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What Catholic Neo-Confederates Don’t Want You To Know About Secession

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

During the summer of 2013 I wrote several posts about Catholic Neo-Confederates. My purpose was to explain the activities of libertarians such as Tom Woods, Thomas DiLorenzo and an organization known as the League of the South: all of whom advocate for the secession and nullification as tools to be used by the Christian Right.

To that end, they perpetuate the myth of an antebellum South that was united in its belief in and desire for secession. They paint a portrait of Old Dixie as both an orthodox Christian and libertarian paradise for all its inhabitants that was spoiled by a foreign intruder: thus their claim that the conflict of 1861 to 1865 was not a Civil War initiated by a faction of Southern planters — but a war of Northern aggression.

Bullfeathers and balderdash!

In an August 6, 2015 article Sarah Posner interviewed author Julie Ingersoll about her book on Christian Reconstructionism, Building God’s Kingdom was asked about the influence the movement’s founder, R. J. Rushdoony has had upon the Neo- Confederate movement. Ingersoll explained:

I’ve tried to handle this delicately and in detail in the book and a brief answer is really difficult. This is partly because neither of these movements has clear-cut membership requirements and it depends what you mean by Neo-Confederates. There are numerous organizations that identify as Reconstructionist and Neo-Confederate that hold lectures and conferences—there is a lot of cross-fertilization among them…

What’s important, I think, is the larger way in which Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists helped build a resurgence of interest in and affection for, a pre-civil war vision of society. They did this, in part by promoting the work of Southern Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney and the view that the civil war was not about slavery but was a religious war to preserve a godly southern culture from the tyranny of a secularizing North.

Libertarian and traditionalist Catholic author Thomas E. Woods, Jr. is correct that the Civil War is surrounded by mythology. But with that said, the real myths are the ones Woods believes in and teaches in his homeschooling courses and in his books. The war was not about the North against the South, but patriot against secessionist. And for our purposes, many of those patriots included Southerners – a fact that today’s secessionist faction all-too-conveniently ignores.

Take for example Woods’s claims about the Civil War in his heavily criticized work – from both the left and the right, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Woods starts out his chapter on the Civil War by claiming it should be more accurately described as a “War Between the States.”

Strictly speaking, there never was an American Civil War. A civil war is a conflict in which two or more factions fight for control of a nation’s government. The English Civil War of the 1640s and the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to classic examples; in both cases, two factions sought to control the government. This was not the case in the United States between 1861 and 1865. The seceding Southern states were not trying to take over the United States government; they wanted to declare themselves independent.

But contrary to this assertion, secession was, as it is today, a tool of factionalism. As Civil War hero, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain noted, “The flag we bore into the field was not that of particular States, no matter how many nor how loyal, arrayed against other States. It was the flag of the Union, the flag of the people, vindicating the right and charged with the duty of preventing any factions, no matter how many nor under what pretense, from breaking up this common Country.”

Chamberlain’s statement cuts the heart out of Tom Woods’s central argument, that Southern secession was not a factious action. In fact, the majority of American Southerners did not support the secession.

Two excellent books on secession and nullification pose a challenge to Woods and his ilk: The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War by William W. Freehling and David Williams’s Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War. On page 7 of the introduction of the latter, Williams makes two important points:

It seems to gratify the pride of most southerners, at least white southerners, to think that the wartime South was united. It seems also to gratify the pride of many northerners to think their ancestors defeated a united South. Few northerners seem willing to consider that’s the Union may not have been preserved, the chattel slavery would not have ended when it did, without the service of nearly half a million Southerners in Union blue

And:

Our skewed image of the Civil War South also stems in part from the ways in which we emphasize the era’s military and political aspects. The great mass of literature dealing with the war years focuses largely on battles and leaders. Such studies are crucial, to be sure. By focusing so much of our collective attention on those aspects, tends to foster the myth of sectional unity, minimizing dissent or ignoring it altogether. In doing so, we paint all southerners, all white southerners at least, with a broad brush of rebellion. This oversimplified an often not-so-subtle effort to, in a sense, generally demonize white southerners as led to the mistaken idea that the terms “Southern” and “Confederate” are interchangeable during the war. They are used as such in most texts to this day. That firmly embedded misconception leaves little room in the popular and, too often, professional imagination for the hundreds of thousands of southern whites who opposed secession and worked against the Confederacy.

