It has been years since I have commented on a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Generally, I am in total disagreement with the conservative views expressed (I would never suggest that the TD is biased in choosing which letters to publish) and I see no purpose in spending time in an argument that neither side will win. There have been only a few instances in which I felt it was necessary to say something. And with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, it’s a lot easier to comment in those media. In addition, I hate to write again about the Confederate States of America. I am certainly not a Civil War historian and it would be hard to continue serving as a maven if people thought I had become an expert only on the unpleasantness of the early 1860s. Two consecutive articles on the same subject area raise that risk. But the letter that the TD editors entitled “South was fighting for self-determination” in yesterday’s paper sparked my interest.
This all grows out of a dispute that has been going on since the 150 year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech delivered at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863. It seems that some people want to challenge the generally accepted view that Lincoln’s remarks constituted a great speech and an essential United States historical document. Specifically, the letter yesterday asserted that previous letter writers defending Lincoln’s speech had not rebutted the accusation by H. L. Mencken that 1. The Gettysburg speech was “oratory, not logic; beauty not sense” and that 2. Lincoln falsely indicated that Union soldiers were fighting for self-determination, when actually Confederate soldiers were.
Mencken, who was popular about a century ago, was a pretty good writer and a critic of other’s use of the English language. He was also curmudgeonlier than even this maven.*
Although at one time I had memorized it, yesterday I looked back at the text of the Gettysburg Address to make sure I knew of what I speak. And I must wonder what this dispute is all about. Nowhere in his remarks did Lincoln talk of any soldier fighting for “self-determination”. In the second paragraph (I am looking at the so-called “Bliss Copy”—one of five existing versions of the speech) Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” Lincoln refers to Union soldiers as having died to preserve the United States; he doesn’t mention self-determination. In the last paragraph, Lincoln refers to the Union dead buried at Gettysburg as having fought and died to assure that the United States “shall not perish from the earth.” Again he does not mention self-determination.
So where does “self-determination” come from? It was Mencken who equated Lincoln’s statement that Union soldiers fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as being equivalent to saying they were fighting for “self-determination.” After that, Mencken went on the attack:
“The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.”
Aside from his lapses in logic (1- fighting to preserve the Union is equivalent to fighting for self-determination; 2- sovereignty of the states is the same as sovereignty of the people living in them), Mencken is espousing an argument that the states had total sovereignty before it was taken away by the Union in the Civil War. He is also railing against Reconstruction.
I have mixed emotions about Reconstruction. But I can’t agree with Mencken that from 1865 to 1876 (not quite Mencken’s 20 years) all the people in the states that had attempted to secede from the nation had as little liberty as “so many convicts in the penitentiary.”
As to his state sovereignty argument:
1- The states in the United States have never had total sovereignty. They were always subject to a constitution that said:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
2- Mencken forgets that the major attribute of supposed state sovereignty that caused the southern states to secede from the United States and to precipitate the Civil War revolved around the practice of owning other human beings (a practice I suggest has little to do with “self-determination”). In justifying their secessions, the southern states basically asserted three things that were causing them to separate from the United States: a- the inability of their citizens who were slave-owners to emigrate to western territories and take their slaves with them; b- the failure of some northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law; and c- their belief that a Republican federal government would inevitably launch a war to deprive them of their human chattel.
Neither you nor I will ever know the motivation of individual soldiers fighting at Gettysburg. But, it is clear that the only self-determination that Confederate soldiers were fighting for was that of the southern landed aristocracy to keep other human beings enslaved. In fighting to preserve the United States, Union soldiers were not fighting against any other “self-determination.” Mencken was entitled to his opinion, but he was wrong.
Yesterday’s letter also relies on a statement from British Foreign Minister (I believe he was actually Foreign “Secretary”), Lord John Russell, who served during the American Civil War. As our letter writer quotes him, Lord Russell did not use the term self-determination. Rather he said that thousands of soldiers were dying to prevent the southern states from acting on the “principles of independence” that were asserted by the United States against Great Britain in 1776.
I do not know for sure the context of Lord Russell’s statement quoted in yesterday’s letter. But, I do know we are engaging in something that I did not learn as a student in New York City’s public schools during the 1950s. I vaguely remember learning that the United States government was concerned in 1861 and 1862 that the Brits might formally recognize the Confederate government and that these fears were mostly put to rest by the twin military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863. But I knew nothing more specific than this. It was not until recently, when I read “The Education of Henry Adams”—a memoir written in the third person by the great grandson of John Adams—that I learned “the rest of the story.”
Henry Adams served as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, who was United States Ambassador to England during the 1860s. Before he left the United States, the younger Adams assumed that because of their opposition to slavery the British would support the Federal Government in the Civil War. When he arrived in London, he was shocked to find strong pro-Confederate sentiment, especially in government circles. Part of this sentiment grew out of the rather Machiavellian beliefs of Prime Minister Henry John Temple, the Third Viscount Palmerston, that British interests in North America would be better served by splitting the United States in two. (The United States as a single strong nation on the southern border of Canada was more dangerous to British imperial goals in the northwest than would be two weaker nations, possibly involved in perpetual war over control of what later became our western states.)** When the Adams, father and son, arrived in London they were greeted by the news that the British Government had met with emissaries from the Confederate States and had recognized the “belligerency” of the Confederacy. It was in this context that Lord Russell probably made the statement quoted above. By comparing the Confederacy with the United States in 1776, he was attempting to justify Lord Palmerston’s government supporting what was a slavery-based nation. Because of his obvious bias, we can’t rely on his statement as establishing anything.
Further, the “principals of independence” that Lord Russell claimed the Confederacy was fighting for were totally different than those asserted by the United States in the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, we were asserting a right to participate in making the decisions that governed us. We refused to continue in a nation in which we had no representation in the governing body. In 1865, the seceding states were not asserting that they had no representation in the Congress. Rather, they were complaining that they no longer had the votes to control the Congress. They tried to leave the United States because they were no longer getting their way.
*However, Mencken was also the author of the following statement, which raises questions about whether our letter writer should be relying on him:
“The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.”
**Prime Minister Palmerston’s policies almost led to disaster. The United States discovered that the British were about to provide secret military assistance to the Confederacy. President Lincoln warned the British that if they did not stop meddling in the internal affairs of the United States he would be forced to seek a declaration of war against England.