The Party of Jefferson Davis

CNN has an interesting poll out on the views of Americans on the Civil War and its causes.

Roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners.

When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states' rights, 52 percent of all Americas said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.

"The results of that question show that there are still racial, political and geographic divisions over the Civil War that still exists a century and a half later," CNN Polling Director Holland Keating said.

When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union. Republicans were also most likely to say they admired the leaders of the southern states during the Civil War, with eight in 10 Republicans expressing admiration for the leaders in the South, virtually identical to the 79 percent of Republicans who admired the northern leaders during the Civil War.

In my earlier essay, I noted on how the Civil War is the defining event in American history transforming our sense of nationhood and what it means to be an American. From saying the United States are to saying the United States is encapsulates what the War ultimately accomplished in cultural and political terms. That change in our speech is transcendental underscoring the nature of the country as one country and not fifty separate sovereign states. 

But there has been a second transformation, albeit one more recent, that is truly rather remarkable though frankly bizarre to this observer and that is how the Republican party has gone from being the "Party of Lincoln" to the "Party of Jefferson Davis."

That transformation really began in the wake of World War II when the Democratic Party, long the dominant political force in the South, began on the national level to move legislatively against the quid quo pro that had existed since Reconstruction that allowed segregation to form the bedrock of Southern life. By 1948, Storm Thurmond of South Carolina had bolted to form his Dixiecrat insurgency candidacy. In the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement brought the undemocratic nature of Southern race-based institutions crashing down, white Southerners began a mass exit towards the Republican party. That exit would largely be completed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan in his first campaign speech as the Republican nominee went to Philadelphia, Mississippi where 16 years before three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered to invoke the cause of "states' rights" which for white southerners translates into nothing more than their presumed God-given right to discriminate against anyone who isn't like them.

Southerners have always been more conservative than the rest of the nation. And while in the era before the Great Depression, one could find liberal progressives and conservatives in both parties in the post Civil Rights era that fixture of the American political system began to unravel as white Southerners joined en masse with other conservatives to take over the Republican party. Even as late as the early 1980s, it was possible for men like Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Mathias, and Edward Brooke to be part of the GOP. Today, a GOP moderate like Lincoln Chafee is unwelcome in the Republican party.

The fact that both of the two long dominant political parties in the United States had liberal and conservative wings is something that allowed for grand bipartisan coalitions to be formed at critical junctures in the nation's history. Indeed, the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed if not for the support it received from liberal Republicans. 

The filmmaker Ken Burns notes that "American think themselves an uncompromising people but our greatest strength is compromise and when it broke down we killed each other in great numbers. This is the lesson the Civil War at its heart. Compromise is the essence of democratic conversation." Unfortunately, compromise is not word in the vocabulary in the Party of Jefferson Davis.

It Defined Us as a Nation

One hundred fifty years ago today, the American Civil War began in earnest when Confederate forces fired upon the Federal fort at Fort Sumter that guarded the approaches to Charleston. While the two day battle that led to a Union retreat marks the formal start to the War between the States, fighting had already been raging between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Kansas and Missouri on and off beginning as early as 1854. And while formal hostilities would cease in April 1865 after over 600,000 lives lost, the secessionist states would be occupied by Federal troops until 1877. And for some in the South, it sometimes seems that War has not yet ended.

While there are still a few people who first think themselves citizens of a given state, a custom perhaps most egregious in Texas, and then a citizen of the United States second, most Americans now, I would hope, see themselves as Americans first. Before the Civil War, this was certainly not the case. For John C. Calhoun, his country was South Carolina.

The War is no doubt the watershed event in American history. The most fundamental transformation brought forth by the Civil War is that before the War one would say that the United States are essentially defining the country as a collection of independent states but after the War, it became the United States is. In this regard, the War becomes the catalyst for a tightening of the American bond. Our conception of nationality was forged through the course of that bloody conflict. Indeed, the Civil War ushered in the first constitutional definition of US citizenship.

