What happens when there is no clear “right answer?” What happens when one can be “sort of” right (or wrong)? What is the redress demanded when a strongly declared viewpoint is not nearly as correct as first believed? In other words, what does one do when reality is not so “cut and dried” as one first believed and one has formed an opinion and point of view based upon less than perfect information? And does a certain amount of “backtracking” on a long held – and promoted – viewpoint render null and void one’s value to the discussion? It is a difficult matter to contemplate, never mind publicly express. In my case, I can only do what my own personal hero, Col. John Singleton Mosby did when he had to “backtrack” on a position he had once considered – and expressed as proper.

Mosby despised the federal government’s “Reconstruction” policies and did all he could within the law to end that sad period in his state of Virginia. Now, at one point Virginia had “developed” a new constitution that would have permitted it to rejoin the Union but that Constitution was anything but acceptable to the state’s citizens including John Mosby! And so, as did most other Virginians, he rejected it by refusing to register. But upon further consideration of the matter, Mosby realized that as long as the new constitution was rejected by the voters, these worthies disfranchised themselves and thus could not end Reconstruction. And so, after some personal angst, he campaigned for the voters to accept the new constitution. Many of his fellow Virginians were shocked and angered by his new position. In an article in The Fairfield Herald of June 30, 1869, a correspondent from the Richmond Dispatch wrote:

I was gratified to notice Col. J. S. Mosby moving from group to group on the court green and urging the people to vote for Walker and the expurgated constitution as the only means of escaping the evils which now threaten us. A gentleman remarked,

“Why Colonel, a year ago you talked differently.

Mosby: “Yes; I swore I wouldn’t register, but (now I) think differently, and (I) had rather be right than consistent. Then we had our own judges, our own county officers, and no one of them was required to take the iron-clad oath!”

Citizen: “You think we ought to vote for the expurgated constitution with negro suffrage and the county organization clause?”

Mosby: “Certainly negro suffrage cannot possibly impose upon us a worse man than Wells, and by voting down the constitution (you) disfranchise yourselves, and keep the State under the rule of carpet-baggers.”

Citizen: “How is that?”

Mosby: “Why, the concurrent resolutions passed by the two Houses of Congress last winter prohibits anybody from holding even the most trivial office who cannot swallow the iron-clad oath. This gives all the offices to carpet-baggers, and how can you get them out of their clutches, and have them filled by capable and honest citizens until the State is reconstructed; and how can you reconstruct it except by the adoption of the expurgated constitution, which I admit, deserves all the abuse it has received? For my own part, I cannot see any sense in voting for Walker and against the expurgated constitution, because if you defeat the latter, you keep Wells and his party in office. A vote against the amended constitution is a vote for Wells.”

It seems that in order to be inconsistently right rather than consistently wrong it is time to rethink or perhaps rephrase my own particular opinion on the consequences of America’s Constitution. As some may know, I have looked askance at the “convention to fix the Articles of Confederation” that resulted in an entirely new document, a document that led – seemingly not intentionally! – to a very powerful “federal” (central) government, the consequences of which have now come into existence and, if not prevented, will end in an Orwellian rather than a Jeffersonian government. And, indeed, at the time many patriots foresaw that eventual result. Men such as Patrick Henry warned that the new Constitution would eventually lead to our present situation. And with the gift of hindsight, I too, proclaimed the innocence of the States and the guilt of those who wished to impose upon the new nation another if different version of that type of government from which we had sprung. But here I must plead my abysmal ignorance of the matter as it stood at the time. Worse, I fear that I was willing to overlook my ignorance because so many other people held the same point of view, many of whom I believed were not ignorant.

And so, where did I go and find – if not seek out! – the information that has changed my viewpoint in this matter? I confess to having fallen in love – as I have with other figures of the past including John Mosby, William Wallace, John Marshall, John Churchill and Henry Percy – America’s own true hero, George Washington and I did so in a book about Washington entitled The Return of George Washington: Uniting the Nation 1783-1789. Now, first, let’s get out of the way any contention that Washington’s actions were predicated upon his desire for a monarchy or an empire or any kind of all-powerful central government in which he could take or be given power! His own actions in first walking away from his command of the army in order to return home to Mount Vernon in retirement and second, by refusing Hamilton’s offer to make of him a king or to remain on as “President for Life” when he took that office after the ratification of the Constitution should be sufficient proof for any sane person that Washington’s entire concern was the welfare of his country, period. This book on Washington opened my eyes to the behavior of both the Congress and the States during the Revolutionary War to the point at which I am amazed that the war was actually won! Talk about Divine Intervention!!! I also read a book on Benedict Arnold and determined that between the idiots in Congress, the actions of the various States regarding the man – a celebrated hero! – and civilian Tories and “Patriots” taken together with Arnold’s problems with his own fellow officers, I had to wonder why it took the man so long to become a traitor! He was either very forgiving or very slow.

