As I said this weekend, we are further removed in time from the Confederacy than even most Southern Nationalists imagine. Brion McClanahan is correct that identity was muted in that conflict. The central issues at stake were the expansion of slavery, the clash between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian economic visions and especially rival views of the nature of the Constitution. Did the sovereign states create the Union and retain the right to secede or was the perpetual Union created by the Declaration of Independence? Is slavery consistent with the existence of universal natural rights?
The United States in 1860 was a White country, an English-speaking Anglo-Saxon country, a Protestant country and a republican country. The two sides in the War Between the States largely shared the same origins, the same culture, the same holidays, etc. It wasn’t just a Protestant country. It was an evangelical Protestant country. When the war began, the respective national flags were so similar that soldiers died of friendly fire in the earliest battles. The Confederacy continued to celebrate July the 4th. The Confederate Constitution is largely a copy of the United States Constitution. It was a war between liberal republicans and more conservative republicans. There was much more agreement than disagreement.
The period from 1789 to 1865 was a distinct historical cycle. The American Founding was the founding of that cycle. Tensions over slavery and other issues between North and South which were present at the beginning when the Constitution was ratified eventually boiled over. The Reconstruction era was a Second Founding when a new Constitution was essentially imposed on the nation by the victorious North. The liberal republican side, which won the War Between the States, was content to abolish slavery, restore the Union, extend civil rights to blacks and to focus on industrial and imperial expansion. The ambitious attempt to expand political rights to blacks in the South was sacrificed for sectional reconciliation as the thirst for material gain became the dominant mood in the postwar North. The South in this period, which lasted from 1865 to 1945, was granted a version of home rule in the Yankee Empire.
In this second cycle, tensions which were always present in the Reconstruction era vision eventually boiled over and culminated in the Great Depression and World War II. America’s booming industrial economy needed access to overseas markets. The American Empire began to expand across the Pacific and into the Caribbean and Latin America. Millions of European immigrants poured into Northern cities in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their descendants began to accumulate wealth in Lincoln’s Proposition Nation, but were thwarted by the old money WASP ruling class in achieving a comparable social status. The country was put on a collision course with other Great Powers like Britain, Germany and Japan. The Great Depression discredited the Republican Party and its ideology of classical liberalism which had dominated the country since Lincoln’s time and the outcome of World War II put victorious New Deal liberals at the helm of a global liberal empire called the “Free World” in which America replaced Britain.
The Great Depression and World War II were America’s Third Founding. The conservative liberal ideology of the Republicans was eclipsed by the progressive liberal ideology of the ascendant New Deal Democrats. America became a global empire like Britain instead of an isolationist republic. The American ruling class became modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist in the years between 1929 and 1945. New Deal liberals reimagined America as a global melting pot like the United Nations. We became a “Nation of Immigrants” defined by something called the “American Creed.” Starting in this period, race, ethnicity and religion began to be purged as boundary markers of American national identity. Groups like the New York Intellectuals created this narrative about American identity. Home rule was swiftly ended in the post-World War II South by the Civil Rights Movement. Geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union dominated the country. Multiculturalism and other fashionable -isms continued to redefine the parameters of American national identity as the floodgates were opened to a tidal wave of Third World immigrants.
Why aren’t young conservatives interested in economics and the size of government? Those were the pressing issues at the end of America’s first historical cycle. We are at end of the third.
The sectional rift that opened up in the antebellum era and swallowed the country in the War Between the States is no longer the salient faultline in American politics. The current rift emerged in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s when the new liberal ruling class redefined American identity as a vacuous abstraction. Previous generations would not have understood this experiment. Liberalism in the 19th century did not mean liberation of the individual from his or her traditional culture. It did not mean raw elite hostility and contempt for the nation. On the contrary, liberals used to be ardent nationalists. Lincoln and the Union side in the War Between the States were the nationalists. The Gettysburg Address is one of the best examples of liberal nationalism. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln spoke of “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,” or what Joe Biden would call “white supremacy.” In those days, liberal elites were trying to build nation states like Germany and Italy, not tear them down to their foundations.
In 2023, we are in the last years of the Third Republic. The thing that we are watching dying before our eyes is the political and cultural order that was created by FDR and his successors in the 1930s and 1940s. Beyond that lies an era that is alien to our own. Beyond that lies an even more remote and alien world that culminated in the War Between the States. The problems of our time can be traced back to the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The tensions which were always present in that consensus which was hammered out back then are boiling over at home and abroad. The years between 1945 and 2023 are the history of the decay of the New Deal order. The New Deal coalition was a weird and unstable coalition of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals which ultimately fell apart over identity issues once the passing circumstances of the Great Depression were long forgotten by generations born after World War II.
If we lived in a country that was exclusively composed of people like Brion McClanahan and our friends at the Southern Cultural Center and the Abbeville Institute, paleo-libertarianism could work because we are all so similar. It would be an ideal arrangement. Live and let live federalism, however, didn’t work out in the 1850s in a world that was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestant. The North and South were extremely similar, but different enough in their interests to come to blows. Tyranny is the natural and most common form of government for populations and empires that resemble the Star Wars bar scene.