How that "are" became an "is" is the defining story of the country and that debate in the minds of some conservatives is not yet settled. The Tenther Movement is but one example how issues seemingly resolved by the Civil War continue to permeate our politics.

There is no escaping that the Civil War left an indelible mark on the South. It scarred the psyche of the southerners where the War is still to this day called the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Independence, or alternatively the Slaveholders' Rebellion. Nor do all southerners considered the War a conflict over the issue of slavery but rather a war over states' rights.

Southern apologists often go to great lengths to paint the War as anything but a conflict over slavery. Southern revisionism remains a cottage industry to this day. Take for example, Llewellyn H. Rockwell, president of the Ludwig van Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama who writes "the South was being looted to pay for the North's early version of industrial policy." Rockwell isn't even a historian nor an economist but rather a proponent of the Austrian School of Economics. For that matter, he isn't even a southerner but rather from Boston with a degree in English from Tufts. But for free traders, the South is a cause célèbre because the cotton exporting, finished goods importing South was against a high tariff policy. Taxes, then as now, are not a Southern thing.

But no historian views tariffs as the cause for the war in part because in 1857 tariffs were actually lowered in response to the financial panic of that year. If there is a single cause for the dissolution of the Union, and hence, the War it is the prolonged debate over expansion of slavery into the territories. If at independence, the political balance of the country was tilted in favor of the South by 1850 that balance was decisively moving in the North's direction as more free states entered the Union and as the North's population simply exploded. By 1860, the South was headed towards a permanent status as a political minority having failed to elect a southerner to the White House in three successive elections.

There can be no denying that the South that by 1865 was a defeated force whose culture was shattered. Economically, the region was devastated. The destruction of slavery meant that the entire Southern economy had to be rebuilt. Cotton exports would not match their pre-war high until 1879. Its share of US GDP would fall over the next 75 years as the North and Mid-West industrialized while the South remained an agricultural backwater. Overall, the region did not fully recover until the post World War II boom. To this day, Mississippi remains the poorest state in the Union and lowest socio-economic indicators are most prevalent in the South.

Still politically, the South has held together more than any other region of country giving it an outsized influence in national affairs even if no southerner would be elected to the White House between Zachary Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woodrow Wilson was actually born in Virginia but he was elected from New Jersey and Andrew Johnson was from Tennessee but he was an accidental President). Its dominance was most acutely felt in the Senate during periods of Democratic control when southern Senators through use of the committee system effectively controlled that branch of government. And they would use that power to protect a race-based southern culture well into the 20th century.

Here are some collected thoughts of historian Shelby Foote on The Civil War:

The President on the Economy

The text courtesy of the White House:

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. I just finished a meeting with my economic team about the current state of our economy and some of the additional steps that we should take to move forward.

It’s been nearly two years since that terrible September when our economy teetered on the brink of collapse. And at the time, no one knew just how deep the recession would go, or the havoc that it would wreak on families and businesses across this country. What we did know was that it took nearly a decade -- how we doing on sound, guys? Is it still going in the press -- okay. What we did know was that it was going to take nearly a decade in order -- can you guys still hear us? Okay. Let me try this one more time.

What we did know was that it took nearly a decade to dig the hole that we’re in -– and that it would take longer than any of us would like to climb our way out. And while we have taken a series of measures and come a long way since then, the fact is, that too many businesses are still struggling; too many Americans are still looking for work; and too many communities are far from being whole again.

And that’s why my administration remains focused every single day on pushing this economy forward, repairing the damage that’s been done to the middle class over the past decade, and promoting the growth we need to get our people back to work.

So, as Congress prepares to return to session, my economic team is hard at work in identifying additional measures that could make a difference in both promoting growth and hiring in the short term, and increasing our economy’s competitiveness in the long term -- steps like extending the tax cuts for the middle class that are set to expire this year; redoubling our investment in clean energy and R&D; rebuilding more of our infrastructure for the future; further tax cuts to encourage businesses to put their capital to work creating jobs here in the United States. And I’ll be addressing these proposals in further detail in the days and weeks to come.

