Who’s Spinning the Civil War?

Ken Masugi

January 1, 2011

In noting the coming 150th anniversary of the onset of the Civil War, influential Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne rightly concludes, “We will dishonor the Civil War if we refuse to face up to the reason it was fought.”

Dionne offers a strong and deserved rebuke to that brand of conservative who argues that the South was fundamentally moved by a concern for states’ rights and limiting federal power. But Dionne, by focusing on “race, racism and racial conflict,” is also guilty of distorting the Civil War and failing to “face up to the reason it was fought.”

Though Dionne is not motivated by the same things animating Confederate apologists to ignore the real lessons of the war, he ends up rejecting them for the same reason: a blinding partisanship. Dionne is a prominent Progressive and a man of the left. If the war was merely about “race” then he need not disturb his ideological underpinnings. But, if the war was bigger than that, it exposes the limits of his politics. Both Dionne and Confederate sympathizers make the same mistake when looking at the war: they fail to understand the necessary connection between legitimate government and limited government. If slavery is unjust—and, emphatically, it is—then there are certain principles of government that follow from this premise. And, as Lincoln said, “if slavery is not unjust, nothing is.”

At first, Dionne appears to have the edge on historical truth: the Civil War was fought primarily over slavery, not over states’ rights. As evidence of this, he appropriately cites the Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, from his Cornerstone speech arguing that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

While Dionne is very clear about the nature and purpose of the Confederacy and its roots in racial domination, he is far less clear when it comes to explaining the nature and purpose of the Union. The Declaration is more than a statement on race. It is a statement about the very nature of political justice.

By emphasizing “race and racial conflict” as the single most important lesson of the Civil War, Dionne makes it harder for Americans to understand that this greatest war was bigger than that—that it was really about legitimate, limited government. Slavery needed to be uprooted in order for constitutional government to prevail in the long run because it violated the principle of consent. That is why Lincoln ended his most famous speech by saying that a “new birth of freedom” was necessary so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Achieving this “new birth” in fact and without fresh violations of the principles of legitimate government was a difficult thing to navigate. So, as a sign of his commitment to the rule of law and to the principle of limited federal power, Lincoln had to be willing to make all manner of concessions to the South. Some of these concessions would even, temporarily, protect slaveholders. His Emancipation Proclamation, for example, only freed slaves within the Confederacy. Not being willing to go further than the Constitution permitted, even in a just cause, Lincoln issued it under the limited auspices of his war-making authority.

But Lincoln refused to act outside the bounds of his constitutional authority because, to do so, would be to violate the same principle of justice that made slavery wrong: consent. If slavery was a contradiction of our principles, it could not be defeated by yet another contradiction of those principles. Legitimate government stays within its limits—even when it is difficult.

As Lincoln warned in his Columbus, Ohio speech of September 16, 1859 those morally indifferent to slavery would “blow out the moral lights around us.” So Dionne is right to note that latter-day apologists for Confederates contribute to national self-misunderstanding by evading the central issue of slavery. But Dionne, and others on the left, exploit the Civil War in order to “blow out the moral lights around us” on the question of limited government. Dionne cannot see that the natural human equality that makes slavery and racism wrong also establishes a standard for legitimate and just government. A government that is unlimited in size and in powers is unjust because it is to the citizen what a master is to a slave; it denies him the power to live up to his full human potential and renders him, therefore, something less than human.

Virtually the only people talking about the Declaration’s (and Lincoln’s) view of natural rights today are the Tea Partiers—hardly Dionne’s favorite people. Often their talk comes out in polemical ways about gun rights or against Obamacare. But the points gain cogency from the natural rights basis: What are the limits on government in defending one’s own life, family, and property against ill-conceived government action? Besides Boston, 1773, the Tea Partiers can also rightly claim Gettysburg, 1863 in their ancestry. But they do need to speak up about it.

Ken Masugi is a Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and teaches in the Master of American History and Government program.