July 8th, 2012Some Civil Words on an Uncivil Warby Joseph Pearce

I arrived with my family in California yesterday at the commencement of a fortnight vacation. As such, I suspect that my posts over the next two weeks will be somewhat sketchy due to the presence of lovable distractions. By way of illustration, my four-year-old daughter is sitting at the breakfast table asking me intermittently why I am working when it’s supposed to be a playing day.

I wanted to comment on the civil exchange that I’ve been having about the Civil War with my fellow Brit and StAR blogger, Paul Adams. I am indeed somewhat amused that the two people who seem to be most passionate about this topic in the recent exchange are both native born Englishmen and only recently adoptive Americans.

A few comments:

Blessed Pope Pius IX supported the cause of the South in the War. He was clearly not doing so in order to support slavery but in order to support what he perceived as a tradition-oriented society, as opposed to the industrial-materialism and pluralist-relativism of the North. Pius IX was beatified by John Paul II in September 2000.

As for subsidiarity, I see a parallel scenario between the United States and the United Kingdom: Personally, as an Englishman, I would welcome Scottish independence. Certainly, if the Scots want independence, England has no moral right to force Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. It would be an egregious act of imperialism if England were to invade Scotland to force it to remain part of the Union.

A true Civil War is a war in which the nation is divided amongst itself, i.e. when individual towns and even individual families are ripped asunder by the schism in the very heart of the nation. In this sense the English Civil War was truly a civil war; in this sense also, the American War of Independence could be seen as America’s first civil war and even arguably its only true civil war. The division between loyalists and patriots, who should really be called imperialists and secessionists, ripped whole communities apart. As regard the later “civil war”, there were such divisions in Maryland and some of the border areas between North and South but for the most part it was simply the case of the rich and industrialized North imposing itself on the South. A war in which an army from one geographical area invades a neighbouring area is not a civil war but a conventional one.

To reiterate: Slavery is an egregious wrong, of course, and it might be that the South was destined to lose the war because of its being tainted with this injustice. The point is that other important questions of justice were also at issue in the war. Slavery has long since passed away (Deo gratias!) and was doomed even if the War between the States had never happened. It was after all already a hideous anomaly in America by the mid-nineteenth century considering that slavery had already been banned by the British Empire and by other imperial nations. The usurpation of power by a burgeoning Federal Government has not been consigned to the dustbin or trash can of history, however, and this is the issue which needs addressing.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • July 8 2012 | by Colin Jory

    Here's a problem, Joseph.

    In terms of the constitution binding the states together, the South certainly did not have a right to secede, and the Federal Government certainly did not have a duty to let them.

    Sure, the South repudiated the Constitution; and setting aside the fact that they did so in order to secure their "peculiar institution" of slavery against ascendant Northern abolitionism, sure it is at least tenable that the people of some geographically distinct parts of a nation -- any nation -- might in some circumstances be morally entitled to secede after previously consenting to perpetual membership.

    This does not mean, however, that in those circumstances the national government, no matter how bad, would be morally obliged to permit the secession. However God on High might judge the situation, a national government is entitled to judge by criteria proper to itself, and to regard the maintenance of the existing geographic bounds of the nation as its first duty.

    The sad truth is that sometimes in practice political conflicts over right can only be settled, if at all, by might; and in the Civil War the North proved mightier -- thank goodness!
  • July 9 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    I like the title of this post, Joseph; both parts quite true: Your words on the topic are indeed civil, and heaven knows, that was a most un-civil war--in more ways than one. "Civil war" denotes division within a country, which, by its very use, takes a side against secessionists. "The war between the states" is often used by some southerners because we don't see the invasion, conquest, and occupation of our country in quite that way--thanks all the same.
  • July 9 2012 | by Joseph Pearce

    Colin, Your line of reasoning does not merely sanction the North's forcing of the South into an unwanted Union, it is the same line of reasoning that sanctioned Britain's war of attrition against Ireland to enforce an act of union which the majority of the Irish did not want. It would also sanction the Soviet Union's suppression of those parts of the Union that sought independence, and the suppression by Yugoslavia of the Croats and the Bosnians in the interests of preserving the union and unity of the nation.
  • July 9 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Ah, Colin, it's just not true.
    According to the Constitution, the South was perfectly within their rights to secede from the Union. It was NOT an illegitimate move. Moreover, secession was a last resort, to be sure, and it occurred only when all pleas on the part of southern congressmen had fallen on deaf ears. You don't realize, perhaps, that South Carolina, for example, was 80% black and that 80% totally dependent on their white masters. Southern members of Congress pleaded for a way to end slavery without creating total social and economic chaos--for decades.

    But radical abolitionists from Puritan New England had old deep-seated hatred for the aristocratic cavalier descendants who settled the Deep South. (You can't really understand the American "Civil War" without understanding the English Civil War.)

    Besides that, of course, the slave trade itself was based entirely in New England (yes, it was), primarily in Rhode Island, in fact. There wasn't a single southern slave-trader. The South was simply the customer.

    And last, the question is worth asking: Only a very small percentage of the Confederate Army were slave-owners, what exactly do you suppose the rest of them were fighting for? Did nobody ever tell you?

    I have five Confederate heroes in my ancestry. Not a single one of them owned slaves; not a single one of them was pro-slavery. And not a single one of them was in any way "unusual," by the way. And after the war, southern slavery by purchase simply transformed into what benefited the North, particularly the industrial New England states--slavery by wage. If you read about the conditions of *that* slavery, you'd have the same horrified reaction my ancestors did. Children as young as four years old losing limbs in industrial machinery--no "benefits" or any of that stuff. At least in the South, slave-owners protected their "property." In the North, that was never a concern. Casualties were simply replaced.

    None of this is an attempt to justify the institution of slavery, but I don't have to. I know what my ancestors fought for and I know what was lost. Slavery was dead, anyway--everybody knew that. It wasn't slavery that was lost--it was states' rights.
  • July 9 2012 | by Colin Jory

    Joseph, the U.S. situation was not one of an occupied people which had never consented to or acquiesced in perpetual membership of the occupier’s state rebelling, but one of states which had consented on the same basis as the others to being part of the Union rebelling.

    My point is simply that no rational case can be made for the proposition that the Federal government had a moral or constitutional duty to permit secession. The point would hold true even had the North been all slave states, the South free states, and the South had tried to secede because of revulsion over Northern slavery. In that circumstance secession might have been morally justified, but the Federal government would still have been constitutionally justified in trying to prevent it, as well as morally justified insofar as it would have had a moral duty to maintain the Union. God, being omniscient, might have judged that a higher moral duty overrode that duty and justified secession, but earthly governments can only judge by what can be known to them.
  • July 10 2012 | by Joseph Pearce

    Colin, Regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the right of the Southern States to secede, please see Dena's post on this issue. The point is that the constitutionality is a debated and debatable point. It's certainly not settled unequivocally.

    Your view of the right of the secular State to contradict moral law in performing its "duty" is simply a rehashing of the Divine Right of Kings, which is a position that the Catholic Church definitively rejects. No secular government has the right to act immorally in order to protect its "rights", real or imagined.
  • July 12 2012 | by Colin Jory


    Joseph -- here's my further thoughts.

    Nobody ever has a right to violate the moral law, even in ignorance. However, ignorance mitigates or removes culpability, if what is being sought is to obey the moral law; and, indeed, if that is what is being sought then, paradoxically, unwitting defiance of the moral law can even be virtuous while still being wrong and thus impermissible.

    That's the operative distinction in the matter at issue. Right and wrong are not determined by the subjective; righteousness and unrighteousness are determined by that.