In the meantime, there’s one thing we know we should do -– something that should be Congress’ first order of business when it gets back -- and that is making it easier for our small businesses to grow and hire.

We know that in the final few months of last year, small businesses accounted for more than 60 percent of the job losses in America. That’s why we’ve passed eight different tax cuts for small businesses and worked to expand credit for them.

But we have to do more. And there’s currently a jobs bill before Congress that would do two big things for small business owners: cut more taxes and make available more loans. It would help them get the credit they need, and eliminate capital gains taxes on key investments so they have more incentive to invest right now. And it would accelerate $55 billion of tax relief to encourage American businesses, small and large, to expand their investments over the next 14 months.

Unfortunately, this bill has been languishing in the Senate for months, held up by a partisan minority that won’t even allow it to go to a vote. That makes no sense. This bill is fully paid for. It will not add to the deficit. And there is no reason to block it besides pure partisan politics.

The small business owners and the communities that rely on them, they don’t have time for political games. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer. In fact, just this morning, a story showed that small businesses have put hiring and expanding on hold while waiting for the Senate to act on this bill. Simply put, holding this bill hostage is directly detrimental to our economic growth.

So I ask Senate Republicans to drop the blockade. I know we’re entering election season, but the people who sent us here expect us to work together to get things done and improve this economy.

Now, no single step is the silver bullet that will reverse the damage done by the bubble-and-bust cycles that caused our economy into this slide. It’s going to take a full-scale effort, a full-scale attack that not only helps in the short term, but builds a firmer foundation that makes our nation stronger for the long haul. But this step will benefit small business owners and our economy right away. That’s why it’s got to get done.

There’s no doubt we still face serious challenges. But if we rise above the politics of the moment to summon an equal seriousness of purpose, I’m absolutely confident that we will meet them. I’ve got confidence in the American economy. And most importantly, I’ve got confidence in the American people. We’ve just got to start working together to get this done.

Thank you very much.

While it is reassuring to hear the President speak out on the economy, I am still left somewhat wanting by his remarks. Over the weekend, I chatted with my good friend Norm Jensen who runs the free-thinking blog One Good Move and he remarked that Obama "knows how to give a campaign speech but doesn't know how to give a Presidential one." I think that's a fair assessment but Obama's problems in getting his message across seem deeper than that. If this is his clarion call to action, I suspect the response is going to be muted.

To begin with, I would prefer that the President framed the crisis not just differently but also more succinctly. This is not simply a decade long debacle attributable to George W. Bush, this is a 30 year crisis in the making that needs to be pinned on Ronald Reagan and his misbeggotten policies. I think it important to remember that Reagan didn't just run against Jimmy Carter, he ran against FDR. This entire mess has to be pinned on the GOP going back to Reagan, not for political reasons, but for economic ones. Give the devil his due, this is Reaganomics biting our collective butts.

There's more...

The Historical Fiction of Glenn Beck

Honestly, I couldn't get through the whole thing (there is a shorter video over at Crooks and Liars). I did make it to the point where I caught Glenn Beck saying that more preachers died during the American Revolution than any other group and that "England hated the preachers" going on to say that "in fact, if you were a preacher you were most likely to be killed during the American Revolution" presumably by the British.

Well, there were 4,435 combat deaths on the American side during the Revolutionary War. All told, there were some 10,000 total deaths from disease and malnutrition among American forces in the various army camps. Of these I'm sure more than a few were preachers but I only know of one, Rev. Ebenezer Baldwin, A.M., the pastor of the First Congregationalist Church in Danbury, Connecticut who died of a fever unrelated to combat in October 1776. His death is well-known because he was one of the first chaplains in General Washington's army.

The suggestion that the British went around massacring civilians, much less clergymen, is simply a despicable lie. Yes, the London papers described the colonial revolt as a "Presbyterian Uprising" and yes, Congregationalist ministers in New England played a pivotal role in fomenting the American revolt especially in the critical years of 1774-1776. I have a two volume set in my library entitled Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805 that points to the important contributions made to American political thought by American clergymen before, during and after the Revolution just as the clergy played a critical role in the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century.

