Calvin Freiburger

Conservatives Don’t Need a New Civil War about the Old Civil War

Posted on April 8 2010 3:47 pm
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.
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Today on the Daily Beast, Matthew Yglesias asks a provocative question: “How has it come to pass that a political party literally founded in order to oppose slavery has come to celebrate a rebellion sparked by its own ascension to the White House?”

The issue is Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of April as Confederate History Month:

But then along came McDonnell with his call for Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

How nice of them. But what about the 30 percent of Virginians who, as slaves, didn’t qualify as citizens? Well, McDonnell didn’t have anything to say about that. Indeed, he didn’t see fit to mention slavery at all. In his initial response to criticism on this point, McDonnell argued that “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

Again, though, the slavery aspect was clearly significant for Virginia’s slaves. It was also evidently significant enough to the architects of Virginia’s attempt to withdraw from the union that their Ordinance of Secession cites the fact that the federal government “perverted” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding states.”

Late in the day on Wednesday, McDonnell finally came to his senses, apologized, and added a paragraph to his proclamation that comes out decisively against slavery.

McDonnell’s declaration as it currently appears doesn’t strike me as terribly shocking—it acknowledges slavery’s evil and its relevance to the war, and it expresses pleasure that the Union was ultimately restored—but it is shocking that he’d forget slavery the first time around.  To demonstrate slavery’s centrality to the Civil War, I could direct readers to many of Abraham Lincoln’s words, or perhaps to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but if you want it on Southern authority, look no further than Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” […] Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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.

To ignore and downplay the central issue of America’s bloodiest conflict is an insult to our intelligence.

Perhaps more importantly, we have seen that some on the Right have a backwards understanding of the Civil War, and with the genuine threat to states’ rights posed by Barack Obama’s agenda, now is not the time to feed it.  For one thing, Lincoln was far more respectful of states’ rights than the Lew Rockwell types would have you believe—he repeatedly pledged that, despite his revulsion at slavery, he would not overstep the Constitution’s limitations to end it; in fact, it was for this reason that some of the more radical members of the abolition movement hated him.

Further, the Civil War was not a referendum on states’ rights.  Yes, there are clear boundaries between federal and state authority.  Yes, today’s politicians violate those boundaries with reckless abandon.  The right of the states to govern their individual affairs is one thing, but the “right” to break off from the country when the political process doesn’t yield results you like is something else entirely.  As the Claremont Institute’s Mackubin Thomas Owens explains:

As James Madison observed, the Americans had created a system of government “without precedent ancient or modern,” one that although “wholly republican” was “partly federal, partly national.” So complete was this transformation that even the opponents of the Constitution, the so-called Anti-Federalists, embraced the new meaning. Thus they as much as the Federalists recognized that the Union was far more than a league. It was a nation that could not be torn asunder at the pleasure of its component parts.

That the American Republic was both federal and national was the dominant view among statesmen of the antebellum period. For instance, in his reply to Calhoun on Feb. 16, 1833, Daniel Webster observed that the state conventions, including that of South Carolina, did not accede to a league or association when they approved the Constitution, but ratified and confirmed that Constitution as a form of government.

Andrew Jackson made the same point in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” during the nullification crisis. The Constitution, said Jackson, derives its whole authority from the people, not the States. The States “retained all the power they did not grant. But each State, having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute, jointly with the other States, a single nation, can not, from that period, possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation.” And Madison, who presumably knew something about the constitutional theory of the American Founding, was horrified by the idea that the coordinate sovereignty retained by the States, as stated in the Tenth Amendment, implied the power of nullification, interposition, or secession.


When the States ratified the Constitution of 1787, they pledged that they would accept the results of elections conducted according to its rules. In violation of this pledge, the Southern States seceded because they did not like the outcome of the election of 1860. Thus secession is the interruption of the constitutional operation of republican government, substituting the rule of the minority for that of the majority.

In his July 4 address to Congress, Lincoln observed that the American “experiment” in popular government had passed two of three tests — the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One test remained. Could popular government in America maintain itself against a “formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.” It had yet to be proved, said Lincoln, that ballots were “the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets” and that “when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets.”

Does this make McDonnell a racist?  No—there are powerful reasons for Southern pride wholly unrelated to slavery—but it does make him stunningly tone-deaf, especially given the Inquisition against “racist” Tea Partiers currently perpetrated by the Left—which would like nothing better than to characterize “states’ rights” as code for racism.  I have to agree with Yglesias that “this seems like a sure path to political suicide.”


Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also blogs at the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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