Williams documents how secessionist factions seized control many of the state conventions called to decide whether or not to leave the Union. Over and over again the author cites examples of secessionist intimidation designed to prevent the participation in these meetings of those who chose loyalty to the United States. Williams said in a 2008 interview:

That’s right. In late 1860 and early 1861, there were a series of votes on the secession question in all the slave states, and the overwhelming majority voted against it. It was only in the Deep South, from South Carolina to Texas, that there was much support for secession, and even there it was deeply divided. In Georgia, a slight majority of voters were against secession.

He also said:

The popular vote [in Georgia] didn’t decide the question. It chose delegates to a convention. That’s the way slaveholders wanted it, because they didn’t trust people to vote on the question directly. More than 30 delegates who had pledged to oppose secession changed their votes at the convention. Most historians think that was by design. The suspicion is that the secessionists ran two slates — one for and one supposedly against — and whichever was elected, they’d vote for secession.

In that same interview Williams commented, “It seems like the common folk were very much ignored and used by the planter elite. As a result, over half a million Americans died.” Such behavior does not describe a reasoned citizenry justifiably seeking independence but a poisonous faction trampling on the rights of the many.

Indeed, a close examination of Confederate society as well as of the Antebellum South exposes the weaknesses of economic libertarianism, especially of the Austrian School laissez-faire variety. And as both authors esoterically point out, it was devotion to libertarianism that ultimately did in the Confederacy.

As both authors point out the Confederate Army never had enough food to feed their soldiers. The problem was not enough farming but no government planning that would require the plantations to produce certain amounts of food. Instead, the plantation class exercised “their freedom” and concentrated on growing cotton and tobacco simply because those products were far more profitable. Woods, DiLorenzo and other Neo-Confederates often speak of the Confederacy and the Antebellum South as if they were paradise. That may have been true for the plantation class, but not for slaves and poor white farmers.

As David Williams points out in Bitterly Divided, plantation owners used slavery not only to exploit African-American labor also to control poor white dirt farmers. Slavery was used to keep wages artificially low by creating a surplus of cost-free labor. It also allowed the wealthier members of Southern society to build economic empires against which any smaller free labor enterprise had to struggle to compete with (at page 11, Williams states that on the eve of the Civil War half of the South’s personal income went to just over 1000 families). The planters used their economic muscle to outbid poor whites for the best farmland – and in the process, drove up prices. And to control them politically, devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes were used to keep poor whites from voting – the same devious devices that would later be employed to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.

How unpopular was the Confederacy in the South? Those “nearly half a million Southerners in Union blue” more than replaced the 364,511 Federal soldiers and sailors killed in action. Our nation would not have been preserved without the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Southern whites and blacks dressed in blue uniforms, along with the countless others who engaged in everything from civil disobedience to out right guerilla activity.

As I have previously written, libertarian economic s is not about freedom per se but the freedom to oppress others:

This is libertarianism ‘s inherent fatal flaw: Its sole emphasis upon the liberty of the more powerful individual and its striking indifference to the rights of others. It fails to account for externalities — when a third person is affected by an occurrence or transaction to which he is not a party. It is a philosophy of governance that refuses to consider that the individual’s well-being is linked to the well-being of all within a given society

And this brings us back to the mythology pedaled by Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists — that of an idyllic pre-Civil War Southern society and notion that the war was not about slavery but was a religious war to preserve a godly Southern culture from the tyranny of a secularizing North. It was not. It was more about preserving a caste system society based upon Mudsill economics — a libertarian model that has more in common with feudalism than with capitalism.

Secession and nullification have regained currency with elements of the Christian Right in recent years, as Rachel Tabachnick and I have reported. They now rise, zombie-like, and threaten true economic and religious freedom. One way to expose the fraudulent foundations upon which secession and nullification are built, is to look at our own history — and to give long overdue credit to the brave American Southerners who helped to preserve the Union.

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