The American political divide is no longer between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, religionists and secularists. It is between roughly two halves of the country, each of which would be perfectly happy to see the other wiped, by violence if necessary, from the face of the earth. That was not how the North and the South felt about each other when President Lincoln ordered the invasion of Virginia by Union troops in 1861, and perhaps not four years later when Lee surrendered his sword to Grant at Appomattox. Politics in America is no longer political, or even ideological. It is existential, the existence of one side having become a moral and personal affront to the other. Each can no longer tolerate the sight, sound, smell, or thought of the other.
Civil war would certainly occur today, should the lines of political opposition correspond more or less with the nation’s internal boundaries, as they did in 1861 when pro-Confederates and pro-Unionists had the benefit of geographical representation. The American nation was “polarized” then as it is today, but in a way that was plainly and simply manageable by unilateral secession, or by amicable agreement between the two regions of the country. If the United States were ever to separate, then was the logical moment. And indeed they did separate and remain separated for four torturous years, following which they were forcibly reunited by the victors led by a determinedly ideological commander in chief for whom the concept, more even than the fact, of union prevailed over history, the Constitution, and social and political common sense. Abraham Lincoln compelled American unity where there was no unity by forcing two fundamentally dissimilar and incompatible civilizations together again, while making one effectively subservient to the other “in perpetuity.” His was an error characteristic of a lawyer with a bat in his stovepipe hat, an error no careful and imaginative historian could ever have made, and one whose consequences America has been suffering these past 150 years.
The peculiar institution, as Lincoln well knew, was merely an aspect of the far broader institution that was Southern civilization. The South was of a traditional mind; the North of a revolutionary one. The South was deferential; the North egalitarian. The South was pious; the North transcendentalist, or nothing. The South was agricultural; the North industrial. Finally, the South, politically speaking, was strictly constitutionalist; the North latitudinarian and expansionist. These differences had existed from the beginning, but they had grown much wider between 1789 and 1861, as honest men over that period had observed. With or without slavery, the South did not wish to live in the future as the North contemplated it, while the North was determined to drag the South along, as a distinctly junior partner, with it into that future. Northern politicians, men of business, and public men generally saw in victory no more than the chance to convert the South to its way of thinking, as a foolish person contemplating marriage expects confidently to bend the prospective spouse into someone more conformable to his own way of thinking. It never occurred to them to recognize a God-given opportunity to ditch the unsuitable partner by legally sanctioned divorce and go their own way unburdened by backwardness, superstition, and sloth. An aristocratic lady, a close friend of my parents, often expressed regret that the South had lost the war, since, had it won, “Southerners would need visas to come North.” Mrs. Potter, who in many respects was a very wise woman despite being an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations and a liberal, in retrospect imagined an opportunity that never occurred to the besotted Lincoln, his admiring contemporaries, and his subsequent apologists.
History has proved the insistence of the North in reuniting the South to itself in 1865 to have been an unanticipated disaster for America north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as America south of it, in two decisive ways.
The first is that the reconstituted United States deprived herself of a safety valve for internal discontent by assuring herself the advantage of a neighboring territory that could have served her in precisely the same way that the Americas had historically served the Old World: as a magnet and a dumping ground for social and political revolutionaries, general troublemakers, religious dissenters, and intellectual eccentrics. The second is that by vanquishing a traditional society whose values to some degree still survived in the North and rededicating itself to progressivism, materialism, industrialism, and Wall Street finance, it developed in a manner that left no possibility for the survival on its native ground of other interests, viewpoints, activities, and values, and therefore no social and political space in which traditionalists and other dissenters might take a stand.
