Sunday, July 08, 2012
The World Is Banana Shaped
Because I live less than twenty miles north of the Maxon-Dixon line, I can quickly wind up in Dixie simply by making a wrong turn. While I was in Maine, things felt much different. Almost every town up there has a little square with a statue honoring veterans of the Civil War. And it's so far away from where the fighting occurred that it made me wonder about Mainers' motivation for preserving the Union. What's clear, however, is that there is a ton of civic pride about Maine's role in defeating the traitorous Confederate insurgency.
It's a similar thing here, with almost every small town having some sort of memorial to their fallen. Perhaps it's simply a function of the high per capita cost that low-population states like VT and ME suffer, or maybe there's something else to it.
I certainly think there was at that time still a significant dedication to republican virtues that might have motivated folks to enlist even before there was any conscription. The war threatened our freedom. In fact, that does seem like it could be the perception not just in the North:
The problem, as soldiers on both sides saw it, was that the opposing side threatened self-government. It threatened liberty and equality. It threatened the virtue necessary to sustain a republic. It threatened the proper balance between God, government, society, the family, and the individual. And no matter which side of the divide a Civil War soldier stood on, he knew that the heart of the threat, and the reason that the war came, was the other side’s stance on slavery.
I also wonder if there was another divide in terms of how to address the elephant in the room: was it a political or a legal question? And does that dichotomy date back to our Revolution as much as the compromises that left us with unresolved issues and differences in interpreting our founding ideals?
In reading a biography of John Dickinson, I found something very interesting (to me):
[A]n American lawyer bred in the English Inns of Court necessarily imbibed certain ideas with refer- ence to the political rights and duties of the Colonists, which became ever afterwards the unchangeable creed of his professional life.
The effect of this peculiar training upon a large number of American lawyers who afterwards became prominent in their profession here was very apparent in the controversies which subsequently arose between the mother-country and the Colonies in regard to their relations to each other. These lawyers formed undeniably for twenty years before the Revolution the elite of the profession in the Colonies south of the Hudson River...
[The list of 115 Americans admitted to different Inns of Court] is a curious and significant one when we arrange these students geographically: South Carolina leads in num- ber, having forty-seven ; Virginia has twenty-one ; Maryland, sixteen ; Pennsylvania, eleven ; New York, five ; and each of the other States one or two only, that being the whole number sent from New England, neither of them bearing names conspicuous in Revolutionary history...
We find among them, for instance, the names of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the strongly conservative assertor of American liberty; Edward Rutledge, who opposed to the last the Declaration of Independence; and along-side of these Heyward, Trapier, and Lynch, who, if they agreed about nothing else, were at least all Whigs, American as well as English. So we find the two Lees, Richard Henry and Arthur...
These men differed in many things, but in one they agreed, and that was that the dispute with Great Britain was mainly a legal question, and that up to the period of the Declaration of Independence it might be settled as other legal questions were, if not by a ju- dicial tribunal, then by an appeal to legal principles recognized in common by both mother-country and the Colonies as the outgrowth of English history and traditions. There was another principle held in com- mon by all these men : from the beginning to the end they all maintained their resistance to the ministerial measures on the ground that these acts were violations of English, not of natural, law...
[T]he course of New England previous to the Revolution was far from showing that vindication of English liberty when it was assailed by the ministry on the ground that the act was in violation of rights guaranteed by charters and positive laws, which formed the ground of resistance in other parts of the country. The most extraordinary illustration of the manner in which the provisions of the English law were interpreted, especially as to the extent of the obligations of the Colonists to obey them, is found in the declarations of James Otis in his early life, and of John Adams, two of the leading members of the Boston bar, just before the Revolution.
James Otis, in his great argument on " Writs of Assistance," in 1761, maintained that "an act of Parliament against the constitution (that is, against the fundamental principles of English law) is void ; that an act against natural equity is void ; that if an act of Parliament should be made in the very words of this petition it would be void."
So John Adams, among many other wonderful deliverances concerning the nature of political institutions, did not hesitate to write in 1776 to Mr. Justice Cushing, " You have my hearty concurrence in telling the jury the nullity of the act of Parliament. I am determined to die of that opinion, let the jus gladii say what it will."
So the letters of Samuel Adams are filled with these strange interpretations of the law, or rather with an open defiance of any law which should interpose to check his ardent efforts for independence. Such doctrines may be preached from the pulpit, or form the staple of the rhetoric which is powerful at mass-meetings, but that eminent lawyers should avow them in courts of justice, where the judges are sworn to administer the law and not " natural equity," would seem to show that those who advocated them had not been trained in the English law-schools, in the Temple, or at Lincoln's Inn.
I don't have a coherent theory about this as yet, but at first blush it feels like English-trained men such as Dickinson and Rutledge viewed the problems with Britain as simply a matter of getting Parliament and the Crown to recognize its errors of English law, whilst provincial New Englanders Otis and Adams saw things more in political terms and natural law. Same problems, different perspectives.
Similarly, a couple generations later could the South see slavery as a mere legal issue, and once the Constitution was abrogated by the North through increased Federal threat to states' sovereignty, secession became an inevitable legal recourse? Whilst the North saw it as a political question, and slavery as a threat to our national virtue and the Republic itself?
That's not to ignore such factors as the overwhelming power that rich slaveholders had in southern states and whatnot. Just looking for other possible reasons why there was such a gulf between worldviews.
And what of the big issues of today? Are there unresolvable conflicts with no chance of middle ground on abortion, marriage equality and healthcare reform, because we approach them with completely different assumptions, filters, etc?
Could Ted Nugent be right? Or was the Civil War a fluke, and over time the liberal ideals and ideas will ultimately win without a huge conflagration?
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