and railroads, which depended upon his revenues, which included until the eleventh hour slaves on plantations subject to the tariff but confined to an agrarian South.
Space does not permit a detailed rebuttal of Mr. Reeb’s other assertions, but suffice it to say that it is poor scholarship to ignore the vast amount of debate from what he might call the Right over the meaning of “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, and to relegate any dissent from his own views to “discredited arguments of the Left.” Such would not describe the work of the Nashville Agrarians, nor of Russell Kirk, Forrest McDonald, Willmoore Kendall, M.E. Bradford, etc. To damn their arguments (and mine) as being “of the Left” is itself a Leftist tactic.
Finally, Mr. Reeb’s assertion that I was ultimately seeking to “rationalize” chattel slavery is comical, considering I celebrated its demise. There is nothing to rationalize for the historian: Chattel slavery existed. It was there before the creation of the Union, established before the Constitution and enshrined in it. We weren’t around to offer our opinions. What we must do now is take a hard look at the evidence available to us, warts and all, and eschew ideological cant, hagiographies of dead presidents, and Manichaean portrayals of conflicts involving sinful people, a description that fits us all. Here we have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid the folly of solving large problems by creating larger ones.
The following Tweets were posted on January 7, 2019 in response to John Derbyshire’s “The De-rehabilitation of Charles Murray” Academic Questions (Winter, 2018).
Even the most positive reviews always have something that I think the reviewer has misunderstood. Probably true of all writers about all reviewers. But in my case there is one exception: @DissidentRight [Derbyshire’s Twitter handle]. I've never seen him misunderstand anything.
I suppose I should preemptively point out that @DissidentRight and I don't agree on all sorts of things and disagree quite vehemently on some. But we are nonetheless friends and he nonetheless understands everything I've written down to the last jot and tittle.