The “ultimate cause” of the War of Secession was two mutually exclusive understanding of government. The South embraced the view of Aristotle that government was a natural outgrowth of communal man’s inter-relationship and that being the case, was at its most efficient and least threatening when limited and local. This nation was more or less founded on that principle albeit, there were its detractors. But in the beginning, there was no concept of a “united States” though there was the concept of “America” albeit such was recognized as differing greatly from region to region and even from state to state.

Furthermore, historically it was believed (correctly) that for a republic to obtain, the number of persons and the amount of territory within it must, perforce, be limited. At one time, a study was made (perhaps by Jefferson) of that issue and I believe that around two hundred thousand was the point at which a republican form of government begins to break down from sheer size. However, as far as territory and its effect upon republican governmental principles, be it known that Virginia ceded its northwestern territories won by the British in its name to the rest of the Union because its representatives believed that Virginia could not retain its “republican” character while holding so much territory. In the same way, Jefferson ceded the Louisiana territory to the existing union for the creation of new states which would, as he saw it, themselves be limited in size and population.

The last basis for any republic was a homogenous culture. Those within the republic had to have basic cultural foundations from which to build their society. This did not mean total unanimity, of course, but fundamental social principles were essential to the functioning of any republican government. It was from a shared understanding of what was “good” and “necessary” that the People were able to govern themselves through the institutions that had been set up for that purpose. No republic could/can survive a culture at war with itself.

Thus, the States of the South saw that the original concept of a republic could not continue to exist with the ever increasing size and might of the central government. Even if there had been no other acts detrimental to those states, they recognized that power was increasingly centered in Washington and that the population with its diversity of cultures, especially in the North through immigration, was growing exponentially past that which could sustain Aristotle’s concept of republican government. In short, the condition of the “union” by the mid-1860s had reached a point at which the original union was no longer viable for those states that wished to keep a nation with a unifying culture and very limited government in place. The answer that the Southern states proposed was in perfect harmony with the concept of republican government; that is, to leave or secede from the larger union and establish a true republic based upon Aristotelian principles. Unfortunately for the Republican South, any study of the origins of the nation tend to show that the original union was never really viable from the beginning not only because of the vast cultural differences between the sections, but because not all Founders embraced Aristotle and his understanding of republican government.

The other view of government embraced by such men as Hamilton, Franklin and Adams and most of New England, was that of Thomas Hobbes. Unlike Aristotle who believed that man was communal and that government was a natural part of his being, Hobbes believed that man was basically an individual without ties to any of his kind and that therefore government was imposed upon him rather than being a natural outcome of communal development. Hobbes also believed that man was incapable of self government and without government imposing the “common good”, there would be anarchy. This worldview mitigates against limited government because government has to be powerful enough to keep this mass of self-interested (and amoral) individuals in their place and directed (forced) to do what was good for “the masses”, that is, for the government. Hobbes and his followers believed that because civilization was only possible through government coercion, therefore “bigger was better” and that there could be no limits to the power of government imposed upon it by those whom it ruled. Lincoln was a Hobbesian. He fought for “the Union”, that is a large, powerful government that ruled what would otherwise have degenerated into anarchy. Lincoln was, indeed afraid of a nation that believed in limited government and the power of men to rule themselves and that the only thing standing between civilization and anarchy was the might of a central government. Indeed, the entire concept of an “indivisible union” is of Hobbes, not Aristotle for Aristotle believed that when a people’s culture became too diverse, the natural progression was for them to break apart and establish governments suited to each culture. This “dissolution” or “secession” when one or more cultural groups removed themselves from an existing union didn’t have to mean war. Indeed, in the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union through the secession of member states did not result in war despite the fact that the Soviet Union was a tyranny and made no pretense of being limited by anything but its ability to coerce its citizens into obedience. Parenthetically, the old Soviet constitution did not forbid secession just as the old American Constitution did not. What is presently lauded as “our Constitution” is a creation of a post-bellum empire.

Of course, the natural progression of a Hobbesian world viewpoint is the death or absorption of that which is small into that which is large. This is not limited to government. We see it in our society at large and in government’s dealings with commerce and agriculture. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture stated flatly to America’s farmers: “Get big or get out!” This is why power now resides in our cities; that is where the numbers obtain. The number of Congressmen in the House of Representatives is limited by the Constitution to four hundred and thirty-five. Consider the present population of the US and what that means regarding how many Americans are represented by each member of the House! When our population reaches 435 million, that means one representative for each MILLION Americans! That isn’t representative much less republican government.

Lincoln and those who see government as he did – that is, the last bastion against anarchy – will always wage war against those who see man as capable of self-government and requiring no more than limited government to guide the republic. Considering that virtually every great human accomplishment came from the smaller enclaves of humanity, whether from the city-states of ancient Greece or medieval Europe and that all that seems to arise from the “super-states” since the 19th century is ever larger and more vicious wars and genocides, I would say that Aristotle and the South were right about what is best for mankind. Sadly, however, there can be no doubt that today we see the total triumph of Thomas Hobbes, and in America at least, with Lincoln as his prophet.


Valerie Protopapas

Valerie Protopapas is an independent historian and the editor of The Southern Cavalry Review, the journal of The Stuart-Mosby Historical Society.

4 Comments

  • Greg Tisdale says:

    Excellent article !

  • Chris Mallory says:

    “The number of Congressmen in the House of Representatives is limited by the Constitution to four hundred and thirty-five.”

    No, it isn’t. This shows a lack of basic research. The 435 number was set by the Permanent Apportionment Act in 1929. The only thing the US Constitution says about the number of reps is “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative…” Congress can and should change the number of representatives.

    Also you repeatedly use the word “anarchy” when you should probably use the word “chaos”. The two are not the same. Anarchy is “without a government”. Most people could live just fine in a state of “anarchy”. Chaos is what we have seen in many cities over the past years with the riots.

  • LUKE H BLANTON says:

    All this time I believed the “civil war “was a dispute over slavery.

  • Garland Almarode says:

    Excellent article. Imo Lincoln was a communist and his war has resulted in the US taking the wrong path. The North may like that path of large, wasteful, overbearing govt. The South or many within it,do not.

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