Shall We Have Another Civil War?

August 10th, 2011

By Dan Miller

That would be a very bad idea.

Unhappiness approaching panic is in the air. This article by Roger Kimball suggests some of the reasons:

The American poet Frank O’Hara wrote a poem whose title I’ve always admired: “Meditations in an Emergency.” That’s where we are now: you can tell it’s an emergency by the panic you smell in the air. It will get worse. And as it does, more and more people will recognize an important fact: that Barack Obama is presiding over a Potemkin Village. He hasn’t a clue about what to do to salvage the U.S economy. How could he? He was brought up on the anti-growth, statist nostrums that forsake basic human psychology for the sake of utopian schemes: forget about anything so crass as incentives! We here who are in charge will tell you how to make an electric car that no one wants but that you should buy it becuase [sic] it is “good for the environment!”

I want to underscore the fact that it is not just Barack Obama who is living in la-la land. It’s the whole apparat. The suits in Washington have ingested and then regurgitated the neo-Keynesian socialist pabulum that mesmerized elite opinion some time in the 1960s and has never let go.

Civil War SoldiersThe reasons for discontent go far beyond the dire economic consequences of the gross incompetence or worse of a failed but “blameless” and arrogantly narcissistic President. A link is available here to Ed Driscoll’s interview with Mark Steyn, conservative commentator and author of After America. Well worth listening to attentively, Mr. Steyn argues that our problems transcend mere economics and are grounded in our multicultural society where diversity has become the principal concern. Many have “gone Greek” and are consumed with self-loathing. It is contended here that President Obama despises the Constitution and the rule of law it embodies. Administration officials and our CongressCritters contribute their “fair share” to the problems as well. Other reasons for discontent include expansions of federal and global power incompatible with the Constitution, encroachments on the rights of citizens also incompatible with the Constitution, the Islamization of America, rioting and mob violence, race riots, redistributionist policies designed to maintain the dependence (and hence the perpetual servitude) of those who pay no taxes, voter fraud, federal refusal to protect our southern border while preventing our border states from dealing with illegal immigration by those with little interest in adapting to our culture but insistent that we adapt to theirs, a muddled, delusional and unsuccessful foreign policy incompatible with our national interests, a well justified sense that our elected officials, unelected apparatchiks and union thugs are expanding and using their positions of trust to “service” us as a raunchy bull does a cow, frustration that our society is going to Hell and a general sense that the government cannot be trusted to do what it ought to do and to refrain from doing what it ought not to do. A Rasmussen poll released on August 7th reported that

just 17% of Likely U.S. Voters think the federal government today has the consent of the governed. Sixty-nine percent (69%) believe the government does not have that consent. Fourteen percent (14%) are undecided.

Voter sentiment as to this has “fallen to its lowest level measured yet.” Not unexpectedly, “Fifty-five percent (55%) of the Political Class . . . feel the government does have the consent of the governed.” Meanwhile, our “big” government has become increasingly enormous. Another Rasmussen poll released on August 8th reported that

the economic confidence of consumers on a daily basis, fell another point on Monday. At 61.5, consumer confidence is down three points since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the federal government’s credit rating. Seventy percent (70%) now believe that the economy is getting worse. That’s up from 45% at the beginning of 2011.

It is contended here that

As states across the country are recognizing the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War it seems that a new battle is starting over the union. Tea Party legislatures from Arizona to Virginia and now New Jersey are introducing a resolution to support a Constitutional Amendment that will allow for nullification. In New Jersey this is ACR170 sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Handlin and Assemblyman Jay Webber, who was Governor Christies Republican Party Chair. 150 years after the Civil War we are now going through the same political exercise that ended up causing the war in the first place.

Nullification is a political construct that would give the states the power to nullify federal law or regulations. This is what the civil war was fought over. The southern states believed they had the power to nullify or not follow federal law when it came to the issue of slavery.

There have been a few other nonsensical suggestions comparable to the last, also mainly from the left, blaming the right for wanting another civil war and contending that the United States may therefore have one. That there have been few such suggestions is good because a civil war now would be very different and far worse than the one between 1861 and 1865. That war lives in song and legend of bravery and sacrifice for just causes; there was much bravery and there were just causes. I find the songs, legends and even factual history quite inspiring.

However, the Civil War need not have happened in 1861 and could have been avoided without surrendering states’ rights; another would lead to defeat of a new confederacy and to the shredding of what little is left not only of states’ rights but also of the Constitution itself.

State Sovereignty has all but vanished.

It is argued here that the states are no longer “free and independent.”

