Friday, September 29, 2017

George Lunt and the Tragedy of the Civil War

Apologies, my dear readers (if any of you still exist) for my extended absence. A combination of moving house, work being busy, and life in general contributed to my poor (read: nonexistent) showing of late. I was going to write something brief to this effect, but after long enough away, the only way back on the horse is a proper ride, not a symbolic hop-on-hop-off. So here we are at last.

I’ve been slowly continuing my way through the Moldbug Canon of primary sources. The most recent foray in this regard has been George Lunt's "The Origin of the Late War", the late war in question being the US Civil War.

At least for me, it was profoundly depressing reading. Not just for what it said about the Civil War, but for what it portends about the state of modern America.

Those of us of a reactionary bent are generally inclined to view history through a tragic lens, and to be vaguely attracted to lost causes.

It used to be acceptable to view the South (while regrettably tied to the injustice of the proximate cause of slavery) as nonetheless a lost cause of resistance to the overweening imperial might of Massachusetts, even if this was not the majority view. Then again, it used to be acceptable to have a statue of Robert E. Lee in your town as well. Increasingly, there is only one acceptable narrative of the Civil War, and Cthulu makes a few more strokes leftward.

But to me, the Civil War is still a tragedy even under the modern left's own terms. By these, I mean - that the only relevant issue was slavery, that it was a moral imperative that slavery be removed, and that any measures were sufficient to justify this end.

Discussions of the Civil War take place in a bizarre environment of historical illiteracy. Not about the Civil War itself, or of America's experience with slavery - Americans actually know quite a lot about their own history, even if they've only heard one version of events.

No, the ignorance that is more striking is the ignorance of the slavery experience anywhere else on the planet. Of which there was plenty. And in particular, the ignorance of the other ways that countries went about ending slavery. Because it somehow never occurs to people to ponder whether there might have been other, better ways to end slavery without resulting in 700,000 corpses.

For instance, if you were slightly more patient, you could try the Brazil option. After first outlawing the slave trade, they later passed a law to the effect that while current slaves would continue in slavery, the children of those slaves would no longer themselves be slaves. In this way, there wasn't a radical change in the labor supply overnight, but it meant that slavery had a use-by date, and would eventually become a smaller and smaller part of the economy, until at some point it could be eliminated entirely without being a massive disruption resulting in fierce and violent opposition.

To a lot of progressives, this gradualism is unacceptable because it takes too long. Slavery must not only be ended, but ended immediately, whatever the cost. In that case, you could do what the British did in Jamaica, and pass a law that not only abolished slavery, but provided for compensation to the slave owners, so they weren't getting all their assets (as they viewed it) confiscated with no recompense. Which is something people tend to strongly and violently oppose.

Because if you're serious about "whatever the cost", then it seems pretty likely that you could have simply bought every slave in the US for less than the cost of the Civil War. The 700,000 people who wound up dead might have been willing to contribute a fair bit towards the necessary tax, for instance.

But suppose you're an extremist who thinks that everyone in white America was so tarred by the injustice of slavery that their lives are literally worth nothing, even those of people in the North.

Even then, the Civil War and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of perhaps about a quarter of the slaves. Don't trust me, you can read it in famous reactionary papers like The Guardian:
Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller's young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead.
Suppose this were a hostage rescue situation. You had proposed just paying the ransom, partly because in this unusual case it would come with a practical guarantee that this would be the last time you'd ever have to do it. Someone else decided that terrorism can never prosper, so sent in the army, who ended up inadvertently killing 1/4 of the hostages and a large number of their own troops to boot. Even if you hated the terrorists, would you view this as a triumph?

You may not like the idea of slave owners receiving money for freeing their slaves, still profiting one last time from their unjust system. Very well. Do you like the deaths of hundreds of thousands of slaves instead? Life is full of tradeoffs. Shut up and multiply, as Mr Yudkowsky put it.

