Thursday, September 20, 2007

Review of "When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession," by Charles Adams

Book review: When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams.

"You must not tell the truth if it hurts a national hero." - Anonymous commentator, cited in The Last Place on Earth, by Roland Huntford.

Did you know...

- That Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, stated his support for the Corwin Amendment, which had just passed Congress, and which would have guaranteed the existence of slavery in perpetuity as an 'unamendable amendment' to the United States Constitution?

- That, at the start of the war in 1861, Congress passed a resolution stating that the war "is not waged on our part...for interfering with the rights, or established institutions of these [the Confederate] States"...meaning slavery?

- That Abraham Lincoln actually countermanded emancipation orders issued by Union General Fremont in Missouri early in the war on the basis that "It was a war for a great national idea, the Union" and that "General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it"?

- That Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley (a prominent abolitionist and editor of the New York Tribune) stating that, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it"?

- That Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves in areas of the Confederate States that were not controlled by Union armies, but left those in occupied territory and border states in slavery?

- That Congress, devoid of any representatives from the Confederate States, did not pass an amendment to outlaw slavery until December of 1865, months after Lincoln was dead and the war was over?

All of the above are facts, and yet few Americans are aware of them. Why? For that simple reason that, since the end of the war in 1865, a concerted effort has been made to present Abraham Lincoln and his comrades in Union blue as humanitarian crusaders bent on achieving the equality referenced in the Declaration of Independence.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lincoln himself stated many times that he was not in favor of equality between the races, a fact underscored by his participation in the American Colonization Society: an organization dedicated to relocating American blacks to such places as Africa and South America - anywhere but the United States. Had Lincoln and his Republican colleagues pushed for racial equality, the GOP would have died in its infancy. Lincoln himself admitted in 1858 that the vast majority of Americans (including himself) strongly opposed the idea.

Nevertheless, the modern image of Lincoln as a 19th Moses leading slaves out of bondage should not surprise us. All throughout human history, the factions that have won wars have done their best to present themselves in the best light possible, while simultaneously denigrating their enemies. They do this for two primary reasons: 1) to morally justify the enormous loss of life and destruction that wars cause, and 2) so that future generations will embrace them as heroes and accept their vision of the world. Sometimes, what they have to say is true; sometimes it is not. It is up to us to look back into the past, weigh the facts for ourselves, and decide where the virtue and blame truly lie in the history of any given conflict.

For those interested in the American war of 1861-1865, Charles Adams' book When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession should, along with the works of men such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Clyde Wilson, be considered 'equal time for the other side'. As such, I believe it is well worth your time and careful consideration.

"The thesis that the solid South seceded to protect slavery just does not make sense," writes Adams:
"The institution of slavery had never been more secure for the slave owners, with the Supreme Court in their back pocket; with the Constitution itself expressly protecting slavery and mandating the return of fugitive slaves everywhere -- a mandate Lincoln said he would enforce; with Lincoln also declaring that he had no right to interfere with slavery and no personal inclination to do so; with Lincoln personally supporting a new constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever -- an amendment expressly made irrevocable."
Indeed, rather than slavery, Adams argues that the war between North and South had more to do with taxation and competing economic interests; and he supports this assertion with an impressive variety of facts. Of particular interest here is that Adams quotes extensively from European sources, including newspaper accounts and the perspectives of such well-known figures as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. Of all the books I have read on this subject, none weigh the international opinion so frankly and heavily as Adams does for us here. He also takes time to investigate the history of secession and to compare and contrast the ideology of the American Revolution with that of Lincoln and his Northern war partners. Again, the European perspective is evaluated, and we are treated to such thought-provoking quotes as the following from England's Cornhill Magazine: "With what pretence of fairness, it is said, can you Americans object to the secession of the Southern States when your nation was founded on secession from the British Empire?"

The only real words of criticism that I have for Adams is that I believe he downplays the role of slavery too much when he evaluates the causes of secession. He is absolutely correct in maintaining that the war was not fought over the question of slavery, but that does not mean that it played no role whatsoever in the events leading up to the war. There are prominent references to slavery in several of the secession ordinances of the Southern states; and while Adams would maintain that those references represent so much political posturing, I disagree. Although few Southerners actually owned slaves, slavery itself was an essential element of the Deep South economy, and an important aspect of the overall social fabric of 19th Century America (even many in the Northern states had no desire to see slavery end, as it might mean that freed blacks could move north). Thus, there were very real concerns regarding the institution and how Lincoln and his "Black Republicans" might interfere with it. Adams points out that Lincoln had promised not to interfere with it, but he forgets that Southerners trusted Lincoln about as far as they could throw him. I think Adams might have tackled the issue more successfully had he focused on the fact that, while several Southern states did mention slavery prominently in their ordinances of secession, the majority of their comments on the issue focused on sectional feeling (the "sectional, anti-slavery party in Washington," as South Carolina put it) and slavery's economic importance to the South (see Mississippi's ordinance). These factors tie back into his main thesis, while acknowledging that slavery did play a role in the secessions of the first seven Southern states to leave the Union (the latter four states seceded because of Lincoln's call for troops to be used against the first seven seceded states). Southerners simply had no desire to be dictated to, not on any issue; and they seceded when they became convinced that Northern interests had taken over the federal government, and that their best hope for protecting their interests lay outside the Union.

The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth will be upon us in less than two years, and between now and then we will undoubtedly be subjected to a barrage of the usual Abe Lincoln-as-messiah-and-patriot-extraordinaire mythology. Swallow it if you will; but for those of you who are interested in the candid, and often downright ugly, truth about America's 16th president and its most disastrous conflict, I cannot recommend "When in the Course of Human Events" highly enough. My quibbles with him aside, Adams presents his evidence and conclusions in such a even-handed, scholarly and compelling manner that only the most ardent Lincoln admirers will be able to put the book down and walk away unaffected by it.

Also recommended in the 'equal time' department: The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked, both by Thomas DiLorenzo; Is Davis a Traitor? by Albert Taylor Bledsoe; The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, by Jefferson Davis; From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition, by Clyde Wilson and Joseph Stromberg; A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, by Alexander H. Stephens; and One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution, by yours-truly.

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