Though there are many subjects I would like to write about, as someone whose studies frequently involve the Civil War, I find life in contemporary America highly strange. Growing up as a proud Yankee in rural Central Florida, I had the tendency of antagonizing other people with my loud defense of the Union and my distaste for the Confederacy. Indeed, up to about ten years ago or so, my distaste and hostility for revolt and secession was most notable for antagonizing pro-Confederates who held to the Lost Cause myth and who were violently triggered by my fond endorsement of the behavior of Sherman and Sheridan towards those who would seek to rebel against our legitimate national government. My sentiments towards Union have not changed in the past ten years. Indeed, they have remained consistent throughout my life and I find myself no more pro-Confederate now than I did as a child speaking out against the local political folly.
It just so happens, though, that in 2020 secessionism is not a problem on the extreme right as it was in 1860 but on the extreme left. It is the crackpots of Seattle and Washington DC and Portland that are setting up secessionist autonomous communes and seeking to wall themselves off from any sane people who happen to be in the vicinity. My attitude towards them is the same as my attitude towards the Confederates or those who would copy their example in setting up regimes of oppression and tyranny, and that is that they should be crushed with the utmost of severity, such that the example is never tried again by their political comrades. Yet this is not enough. It should be noted that secessionism has long been a drastic political solution that has appealed to extremists on both sides, and we would be wrong in labeling it simply as a problem that the South had simply because their attempt was the bloodiest. And the current mania for tearing down Confederate statues is striking at the historical memory of reconciliation between North and South that took place at the cost of freezing progress towards justice for free blacks across the United States. Destroying the memory of that reconciliation may make it harder to support reconciliation when the extreme left finds itself defeated in its efforts at overthrowing our republic.
In the politics of 1860, it is useful if we remember that there were four options in the presidential election that year. In addition to those of the Deep South who were prepared to rebel against the Union upon the election of an unfriendly president, similar to the behavior of the extreme left in engaging in acts of domestic terrorism because politics has gone against them over the past four years, there were two groups between them and Lincoln. Lincoln’s principled opposition to slavery, even in the face of entrenched racism in both North and South, is a model to many. Yet other options existed at the time. Competing with the more extreme Southern element were timid Constitutional Unionists who wanted to ignore the problems that were dividing the United States and simply keep the Union preserved at any cost, and who were most successful in the Upper South states that only joined with the Secession when it was clear that Lincoln would coerce the rebel states back into a harmonious relationship with the Union. On the other hand, Northern Democrats who supported Douglas were frequently in favor of coercion, although it required a collaborative effort which involved quite a few War Democrats being given high offices in the military in reward for their loyal patriotism. Somehow when we look back at the Civil War, these options are forgotten and only the most extreme elements of both sides are seen in retrospect.
Yet when we look at the politics of 1860, we see three options of Union, one of them conditioned upon a certain passive approach, and two of which were more active and rigorous in defense of Union against rebels. To be sure, only Republicans were hostile to both disunion and slavery, and conditional unionists were only against disunion conditionally. But the political genius of Lincoln in forming a coalition that included support from Unionist southerners, those who were favorable or indifferent to slavery while being pro-union, and those who were passionately against both disunion and slavery was a remarkable part of his success as a president. Because ultimately all of those elements was necessary to provide for the victory of the cause of union and liberty against the rebellion. Such a coalition may be necessary in our own times as we face the extremist desire on the part of leftists to separate from a political order that they have been unable to subvert and is growing increasingly hostile to their rhetoric and approach. We should also be reminded that secession is not a mark of shame that Southern whites alone must bear, but is a mark of extremist hostility to republican virtue that can be safely opposed whether the threat comes from the right or the left.
And so it is that I find myself in a strange position as a consistent anti-secessionist. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and deserves to be punished with the utmost severity. The state possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and those who defend virtue cannot do so if they adopt the politics of rebellion and hostility to authority. This is not to say that authority always behaves rightly, but it is to say that any genuine and lasting reform of authority that brings the promises of the American republic to all of its citizens is going to have to do so from a point of view that respects law and order and whose hostility is limited to perversions and corruptions of that order. Perfect justice is not to be expected in a world of imperfect people–regardless of their political ideology or identity, people have a tendency to abuse such power as they possess in institutions and in society at large to support their own views, silence views they dislike, and to consider themselves fully justified for doing what they claim is tyrannical and unjust when done against them. To do better, we must all see ourselves as people both sinning and sinned against, and to temper our divine fire against injustice with the realization that we ourselves are not just and thus have a strong interest in seeking reconciliation that recognizes the decency and worth of even those who have the misfortune of disagreeing with us.