It is against this background that the Origin of the Late War takes place. But the action of the book is not the war itself. Instead, the war stalks the narrative of the book, as the terrible tragedy just over the horizon.

And the unfortunate message, which Lunt emphasizes over and over again, is the following: if things had gone only slightly differently, all this could have been avoided.

And in Lunt's re-telling, it is amazing just how many places this could have happened. Some of these start long before the Civil War was even on the horizon. For instance, at one point he implies that the Whig Party's decision in 1840 to nominate William Harrison against the unpopular Martin Van Buren was a momentous one. Lunt claims, credibly, that had they nominated either of Daniel Webster (who "worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South") or Henry Clay ("the Great Compromiser"), the Whigs would likely have still won the election, and much of what followed might have been different. Instead, Harrison got elected, then died roughly a month into office.

Another aspect to this is the sense of slowly building antagonism that becomes self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. People in both the North and the South were increasingly outraged by the violence in Bleeding Kansas. So they funneled money and support to their side, which outraged their opponents more. Or equivalently, the South seemed so shocked by John Brown's raid that they felt that there was little hope of reconciling with the North.

And you can see how they would have felt this. But the action is always haunted by the eternal elipses of the war itself. Lunt mostly elides over this, but the end of lots of the chapters dangles the implication: "Of course, this alternative didn't actually happen, and so..."

700,000 corpses are contained in those "..."

Because weighed against this, lots of other alternatives suddenly seem not so bad at all. Including, in Lunt's telling, for the South to just continue to take it. Not that this was the only option, but it certainly would have been a lot better for the South, even under their own preferences at the time, than the eventual outcome. The casualties for the whole Bleeding Kansas conflict amounted to perhaps 180 or so, according to La Wik. It is a horrifying thought to ponder how long it would have taken at Gettysburg to exceed this amount, and whether the time would be measured in minutes or seconds. And from the perspective of the South, the loss of slaves to Northern operatives sneaking them out through raids like those of Harriet Tubman is trivial compared with, for instance, losing all of your slaves everywhere, forever. Which is what happened.

As Lunt puts it, if the South had simply held their ground, the North actually had surprisingly little power to force the issue of emancipation. The vote to free the slaves during the Civil War barely passed as it was, and this was without any of the Confederate representatives in the room. Their presence would have been enough to make it a total non-starter. Lunt quotes Andrew Johnson from after South Carolina had voted to secede:
What is the reason for disunion ? Because one man was not elected ? If Mr. Breckinridge had been elected, nobody would have wanted to break up the Union ; but Mr. Lincoln is elected, and now they say they will break up the Union. He said, No. What was there to fear ? Mr. Lincoln was a minority President. Let South Carolina send her Senators back, and Mr Lincoln cannot even make his Cabinet without the consent of the Senate.
Lunt is no straightforward Southern apologist. While he is sympathetic towards the South's perception that they were suffering injustices at the hands of the North, his overall position is that open rebellion against the Government was both unnecessary and ill-advised. Towards this end, he often notes the ways in which Southern enthusiasm for confrontation led them to their own downfall. For instance, consider the relative glee and amusement with which Preston Brooks' caning of Charles Sumner was greeted in the South (he was, as the story goes, sent many replacement canes, including one inscribed "hit him again!"). But even to the most ardent southern supporter, it doesn't seem quite so funny in hindsight, does it? As Lunt notes:
The unlucky blow afterwards inflicted by Mr. Brooks, of South Carolina, upon Mr. Sumner, in the Senate Chamber, gave him a prominence which there is no reason to suppose that ho could otherwise have acquired. It also enlisted sympathy enough, on his account, to secure an indulgence to his extreme views, from persons to whom they had been hitherto repulsive ; and in this way powerfully seconded the general radical movement. Except for that blow, there is every ground for believing that Mr. Sumner's official course would have ended with his first senatorial term.
Relatedly, it is hard not to see the Democrats' decision to split their party into Northern and Southern candidates in the election of 1860 as a catastrophe for the South. By sticking to principle, they ensured that the Republicans, who lacked anything close to an absolute majority, nonetheless got into power.
Indeed, at this moment, the conservative masses of the country possessed an immense superiority of physical and moral force over their opponents ; and could that have been guided by prudence and patriotism, it must have resulted in the entire and permanent overthrow of the now concentrated elements of radicalism and discord. At the election for President, in the ensuing year, the Republican candidate, Mr. Lincoln, fell short of a majority by nearly a million of votes ; while his plurality, in the free States alone, was considerably less than two hundred thousand.' It needed now, far more than upon the important occasion to which Mr. Benton referred "in a note to the Debates in Congress, already cited in his volume, "the last words of the last great men of that wonderful time." There were many still upon the stage, inspired by as noble sentiments of patriotism as had ever animated the hearts of elder patriots ; but the latter had left few or no successors to the powerful influence which they personally exerted, and which had been found hitherto able to compose the stormy passions by which the country had at times been agitated. But, although the multitude, under the whip applied by a very inferior order of men, was fast getting possession of the bit, to run the sort of helter-skelter race which usually occurs under such circumstances, it needed, after all, but a very little of that true spirit of conciliation, among persons of substantial influence, on both  sides, which should have marked the conduct of fellow-citizens, in an enlightened and Christian age, to avert that terrible impending catastrophe, which, it is not to be supposed, that the great majority, upon either side, could have really desired to bring upon the common country. ...
As Carlyle remarks, somewhere, in reference to a certain period of English history, " The times were great and the men were small." 
Be very wary of giving up the reins of power for symbolic purity alone. There is, it seems, surprising value in being at the head of even a weakened and divided state.

