There has been a good deal of discussion of my rather angry rebuke to this City Journal piece, which made me wonder whether I had misread what the author was saying. So I went back to the original piece to find that it said things like this:
In 1861, the faith that all men have a right to life, liberty, and the fruits of their industry was invoked as readily on the Rhine and the Neva as on the Potomac and the Thames.
Really? As readily on the Neva as on the Potomac? That must be why the history of Russian liberalism is so long and robust. Oh, that’s right, this is absurd. But it is the heart of Beran’s entire thesis: in 1861, America, Germany and Russia were all heading in a liberalising direction, but then something supposedly happened that contradicted or interrupted this.
But in the decade that followed, a reaction gathered momentum. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, and in America, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a new philosophy of coercion.
The “philosophy of coercion” was based, he says, in paternalism and “militant nationalism,” which, of course, Abraham Lincoln, German liberals and Russian Tsars did not espouse. No, wait, that’s also untrue. All of them espoused both to one degree or another. (Militant nationalism was not the monopoly of 19th century liberals, but they promoted it very actively.) If the liberals and reformers Beran champions likewise espoused paternalist and militant nationalist doctrines, what does that do to his entire bizarre reading of history? I think it demolishes it entirely.
First of all, many of his claims are simply wrong or so one-sided that they cannot be taken seriously. Privilege did not “rise up” in Russia. As for paternalism, German and Austrian liberals were very keen on rationalising and organising society according to their principles. Once in power, they represented a small political elite that sought to institute universal reforms and were hostile to the particular and local institutions of different regions of their states. Their paternalism was often anticlerical in nature, which hardly makes it less coercive or elitist. These liberals were strongly nationalistic and became more so as they came to identify the German national cause with their own political doctrine, while they associated other nations (especially Slavic nations) with forces of reaction. Hence their alliance with Bismarck. If there were Southerners who wanted to expand into the Caribbean, it wasn’t out of a belief in the equality of nations or a lack of nationalism that kept Northerners from supporting those goals. Indeed, once the “threat” of expanding slavery had been eliminated, it would be Northerners, particularly Northeasterners, who would become very keen on expanding political and economic power in the Caribbean and Latin America and beyond. Our colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean were not “slave colonies,” but they were still subjugated against the will of the inhabitants and our rule over them justified in terms of racial and cultural supremacy.
The likelihood of slavery taking hold in the free states was extremely remote, and the spectre of this takeover was a kind of “it’s them or us” propaganda. While acknowledging that the claims appear vastly exaggerated in retrospect, Beran takes Lincoln’s rhetoric about “returning despotism” at face value, yet the same language of opposing tyranny and despotism being employed against Lincoln by Southerners naturally receives no attention. It spoils the myth of noble champions of freedom fighting sinister forces of paternalism. As Beran tells it, you might be forgiven for thinking that the South was filled with Metternich clones instead of Jeffersonians who spoke of “the consent of the governed” and invoked the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The point is not to swap the roles in the myth around, but to challenge the sort of awful thinking that tries to reduce historical complexity into a simple morality play or ideological object lesson.
The coercive party in America, unbroken in spirit, might have realized its dream of a Caribbean slave empire. Cuba and the Philippines, after their conquest by the United States, might have become permanent slave colonies. Such a nation would have had little reason to resist Bismarck’s Second Reich, Hitler’s third one, or Russia’s Bolshevik empire.
That is the real point of this awful article. The South had to be beaten so that we could fight the Nazis and become an anticommunist superpower. In reality, the United States had no reason to “resist” Bismarck’s Second Reich, since we properly had no quarrel with Germany great enough to justify our entry into WWI, and regardless of how the war propaganda portrayed it we did not become involved primarily for ideological reasons. The actual reason for fighting Hitler’s Germany was a desire to intervene on behalf of Britain and the German declaration of war against America–it was not really that liberalism compelled us to intervene. His entire interpretation relies on the assumption that it was only the triumph of a liberal philosophy over a “coercive” one that made it possible to “resist” the Germans and Soviets, as if fighting against other major powers required liberal ideology.
Furthermore, Beran believes that it would not have been enough to allow the South to go its own way, since they would have sided with the “bad guys”:
The historical probabilities would have been no less grim had Lincoln, after initiating his revolution, failed to preserve the U.S. as a unitary free state. 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.
As I have already said, this is not simply silly but it is also a terrible counterfactual. The South had strong economic ties with Britain and France, and was broadly sympathetic to Jeffersonian political philosophy. They had no strong cultural or ideological affinities with Wilhelmine Germany. Besides being uninterested in intervening in European conflicts, as most Americans were through WWI and the interwar period, independent Southerners would have had little reason to ally with Wilhelmine Germany. Beran shows here that he fundamentally doesn’t understand the pre-WWI American mind, and doesn’t understand American foreign policy before WWI. Neither does he understand that alliances were not made in this period (or, for that matter, in most periods) on the basis of ideological similarity or solidarity (the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 ought to be proof enough), but are based in the strategic interests of the states involved.
Incidentally, in my view, it would have been an equally grave error for an independent Southern republic to become entangled in European conflicts just as it was an error for the U.S. to become so entangled, but there would have been nothing uniquely undesirable or sinister in allying with the Germans rather than with the Entente. If there had been such an alliance, it would not have been on the basis of ideological affinity in any case, but on the basis of shared interests.