From the beginning of the United States of America, there has been an erosion of liberty and independence. Instead of the People being sovereign over the government, the Government now rules the citizens. Instead of the States exercising broad and innumerable powers and the Federal Government being restricted and limited in the powers granted to them by the People, we now have the States subject to the Federal Government and Washington dictating to the States what they are allowed to do.

Although the persistent atrophy of states’ rights is among the causes of many problems from which discontent arises, that atrophy does not itself seem to concern great numbers of citizens. It is also a reason why a civil war is unlikely: states now are much weaker than were those that seceded in 1861. Then, the states were considered far more than now as sovereign countries. Before and during the war, many of the South considered “United States” to be a plural expression. Hence, it was often said that the United States “are,” rather than “is.” When the country was viewed as a consortium of separate and sovereign entities, the plural usage was grammatically correct. The plural form has fallen into disuse; I still use it as a reminder that the states retain the authority not delegated to the federal government even though they have forfeited much of the power to exercise it. Federal legislative and regulatory overreach have caused many of those losses but the states have inflicted injury on themselves as well by eating the King’s bread and drinking the King’s wine. The bread and wine are now called federal grants; they come with conditions and are addictive.

Many in the South held the view that a citizen’s principal allegiance is to his state. Despite the rewriting of history to claim that the Civil War was solely about freeing slaves and according them the rights of citizens, that was not the case. In 1854, Abraham Lincoln said,

Abraham LincolnWhen southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, — to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. (emphasis added)

On April 17, 1859 Lincoln said,

I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.

I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so. (emphasis added)

President Lincoln’s view as to the constitutional limitations on his power are reflected in his Emancipation Proclamation issued during the Civil War on January 1, 1863. It provided in relevant part,

by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, [I] do . . . order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons. (emphasis added)

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities,

While the Civil War began as a war to restore the Union, not to end slavery, by 1862 President Abraham Lincoln came to believe that he could save the Union only by broadening the goals of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation is generally regarded as marking this sharp change in the goals of Lincoln’s war policy.

Robert E. LeeRobert E. Lee and many others of the South held their principal allegiance to their states. However, they did not wish the Union to be divided by force. According to Lee, “There is a terrible war coming, and these young men who have never seen war cannot wait for it to happen, but I tell you, I wish that I owned every slave in the South, for I would free them all to avoid this war.”

Nor were they willing to have it restored by force over the objections of their states and were prepared to resist that force militarily. Shortly after Virginia had seceded on April 17, Colonel Lee — still an officer in the Army of the United States — wrote, “Virginia is my country, her I will obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.” After the war, in 1865, he declined an Englishman’s offer to escape the destruction of postwar Virginia: “I cannot desert my native state in the hour of her adversity. I must abide by her fortunes, and share her fate.” In a letter of April 20, 1861 to General Winfield Scott he asked that his resignation from the Army of the United States be accepted. The letter ended,

Save in defence of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,

Virginia was the eighth of the eleven states to secede and was the state farthest north geographically. She became a principal battlefield during most of the Civil War.

Strong views favoring the sovereignty of the states are far less widely held now than in 1861 and the imbalance of federal versus state power is a major root cause of numerous problems in which the United States are embroiled; the imbalance is also a principal reason why another civil war is not a viable response to those problems.

The United States’ Military is different than in 1861.

I have heard, but have not been able to verify to my satisfaction, that in 1861 the U.S. Military Academy held a brief ceremony to bid farewell to cadets who were leaving to join their states in fighting the Union and that Dixie was played in their honor. Perhaps recognition that fighting for one’s home was a high moral obligation of honor had much to do with it.

Colonel Lee was permitted to resign his commission in the U.S. Army after being offered and declining flag rank as an inducement to remain; throughout the Civil War, General Lee wore the three stars on his collar then representing the rank of colonel. It is noted here that

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army maintained a unique insignia for colonel, three stars worn on the collar of a uniform. Robert E. Lee wore this insignia due to his former rank in the United States Army and refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate general, stating that he would only accept permanent promotion when the South had achieved independence.

Neither he nor others who resigned their U.S. Army commissions in 1861 were on that account shot as traitors or even jailed for going absent without leave as would almost certainly happen now. I do not know how many members of the current U.S. military would side with a new confederacy; some might try, most probably would not.

Military armaments now are also far different from those used during the Civil War and the U.S. military has modern weapons in relative abundance. The individual states of a new confederacy, even if as motivated and contiguous as were those of the old Confederacy and therefore able to supply each other with what they have, could not do much now because they don’t have much now. Many in the Confederacy used their own weapons. Notwithstanding the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the weapons available to individuals as citizen soldiers are far inferior to those now available to the federal military. Whatever may have been the intent and the situation many years ago, it is no longer true that “the armed people are at least equal in might to the organized forces of government.”

