Commentary Magazine


Topic: Civil War

The Greatest Name Associated with the Cause of Popular Government

I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

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I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

There is something hopeful in seeing a great leader, having prevailed in a great struggle, show humanity and eschew casual cruelty; who was willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil. Who else but Lincoln could say at the beginning of the war, “We are not enemies, but friends”–and by the end could say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds…”? And how much we could use those sensibilities in our time, when such grace and largeness of spirit are in such short supply, including among those who claim Lincoln as their role model. 

One other thing. Lord Charnwood writes, “His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him, nor would any similar experience of later times have been likely to do so.”

Abraham Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours, yet he refused to give up on his belief that politics could right certain wrongs. He didn’t withdraw from public life. He didn’t become consumed by hatred or cynicism. Neither should we.

“Beyond his own country,” Lord Charnwood wrote, “some of us recall his name as the greatest among those associated with the cause of popular government.”

It was true then; it remains true today.

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Correcting DeMint’s Historical Confusion

Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

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Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

Senator DeMint is certainly right that part of the impetus to end slavery came from the people, including people of faith, including abolitionists and individuals like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first novel to criticize the institution of slavery. (Supposedly Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?”) Oddly, though, DeMint mentions William Wilberforce, a great opponent of the slave trade but who was English, not American (as the interviewer, sensing trouble, quickly points out) and who died decades before the American Civil War.

Fine. But where DeMint really gets into trouble, I think, is when he claims, “the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government.” In fact, the move to free the slaves did come from the federal government – in the form of Lincoln, the chief executive at the time; in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment; and in the form of the Civil War itself. Lincoln himself, it should be said, vastly expanded the powers of the federal government, including instituting the first federal income tax. And Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was based first and foremost on preserving the union, though his commitment to end slavery became an increasingly important factor.

So why call attention to these matters? In part, I think, because it’s important for conservatives to undo some of the confusion that DeMint created. But there’s another, somewhat deeper point to be made about the danger of approaching history and politics through an overly ideological lens. In this case Senator DeMint, a fierce critic of the federal government, has reinterpreted history in order to make it fit into his particular narrative. He seems so eager to refuse to give credit to the federal government for anything that he insists it didn’t play a role in the abolition of slavery. And that’s where he made perhaps his biggest error.  

I worry, too, that some on the right invoke the Constitution without really understanding it and its history. For example, many conservatives who profess reverence for the Constitution are vocal and reflexive critics of compromise per se – despite the fact that the Constitution was itself a product of an enormous set of compromises. (For more, see this National Affairs essay I co-authored with Michael Gerson. As we wrote, “A recovery of constitutional ideals is, to be sure, a worthwhile endeavor — but it does not point quite where [certain Tea Party and conservative] leaders and activists often suggest.”)

In the end, I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected — and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

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“The One Man Who Had Quite Purged His Heart and Mind from Hatred or Even Anger”

Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

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Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said five weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

In the end, of course, the war came–and with it countless patriot graves. But Lincoln saved the American Republic and, after its most brutal war, he helped to bind up the wounds. He began to repair the bonds of affection. He has a special place in the American pantheon.

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Madison’s Moment

He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

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He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison promised that a large republic with a representative government would avoid the “instability, injustice and confusion” that had plagued many nations in Europe. In a representative government, he reasoned, disruptive factions would be unable to gain sufficient power to dissolve the social contract. The people’s representatives would not necessarily be paragons of virtue, but they would be less likely to succumb to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice.” In the 225 intervening years, Madison has been proven correct, with two great exceptions. One was the Civil War. The other was the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013.

Madison would, of course, be appalled. He was, after all, president during the War of 1812. That war would split the nation so profoundly as to be dubbed, variously, a civil war all its own and a second war of independence. And as for succumbing to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice,” the war’s political polarization would crest with the Hartford Convention of 1814 at which Federalists from New England would either threaten secession openly or implicitly. They had already, as Richard Brookhiser notes, been “smuggling supplies to the British army in Canada.” Shy of secession, they made noises about striking a separate peace with the British.

The “or else” tacked on to these threats was a list of constitutional amendments the conventioneers wanted adopted, among them restrictions on presidential eligibility aimed specifically at curbing the electoral success of the sons of Virginia. For those who think Republicans engineered the 2013 shutdown because they could not win elections fair and square and therefore contrived to take the country “hostage,” one wonders what they would make of such personalities as Gouverneur Morris (“Unquestionably it is civil war. And what of it?”) and Timothy Pickering.

