You can tell a lot about a person by the friends he cherishes, and you can intuit much about how a writer thinks on one topic by how he thinks on another, related topic. This surmise is not always true in every case, but, I think it applies in a great majority of situations. Tell me what a person—a distinguished author, a political leader, a cultural icon—believes, his perspective, on this or that significant historical event, and you can usually gather a valid impression of his world view and overarching philosophy.
A few years back I created my own measure, my own test, as it were, to determine on which side of immense and fundamentally unbridgeable divides various writers and authors, politicians, and others come down. It seemed to me that we could take, historically, several major conflicts and wars, that fundamentally shaped not only subsequent history, but also, indelibly, the consciousness, thinking and cultural outlook of succeeding generations, and utilize them as markers.
I came up with the following five:
1) The English Civil War, 1642-1651;
2) The French Revolution, 1789-1799, also including the Napoleonic Period, 1799-1815;
3) The War Between the States, 1861-1865;
4) The Communist Revolution, 1917-1920; and
5) The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
I won’t dwell at length on my reasons for selecting these conflicts as measures—I will save that discussion for another time. But I will say I believe how we think about them clearly illustrates where a person stands in relation to the accumulated inheritance—that great continuum—of Western and Christian tradition. Respond correctly on all five (as I see it), and you are a staunch defender of that heritage and most probably have been able, in some fashion, to understand the fundamental connection those conflicts have in the context of our civilization and our willingness to defend it.
Obviously, for most self-described “conservatives,” there are at least two “giveaways” in my list, that is, two of the five questions they would very likely answer correctly: about the French Revolution and the Communist Revolution. Most “conservatives,” if queried, would have certainly opposed them.
It becomes harder after that, and, I suggest, even more critical to a determination. Not that many current “conservative” writers or politicians are intimately familiar with the history, causes, and issues surrounding the English Civil War. Yet, I would state most vigorously that issues debated then were, in microcosm and incipiently, some of the issues we continue to debate today, and that a faithful and thinking defender of the continuity of Western tradition must, necessarily, come down on the side of the Royalists, as opposed to Oliver Cromwell’s authoritarian experiment in democracy. King Charles, for all his mistakes and bad decisions, nevertheless, represented the traditions of his country and, as he stated at his famous trial, represented “more the people of England” than the rump “democratic” dictatorship of the Cromwellians and Roundheads.
Back in the 1960s, back when William F. Buckley’s magazine, National Review and Russell Kirk’s journal, Modern Age, were arguably truly conservative, the question concerning the Spanish Civil War would have, likewise, been a giveaway. Almost all conservatives would have viewed that conflict in the light of a much larger, universal conflict between international Communism and those forces opposed to it, and this despite the fact that the anti-Republican Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco did receive some support from Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Germany (while the Soviet Union not only supported the Republic, but eventually via the Spanish Communist Party eliminated most of its opposition in Spanish Republican ranks). But not today; indeed, many of the dominant “conservatives” of 2017—the Neoconservatives—come down passionately on the side of the socialist Republic, and, employing the linguistic armor of the Left, they attack the Nationalist, Catholic and traditionalist forces that fought against the Republic, as “fascists.”
Finally, there is the War Between the States, and it is here, in this case, where we indeed can separate the true traditionalist conservatives who comprehend and accept the continuum of Western Christian civilization, its virtues, and its authority, and those who have, in reality and to varying degrees, severed themselves from that continuity. It is here that we can range on one side those who accept and participate in that “great chain of being”—that fundamentally religious and hierarchical structure of all matter and life, decreed by God, Himself, and present in our historical consciousness, and those who do not accept it. For support, in some form, of the Confederacy becomes that crucial measure that determines not just a political outlook about states’ rights and the original meaning of the American Constitution. It also demonstrates a vision of reality and of our existence as human beings created by and subservient to God as part of an organic whole, a Creation which must continually be protected and defended against those who would seek to puncture it, or distort its meaning, if not, eventually, to subvert or destroy it.
Certainly, there are those of good will and, let us call it, “invincible ignorance” who have been educated to think that the primary issue in 1861 was slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln was simply reacting to those “rebels” who wished to destroy “the sacred bonds” of Union, while advancing the great humanitarian cause of “freedom.” So much for the caliber and character of our contemporary educational system, not to mention Hollywood’s ideologically tendentious (and mostly successful) attempts to influence us. Yet, that mythology surrounding the Southern Iliad of 1861-1865 will not stand serious cross-examination.
Consider these popular myths and shibboleths:
“The War was about slavery!” Not really accurate: the war aims cited repeatedly by Lincoln and Northern publicists were that the War was to “preserve the Union.” Indeed, if abolition of slavery had been declared as the principle war aim in 1861, most likely a great majority of Union political leaders, not to mention Union soldiers, would have recoiled, and the Northern war effort would most likely have collapsed. It was difficult enough to gain wide support in the North, as it was. Remember, Lincoln was elected with less than 40% of the vote in 1860, and barely gained pluralities in most Northern states.
