On Reconsidering the Southern Cause

What I see appears to be a vengeful elimination of any memory or dignity in the South, a dignity the peace after the Civil War thought it wise to allow

“If we examine Lee first upon the art at which he surpassed, we find a curiously dispassionate understanding not just of technique, but of the place of war in the life of civilized man. Napoleon too was a philosopher of battle, but his utterances are mixed with cynicism. Those of Lee have always the saving grace of affirmation. Let us mount with the General the height above Fredericksburg and hear from him one of the most searching observations ever made. It is contained in a brief remark, so innocent-seeming, expressed as he gazed upon the field of slain on that December day. ‘It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.’” — Richard Weaver, “Lee as a Philosopher” [1]

 Many people watched the so-called Southern Battle Flag lowered from the South Carolina Statehouse. This flag was relatively new, not really a designated flag of the Southern Armies. The South had at least three other official flags. The so-called Confederate Battle Flag, used by two units in the Army of Northern Virginia, was not flown over the South Carolina State House until 1961 when other battles were taking place. On most of the programs that I heard addressing the current controversy nearly everyone claimed, as if totally obvious, that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War.

But Lord Acton, Chesterton, and many others, early on, saw the American Civil War in other lights. While they did not condone slavery, neither did they think that slavery was the sole or even the most important cause. Recent top-down impositions by the central state make their concerns, in retrospect, look rather prophetic. The principal concern, in the view of many, was the ability to protect a family or city from a statist ideology or culture that would impose its will on every segment of the country.

Secession, as a constitutional theory, was thought to be the final legal and political defense against the imposition of arbitrary power. The victory of the North, in this sense, settled the issue by blood, not by argument, From this angle, Lincoln was not looked on as a hero but as the harbinger of the absolute state in which presidential directives, not congress or the people, ruled. Today we add the Court to this issue of imposing unconstitutional power on the people and the states.

To insist that the only cause of the war was slavery—and it was a cause of the war—obscures a number of things. People still argue whether war was the best or only way to eliminate slavery. Others think that economics—not politics or war—was the real cause of slavery’s end. If we look at many of the reactions to the Supreme Court’s imposition of its will on the nation in cases since at least Griswald and Roe to Casey and Oberfeldt, we see a rather desperate search for grounds to resist this imposition of arbitrary power by the central government on its states and citizens.

Some state legislatures and governors are seeking for a way to resist this imposition. Other approaches include a conscious withdrawal from participation in the state that now controls almost the whole public order and most of its institutions. Churches are now facing the distinct possibility that the price of their public presence is conformity to the state’s laws and what they demand.

This resistance is not just “civil rights”. It arises from natural law. We need to read carefully again Hadley Arkes’ book, Beyond the Constitution, to appreciate what the real issues are. The higher law tradition of our civilization has always assumed that state laws themselves are only legitimate when they do not violate natural law. When they do, they are invalid. The question then becomes: “How does one ‘resist’ them when secession is excluded?” The state has the power and uses it as if no higher law than itself exists. This usage divides the citizenry into two segments: 1) those who view state law, whatever it does, as the highest law and 2) those who think of the state as limited to what is reasonable.

But another aspect of this issue is worth considering. We now see movements to remove statues and names given to monuments and schools of southern figures—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others. What we are witnessing in these actions is the rejection of the honorable and dignified peace that Lincoln, Grant, and others insisted on making to end the war.

Most people acknowledge that the reconstruction was full of corruption and greed on the part of the victors, that its spirit created a basis for rejecting the spirit of the peace. Ending any war and establishing a workable peace are often more important than winning the war. Many wars have been lost at the peace tables.

What I see appears to be a vengeful elimination of any memory or dignity in the South, a dignity the peace after the Civil War thought it wise to allow. This same vengeful spirit imposes state law on a society. It was crucial to the peace after the Civil War to leave the South with a sense of dignity, with their lost cause. The South was not seen to be so totally vilified that only moral monsters could remain. Lee was not a moral monster. As his colleagues in the Northern forces recognized, he had his nobility. His example of retiring to private life, to Washington College, was one of the main reasons that the war ended in the honorable fashion it did. It ended in surrender and return to peaceful ways, not in extended backwoods fighting and harassment.

Removing any signs of the existence of a Southern Cause, seeing only its hated “peculiar institution” has its irony. It comes at a time when the other side of the Southern Cause, its concern about unlimited central power able and willing to impose its ideology on everyone, is, for many, at the center of our attention. Without secession and without army, many look for ways to withdraw from this state power; they want to practice what is held to be true. An unforgiving relentlessness appears in this imposition of power. It is mindful of the efforts to remove any sign of dignity in the Southern Cause to see only evil in it. The spirit of the day at Appomattox was dignified finality and forgiveness. This ending allowed hard fighting men to return to their homes if they could. They did not seek vengeance. Most people since the War’s end have seen the wisdom of this decision.

So, rightly or wrongly, I see in the events around the South Carolina Statehouse in a different way. It seems to be blind to any nobility that Lincoln wisely hoped to leave in the South in its defeat. We witness the arrival of that counter-spirit of absolute state power that a few saw rising in the North as its unfolding spirit.

As many of their most basic assumptions are now rejected at the most fundamental level, we see the shadows of what once concerned the Old South. The term “slavery” takes on a new image; the masters are civil officials. A more dangerous and demanding enemy shows itself. It does not just demand that we stay in the Union. We must also agree with its laws as “rights” that must be obeyed as the price of citizenship.

[1] Essay first appeared in The Southern Review, Fall 1948. Reprinted in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Liberty Fund, 1987).


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.