Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Confederacy and the Roots of American Progressivism.

This past week I began Hillsdale College's second course series on the U.S. Constitution titled "The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism" also known as Constitution 201. I have a great deal of respect for Hillsdale College, an independent liberal arts college located in rural Michigan. My admiration stems from the school's rejection of all federal monies, thereby refusing to compromise its values and principles, which mirror my own. Founded in 1844, Hillsdale is an old school with, from what I've been able to ascertain from photographs, a beautiful, quaint campus and small student body. If I were to find fault, the only one I could muster to date is its admiration for Abraham Lincoln, which apparently extends back, well, to the days of Lincoln.

But I don't fault Hillsdale for that, the school is, afterall, located in Michigan; and if I displayed malice toward everyone who admired Lincoln, I'd spend my life bent out of shape. For the most part, if I can't come up with a good reason for arguing a point regarding the man (by that I mean, if I think I might actually accomplish something), I keep my mouth shut. But some injustices I simply can't ignore.

One such occurred in Hillsdale President Dr. Larry Arnn's introduction to Constitution 201. Dr. Arnn alluded to the seeds (at least some of them) of progressivism in the United States as having been sown in the Confederacy. He based this thought on two tenants of American progressivism: rejection of the nation's founding principles and the use of science as a liberal tool for the "betterment" of all mankind.

To support the argument, Dr. Arnn referenced the speech made by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia citing the subordination of the Negro race as a corner-stone of Confederate society. Vice President Stephens stated modern science "proved" the Negro genetically inferior to the white man. I'm certainly not agreeing with Vice President Stephens or any of the other hundreds of thousands of people who agreed with that "finding" at the time. What I find umbrage with is the use of Stephens' speech defending slavery as indicative of "progressive" thought in the South.

For two hundred years before Stephens made that speech, slavery had thrived in the British colonies and had been justified using the same opinion Stephens espoused even without the "proof" of science.
More disturbing to me is the challenge that Stevens was speaking "in opposition to the equality principle of the American founding." Based on the evidence presented, opposition to the "founding" existed from the start. To add insult to injury, Dr. Arnn made no reference to the Republican Party's gross disregard for the Constitution in its subjegation of the South and its subsequent, purposeful destruction of the checks and balances critical to the survival of the Federal Republic established by our founders under said Constitution.

Now, I don't consider myself a sophisticated person. I'm not particularly well versed in political terminology, but for me the term "liberal" (synonomous with "progressive") conjurs up an individual who believes everyone should be equally successful and that government should ensure that success through regulation and wasteful expenditure of other people's money. My money. Hillsdale's introduction to Frank Goodnow's (American Political Sciences Association) paper titled "The American Conception of Liberty" echoes this concept of a liberal. The intro states, "Progressive political science was based on the assumption that society could be organized in such a way that social ills would disappear."

Now, let's think back. What is considered the great social ill on the day Vice President Stephens made that speech? Oh yes, slavery. At least it was to those not in the South. Personally, I think the "liberal" Republicans would have done well to focus that energy relieving society's ills on the North's factories, orphanages, and sweatshops, but then I don't buy the Civil War having been about slavery, either.

The equality principle referenced, of course, is found in the Declaration of Independence—"...all Men are created equal,..." It didn't matter that the clause was written by a Southerner and slave owner and that the Declaration was signed by a number of slaveowners who risked their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor so that our nation would win its independence. It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's a disconnect here and there always will be. The point I want to make is this particular "equality" principle was missing in the Constitution, and it is the Republicans'/Lincoln's bizarre adherence to the Declaration of Independence's taking precedence over the Constitution as this nation's founding document that excuses the Republicans' subsequest violations of the Constitution and destruction of the republic that to this day they are credited with saving.

I argue, as the South has for, gosh, two centuries now, that The Declaration is the document by which we informed King George we were opting out of his empire. The Constitution, written eleven years later, with the Articles of Confederation sandwiched in between, is the document, ratified by thirteen sovereign states, that formed the Federal Republic of the United States of America —under a limited central govenment, its powers granted by the consent of the governed through powers delegated by their sovereign states. It is the document our founders designed specifically to keep in check the anticipated growth of what would become, by its very nature, a large, all-powerful central government. Note that it is a large, all-powerful govenment that is critical for carrying out a liberal agenda. Equality, validated in the Declaration, formed one of the tenants of the Republican Party —not because it cared about each individual, but because representative government wasn't working for it. Sovereign states, which could counter the overreach of the central government, got in the way of its "liberal" agenda.

I've always heard it argued that the concessions made to the slave states during the writing of the Constitution were done so the Southern states would ratify it. Darn right—, we played a major role in writing the thing. If the Northern, non-slave holding states did not agree with the Constitution, they shouldn't have ratified it. They could have written their own Constitution, instead of desecrating ours. It was a bad marriage from the start with one partner, in bad faith, determined to change the other.
For eighty years the South was the bulwark against the proponents of strong central government and the tyranny of democracy over representative govenment. The most damaging attack made against the republic was that made to representative government 150 years ago by Lincoln's Republican Party. That's where the seeds of liberalism were sown, not in the Confederacy. That group of Republican tyrants created a fertile field, which continues to put forth its ever-increasing bounty of crop-choking weeds to this day. The party doesn't matter. What matters is the restraints are gone.
You want to promote the South for laying the foundation for "liberal progressivism"? Well, maybe we do deserve the blame. We lost the War.

Thanks for reading,