A Review of A Historical and Constitutional Defense of the South (1914) by Captain John Anderson Richardson

Captain Richardson was a member of the 19th Georgia, experienced the war and its aftermath, and wrote this work in 1914.  The Sprinkle Publications edition was printed in 2010, and was edited by H. Rondel Rumburg, who also wrote a forward to this edition.  There is also an introduction by Rev. Fr. Alister Anderson and Ann Stuart Anderson. This is a massive work, fully 700 pages of brilliant defense of the Southern cause.

The research for this volume must have been a daunting task.  No matter how well versed the reader is on this subject, he will certainly come away from this book with some new insights and perhaps even a new favourite quote.  The editor has added short biographical sketches of persons mentioned, or quoted, to help place them and their contributions to history in perspective.

Richardson starts with the Southern contributions to the founding of the American republic.  The words and thoughts of George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee are analyzed to show the deep concern Southerners had for freedom and resistance to tyranny.  Henry’s oratory and resolutions supporting the rights and liberties of American colonists, especially the right to be taxed by their colonial legislatures, ignited the spirit of liberty in the colonies.  Richard Henry Lee’s resolution on independence and Thomas Jefferson’s pen gave notice to the world that the colonies were now sovereign States.

Adopting the Articles of Confederation, the colonies had a functioning mutual government, which recognized the sovereignty of each state.  They won their independence from Great Britain, but the government soon proved inadequate to perform all the functions of government. A call went out for a convention of State delegates to revise the Articles of Confederation so as to render them adequate for the purposes of the Union.

Much ink has been spilled on what became the Constitutional Convention, and how the resulting document related to and was different from the previous charter of government.  Richardson spends two chapters describing “the Two Compacts, the Two Confederations.”

He then tackles the ratification process and how those inaugurated the new government, but also determined the nature of the government.  This is emphasized in another chapter on the real nature of the government in which the overwhelming evidence shows was a limited federal government which was the agent of sovereign states.  This is the states’ rights, or compact theory, of the federal government. The opposite view, that the central government has more rights than specified in the Constitution, was supported by those who wanted a strong nation with benefits for commercial and banking interests.  Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of the former, while Alexander Hamilton was a leader of the later. The two views of the Constitution, the compact theory of states’ rights, and the national theory of centralized authority, are the basis for this work. Richardson takes significant words, analyzes them, and gives us the interpretation attached to them at the time of the Founding.

The desire of more and more people for a stronger central government increased as the nation grew, and populations migrated to new territories in the West.  A stronger government meant more spending on projects which helped foster trade and commerce in a growing nation. Opposition to a strong and energetic central government was centered in the South, which received few of the benefits but paid most of the cost of the federal government.  The North, the great beneficiary, came to expect this arrangement as normal. The number of issues dividing the North and the South grew, including differing religious views, extension of slavery into the territories, differing economic systems. The commercial/trade/industrial economy of the North depended on an energetic federal government, while the South’s agricultural/trade economy did not.

The differing cultures, and the resulting differing views on the nature of the central government, led to opposing views of Constitutional interpretation.  The North, in seeking to push its agenda through Congress, strained to find Constitutional grounds for some of its more ambitious desires. Richardson claims the Constitution of 1787 was supplanted by an “Unwritten Constitution,” never debated or ratified.  The attempt to force this bastard Constitution on the South against their will, brought on the “Great War.” The words of historian Francis Newton Thorpe, editor of Civil War from a Northern Standpoint, is quoted to illustrate what was meant by this term:

And by the Constitution is not meant that formal instrument or plan of Government formed in Philadelphia in 1787, alone, but also the Unwritten Constitution which expresses the state of mind in America that determines the color or conduct of public affairs.

The rise of the Republican Party, a purely sectional party of the North, alarmed many in the South.  The fact that the growth in Northern population had begun to threaten parity in Congress added to Southern fears.  The Constitution was an important line of defense for them. Therefore, when the Republican Party platform had a plank calling for the exclusion of slavery from the common territories, which restriction the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional, the South took note.  Two chapters of Richardson’s book tackle Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Institute Speech. It was in this speech that an attempt was made to put the Republican Party on Constitutional grounds regarding this plank. Its position was in opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the speech neither changed the  party’s idea on the issue or tried to change the court’s ruling. The party called upon the “Unwritten Constitution” “to place the new party, the Republican, on Constitutional ground” in the words of Thorpe.

