David P. Goldman is something of a polymath – scholar, investment banker, musicologist, and pundit. In the latter capacity, under the handle Spengler, he has written on a variety of subjects, including the Civil War. There, unfortunately, he comes off as being rather uninformed. Indeed one is tempted to use the characterization of Noam Chomsky by Tom Wolfe – a man of great intellectual achievement who made his bones as a public intellectual by pontificating on something he knew nothing about – the Vietnam war. So it is with Spengler and the Late Unpleasantness.
His latest, “A Beam in Our Eye,” is actually a reprint from a 2008 column in the Asia Times, where he has been a columnist for some time and has a readership in the millions. Spengler’s thesis is that much if not all of America’s current race problems, including the current unpleasantness in Missouri, is due to a collective failure to “get over” the Civil War, which was in turn apparently due to the failure to utterly crush the white South in the 1860s.
Last June I had the privilege to teach a course at the annual Acton University in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the keynote speakers was Judge Andrew Napolitano, whom I admire and whose remarks in the main I applauded. But Napolitano argued in passing that Lincoln had done a terrible thing by fighting the Civil War: surely, the judge said, he could have found a better way to end slavery than by tearing the country apart. That is utter nonsense for two reasons: the first is that a large part of the South was willing to die to preserve slavery, and the second is that the European imperial powers were already conspiring with elements of the South to expand slavery through Cuba, Mexico and Central America. If Lincoln had not fought the Civil War in 1861, the French invasion of Mexico in 1862 would have established a link with the Confederacy and prevented a Northern blockade.
Historians have often observed that the same arguments about secession and the war keep getting recycled, and so it is here – Spengler dredges up one of the hoariest of conspiracy tropes, The Slave Power. Invented by the New England abolitionists in the 1850s, The Slave Power was yet another dark conspiracy like those involving the Freemasons, Illuminati, &c. Left unchecked it would soon establish a vast slave empire in the South and Central America, and before you knew it slavery would be everywhere, including New England. There was no possibility of peaceful coexistence – it was war to the knife and you had to get The Slave Power before it got you. The rather less threatening reality was that yes, it was a vague dream of some Southern planters (as was reopening the African slave trade), and there were several comic opera filibustering expeditions to Mexico and Central America, all of which ended badly. Still, the them-or-us rhetoric was useful in mobilizing public opinion, at least in New England.
Let’s look at the last part of Spengler’s thesis first – that a land link to Mexico would have effectively nullified a Union blockade. In truth, it would have been woefully ineffective given the difficulties of transporting even a trickle of goods overland through a hostile countryside (which Maximilian never controlled), even if the French had been willing to risk war with the US by openly aiding the Confederacy. In fact, they had their hands full in Mexico and eventually lost, with Maximilian ultimately suffering the same fate as the filibusters. The only practical way to have moved any significant amount of materiel would have been by railroad, and only a few short lines ran anywhere west of the Mississippi. In 1860 Texas had only 470 miles of local railroads, mostly in the Houston-Galveston area, and they did not connect with anything east of the Mississippi. Nor were there any in Mexico – the first rail line, from Veracruz to Mexico City, was only begun in 1864 and not completed until 1873. Transportation was not exactly the strong suite of the Confederacy (or the French), and in any case the fall of New Orleans in 1862 followed by the closing of the Mississippi in mid-1863 would have firmly shut the door. If the European powers had indeed been in some sort of conspiracy with The Slave Power their best and simplest option would have to simply recognize the Confederacy and allow it to openly buy arms and war material, and build ironclads and blockade runners.
But what about Napolitano’s point, that surely there had to be a better way than civil war? After all, adjusted for today’s population the war’s human cost would be six million dead and some 25 million wounded, not counting civilians. Spengler rejects this out of hand and makes one of his typical and unfortunate generalizations – that apparently nearly all Southerners were willing to die for slavery (and not only that, elsewhere he says that the ordinary soldier “wished to acquire some” slaves). I don’t purport to know what everyone in the South was thinking or what their motivations were, but I have read quite a lot of period Southern correspondence, diaries, and the like from civilians and soldiers from private to general – I would think well over a thousand individuals from all parts of Dixie – and I have seen few mentions of slavery, much less wishing to get more. While I don’t doubt that a man like Wade Hampton (one of the largest slave owners in country) wished to keep his property, would all his slaves have been worth the life of one of his sons and the near-fatal wounding of another? You’d think that if slave-grabbing was such an all-consuming passion for everyone, a mad do-or-die imperialist scheme worthy of Lope de Aguirre, they would have at least mentioned it.
And why were white Southerners (and not Brazilians, British, Turks, &c.) unique in their desire to fight to the death over slavery? After all, the US was the only major nation to fight a war over it (if you accept that as the cause). Even Brazil, the hemisphere’s foremost slaving nation, peacefully abolished the institution in 1888, as did all nations but ours. Spengler simply adopts the most extreme abolitionist stance of the 1850s – that slavery must be immediately abolished at the point of the bayonet, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure. Of course a peaceful solution was preferable.
To top things off Spengler compares Victorian Southerners to the inner city drug dealers in the 2005 film “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” thereby showing his incomprehension of both cultures. He also misses the point of that movie – Marcus (50 Cent) gives up a career of crime for the stage. Perhaps General Lee would be better remembered by today’s historians if he’d abandoned his military career and become a rapper.
