Saturday, November 30, 2013

H. L. Menken - The Calamity of Appomattox

We are barely 65 years from the end of World War II, and still see that conflict sharply.  Details can be had from the memories of those who not only were alive at the time, but who had fought in those battles.  In another 65 years all will be disappearing into a muddle of dusty history books; readers from that time will view through a glass darkly what we see more clearly today.

And so with what is commonly (and vulgarly) referred to as the "American Civil War".  It was no such thing, as the Confederate States of America were not trying to take over the northern states of the USA, but rather were endeavoring to leave the Union.  The best name I've heard proposed for that conflict is the American War of Southern Independence.  But we look back through the glass darkly to those days.  The history has been written, and a good bit of that shunted off to dusty corners never to be read again.  To be a forgotten, second class history.

H. L. Menken stood at the same remove from 1865 as we do from 1945.  His was a time when living memory gave views that simply are not available to us today.  His thoughts on that late unpleasantness were informed by those views, and so he was resistant to the sepia-hued hagiography that is our sad fare today.  In particular, he was outspoken in his opinion that the outcome of that war was a disaster:
The chief evils in the Federal victory lay in the fact, from which we still suffer abominably, that it was a victory of what we now call Babbitts over what used to be called gentlemen. I am not arguing here, of course, that the whole Confederate army was composed of gentlemen; on the contrary, it was chiefly made up, like the Federal army, of innocent and unwashed peasants, and not a few of them got into its corps of officers. But the impulse behind it, as everyone knows, was essentially aristocratic, and that aristocratic impulse would have fashioned the Confederacy if the fortunes of war had run the other way. Whatever the defects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm. It might not have produced any more Washingtons, Madisons, Jeffersons, Calhouns and Randolphs of Roanoke, but it would certainly not have yielded itself to the Heflins, Caraways, Bilbos and Tillmans.

The rise of such bounders was a natural and inevitable consequence of the military disaster. That disaster left the Southern gentry deflated and almost helpless. Thousands of the best young men among them had been killed, and thousands of those who survived came North. They commonly did well in the North, and were good citizens. My own native town of Baltimore was greatly enriched by their immigration, both culturally and materially; if it is less corrupt today than most other large American cities, then the credit belongs largely to Virginians, many of whom arrived with no baggage save good manners and empty bellies. Back home they were sorely missed. First the carpetbaggers ravaged the land, and then it fell into the hands of the native white trash, already so poor that war and Reconstruction could not make them any poorer. When things began to improve they seized whatever was seizable, and their heirs and assigns, now poor no longer, hold it to this day. A raw plutocracy owns and operates the New South, with no challenge save from a proletariat, white and black, that is still three-fourths peasant, and hence too stupid to be dangerous. The aristocracy is almost extinct, at least as a force in government. It may survive in backwaters and on puerile levels, but of the men who run the South today, and represent it at Washington, not 5%, by any Southern standard, are gentlemen.
Remember, while the memories were not fresh, they yet lived in those days.  Menken then is a tour guide of sorts to what this continent might have looked like with two Republics, not one:
My guess is that the two Republics would be getting on pretty amicably. Perhaps they’d have come to terms as early as 1898, and fought the Spanish-American War together. In 1917 the confiding North might have gone out to save the world for democracy, but the South, vaccinated against both Wall Street and the Liberal whim-wham, would have kept aloof—and maybe rolled up a couple of billions of profit from the holy crusade. It would probably be far richer today, independent, than it is with the clutch of the Yankee mortgage-shark still on its collar. It would be getting and using his money just the same, but his toll would be less. As things stand, he not only exploits the South economically; he also pollutes and debases it spiritually. It suffers damnably from low wages, but it suffers even more from the Chamber of Commerce metaphysic.

No doubt the Confederates, victorious, would have abolished slavery by the middle of the 80s. They were headed that way before the war, and the more sagacious of them were all in favor of it. But they were in favor of it on sound economic grounds, and not on the brummagem moral grounds which persuaded the North. The difference here is immense. In human history a moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades both the victor and the vanquished. The triumph of sin in 1865 would have stimulated and helped to civilize both sides.
He might have been wrong, but if so at least his was an informed error.  Better informed I dare to say than most of today's history "scholars".


Rob K said...

No man who owns another man can be a gentleman.

Roy said...

I read that and my first impression is that Menken, with all of his talk of babbits and gentlemen, white trash and aristocrats, sounds just like the attitude the "better than you" coastal elites have towards the rest of the country today.

They can keep it.

Roy said...

And I also take exception to his assumption that there would have been two republics, "getting on pretty amicably."

I doubt that.

The conflict itself was caused by the expansion of slavery into the territories. So does anyone who seriously studies the history of the 19th century in America believe that the territorial conflict would simply have ceased in a new era of "good feelings" - especially after the bloodletting that had just transpired? With slavery still expanding? With southern slaves seeking freedom simply by fleeing across an international border that was now several hundred miles closer (Ohio river). With a lot of northerners now encouraging this flight?

And two republics? Really? I believe that at a minimum there would have been three: North, South, and West. But more than likely there would have been more. And conflict between them would have simmered until the major European powers intervened and redrew the map just like they did post WWI.

I am a southerner, and though I am proud of my heritage, and I understand why the south seceded, I am still glad the Union won.

Chickenmom said...

I've often wondered what this nation would be like today if there had been no war, only independence from the North. Would the western territories have gone the same route? What about the tribal nations - would they be free people today? As it stands now, we really aren't "united"; only Washington is.

Old NFO said...

I have to agree with Roy, there would DEFINITELY have been three at the minimum... I think there would have been the North, the South, and the West bounded by the Mississippi on the east and the Pacific on the west.

Even today, there are separate and distinct cultures in all three areas.

JC said...

Those of delicate manners still refer to "the late unpleasantness", as the shelves of the once great Kendricks Used Book Shop had the ~700 linear feet of such books labeled.