The next chapter, What The South Demanded In The Sixties, can be summed up simply: the Constitution, with its guarantees.  This chapter continues to build the constitutional defense of the South. Richardson makes the important point:

If in demanding the Constitution the South erred, she erred with the Supreme Court and all the States of the Union up to 1861.  If, therefore, she was a rebel so was the Supreme Court; so were all the other States, North as well as South. We have said, and said truly—to assail a part of the Constitution is to attack it all.

Richardson tackles slavery with a chapter, shedding light on slavery in the North and South.  He also exposes the hatred for blacks which characterized much of the attitude in the Northern states, including many of the radical abolitionists.  Looking at the number of free blacks in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, he makes an interesting conclusion.

The all important fact is learned here that time and patience would have solved the slavery question without that great shedding of blood that distinguished the Sixties. Alas! For reckless, impatient, cruel, and selfish ambition! The records made by its bloody hand mar every page of history.

Much evidence is given of the support of slavery in the North, especially among the commercial class, and of the anti-slavery movement in both the North and South.  The history of slavery in the colonies which had widespread acceptance in most of America during colonial times. The agitation of radical abolitionists for violent uprising and the reluctance of the North to follow the example of other nations and support compensated emancipation led the South to take a more defensive position in the debate over slavery’s future.  The fear in the South that its Constitutional rights were in imminent danger led to talk of secession.

Several chapters delve into the South’s appeal to Constitutional government, and the unconstitutional attitude of the North towards the preservation of the Founder’s republic. The South’s attempt to preserve the Union and the Constitution unimpaired, the question of sovereignty and secession (two chapters) and the North as the real rebels.

Richardson, in one chapter, lists Fourteen Substitutes for the Constitution, a few of which will suffice to show the depth of thought and research that undergirds this book: 1. A Pious Fraud 2. “We the People” 3. A Divided Sovereignty 4. “The Union Much Older than the Constitution” 5. A Higher Law 6. An Unwritten Constitution 7. A Common Law 8. The Federal Government an Organic Growth 14. Fate  The North was stretching credulity in an attempt to hijack the government of the Founders. This chapter opens:

If such writers as Charles Francis Adams, Francis Newton Thorpe, and J.P, Gordy, in their efforts to place the tremendous responsibilities of the Great War on the South, can produce no sustaining facts, there are no such facts.  We lay down as an indisputable proposition that facts which ignore the Constitution are not admissible.

The introduction has several interesting comments on sovereignty, secession and the South.  Richardson quotes from the Constitution to the effect that the federal government SHALL guarantee every State a Republican form of government and SHALL protect each of them… He then makes the observation that “This is the language of a Master, or a Lord, to his servant. Mark the words, “shall protect.” They are compulsory. The servant has no choice but to obey.”

This is the understanding the states’ rights supporters had of the relationship between the states and their servant, the federal government.  He further reasons that since the federal government claimed the Southern states had not seceded, the federal government had no authority to invade them.  It had a responsibility to protect them from invasion, but no grant of power to invade.

Richardson also states that even in some texts the war was not being treated as a rebellion by the time of his writing-1914.  “Today Robert E. Lee, the great military leader of the Southern cause, is in the Hall of Fame-placed there by the Federal Government.  Thus the Government itself, in less than a half century after the war, has declared that the cause of the South was not the cause of rebels, but of patriots, true to the Constitution of the Union and all its sacred pledges.”

Perhaps Captain Richardson was too generous in his assessment of the quality of future historians.  He believed that impartial historians in the future would come to the conclusion that the South was right, based on the truths of history. Academia today is not concerned with truth, but is consumed with the fire of relativism.  Richardson makes an appeal to facts over emotion, and lays bare the fictions that are used, even today, as a smoke screen to hide the usurpations of a government drunk on its own power. I think there are but few who could not benefit from a reading of this work by a champion of Constitutional rights.

Brett Moffatt

Brett Moffatt is an independent scholar in Tennessee.

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