But of course Madison was far from blameless. One clever flourish of the conventioneers was in writing that “in cases of deliberate, dangerous and palpable infractions of the constitution” it is appropriate for “a state to interpose its authority” with the federal government. This language echoed nearly word for word a section of the Virginia Resolution of 1798, which was written by Madison himself. (Madison’s authorship was not yet publicly revealed, but as it was promulgated by his party in his home state, his affiliation with and approval of its ideas were widely assumed.)

The Virginia Resolution, in turn, along with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, was a protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts which were put in place by the Federalists and used by President John Adams (and an enabling Supreme Court) to silence domestic criticism and stack the deck electorally against the Republicans. Madison talked Jefferson out of pushing secession in response to the Acts, but he would no doubt scoff at the idea that the government shutdown of 2013 was an unprecedented manifestation (aside from the Civil War) of partisan polarization, disrupting a history of harmony that he would not recognize.

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Kerry’s Syria Conference Is Falling Apart

The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

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The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry’s top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

Here is a helpful hint for Kerry: if the State Department thinks a conference is useless, it’s probably useless. As the article notes, this isn’t Kerry’s fault: the splintering of the Syrian rebel factions has made it nearly impossible to provide realistic representation for the rebels at such a conference.

Even if the interests of those rebels could be represented, they would likely choose not to participate. That’s because they want Bashar al-Assad to facilitate a transitional government and then step aside. Assad won’t do that, so the rebels are being realistic: if Assad won’t give up power, what could possibly be accomplished at a conference intended to get him to voluntarily agree to give up power?

Additionally, recent events have only encouraged Assad to hold on. The American threat of force was exposed as empty: President Obama’s one-eighty on striking Syria revealed a president desperate for a way out of his own bluff. It also put Assad in control and enabled him to buy time by making the bloodthirsty tyrant a partner in ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

The rebels, then, can be forgiven for thinking the U.S. is only exacerbating their disadvantage by making Assad suddenly indispensable–or close to it. Hence the rebels’ increasing support for making a commitment to Assad’s departure a precondition for talks. If the West isn’t committed to removing Assad, what hope could the rebels possibly have for Kerry’s negotiations? It was hoped by some in the administration that Obama’s threat of force would better enable a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But his hasty retreat from that threat had the opposite effect:

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough.

Kerry’s best hope is that when presented with only one option, the rebels will take it. Officials at the State Department are being surprisingly clear-eyed about the chances the rebels will grasp at that straw, even if Kerry isn’t.

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What Conservatives Shouldn’t Be Watching

The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

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The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

In its two tedious hours, Copperhead tells the story of the most reasonable citizen of a small village in upstate New York in 1862. Its hero Abner Beech claims to be a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and deplores, as many conservatives do today, the willingness of the federal government to give itself power and to treat its opponents roughly. For this belief, his neighbors ostracize him. But he is undaunted and eventually wins many of them over while his leading opponent in town, who happens to be the most unreasonable if not downright crazy character in the film, winds up killing himself.

That might sound like a promising plot line, but the problem here is that in 1862 arguments about federal power were not theoretical disputes about legislation. The real-life versions of people like the Beech character (and his abolitionist antagonist) were focused on the efforts of the president to not only defend the existence of the republic but to prevent the spread of slavery on American shores.

All wars are terrible and few have been as horrific as the Civil War in terms of casualties and the scale of destruction. But to brand that war, of all conflicts, as unjust or not worth the sacrifice of so many Americans is the moral equivalent of saying that slavery wasn’t so bad. Copperhead is so boring that it’s doubtful that it will ever find much of an audience. But its chief failing is that it is fundamentally dishonest about its subject. It is true that many in the north didn’t like Lincoln or the war. But it is a lie to represent their views as having nothing to do with racism.

The film attempts to portray the dispute as simply a matter of Democrats versus Republicans and one man’s effort to make his views heard. But most northern Democrats supported the war even if they hadn’t voted for Lincoln. Only those elements of that party that were drenched in hatred of blacks and hostile to the very notion of emancipation considered the war illegal. Copperheads were a minority of the Democratic Party and their activity often bordered on what any reasonable observer would consider sedition in time of war and sought to obstruct recruitment into the Union Army.

