We, the people of the Confederate States

In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the titular hero asks Abraham Lincoln why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union.
“I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can even ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”
Fictional Lincoln, it seems, is something of a cynic.

Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?

There are lots of apologists out there who will argue that the Civil War was really not about slavery. That the Confederate States were more interested in states’ rights, and tariffs, and minimizing the use of federal money for local infrastructure. But a careful review of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America seems to show that the political goals of the CSA really started and ended with the institution of slavery.
The CSA Constitution differs from the USA Constitution in only a few substantial ways. The most obvious, and most important, is slavery. While the USA Constitution tip-toes around the issue of slavery, only mentioning it obliquely and euphemistically, the CSA Constitution makes repeated, explicit references to slavery, including a clause preventing Congress from passing any law that would impair the right to own slaves. Another clause allows slaveholders to take their slaves into and out of any state, effectively preventing any individual state from banning slavery within its own boarders. Not exactly a blow for states’ rights.
Perhaps the most next important thing about the CSA Constitution is what did not change. The CSA Constitution copies the vast majority of its content verbatim from the US Constitution. This embraces virtually all of the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, including the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”. Those two clauses, particularly when invoked in tandem, are widely regarded as the greatest threats to limited central government. Yet the CSA had no problem handing these same federal powers to their own Congress.
It is true that there are also non-slave related changes that add color to the claim that the interest of the CSA was in limiting federal power. The preamble was changed to include “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” Additionally, the states retained the rights to negotiate among themselves on the regulation of their shared waterways and to tax boats that use those waterways. Further, federal money was not to be used for infrastructure improvement. But these changes do not seem like enough to justify the claim that the primary purpose was self-determination. For one thing, the preamble adds the notion that the Confederacy is intended to be “a permanent federal government,” suggesting that any future secessions from the CSA might not be regarded as rightful. And in light of the focus on slavery and the general retention of the form and powers of the federal government, it seems pretty clear what the real intention was.
It is well worth questioning the “official” versions of history, but it is a mistake for modern conservatives and libertarians to pretend that the Confederacy was a beacon for limited government and self-determination. That ignores the plain fact that the Confederacy was created explicitly for the preservation of the despicable institution of slavery, and it alienates people who should be valuable allies for personal freedom.

Slow Ride

Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated;  every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.

Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.

Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?

Every Day a Holiday: Cinco De Mayo

It may be surprising to people with an American education to learn that at the very same time that the United States of America was at war with the Confederate States of America, a French army was pushing its way across Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine had been in place for nearly 40 years, so the thought of a full-on European invasion of Mexico seems rather shocking.

Shortly before the American Civil War, Mexico had its own, known as the Reform War. The immediate result was a fractured and bankrupt Mexican government. In 1861, the president of Mexico declared a moratorium on paying its debts, and the French were none too happy about that. Emperor Napoleon III, who had been elected as President Bonaparte but refused to leave when his term ended, decided that a Mexican regime change was in order. He sent a small army to “negotiate”. On the 5th of May, 1862, an outnumbered rag-tag Mexican army crushed the better trained and better equipped French invaders. Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated ever since.

It is always interesting to put historical events into context. While the Americans were being divided over the question of self-determination (and slavery), Mexicans were fighting for their own right to govern themselves. Their success at the Battle of Puebla was short lived, though. Just three years later, Maximilian I, born in Vienna into the powerful Hapsburg Dynasty, sat on his throne in Mexico City as Emperor.

As it turned out, Maximilian’s empire did not last long either. A successful republican revolt culminated in Maximilian’s execution by firing squad, just two years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Sic semper indeed.

Beer of the week: Tecate – Cerveza Tecate is a standard Mexican adjunct lager. It is pale gold in color and quite fizzy. As far as aroma and flavor, there is not much to write. Cheap grain supplies the bulk of both. I could surely down more than a few of these on a hot day, but generally I would pick something more flavorful. Even the addition of lime and salt doesn’t do much for it.

Reading for the week: Memorabilia by Xenophon, Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50 – Whether government is monarchical or democratic in form, it’s nature is always coercive. This reading by Xenophon includes a brief dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles. In it, Alcibiades gets Pericles to define government coercion as “not law, but force.” The logical conclusion is that all conventional “laws”, from tyrants’ dictates to democratic legislation, are not law at all, but mere force.

Question for the week: When have you been surprised to learn that two historic events were much closer in time than your had realized?

The Silence of Historians

One important rule of history that ought to be remembered is that it is written by the victors. In middle and high school, American students are taught that The Articles of Confederation were inadequate to provide for the governance of the young country. If the school is particularly good, the students read The Constitution and even some of The Federalist Papers. As far as I know, no students read The Articles of Confederation or The Antifederalist Papers. But why would they? The ideas and principles behind those works lost out.

It is also worth noting that The Antifederalist Papers were not a comprehensive project in the way that The Federalist Papers were. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay had a plan that resulted in an organized and cohesive collection of articles addressed to a single state. The Antifederalist Papers, on the other hand, were written independently by an unknown number of authors, addressed to the peoples of several states without any overarching plan. They don’t read as a single work because they were never meant to be grouped together.

Additionally, a large portion of the complaints about The Constitution were rectified by the Bill of Rights. That can make reading the Antifederalists a bit confusing for a modern reader. But it also puts a new spin on the question of what ideology won the day. Every complaint that was addressed by the Bill of Rights is really a victory for the Antifederalists. They recognized dangerous flaws in the new Constitution and made them known. As a result, Amendments were written to memorialize and protect inviolable personal rights.