Spengler’s strengths lie in analyzing data, especially financial and demographic. He is good with peoples but not so much with people, and seems clueless as to what actually motivates men to fight, especially in the 19th Century. These reasons belong not to the world of data but to that of the spirit. Contrary to fantasies of sociologists, Marxists and the like, the men of that time and place did not give their lives or endure incredible hardships for socio-economic reasons, but for more intangible values like honor and patriotism. Here is how former senator James Webb put it:
I used to walk the perimeter of this monument [the Confederate Memorial in Washington DC], itself designed by a man who had fought for the Confederacy and who, despite international fame as a sculptor, decided to be buried beneath it; and I would comprehend that worldwide praise can never substitute for loyalties learned and tested under the tribulations of the battlefield. I would study the inscription:
“NOT FOR FAME OR REWARD, NOT FOR PLACE OR FOR RANK, NOT LURED BY AMBITION OR GOADED BY NECESSITY,
BUT IN SIMPLE OBEDIENCE TO DUTY AS THEY UNDERSTOOD IT, THESE MEN SUFFERED ALL, SACRIFICED ALL, DARED ALL, AND DIED”
Words written by a Confederate veteran who had later become a minister, and knew that this simple sentence spoke for all soldiers in all wars, men who must always trust their lives to the judgment of their leaders, and whose bond thus goes to individuals rather than to stark ideology, and who, at the end of the day that is their lives, desire more than anything to sleep with the satisfaction that when all the rhetoric was stripped away, they had fulfilled their duty – as they understood it. To their community. To their nation. To their individual consciences. To their family. And to their progeny, who in the end must not only judge their acts, but be judged as their inheritors.
To this I can add the experience of my own family – my mother’s ancestor was a Maine Yankee who came south to build steamboats, then enlisted with the Confederacy in 1861. Two of his brothers signed on with the Union army. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life – he fell in the Shenandoah in 1864. His epitaph read in part: “Foremost in every fight, his indomitable bravery and unflinching resolution, in many instances nerved his command to endure almost unexampled hardships and to maintain their post against greatly superior odds of the enemy.” What was he fighting for? to protect the slave property he did not have? or perhaps to acquire some? Had he somehow been infected with some sort of slave virus? On my father’s side the story was quite different. Here a native Alabama boy deserted to the Federals in 1864 and eventually became an NCO. Why? Neither man left any letters or other memorabilia.
One who did was Eugene Blackford, an aristocratic Virginian whose letters, diary, and papers I am now editing into a book. In January 1861 he wrote his father:
I have been watching with the most intense anxiety to see whether the policy of coercion will be adapted or not – I cannot express to you my horror of this plan. You cannot form an idea so well as I can who am on the spot, of the terrible civil war that such a course would ensure. I shall most assuredly do my part in resisting any such attempts. If any thing could enhance my horror of any such policy on the part of the [Lincoln] administration, it is the thought of what would be the effect upon my own State, which I suppose would soon become a perfect Flanders. How men calling themselves patriots can advocate such a course I cannot imagine. I do not think that the civil war which it would at once cause to break out would ever cease. This I say knowingly – for I know the sentiments of the people in these states upon the subject. I am just as staunch an opponent of secession as ever I was, but it never once occurred to me that the idea of coercion would seriously be entertained by Buchanan. It disturbs me so that I cannot sleep at nights – sometimes I lie awake for hours picturing to myself the awful scenes that must ensue especially in my own state and surely but little of it is caused by apprehensions for myself – for I should never wish to live a day after such scenes begin to appear.
The Blackfords were abolitionists who opposed secession and considered themselves loyal Americans. Yet Eugene and all four of his brothers joined the Confederacy and fought to the end. Spengler seems not to understand the gut-wrenching decisions many in the South were called upon to make, upon which their lives literally rode. To the Blackfords, and many others, coercion i.e. a Yankee invasion, was a greater evil to be resisted with everything they had. And it was.
It is ironic that Spengler was lecturing at the Acton University – one wonders if he has read the letters between Lord Acton (a staunch supporter of the Confederacy) and former general Robert E. Lee after the war. Acton and most of the rest of the British intelligentsia did not see the war as being over slavery. Acton wrote:
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
As for the treatment of the conquered, Spengler seems quite ready to consign Scarlett O’Hara to a cotton gulag, presumably so she could be re-educated by labor. He also seems to think that our current problems stem from the fact that Grant and Sherman did not kill quite enough white Southerners, even though it amounted to a quarter of the military age population and a still-unknown number of civilians, and left half the country in economic ruin and social chaos – which brings us close to some very uncomfortable concepts like democide. The men who actually fought the war, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, were horrified at the senseless slaughter and sought nation reconciliation. Not so Spengler, who seems all too ready to reopen old wounds.
Ironically slavery was the only issue that was unequivocally settled by the war. The other burning issues – state’s rights, secession, and nullification – are still regularly invoked.
For a more balanced view of the passions stoking the war I recommend Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind, which fingers the intransigence of the New England abolitionists (whose views Spengler adopts) as a major cause of the conflict. The New Englanders insisted on immediate, unconditional, uncompensated abolition at any cost, and ruled out any sort of compromise. He also explains why diffusion, as expressed by “the rights of the states in the territories” was so important to the South.
Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson.
The feeling runs both ways – few things are more despised in the South than the knowitall Yankee who insists on lecturing everyone about their history, culture, and especially their moral shortcomings.
For myself, I have heard enough of them. I used to think Spengler made some good points about other issues. Now I’m finding it hard to take him seriously about anything.