Filmmaker Ron Maxwell attempts to get around this problem by portraying Beech as not only reasonable but actually against slavery. When he and his friends say they won’t fight for Lincoln, real Copperheads would have said they wouldn’t fight for blacks (though they invariably used the n-word when they said it).

Contrary to the argument in the film, what Lincoln had done did not undermine democracy. Secession was itself fundamentally undemocratic since it was based on the idea that those states that didn’t like the outcome of an election could use their displeasure to destroy the Union.

Maxwell made Gettysburg, a somewhat plodding 1991 film version of Michael Shaara’s classic book The Killer Angels about the great battle. Though that movie had some fine moments, it was still more pageant than drama. But Gods and Generals, the sequel he made more than a decade later, was more unfortunate in its source material, a dreadful novel by Shaara’s son Jeffrey that treated the southern cause as justified rather than merely tragic as his father had portrayed it. The director has doubled down on that morally bankrupt conclusion in “Copperhead” in which those who oppose the war are seen as the voices of conscience rather than intolerance.

Contemporary observers that see parallels between the battles being fought today over measures taken by the government to fight the republic’s current enemies should tread very carefully. The NSA metadata mining is nothing when compared to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or imprisonment of secessionists. But for 150 years there has been a consensus that rightly understood that Lincoln’s actions were crucial at a moment when a failure to act would have ensured the dissolution of the union. As the war gradually became one dedicated to the eradication of slavery as much as the preservation of the union, opposition to it has correctly been viewed as indefensible.

If the point of the film were a morality tale about the virtue of dissent, one would be hard-pressed to think of a worse example than the Copperheads. It is an axiom of history that one shouldn’t take figures out of their historical context and judge them by the beliefs of our own day. But one needn’t view the Copperheads in that manner to understand that even in their time they were viewed as a vicious element determined to destroy the country rather than lift a finger against slavery or rebellion. A moral universe where a Copperhead is the good guy and an ardent abolitionist is the villain is not one any American should seek to live in. If Abner Beech thinks the cure of war is worse than the plague of slavery, there is no reason why anyone living in 2013 should not view such utterances as both absurd and hateful. One can only wonder what would make anybody make such a film, let alone treat it as a model of political thought.

I can think of no better way to discredit the libertarian trend that seeks to pull back America from the world and cease an active defense of the country against Islamist terrorism than to identify it with opposition to an American secular saint and the war against slavery. Were conservatives as a whole to listen to Viguerie’s conclusion they would be validating the smears of racism that have been wrongly hurled against the movement by liberals. Nothing could be more antithetical to the values that conservatism actually seeks to defend than the message this disgraceful flick upholds.

Neo-confederate revisionist trash like Copperhead shouldn’t be ignored. It should be actively denounced as an insult to Americans who descend from the slaves that Beech didn’t think worth freeing and to the memory of those who, as Lincoln said, “gave their last full measure of devotion” to ensure that American democracy would “not perish from the earth.”

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The Hinge of Fate

On July 4 we celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States. And celebrate it we do—as, indeed, we should—with parties, parades, concerts, fireworks, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and flags everywhere.

But we might also remember how close we came to losing it all when the Union nearly tore itself apart in the greatest war this country ever fought, a war with itself.

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On July 4 we celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States. And celebrate it we do—as, indeed, we should—with parties, parades, concerts, fireworks, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and flags everywhere.

But we might also remember how close we came to losing it all when the Union nearly tore itself apart in the greatest war this country ever fought, a war with itself.

This week, besides marking the nation’s birthday, also marks the 150th anniversary of the days in early July, 1863, when two great victories for Union forces proved to be the hinge of fate in that war. Before that week, many thought the South was winning. After all, General Robert E. Lee had enjoyed his greatest military triumph at the Battle of Chancellorsville as recently as the first week in May. Abraham Lincoln, upon hearing the news of the Union Army’s rout by a Southern army half its size, said, “My God, my God, what will the country say?” Meanwhile General Ulysses S. Grant had spent months trying to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, a city that sat high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, its guns commanding that stretch of the river and preventing the passage of Union forces on the river that was otherwise in Union hands.

Lee decided to strike north, into Pennsylvania, hoping both to find food, shoes, and arms for his troops and forage for his horses, and to score a huge propaganda victory by showing that the North could not stop a general many had come to think of as invincible. For three days, July 1, 2, and 3, the two armies slugged it out in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, at Gettysburg, in the blazing heat of a Pennsylvania summer. After the slaughter of Pickett’s charge on July 3—as ill-conceived a tactical maneuver as any great general has ever ordered—Lee was forced to retreat back across the Potomac River. He would never again be on the offensive.