As Dr. Ellis Sandoz, a political scientist formerly at Louisiana State University, writes in the preface, "the early political culture of the American republic was deeply influenced by the religious consciousness of the New England preachers."  He adds, "indeed, it was often through the political sermon—the 'pulpit of the American Revolution'—that the political rhetoric of the period was formed, refined, and transmitted."

Jonathan Mayhew, D.D., the Congregationalist preacher at the Old West Church in Boston from 1747 until his death in 1766 is credited for the phrase "no taxation without representation" during his vigorous opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765. His fifty-five page sermon in 1750 commemorating the centennial of the execution of Charles I entitled A discourse concerning the unlimited submission and non-resistance to the high powers  (pdf) is one of the most influential political essays on the nature of civil liberties in American history and considered by historians as the key political treatise written in colonial America. In the sermon, Mayhew explored the idea that Christians were obliged to suffer under an oppressive ruler, as some Anglicans argued. Mayhew asserted that resistance to a tyrant was a "glorious" Christian duty. In offering moral sanction for political and military resistance, Mayhew anticipated the position that many ministers took during the conflict with Britain. But Mayhew's key point rested on the ancient freedoms of the pagan pre-Christian Britons.

The English constitution is originally and essentially free. The character which J. Caesar and Tacitus both give of the ancient Britons so long ago, is, That they were extremely jealous of their liberties, as well as a people of a martial spirit. Nor have there been wanting frequent instances and proofs of the same glorious spirit (in both respects) remaining in their posterity ever since,--in the struggles they have made for liberty, both against foreign and domestic tyrants.--Their kings hold their title to the throne solely by grant of parliament; i.e. in other words, by the voluntary consent of the people.

No historian is going to dispute the view that clergymen played a role in the Independence movement but Glenn Beck is suggesting that the clergy were the driving force. Nothing could be further from the historical record. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, was the only active clergyman among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. It's true that Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers, and hence their congregations, were largely for independence. However, it also true that many Quakers, who don't have ministers but rather believe that anyone may be called to pastoral ministry, and most Anglicans remained loyal to the Crown. Ministers of the Church of England were bound by oath to support the King and the Quakers were pacifists. It bears reminding that only a third of colonials were for independence, a third opposed and a third indifferent or neutral. Regionally at the start of the war, New England was the one area most for independence and the South the most loyal to the Crown.

There's more...

A Squandered Presidency, Not Quite, But Not Transformational Either

Just 18 months into the Obama Presidency, the verdict of the academy is already beginning to take shape. This summer has seen an array of assessments specifically on Barack Obama and his Administration and more generally on the triumph of corporate politics in the Age of Obama.

Apart from the Jonathan Alter book The Promise: President Obama, Year One, which was published in May and the forthcoming Paul Street book The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power which will be released next month, the assessments have been in op-eds or essays in scholarly journals and leftist publications. And again apart from the Alter book, the assessments have been more critical than glowing. The Street book, from what I've heard, promises to be an evisceration of the Obama Presidency. Not surprising given that Paul Street is one of the nation's leading radical historians along with Mike Davis. 

The Alter work, of which I have only read excerpts, while praising the young President isn't exactly a tribute either. According to Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, "Alter gives this White House a mixed grade so far on achieving its policy goals, working with a highly politicized Congress and communicating with the public." Tim Rutten's review in the Los Angeles Times finds Alter "sympathetic to the President's goals" while casting "a cold eye on his most vociferous political antagonists" and yet "independent enough to criticize the administration's — and the chief executive's — shortcomings." Alter, of course, has known the President nearly two decades or put another way the pair have been acquainted nearly half their lives. If your friends aren't willing to raise their voices on your behalf, who will? 

