Over at Law and Liberty, Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews a new book by James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. The burden of Owens’s essay (and apparently of the book as well) is that Abraham Lincoln was too, ever and always, fixed on overthrowing slavery. Even when Lincoln seemed slow or distracted, many in his party showed genuine zeal for that cause. (It spoils the story if Lincoln was ever fixated, in a singular sort of way, on saving the union, however glorious that cause may be, considered by itself.) It follows that Southern political leaders were right to suspect something: a something that led them to resort to secession. On the other hand, and despite their correct assessment of the situation, Southerners had no right to anything about it, since they were, after all, completely in the wrong according to that famous legal treatise, the Declaration of Independence. Why we had a constitution at all, becomes a bit of a mystery.
But let us consult an actual participant. Having discussed at some length the Lincoln government’s bad legal practices in the North and the South, Jefferson Davis wrote: “if the necessity which they pleaded was an argument to justify their violations of all the provisions of the Constitution, the existence of that necessity on their part was a sufficient argument to justify our withdrawal from union with them.” (Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, II, 1958 , 182.) Thus Owens, Oakes, and Davis agree that Southern suspicions were warranted, but only one of them finds anything anomalous in the union-savers’ argument.
The chilling fatalism in that argument brings to mind a possibly parallel case. Professor Owens believes of course that the Old South had to go: full stop. To advertise Northern good faith and Southern perfidy, he suggests that Southerners really ought to have let Mr. Lincoln’s party destroy their society piecemeal, over a couple of decades, by means of presidential and Congressional legal encroachment to enforce the Declaration. In the end, he seems just as happy that his goal was accomplished through four years of brutal and catastrophic war. On such premises, then, it might have been quicker (and quicker is generally better in the American lexicon) to destroy the Soviet Union with science-based warfare sometime in the 1960s. Every minute of delay, after all, meant another minute of Soviet “slavery.” Barry Goldwater may have given a nod toward this position when saying during “an ABC-TV ‘Issues and Answers’ program that ‘defoliation of the forests by low-yield atomic weapons could well be done’ to expose the supply routes for the flow of arms from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.” Coincidentally, Goldwater is also well remembered for his zealous utterance: “‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue’,” which was actually developed by his speechwriter, Professor Harry Jaffa, the dean of the Lincoln hagiographers. Indeed, Jaffa himself is known for his 1963 remark that America had the “ability to destroy sixty, eighty, or one hundred million of a possible enemy’s population with a single stroke” (“The Case for a Stronger National Government,” in R. A. Goldwin, ed., A Nation of States, 1963, 110).
Such statements were not entirely shocking among (and coming from) Cold War conservatives, for they had already re-tooled Just War Theory to show its compatibility with nuclear “weapons.” After all, a serious moral difference existed during the Cold War, which made it easy to deduce that the other side had no rights whatsoever. With correct moral assumptions in place, no other interest, divine or human, need intervene. “Defense” resting on the expected (and therefore intended) possible deaths of eighty or so million human beings was thus a thoroughly routine and rational response. It is sad, I suppose, that we avoided this “trampling-out-the-vintage” solution where the Soviets were concerned. It took the “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah” right out of the thing.
Given the gravity of this topic, I will put aside my above sarcasm to leave readers with a serious point of reflection. Conservative Presbyterian theologian, Philip J. Lee, once responded to the zealous Cold Warrior thinking reflected in the above comments and intimations by notable Conservative Movement figures: “[O]nly those who have come to accept a gnostic view of the world could even entertain the notion of defending anything by annihilating everything…. the balance of terror itself is the result of a heresy, a circular heresy, with no respect for the past, no hope for the future and no real God at the center of its present” (Against the Protestant Gnostics, 1987, 191).