On July 4, Grant, having invested Vicksburg from the rear, a dangerous and risky maneuver, accepted the surrender of the city. In Lincoln’s words, “The Father of Waters flows once more unvexed to the sea.” It was a huge victory for the North because it cut Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana off from the rest of the Confederacy, which was thereby denied the resources of those states, a third of the Confederacy.

The war would last almost another two years, but the tide had now turned decisively. Lee suffered as many as 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg, a third of his army. Union losses were only slightly smaller. At Vicksburg, casualties were less, about 10,000 for the Union, 9,000 for the Confederacy. (Although Grant took an entire Confederate army, about 30,000 men, prisoner, he paroled most of them, and they were able to soon rejoin the Confederate forces).

So this week, as you down your third hot dog and look forward to the strawberry shortcake and fireworks, pause for a moment to remember those who made this 237th birthday possible: those who gave their lives at Gettysburg and Vicksburg 150 years ago so that this nation might live.

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Call Us Blessed

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

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This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

Rise to Greatness takes us through 1862 month by month. It’s a marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written. And this is how the book concludes:

The first day of 1863 did not mark the end of the war, or even the beginning of the end. That would come later in the year, when Grant drove the Rebels out of Vicksburg and Chattanooga on his way to replacing Halleck as general in chief. But the close of 1862 — to borrow from Winston Churchill — brought the nation to the end of the beginning. And like the Shakespearean dramas that spoke so powerfully to the genius of Abraham Lincoln, the events of the final scenes were fated by the decisions, actions, omissions, flukes, failures, and successes of the early drama. When that fateful year began, a shattered land looked backward at a dream that seemed forever lost. When a new year arrived, the way forward was perceptible, an upward climb into a challenging but brilliant future.

As another new year arrives–a century and a half after the end of the beginning of the Civil War–it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary journey America has traveled, the terrible “original sin” of slavery the United States had to overcome, and how close things came to unraveling. It’s also a good time to recall just how fortunate we were that, at the most arduous moment in our history, America produced its greatest president, an individual whose intellectual, political, and rhetorical gifts converged in a way unmatched in all our history.

Even with all the political nonsense we see unfolding before our eyes today, call us blessed.

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Spielberg’s Lincoln

I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

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I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

At its best, historical fiction can be a wonderful window into the past. If you would like to be vastly entertained while getting a real sense of what mid-18th century England was like, you can’t beat the movie of Tom Jones. The Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester are, likewise, an accurate as well as page-turning introduction to the realities of the Nelsonian Royal Navy. (But stay far, far away from the recent television dramatization of the Hornblower saga. It was appallingly, insulting-to-the-intelligence ahistorical, like a symphony played with half the instruments out of tune.)

All this is in introduction to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opened last month to great reviews. It is historical fiction, to be sure, but like the best historical fiction it is a window into a lost world of the past, in this case the final months of the Civil War.

There are occasions when the movie parts company with historical reality for its own, legitimate purposes, as the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer pointed out in the Daily Beast. Mary Todd Lincoln would never have listened to debates in the House of Representatives in 1865, still less accompanied by her black servant. Thanks to gas light, the interiors would have been much better lit than they appear in the movie. The Gettysburg Address had not yet become iconic. Lincoln did not appear on the 50-cent piece. (Indeed only allegorical figures appeared on American coinage until 1909, when Lincoln was put on the penny to celebrate his hundredth birthday.)

But none of that matters. Daniel Day-Lewis’s amazing portrayal of Lincoln brings the 16th president to life as, say, Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue in the Lincoln Memorial could never do. French’s statue is the Lincoln of legend, the quite literally larger-than-life figure who saved the Union. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the story-telling, disheveled, deceptively shrewd prairie lawyer with the emotionally unstable wife. He is the Lincoln who fought his personal demons every day, kept his fractious, ambitious cabinet under firm but subtle control, and practiced down-and-dirty politics with genius to achieve his goals.

The other characters are also extremely well portrayed (especially Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones). The settings and scenes, especially the killing field around Petersburg and the petitioner-clogged halls of the White House, could hardly be better.

If you would like to know the historical Lincoln, there are a thousand biographies. Perhaps the best recent one is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. But if you would like to get a glance of the real Lincoln, the human Lincoln, you must see the movie. It is a masterpiece.

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