While the right is populated by sycophantic obstreperous propagandists who inhabit the rive droit of the Potomac think tanks that are wholly servile to the interests of the American corporate-led oligarchy and seemingly allergic to facts, the left, to begin with, lacks that vast corporate-funded infrastructure. Even if they did possess it, the left is hardly going to countenance such a wholesale capitulation to longstanding Democratic goals that the Obama Administration has set aside.

While the vitriol may emanate from the right, some of harshest rebukes have come from the left. The President can brush off being called a socialist but the appellation of a Bush third term clearly stings. Newt Gingrich, a career politician with presidential ambitions, can call him "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" urging the GOP faithful and indeed all "patriotic Americans" to resist the President's "secular, socialist machine" and Obama says not a word. But Glenn Greenwald and Dylan Ratigan, two journalists, discuss the President's targeting of American citizens with extrajudicial executions on a television programme and that unleashes the volcanic wrath of Robert Gibbs

The litany of progressive complaints slip off the tongue effortlessly. Single payer didn't have a prayer much less a hearing. The public option wasn't an option. Lip service to LGTB goals but not much real movement even when the opportunity arises to make a definitive stand. Leaving Iraq is defined as garrisoning 50,000 troops indefinitely. With each new boot on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban only has spread like a wild fire across the country returning to the north after a nine year absence even as General Petraeus assures us that we are turning the tide. Guantánamo, still open and now hosting the trial of a child soldier. The Patriot Act extended without tighter privacy protection for US citizens. The Employee Free Choice Act all but forgotten. Comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely delayed even as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. Comprehensive climate and energy legislation stalled with public support melting away faster than Greenland glacier. The financial sector reform law still doesn't solve the Too Big to Fail problem thus all but guaranteeing another bailout when our high rolling casinos overextend themselves as they inevitably will. The initial trepidation over the appointment of 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals to the recently formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is now giving away to outright despair at the thought that the President as he finds his fiscal religion might be willing to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.

While one wants to be supportive of the Administration, it is increasingly difficult to do so when one senses that things are seriously amiss. Even the Center for American Progress' John Podesta, the former Clinton Chief of Staff who headed the Obama Transition that filled the key posts in the Administration, has said that the White House had lost the narrative by the end of this first year in office.

He's not the only one. When Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a center-left publication, asked leading liberal progressives thinkers to assess President Obama's performance this past April, a recurrent theme among the nine contributors was a fear that the Administration had lost control of the all important economic debate. Robert Reich, President Clinton's Labor secretary, lamented that Obama's failure to provide "a larger narrative" to explain the causes of the crash and his response to it had left the public "susceptible to [conservative] arguments that its problems were founded in 'Big Government.'

Here's how Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal summarized the debate among many of the nation's leading progressive voices:

The fear among the Democracy contributors is that against this disciplined assault the White House is suffering from what could be called a "narrative gap." By which they mean that the White House has inadvertently allowed Republicans to shift public discontent from business to government by not working more doggedly to link President George W. Bush's anti-regulation, tax-cutting policies not only to the 2008 meltdown but also to the economy's meager performance over his entire tenure. (During Bush's two terms, the economy created only one-fourth as many jobs as it did under Clinton; poverty rose sharply; and the median family income declined, after rising 14 percent under Clinton.)

Among those who haven't taken their quills to penning paeans to the virtues of Barack the Great Disappointment are Frank Rich, Michael Tomansky, Eric Alterman, Joe Klein, Brad Carson, David Swanson, Danielle Allen, Michael Walzer and Barbara Ehrenreich. All have published essays - devastating critiques of varying degrees - on Obama the man and Obama the President over this the summer of our discontent. Even if they express some sympathy for his plight given the condition of the country he inherited, these voices point more to the bad and the ugly than to the good the Administration has accomplished. Progressive economists like Robert Reich, Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman continue to bemoan the President's economic policies often wondering if the President and his economic team gets the magnitude of our malaise. Others befuddled by the President's lackadaisical approach to the severity of the crisis include Simon Johnson, Felix Salmon, Nouriel Roubini and Martin Wolf.

There's more...


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