This is a strange position.
Obviously, Americans in 2021 are bitterly divided over far more things than the Union and the Confederacy was in 1861. There is far less common ground than there was then.
“I have been an admirer of the Claremont Institute. The California-based think tank, founded in 1979, has in prior years done impressive work in recovering the legacy of the American founding, exploring the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, and dissecting the modern rise of theories about government that are fundamentally at odds with Founding principles. Conservatism owes a great debt of gratitude, in particular, to Harry Jaffa, the late Lincoln scholar and political theorist institutionally affiliated with the Claremont Institute (which was founded by some of his students).
In the early years of the modern conservative movement, Jaffa persuaded many important figures, including William F. Buckley Jr. himself, that the legacy of Lincoln was one worth claiming for the Right — at a time when this was very much in dispute. As Jaffa student and Claremont Institute fellow Glenn Ellmers puts it in his new book on Jaffa, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America, “in part through his friendship with (and constant badgering of) William F. Buckley, Jaffa was largely responsible for pulling the modern conservative movement toward a more authentically American and pro-Lincoln stance, away from the nostalgia for European throne-and-altar traditionalism or (worse) the slaveholding South.”
In a recent interview in The Atlantic, however, Ryan Williams, the Claremont Institute’s current president, gave me slight pause. Conversing with Atlantic staff writer Emma Green, Williams stated that he believed America was in a “real regime crisis right now.” He said he was concerned about the possibility of a second civil war. “The Civil War was terrible,” Williams said. “It should be the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs.” And yet, in his view, in some respects we are even worse off now than we were then …”
Both sides in that conflict agreed that slavery was the “incident” or “occasion” of the war. It was the issue which broke the Union and triggered secession.
Both sides in that conflict also agreed that the deeper constitutional issue of whether a state could voluntarily and unilaterally leave the Union was paramount. This reflects a constitutional debate which had gone on for decades over whether America was created by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution and whether the Union was perpetual and eternal or something that had been created by Congress or the states. Americans had also always argued about slavery.
When the Southern states seceded from the Union and created the Confederacy, they changed almost nothing. The Confederate Constitution was a near copy of the U.S. Constitution. The first Confederate national flag was a near copy of the American flag. The Confederates revered the American Founding and celebrated the same holidays and honored the same heroes. The Confederates themselves didn’t believe anything new. The Confederacy was a continuation of the antebellum South.
The argument between the Union and Confederacy was a narrow argument within American identity which was based on regional cultural differences that had always existed over republicanism. Slavery was the flashpoint. Evangelical Christianity fueled both sides in that war. It was a war between Anglo-Americans. When the War Between the States ended and those two issues were settled, reunion was made possible because the two sides still shared almost everything else in common.
Contrast the divide over slavery and secession with the divide that exists today. Americans no longer share any of the four major pillars of American identity that were shared by the Union and Confederacy: race, religion, culture and ideology. Unlike the Union and Confederacy, the two sides in this conflict largely do not share a common history or ancestry. They do not share common heroes or common holidays. Both sides in the War Between the States celebrated and claimed July the 4th which is now controversial. To the extent Americans do share a common history, academics have convinced them that this is a terrible thing. It is horrible, for example, to have been born White which makes you a moral monster. This is an ideological view that now divides people who are brothers and sisters.
I included that photo of Lincoln in the header because the progressive side would also topple his statue like Confederate statues. I believe Lincoln monuments have already been removed in some places. The divide that exists today between progressives and conservatives and urban America and rural America is rooted in modernism. This rift has been opening up since the 1920s. In retrospect, we can look back at Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) as the opening shot and Prohibition as the first battle in the culture war. It was something new at the time to heap scorn and ridicule on small town Middle America.
Progressives have long had a modernist sensibility that drives them to demonize, repudiate and destroy the past. They are novelty seekers. For a long time, these people had a live and let live left-libertarian bohemian ethos, but now they have taken a decisive authoritarian turn. Social justice requires the eradication of everything about the past. Conservatives must be dealt with and told what to do. Rational debate is pointless. They already have all the answers. Flexing raw power is the answer. They don’t believe in free speech, civil liberties or self government anymore. We can see the fruits of this mentality in internet censorship, the weaponization of the “intelligence community,” purging the military of “extremists,” the vaccine mandates and the latest development which is treating parents who are opposed to CRT in public schools like “domestic terrorists.” Progressives no longer acknowledge that the other side has any rights worthy of their respect. They are more than willing to break the law to get their way.
The “arc of history” that progressives so often talk about only bends from the 1920s to the 2020s because that is when modernism arrived in the United States and captured the imagination of the rising liberal elite. Before the 1920s, there was broad agreement about national identity and morality. Even if there were regional variations, there was still a lot of cultural cohesion. From that point on, American elites began dismantling the pillars of American national identity. They loosened the boundaries and never looked back. They have taken stability and solidarity for granted. They have cultivated “diversity.” As a result of traveling down this road, we have ended up in this place where one side of the partisan divide no longer recognizes that the other side has any constitutional rights and is oblivious to where this is likely to go.
Returning to the War Between the States, the thing that made secession inevitable was the belief among Southerners that the federal government under the control of a sectional party would not respect their rights. The John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry was the turning point. If America was to blow up in a similar way today (remember secession is not even required to bring on a civil conflict), it would be far harder to stitch Humpty Dumpty back together again due to its lack of homogeneity.
Maybe we are so divided though today that it doesn’t even have to end that way? The bitterest partisans agree that their visions are irreconcilable. They agree that they fear and hate each other. Neither side wants a violent conflict. Would they even fight to save this Union?
Note: The dissolution of the Union would allow the Eastern states and the West Coast to create their anti-White communist utopia. We are standing in the way of progress. It was a mistake to save the Union. We’ve always been a thorn in your side. You are better off without us.