“Lincoln freed the slaves!” Not so; Lincoln freed not one slave. His Emancipation Proclamation, issued first on September 22, 1862 and finalized on January 1, 1863, supposedly “freeing the slaves,” only applied to those areas not under Union military control or occupation, that is, territory of the independent Southern states. It did not apply to the “slave states” within the Union or controlled by the Union military, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Thus, Lincoln’s proclamation “freed” slaves where his action had no effect, but left it untouched where he could have “freed” them. Not only that, exactly one month prior to his initial proclamation he had been interviewed by Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, where he forthrightly stated: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it… What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union….” [August 22, 1861] The amendments to end slavery came after the conclusion of the war and after the death of Lincoln.
And most recently this charge: “Robert E. Lee and other Confederate military leaders who had been in the US Army committed treason by violating their oaths to defend the Union, and Confederate leaders were in rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States.”
It is this accusation that has become the ultimate weapon of choice—the “ultima ratio”—for today’s fierce opponents of the various monuments that honor Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and other Confederate military leaders, and for the belief that they should be taken down. And most especially, it is spewed forth as unassailable gospel by many Neoconservative writers, publicists, pundits, and their less distinguished camp followers in much of the NeverTrump elites of the Republican Party.
Most recently, we have witnessed the spectacle of Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, apparently “channeling” (!) Robert E. Lee and declaring that if Marse Robert were alive today he would gleefully join in the chorus to bring down those monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. Tell us, Rich, so the great general would be there right beside the “antifa” Marxists and Black Lives Matter vandals, that is, those “new” friends you have made over on the extreme left?
Even more obtuse views come from Mona Charen, a long time Neocon publicist and NeverTrumper, who fears that the GOP is “being taken over by Trumpists and Neo-Confederates”! Perish the thought, Mona!
But it is from the foul mouths of “conservatives” Andrew Bacevitch and Max Boot that the worst venom emits, and, fascinatingly, it could have just as well come from a member of the communist Workers’ World Party as from Bacevitch (who writes for The American Conservative, but voted for Obama twice) or Boot (who was John McCain’s foreign policy advisor during McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign).
“My complaint about Lee—I admit this to my everlasting shame—was not that he was a slaveholder who in joining the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery. It was that he had thereby engineered the killing of many thousands of American patriots who (whatever their views on slavery and race) wished simply to preserve the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War, Lee famously remarked that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. This obliged him to take up arms against the very nation that as a serving officer he had sworn to defend? No less than Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. This became, and remains, my firm conviction.”
“…what is it that we are supposed to be grateful to the Confederates for? For seceding from the Union? For, in the case of former U.S. Army officers such as Lee and Jackson, violating their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”? For triggering the most bloody conflict in American history? For fighting to keep their fellow citizens in bondage?”
Now, these individuals are, supposedly, well-educated, with valuable university degrees, writers of some (I would submit, undeserved) repute. I do not believe they fall into the category of invincible ignorance; I do not believe that will suffice as an explanation or excuse for the hatred-laced and furious animus they demonstrate against a Lee or any other faithful military leader of the Confederacy. Rather, they fall clearly on that other side of my unbridgeable divide—they implicitly, through this major indicator and precisely because they are educated, reject the continuum of Western Christian civilization. They may protest not, but, in effect and through their views, they effectively do so. And, as such, they are the enemies of those who do defend that great chain of being, that European inheritance of those who went before us, the legacy of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Thus, they must be called out and their vision denounced for what it is: the “Fifth Column” of the progressivist Revolution that seeks to radically remake the world and man…and that remade image is not one that comes from God.
Two years ago, in 2015, in response to the hysteria (including the actions of the invincibly stupid Nikki Haley) concerning the display of Confederate flags after the criminal acts of Dylann Roof, I authored a long essay, first published in the Confederate Veteran magazine, and then picked up by the Abbeville Institute. Much of the ludicrous reasoning offered by Bacevitch, Boot, Lowry, and Charen (and other Neocons) I attempted to answer back then, in particular the utterly ridiculous charge that General Lee somehow violated his oath to defend the Constitution as a member of the US Army. Accordingly, I reproduce portions of that essay today.
Lastly, Dr. Lee Cheek has written a shorter, but fine, defense of General Lee, and I pass that on as well.
Once again, I ask your indulgence: there is much here, but in these critical times, it is incumbent upon us to be informed…and prepared for the battles ahead.
~ DR. BOYD D. CATHEY is an Unz Review columnist, as well as a Barely a Blog contributor, whose work is easily located on this site under the “BAB’s A List” search category. Dr. Cathey earned an MA in history at the University of Virginia (as a Thomas Jefferson Fellow), and as a Richard M Weaver Fellow earned his doctorate in history and political philosophy at the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain. After additional studies in theology and philosophy in Switzerland, he taught in Argentina and Connecticut before returning to North Carolina. He was State Registrar of the North Carolina State Archives before retiring in 2011. He writes for The Unz Review, The Abbeville Institute, Confederate Veteran magazine, The Remnant, and other publications in the United States and Europe on a variety of topics, including politics, social and religious questions, film, and music.