In any event, the Washington book made clear that the whole mess that was the colonial attempts to do anything –  including to escape England – was a miracle of the order of the parting of the Red Sea. But as for the States, there were better ones and worse. The worst at least in most instances was Rhode Island. It was this State that was last to ratify the Constitution and only did so under threat of economic retaliation by the other twelve! But Pennsylvania was a brute as Washington learned at Valley Forge when that State disassociated itself from his suffering troops so as to avoid any “excess expenditures.” Connecticut seemed reasonable but New York was so difficult as to lead to the founding of Vermont that became necessary in order for the folks there to escape its grasp! States taxed the “imports” from other states, ignored the judicial rulings of those states and in general made even ordinary peaceful and productive interaction all but impossible. In other words, the thirteen “colonies” only cooperated when there was either an overarching governmental structure as happened under British rule or so desperate a need as to demand cooperation! The Articles had some power but that power could only be exercised if the individual states permitted it. And as for money. . . . well! The whole thing almost came to smash over money owed to the troops and the debts accrued from the purchase of military needs and the repayment of loans taken out to meet those needs!

But Washington’s greatest worry was that this “governmental chaos” would lead to and/or permit an influx of large populations of people from the West, people who would debase the very foundation of what was the confederation of the thirteen colonies. These people would have no connection in law or custom with the people of the thirteen colonies and so the vision held by them would be of no interest to the interlopers. Washington found out about this possibility because he held property in the West and after he retired, he went west to see how that property was faring. In one instance he found a whole “colony” of squatters who had simply taken his land. He tried to make them pay “rent” but they offered instead to purchase what they already considered their own because they had settled and built on it. In the end, the courts decided in favor of Washington as he could prove his title, but he knew that if the new “country” was not made viable through laws and borders, the people of those former colonies might soon be overwhelmed by foreigners who had no “history” with their struggle or even with their racial and geographic origins! We see this same concern in today’s border crises! This threat was forever in Washington’s mind as well as in his communications with other men involved in the matters of the new “nation.” This was the concern that caused Washington and the other “Founding Fathers” to understand that a new constitution had to be created that would address all of the many – and very serious! – problems that obtained before, during and after the Revolution, problems that arose from the mindset of many whose concerns were limited to the wellbeing of their individual states! There needed to be an overarching central authority that could make this geopolitical “stew” work and not collapse at the first threat at home or abroad. This did not mean that there was anything wrong with being faithful to Pennsylvania or Virginia or Massachusetts or to champion their needs and desires, but it simply wasn’t enough if those who had fought so hard and long for liberty wanted that liberty to exist into the next century and not be overwhelmed by hoards who had no cultural or political affinity with the people of the “United” States!

And so, my friends, I no longer look at the Constitutional Convention as a direct contributor to the situation in the antebellum South or even the  present problems arising from a Constitution that has been amended to death for remember, even with the Constitution relatively unamended, the problems faced by the South were the result of the demands and desires of the other States! They did not arise directly from that government formed by the Constitution! But sadly, that same government gave to those states who wished to despoil the states of the South the legal and eventually the military means to do so. The problem was not men like Washington who wished only the best for his country, but that we as men are fallen; that is, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Little by little and year by year, we fouled our own nest. Most  – perhaps all – of our Founders wished only the best for the country they brought into being with their wealth and their health and their lives. That eventually our ancestors and we ourselves made a hash of their well-considered efforts is hardly their fault. After all, they could only do their best! Even Benedict Arnold thought he was acting in the best interests of those whom he considered to be Sons of England, having come to see the revolution as a civil war and wishing only to reconcile brothers – or at least so he said and wrote! Of course, I am far less likely to take Arnold at his word than Washington at his!

At this point, the best I can do is be very sure not to be so very sure in the future and that I make damned sure that I know what I’m talking about! I usually try to do that, but in this case, I failed just as have so many others who perhaps did not know what I have since learned! Rights only work when we use them sparingly!

Valerie Protopapas

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


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    I tend to agree (if I understand). The problem, as I see it, it that since we all have, indeed. “…fallen short…” We do have “equity” in that regard —except for the “Wokies,” who are, of course, perfect! The enhanced problem is that if we all have had the same rights and exercised them there would no friction, thus no fussin’and fightin’. In my opinion (be it ever so humble) some people believe in rights that do not exist through God, but only through their god, whatever “it” is. The simplest example, I believe, is the fraudulent concept of a right to vote. But I sure enjoyed your article.

  • Albert Alioto says:

    I am currently reading A.A.W. Ramsay’s biography of Robert Peel. Peel voted for a Catholic emancipation act after having opposed the idea for his entire previous public life. He explained:

    “However painful it may be to me to dissever party connections — and I have this night received a formal menace that all such connections have been
    dissevered — still those are consequences which ought not to weigh with one who has undertaken the responsibility to the Crown and to the
    country…… I cannot purchase their support by promising to adhere at all times, and at all hazards, as Minister of the Crown to arguments and opinions
    which I may have heretofore propounded in this House. I reserve to myself, distinctly and unequivocally, the right of adapting my conduct to the
    exigency of the moment, and to the wants of the country.”

    Peel and Mosby would have understood each other.

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