A recent National Review column in the silly Northern War over 1619 contained this unfortunate paragraph:
“In fact, Adams suggested, if there ever were a civil war, the president would have the power to abolish slavery as a war measure. In a heated House debate, incensed southern congressmen demanded to know whether Adams was willing to see war break out to free the slaves. “Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come!” Adams shot back.”
These unashamedly Jacobin words falling from the lips of a man that Russell Kirk dedicated an entire chapter to in his Conservative Mind (the only other personality to receive this treatment was Burke) bring to mind a powerful scene from the film Amistad. For those who do not remember the film recounts the true story of kidnapped Africans that had managed to take over their slave ship before they could be sold into bondage. This occurred in 1839 with the case finally being settled by SCOTUS in 1841.
There are many grand scenes throughout the film but perhaps the most poignant is a small one between two abolitionists played by Stellan Skarsgård and Morgan Freeman. They are sitting in a carriage discussing the fate of these poor African men.
Tappan (Skarsgård): This news – well of course it’s bad news – but the truth is they may be more valuable to our struggle in death than in life. Martyrdom, Mr. Joadson. From the dawn of Christianity we have seen no stronger power for change. You know it’s true.
Joadson (Freeman): What is true, Mr. Tappan – and believe me when I tell you that I have seen this – is that there are some men whose hatred of slavery is stronger than any, except for the slave himself.
The point is obvious. It is the same argument made (unjustly) against our contemporary abolitionist movement. The left constantly smears pro lifers as only caring about babies until they are born. Freeman’s character is accusing Skarsgard’s of caring more about black freedom in the abstract than the real lives at stake in the trial.
This is exactly what Adams was doing with his bombastic rhetoric about the blood of millions of white men, whether he realized it or not. He was engaging in that most common of Northern hobbies: the signaling of virtue. Which is exactly what 1619, and its malcontents, is all about. To be sure it’s also about bad history, sloppy economics, and why Donald Trump is “literally Hitler.” But mostly it’s about the woke left’s self flagellation and the NeoCon right’s unwavering faith in Nationalism over Federalism. When these sides clash the casualty is always the same: the truth.
Adams’ prophecy about black emancipation during a “Civil War” wasn’t entirely accurate. The standard estimate of casualties from Lincoln’s War doesn’t quite make it to Adams’ millions. But it might if we take into account the black lives that were lost. A New York Times book review of Jim Downs’ Sick from Freedom contains this chilling passage:
“At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Professor Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Professor Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.”
The horrible truth is that we will never know just how many black lives didn’t matter during Lincoln’s War. Maybe some truths are so horrible that we are better off not knowing them? To quote another film about liberation from tyranny:
“If our own government was responsible for the deaths of almost a hundred thousand people… would you really want to know?”
This is what makes history, real history, such a dangerous business. It is never politically correct to investigate the past. It’s fraught with ugly truths we’d rather not face.
Downs makes this point forcefully:
“The few and scattered references of freedpeople suffering from the challenges of emancipation have been overlooked because these episodes do not fit into the patriotic narratives of the Civil War. Frozen feet and starvation complicate accounts dominated by heroic black soldiers or freedwomen in Union camps, caring for both freed slaves and Northern troops. These carefully cast representations of freedpeople were often created by white authors in the late nineteenth century who strove to highlight the happy outcomes brought by emancipation. Recounting the hardships endured by former slaves during emancipation risked sending the erroneous message that the institution of slavery was not wholly cruel—inadvertently supporting the argument of antebellum, proslavery advocates in response to the abolitionist movement. White Southerners defended slavery as a more humane institution that protected the interests of black families compared with the fate of the working poor in the burgeoning industrial cities of the North, where families were torn apart by poverty, alcoholism, and immorality.”
Posing simple binary questions to history should always return the same answer: well…it’s complicated. The unintended consequences of our actions are by definition never intended.
The full Jacobin quote from John Adams reads “Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” The heavens stayed right where they were when the slaves were “freed”. But it’s hard to imagine that our Heavenly Father was pleased by the events transpiring on earth below. Jim Downs’ landmark research into the terrible fate of the freed slaves serves as a powerful rebuke to Jacobinism in all its forms.
“The Civil War [sic], however, produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century, claiming more soldiers’ lives and resulting in more casualties than battle or warfare and wreaking havoc on the population of the newly freed…Emancipation liberated bondspeople from slavery, but they often lacked clean clothing, adequate shelter, proper food, and access to medicine in their escape toward Union lines. Many freed slaves died once they secured refuge behind Union camps. Even after the war ended, they continually struggled to survive in a region torn apart by disease and destruction.”
