A Review of Beyond Slavery: The Northern Romantic Nationalist Origins of America’s Civil War (Shotwell Publishing, 2019) by Walter Kirk Wood
In the post-War between the States mythology supported by the victors, the Antebellum South was Satanic and subject to “slave power,” the alleged immense power of the plantation owners and their demonic desire to perpetuate slavery at all costs. This mythology goes further and claims that the War between the States was caused by slavery, with the North desiring to end slavery and the South desiring to increase its range by moving it into the territories. The North, it is alleged, accepted the Founding Fathers’s real vision for America while the South, with its outdated notion of “States’s Rights,” was poisoned by treason against the ideals of the American Founders.
It is now trite to say that “The victors write the history books,” but the saying rings true in the case of the War between the States. Such myths are difficult to dispel since they are thoroughly engrained in the general culture. Every culture has myths, but when the divide between myth and historical reality is too great, those myths should be rejected, especially if they practically lead to harm. Walter Kirk Wood’s book, Beyond Slavery, offers a major corrective to the “standard history” of the South by defending Southern views as representative of the Founding Fathers, while Northern views, especially as found in Lincoln as well as in New England, are alien to the founders’ fundamental principles.
Wood argues that slavery was one of “many other issues…. [such as] banking, internal improvements, the tariffs, land policy, railroads…. [that] reduced to a question of Constitutional authority. ….Either the American government was limited and a federal union of the states or it was not” (ix). Wood effectively quotes from numerous eighteenth and nineteenth century sources revealing that it was the South, not the North, that upheld the vision of the Founding Fathers as a “federal union of the states.” In contrast, the North accepted a centralized government which strictly limited the power of the states. Wood argues that the influence of nineteenth century romantic nationalism led the North to its position.
Wood realizes that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and led to war was the federal government’s claim that it could ban the extension of slavery to the territories. Now the territories at issue were those which most likely would never support slavery, and Wood notes that Southerners realized that. The issue was one of the nature of federal authority – the universal view of the Founders was that, constitutionally, slavery was under the authority of the states, not the federal government. The South, already dealing with Northern tariffs and other abuses of federal authority, had experienced one power grab too many. As a result, the Deep South states seceded from the Union as was their right under the Constitution and which was the universal position among politicians and the public before the rise of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln. The Founders, influenced by the Whigs in Britain, were afraid of an overarching power dominating the states, so the “people of the states” had sovereignty, not the federal government. It was Lincoln and the Republicans, with their call for a strong central government to benefit the railroads and other industry, who were the innovators, not Southerners.
It is important at this point to note that the close cooperation between big government and big business was the hallmark of later Fascist and Nazi economic plans. Even Hitler did not nationalize private property, but used his power to instruct German companies to make the products the Nazis thought best. The corporatism characteristic of American business, with its close ties to government and the failure to enforce antitrust law, has led to overcentralization in business in parallel with the post-Lincoln overcentralization of government. It should be no surprise that both the state and private companies tend to support strong restriction on freedom of speech and religion.
Wood also points out that the North was hypocritical concerning its claim of supporting black equality. Even the Abolitionists did not support full equal rights for former slaves but supported laws keeping them out of their states. Lincoln famously desired to send the former slaves to South America with a smaller group going to Africa. There is a contemporary objection claiming that Lincoln, due to his friendship with Frederick Douglass, supported equal rights for blacks near the end of his term. If so, it is interesting that it was not enshrined in public policy; and in any case, there is no way the Republican Party would have supported political equality for blacks. They, like Democrats, were products of their time.
Wood convincingly argues that romantic nationalism, found in Johann Herder and others (I would mention Immanuel Kant as a precursor. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were clearly romantic nationalists) influenced Northern, especially New England, thought on the creation of a strong central government. A reaction to both the Napoleonic Wars and especially the Revolution of 1848, romantic nationalism accepted the idea of the modern, organic, centralized nation-state with a unified culture and spoken language. Thus, when Italy was unified, the dominant dialect of Italian became standardized as the official language with other dialects declining in usage from that point on. Otto von Bismarck of Prussian unified the remaining independent German states into modern Germany. Applied to the United States, the term “organic” would mean that the states are organs of a larger unified entity rather than being sovereign on their own.
The New England Transcendentalists, whose influence was far wider than their numbers, agreed with European Romantics in most of their views. Both groups were pantheistic (or panentheistic), holding that there is no ultimate separation between God and the universe. Both groups were intensely nationalistic. Both groups were perfectionistic, taking seriously the widespread nineteenth century view of the perfectibility of mankind. In New England, this perfectionism was exacerbated by the influence of secularized Puritanism. The result was a conception of the United States in a way that was foreign to past understandings. As Wood correctly notes, it was a “revolution,” reversing the intent of the Founders as expressed in the Constitution. The results of the War between the States completed the initial stage of the revolution, and the central government has gradually increased its authority (with a few exceptions) over the states. With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the absolute primacy of federal over state law was enshrined in the Constitution, although, like the rest of the Constitution, it is taken beyond its original intent.
Today, the tentacles of the federal government reach deeply into the states through Congressional edicts and regulations handed down from a myriad of government agencies. Wars are waged at will through a national volunteer army which has subsumed the former role of state militias. State national guard units are called up to fight an endless series of wars desired by both social-democratic liberals and neoconservatives. They can be federalized for action against a state, and regular army units can also be used at will against states, violating the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. The Union is no long a voluntary union of states but a semi-totalitarian system that is all the more dangerous due to the Puritanical, “holier than thou” attitude of its most ardent supporters. Romantic abstractions such as “equality,” and “spreading democracy throughout the world,” with little respect, if any, for reality, are used to create bad public policy.
Southerners have historically resisted this trend and have been wise in doing so. Those who have resisted are the true heirs of the Founding Fathers of the United States, preserving their vision in the midst of an increasingly hostile national culture. Unfortunately, cosmopolitanism has weakened Southern resistance to federal tyranny, and many Southerners buy into the Northern statist and Puritanical vision of the country. Professor Wood calls Southerners who are faithful to the older tradition to affirm their principles of limited government and states rights against an ever increasing federal behemoth. Southerners – and all others in the country who are concerned about preserving the original vision of the Founders – should read this book.