The Southern states that seceded were contiguous.

The Southern StatesOn the adjacent map, the eleven states shown in green joined the Confederacy; those shown in yellow were claimed by, but not part of, the Confederacy. An interactive Gallup map posted here shows President Obama’s approval ratings by state. In five of the eleven states of the Confederacy (Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia), his approval rating is from forty-five percent to forty-eight percent; the national average is forty-seven percent. While not direct indicators that such states would not secede, these numbers suggest that they probably would not.

Were any states now to try to secede even though lacking the advantages of contiguity, communications would be very difficult. They would likely be deprived to the extent possible of the sophisticated and pervasive communications network now available. Movement of troops and materiel between non-contiguous states would also be more difficult.

Foreign countries could not be counted upon for help.

On May 13, 1861 Great Britain declared her neutrality. Despite Confederate efforts, no country recognized the Confederacy. It is noted here that

The closest thing to foreign recognition that the Confederacy achieved was when the German state of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha appointed a consul to Texas in July 1861 and the Confederate government accepted his credentials (all other foreign consuls operating in Southern states had applied to the U.S. government before the war). Although the appointment of the consul could be interpreted as de facto recognition of the Confederacy, Confederate officials did not make that claim during or after the war. Confederate diplomatic efforts concentrated on seeking recognition from Great Britain and France. Influential Britons and French were sympathetic to the South, but their governments did not recognize the Confederacy and the Confederacy never attained official status among the nations of the world.

Today, it seems even less likely that any foreign country would recognize, let alone assist, a new confederacy. Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico and a few others — perhaps along with members of la Raza — might conceivably try to take advantage of a civil war. The extent to which this would work to the advantage of either side is unclear. If Texas and Florida left the Union as they did in 1861, would foreigners try to grab state land and other resources? That seems not out of the question and, if it happened, the states might have almost as much difficulty fighting them as in fighting the Union. What about such unfriendly countries as Russia, perhaps China and Iran? Might they jump at a chance to support a new confederacy in order to weaken the United States? Possibly, but a new confederacy of conservative orientation would not likely be receptive to their overtures and the United States would in any event manage to prevent any assistance. Might they assist Cuba, Venezuela and others in taking advantage of the situation? Probably.

It would be folly for a new confederacy to count on foreign assistance even if offered. Naval blockades interfered greatly with attempts by agents of the Confederacy to obtain supplies in England and France; not enough got through. Modern air and naval blockades would likely be even more effective.


A new civil war will not likely occur and, for the practical reasons addressed above, I very much hope it will never be attempted. General Lee, generally recognized as a military genius, rarely went into battle with the odds in his favor and during the first few years generally won against far superior forces. Never, however, did he face a situation such as a general of a new confederacy would face. He was perhaps unique; I know of no modern counterpart who could or would take his place in a new confederacy.

There are different reasons, even more important. The United States have the best constitution ever written; we need to protect and defend it as citizens bound, as well as protected, by it. Leaving the union is not the solution; we can be more effective from within than as outsiders and the Constitution deserves and needs all of the protection and defense we can provide.

We have many strengths as citizens of the Republic, perhaps more than we are prepared to recognize and act upon; a key is to stop fighting among ourselves and to work toward our common goals. I wrote here and here of these things in the context of the strong feelings and animosities recently demonstrated during the debt limit negotiations and the results I hope to see. The fruits of those negotiations and animosities show the way to begin turning the country around. Our country can once again become a strong and prosperous Republic under her constitutional government if we can regain and keep it; to have another civil war would forfeit all realistic hope of that for a very long time.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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One Response to “Shall We Have Another Civil War?”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Well done, Dan. For the reasons you indicated and many more, there won’t be another civil war in/among the United States, any more than there will never be another French Revolution. History was then; now is a different reality. What we can have, however, and have probably been in the process of for quite a few years, maybe since the late 1960s, is a slow disintegration of the national unity that once held us together not so much by the Constitution as by our shared vision of who we were as a people.

    To the extent we’ve lost that national unity, the fault lies at the feet of the extremists of both the left and the right. A close reading of the history of the time that led up to the Civil War shows clearly that an inability to compromise in order to maintain the higher goal of preserving national unity came close to destroying our nation. I don’t see much difference between the evils of extremism that operated then and the extremism we suffer under today. The sad fact is, the ignoramuses of the far left and the far right could still destroy the country. It’s up to the rest of us to keep that from happening…if we can.

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