Lincoln’s War was a total catastrophe for black Americans. Despite Downs’ attempts throughout the book to distance himself from “lost cause” thinking and attempts at a not so subtle argument for Federalized health care the fact remains that without the war none of this would have happened. Lincoln ensured that Adams’ extreme language would be appropriate for such an apocalyptic disaster. Yet we continue to tell a narrative about Lincoln’s War and the Constitution he failed to protect with the intellectual muscle of Bing Crosby singing Abraham in black face!
“When black folks lived in slavery
Who was it set the darkie free?
When trouble came down from the shelf
Who’s heart was bigger than himself?
Abraham began his first inaugural address by saying “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Abraham, Abraham wasn’t an abolitionist until he deemed it tactically convenient to free the slaves. And that decision got black Americans killed in catastrophic numbers. His actions were always done with a fundamentalist fervor for unconstitutional nationalism. He wrongly believed that the Union was some kind of trans historical reality that gave him license to do whatever he wanted. The consequences of this belief were absolutely dire for black Americans.
Downs further writes:
“The war produced large-scale migrations of soldiers, civilians, and freed slaves that transformed outbreaks of disease into epidemics. The freedpeople Jacobs met in Duff Green’s Row more than likely migrated from the Upper South and other parts of the Confederate theater to Washington, DC, in the hope of achieving freedom. The North represented the so-called promised land and, while this remained theoretically true, in practice freedpeople were forced to live in camps that were dangerous and unhealthy. Additionally, in the time it took to reach their destination, ex-slaves often became sick because they lacked adequate clothing, food, and shelter during their journey.”
Lincoln was no emancipator. He used black lives to try to win a pointless war of unification. #BLM should be protesting everything commemorating the memory of Lincoln with the words of H. Ford Douglas:
“Here, then, is Abraham Lincoln in favor of carrying out that infamous Fugitive Slave Law, that not only strikes down the liberty of every black man in the United States, but virtually the liberty of every white man as well; for, under that law, there is not a man in this presence who might not be arrested today upon the simple testimony of one man, and, after an ex parte trial, hurried off to slavery and to chains. Habeas corpus, trial by jury—those great bulwarks of freedom, reared by the blood and unspeakable woe of your English ancestors, amidst the conflicts of a thousand years—are struck down by this law; and the man whose name is inscribed upon the Presidential banner of the Republican party is in favor of keeping it upon the statute book!”
No one is completely blameless for the atrocities of Lincoln’s War, least of all the Constitution. Yet the National Review article that began this post is a blatant white washing of the past. The author writes:
“As for the fugitive-slave clause, it did not use the word “slave,” but referred to a “person held to service or labor” — which could apply to apprentices or indentured servants. It also referred to “the party to whom such service or labor may be due” — but labor was not “due” from slaves, since they were victims of an injustice who had received no “due” process of law.”
A clever politically correct interpretation to be sure, somewhere Harry Jaffa and Leo Strauss are applauding this hermeneutic of elasticity. But every NeoCon’s favorite American, the tyrant Lincoln, had something to say about this silly attempt to sacramentalize a very human document:
“It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law.”
Slavery was protected by the Constitution. Lincoln knew it. H. Ford Douglas knew it. John C. Calhoun knew it. This doesn’t concede any ground to the insanity of 1619 because 1619 isn’t about truth. Concessions to the truth are never the victories of Jacobins. This is why the Southern Tradition has been so willing to concede the evil of slavery but never willing to allow for the stupidity of the Myth of the Righteous Cause. There was nothing righteous in the motivations for Lincoln’s War. This is the center of the fight between 1619 and the NeoCons. The NeoCons are going to get called racist no matter what they do or say because the left calls people racist no matter what they do or say. The only solution to this problem is just to tell the truth. The Constitution isn’t the Qur’an. It’s supposed to be revisable. It’s supposed to be dissoluble if necessary.
The Constitution is a grand document. But it was never meant to save us. It cannot kindle in our hearts the neighbor love that the Crucified One simply argued was the first and greatest commandment. The only way to create neighbor love is to have neighbors, which brings us back to Amistad.
John Calhoun makes an astounding, if small, appearance in that film. Played beautifully by Arliss Howard he sits in formal wear at a fancy dinner party. Whites sit round a massive decadent dinner table being served by blacks. There is no interaction between the two castes, except when a black server places Calhoun’s food in front of him. He stops speaking to look up at the man and nods. This may seem a silly point to end on, a tiny wordless moment from a character that most contemporary “Conservatives” deem to be villainous. Say what you want about Calhoun but black Americans were always a part of his life. They were always his neighbors and in his mind he loved them as best he could.
The Jacobins and the NeoCons want America to love our minorities in the abstract. They want to love with the rhetoric of abolitionists then forget about the evil outcomes that always come from radical actions. Jacobinism claims to love humanity while murdering people. NeoConservatism places all its hopes and dreams in a Nationalized constitution. There is a third way. The way of Burke, Jefferson, and the South: loving the people we actually know within our little platoons regardless of skin color or class.