Aside from concerns about personal liberties, the Antifederalists also worried that a central government would engage in dangerous expansionism, wage wars abroad, and eventually wage war at home to bring recalcitrant (or as they saw it, independent) states to heel. A critical glance at any work on American history should be enough to answer the question of whether these fears ever came to fruition. Although (because?) history is written by the victors, history is no more than “a disgusting and painful detail of the butcheries of conquerors, and the woeful calamities of the conquered”. When the people are happy, free, and at peace, there is very little to fill the annals; “the silence of historians is the surest record of the happiness of a people.” So why are American history books so thick?


Beer of the Week: Lionshead Deluxe Pilsner – When I first had this beer, local college students told me that it is better known as “Lionshead-ache” because of the hangovers it causes. To be fair, they were in college and Lionshead is very cheap, so the hangovers may have been more related to quantity than quality. As far as taste goes, it is pretty much what one should expect for such a cheap adjunct lager: it tastes of slightly sour grain and naught else. But the bottle caps have pictogram puzzles printed on the inside, so I would certainly take a bottle of this over comparable beers. If you really want to try out the pictogram puzzles but can’t get Lionshead, puzzles can also be found on the bottle caps of Mickey’s and National Bohemian.

Reading for the Week: Antifederalist No. 3 – A number of essays opposed to the new government were compiled and numbered. Although they were not originally meant to be part of an overarching project, these individual writings have come to be known by their respective numbers in this compilation. Antifederalist No. 3 does not actually seem to be aimed at fighting the ratification of The Constitution. The author ruefully concedes that the people desire this new governmental scheme. The new national government will be accepted, not because it is the best possible system, but because the American people are simply and regrettably not up to the challenge of local self-rule: “Alas! I see nothing in my fellow-citizens, that will permit my still fostering the delusion, that they are now capable of sustaining the weight of SELF-GOVERNMENT: a burden to which Greek and Roman shoulders proved unequal.”

Question for the week: The author of Antifederalist No. 3 writes that “Where the people are free there can be no great contrast or distinction among honest citizens in or out of office.” What does it say about the United States that politicians are essentially celebrities?


As promised in the comments of the most recent post, here is a picture that I find both hilarious and profoundly disturbing. This bulletin was posted on the campus of a certain institution of higher learning near Dallas, Texas:

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Seriously!? Texas college students need constant reminders that slavery is illegal? It’s been 150 years and they still have trouble remembering? Yikes!

And besides, this is in a place where almost nobody but students and school employees will see it. What is the concern, exactly? Are they worried that professors will enslave grad students and force them to grade hundreds of essays without pay? Wait a minute… maybe slavery really is a problem there!

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

This week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. The battle had a tremendous number of lasting effects. For one, much of the land in and around the town of Gettysburg is now property of the federal government. As a child, I would run and play among the boulders of a section of the battlefield park known as Devil’s Den. I probably did not give adequate reflection to the fact that many young men fought and died among those rocks. But I was six; give me a break.

Perhaps the most notable offshoot of the battle was the inspiration for the single most celebrated piece of American propaganda ever written: The Gettysburg Address. It is almost universally praised as a brilliant piece of oration. In some circles, however, Lincoln has been accused of blatant hypocrisy in the Address. The principal point of the speech is that the Union troops who fought and died fought in defense of the principle of self-determination. In actual fact, the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting for self-determination. The elected legislatures of their states had, by democratic vote, decided to secede from the United States. Secession was a radical but not unprecedented course of action. If it was more radical than the American Revolution, it was only more radical because as states they had more government input than they had had as colonies.

Secession has been derided as “unconstitutional”, but it may even have been less radical than the creation of the Constitution itself. The Constitutional Convention was brought together to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to throw them out and invent a new government. And the proposed changes were to be approved by Congress and by the states, but the framers specifically included instructions for the ratification of their own new document. These instructions totally bypassed Congress (from whom the Convention originally received the authority in the first place) and also determined that the new Constitution would be effective even without the consent of every state. As it turns out, consent of the governed may not be the great American guiding principle that Lincoln and so many others claim it is.

Beer of the Week: Spitfire Kentish Ale – The Spitfire fighter plane was an instrumental tool of the British military in the Battle of Britain. If either side had a few Spitfires at the Battle of Gettysburg, history would remember the battle quite differently. Mainly it would be remembered as “the battle where some insane time-travelers showed up with weapons that would not be designed for another hundred years and wreaked havoc.”

Spitfire Kentish Ale, however is not a weapon. It is a beer is brewed by Shepherd Neame, brewers of Bishops Finger. As such, Spitfire is also protected by a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Heaven forfend that another beer should be marketed as “Kentish Ale”. Anyway, Spitfire sure is a pretty amber beer. The smell is tangy and sweet and a bit grassy. The full malt body is balanced nicely with slightly spicy hops. It is pretty darn tasty.

Reading for the Week: The Gettysburg Address – This blog post certainly seems to come down on one side of the whole issue. It is important to note that the Confederate States made their decision to secede based on the argument about the spread and maintenance of the institution of slavery. Lincoln was right to start his Address with “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Early drafts of The Declaration of Independence, to which Lincoln refers, included an indictment of the slave trade; it was only a matter of time before the philosophical values of the Declaration came into direct conflict with the awful institution of slavery.

Question for the week: The Gettysburg Address includes the line “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Did Lincoln really not think that this speech would be remembered? If so, was it because he thought that it really wasn’t all that good?