And even up to the very end, the drumbeat of the counterfactual continues.
It is certain, however, that long after secession had begun, by the act of the South Carolina Convention, the breach could have been repaired without much serious difficulty. 
Indeed, Lunt argues that there is strong reason to believe that the Crittenden Compromise, if agreed to, would still have averted the war. He quotes a special reporter from the New York World on December 28th, 1860, eight days after South Carolina voted to secede:
"The Star (Washington paper), of this evening, says: 'Circumstances have come to our knowledge, within the last twenty-four hours, which lead us to hope that Mr. Seward will, ere the close of the current week, counsel a settlement upon the basis proposed by Mr. Crittenden.' 
"One word that way could instantly settle the controversy ; dethroning the disunionists per se at the South, whose power is but the result of the universal belief at the South that the Republican party made up its mind for war to the knife, from the start, upon the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States." ' 
It is very true, that a newspaper reporter may be mistaken both in regard to facts and to the conclusions which he deduces from them. But if an intelligent reporter, and the World at that time, a leading organ of the Republican party, was not likely to employ one who was not of that class, he could hardly make a mistake as to the opinion generally entertained at Washington, and especially among the Republicans themselves, with whom he would probably confer, as to the effect — and an effect how momentous ! — which " one word " from a particular source, and in a particular direction, might have exercised in the prevention of civil war. 
 But the "one word" was never spoken.

And so...

As irony would have it, I finished Lunt's book not long before the Charlottesville debacle. When having recently acquired a hammer, everything becomes a nail, and the temptation is to overfit the parallels.

But it did cement something that I had felt long before. One should be very hesitant before cheering on a rise in political violence, even when your side seems to be winning. Just read the stories of men stumbling blindly into a monstrous, calamitous war, whose consequences were far worse on all sides than the perceived slights over which arms were initially taken up.

Mr Lovecraft cautioned us to not call up that which we cannot put down. Political violence has a tendency to turn into one such aspect.

Compromise is always intellectually unsatisfying, and just continuing to take the abuse is undignified and maddening. More importantly, these are not the only options on the table, so it's not like defeatism is the only option, or the best one.

But be wary of stumbling inadvertently into open conflict. You may yet find out the horror of the elipses in some future narrative.