Thanks to my Scene colleague Nick Desai, I have come across the most remarkable and simultaneously unspeakable article. There are bad articles, Christopher Hitchens articles, Gerson articles and then there’s this, which is in a class all by itself. It has practically every lazy assumption and misguided polemical trope that you’ve ever encountered. There is, naturally, Lincoln-worship involved, and a hefty dose of Teutonophobia, which are the usual prerequisites for truly execrable historical analysis. I am almost overwhelmed by its breathtaking awfulness, but I will try to make a few points. Let’s start at the beginning:
In 1861, free institutions seemed poised to carry all before them. In Russia, Tsar Alexander II emancipated 22 million serfs. In Germany, lawmakers dedicated to free constitutional principles prepared to assert civilian control over Prussia’s feudal military caste. In America, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House pledged to a revolutionary policy of excluding human bondage from the nation’s territories.
Spot the nonsense. It isn’t hard. By March 1861, several states had seceded from the Union in protest against this “revolutionary” policy, and rather than being “poised to carry all before them,” according to Lincoln 1861 was the year in which free institutions were supposedly on the verge of being subverted and wiped from the face of the earth. It was so endangered, in fact, because of the dangerous principle that voluntary Union was actually voluntary, which Lincoln made sure would not stand. There was certainly a coercive reaction to the idea of the voluntary Union, and it was the so-called Unionists who did the coercing. The “war to save the Union” was, of course, the assassination of the very principle that made it a Union.
Lincoln was wrong, as he often was, but from the perspective of Mr. Beran 1861 seems an unusually poor year to mark the impending triumph of what he calls “free institutions.” In Russia, the emancipation of the serfs was realised by the order of an autocrat. A Christian, humane and decent-minded autocrat, probably the finest Russian ruler of the century, but an autocrat. Free institutions? In any meaningful sense, they did not yet exist in Russia. Indeed, one might observe with some irony how much more easily an autocracy embraced a policy of emancipation than did a democracy, which might tell us something about democracy’s flaws, but no matter. Meanwhile, in Germany the liberals became the allies of the Junkers, the Prussian “caste” to which Bismarck belonged, and Bismarck was himself the champion of a combination of liberal nationalism (down with all the reactionary Reichsfeinde and no Canossarepublik, he said) and nationalist and anti-socialist social legislation. Those champions of “free constitutional principles” were the architects and leading cheerleaders of the Kulturkampf against German Catholics. In this, German liberals exhibited precisely the same hostility that many American Catholics perceived in the Red Republicans, so called by Orestes Brownson and others because of the clear similarities with European liberal revolutionaries. It is not surprising that many German exiles who had fled the suppression of the ’48 revolution were sympathetic to the principles of the GOP. By the way, none of this appears to me to be a compliment to Lincoln.
Beran isn’t done:
But in the decade that followed, a reaction gathered momentum. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives.
Egads, reaction! There is something truly strange about trying to associate the Republican Party with something other than privilege. As a party, it represented (and Lincoln represented), and to some considerable extent still represents, the interests of corporations and finance, just as the Whigs had represented commercial and mercantile interests before them. The causes of the War are many and complex, but if you said that it boiled down to a conflict between the landed and moneyed interest you would not be far wrong. The latter won, and it replaced one kind of hierarchy and stratification with another while brutally centralising power into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Someone will need to explain to me how this represents the victory of “free institutions,” since I have a funny idea that arbitrary, coercive government is not really compatible with “free institutions.”
It gets even funnier:
The paternalists, Lord Macaulay wrote disapprovingly, wanted to “regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed.”
It should be painfully obvious, but it was in Republican Party-dominated regions of the country where the uniform public school first appeared, and it was among Republican progressives at the turn of the century that you found some of the greatest advocates of regulation of business. If there were paternalists in the post-War period, they were very often Republicans, the heirs of Lincoln. Certainly, Southern aristocrats also accepted paternalistic ideas, but the Red Republicans wished to be paternalists for everyone in the country.
The second idea was militant nationalism—the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their wills on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamed of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany’s nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces into a new German Reich [bold mine-DL]. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Panslav nationalists sought to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia’s will on Byzantium.
It was the Republicans who preached American nationalism over against federal and decentralist principles, and it was Republicans who waged a war of unification–not unlike Bismarck, actually–to enforce that nationalism. (Note that the “Danish, French and Polish provinces” in question were filled mostly with German-speaking Germans.) It was, again, the Republicans who most forthrightly stated America’s imperial and civilising mission to “inferior” peoples, and who launched our imperialist wars in the Caribbean and the Pacific. But don’t let that get in the way of a good story. The Pan-Slavists were a force in Russian politics, and their objectives were shared by no less than that reformer, Tsar Aleksandr II, who waged war on behalf of the Slavs of the Balkans during the 1875-78 crisis.
Speaking of imperialism, Beran writes:
Had Lincoln not forced his revolution in 1861, American slavery might have survived into the twentieth century, deriving fresh strength from new weapons in the coercive arsenal—“scientific” racism, social Darwinism, jingoistic imperialism, the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism.
But, again, it was the esteemed Party of Lincoln where imperialists and progressives espousing such views very often found their home. The devastation and ruination of the South and the elimination of slavery did nothing to stymy any of these things, but rather allowed them to prosper. Lincoln’s political heirs embraced most, if not all, of them and promoted them. It was in the name of both racial and cultural superiority that Americans sought to provide “uplift” for our “brown brothers” in the Philippines (minus those who died because of the war, naturally).
Then comes the ultimate idiocy:
The Southern Republic, having gained its independence, would almost certainly have formed alliances with regimes grounded in its own coercive philosophy; the successors of Jefferson Davis would have had every incentive to link arms with the successors of Otto von Bismarck.
It is amusing to consider that the one counterfactual author who has done the most to play around with the ideas of “what if the South won?”, Harry Turtledove (a Byzantinist by training!), comes to the exact opposite conclusion and held, I think correctly, that an independent CSA would have allied itself, to the extent that it was willing to go against the Jeffersonian grain against entangling alliances, with Britain and France. Britain and France had been interested, for economic and strategic reasons, to see the Confederacy succeed, and had the South won it is easy to see the Confederacy having become, if anything, a strong supporter of either Britain or France in foreign policy. It was the Unionists who were very cosy with the Prussian military during the War, and the Republicans who best represented the politics of Bismarck and the National Liberals on the American scene. The Confederates were, however, heirs of the heritage of Jefferson and Jackson. They were continentalists, and had a tradition of distrusting the British. It is likely they would have pursued a strategy of influence and occasional expansion in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, but the odds of their linking arms with the Germans are very poor indeed. The Yankees always had more in common with the Germans culturally and politically than did the Southrons. However, since I am not a stupid Teutonophobe, I do not hold this against the Yankees. I am not so desperate to vindicate the Confederate position, as Mr. Beran clearly is desperate to glorify Lincoln, that I feel compelled to vilify the political evolution of other nations and then randomly link that history with American historical figures that I dislike.
Cross-posted at The American Scene