Today, Americans display a tendency to segregate themselves according to their political, social, economic, and racial and ethnic differences, as indeed they have always done but now more consciously and deliberately. So we have the Blue Northeast and the Blue West Coast, the Red South and the Red Mountain West. But not only are these color-correspondent regions separated from one another by wide distances and geographic obstacles, they are also subdivided by in-holdings of intruding colors, often in complicated patterns. People who consciously wish to live and work with people who look, think, and vote like them increasingly accommodate their lives to segregationist purposes, but national residential patterns have not yet arranged themselves to the degree that the majority are able to realize their aspirations. Hence they may find themselves living in a Red Ward in a Blue City in a Red State, or a Blue Township in a Red County in a Blue State. They have no means of combining geographically into broader, territorially adjacent areas in order to leverage their social and political power, a situation they quite naturally find frustrating and a provocative cause for discontent, resentment, and anger. Futurists have speculated in recent years on the possibility that the United States may split into separate republics defined by regional geography—Northwest, Mountain West, Northeast, Southwest, etc.—but self-segregation is very far from having proceeded enough to make these regions sufficiently homogenous to allow such partitions to function successfully. If, on the other hand, the Confederates States of America still flourished south of the Union, Union citizens who preferred to live in a traditional culture would be free to move there, while Confederates longing for a liberal society could move north. South of the border, Confederate citizens would enjoy their republican freedoms, together with the satisfactions of a traditional, religious, and deferential society, from which the gods of commercialism and progressivism had been banished. In these circumstances, the sole losers would be imperially minded politicians deprived of a chance at the vast power that rule over a continental nation, as compared to half a continental one, confers. Yet their loss, being more than compensated for by the absolute ideological control they would exercise over their contentedly blue subjects, happy and at ease at last in their chosen people’s republic, would be illusory. Unfortunately for Americans of every persuasion, the possibilities for this scenario were forfeited—perhaps forever—a century and a half ago by the forebears of modern American politicians, who failed to seize the opportunity when it was extended to them and thereby condemned their distant successors to frustration, gridlock, seething impotence, and a deep-seated hatred of the other half of the citizenry—precisely what Barack Obama is feeling now.
So the Unionists in 1865 deprived their country of the opportunity to rid itself forever of that geographic half of it that bitterly resisted its character and its agenda. But they did something else as well. They made certain that Northern society would continue to develop in the materialist direction in which it had been moving for decades, unchallenged by a vision of an alternate civilization grounded in nature and tradition, and by effective dissent on behalf of these things. The result a century later was a country so culturally and politically grotesque that the New Left that developed subsequently in the vacuum created by the defeated traditionalist party was able to attack the United States from the left and establish itself as the sole effective opposition to the American political and cultural establishment that the unconditional surrender of 1865 had ensured. The rise of the New Left made the traditionalist critique of modern American society more irrelevant than ever, but it also challenged the settled arrangement between industrial business, the national political establishment, and American liberalism that Washington and Wall Street together had managed since Reconstruction. So the victorious North has been reduced to a shadow of its former self since the 60’s by the people Obama and his friends refer to in private as “the ones we’ve been waiting for”—which is “we.”
The self-co-opted radicals run the show today, and they have adopted as their allies the scores of millions of angry and resentful foreigners, and the descendants of foreigners, admitted to the United States under the irresponsible immigration policies institutionalized by Congress at the behest of Northern industrialists in the second half of the 19th century and maintained ever since (save for a decade or so following World War I) by a powerful combination comprising ruthless entrepreneurs, the soft-minded churches and the charities, and the more or less vicious ethnic lobbies. The vast majority of immigrants, after 1965 especially, have come to this country from strictly economic motives or because, as Mencken said in another context, there is a warrant out for them somewhere else. They have no other interest in American civilization, such as it exists today, than a job and the pleasures of life in an affluent society, and they have no intention of renouncing their previous identities and allegiances. Thus, the “Melting Pot” the North boasted of a century ago has come to resemble the brew being busily stirred by the witches Macbeth encountered on the heath, a writhing stew of snakes, toads, and eels, many of them poisonous and most of them an ecological threat to the native American habitat into which they have been thoughtlessly—and sometimes malevolently—introduced.
America as she exists in 2015 is the creation of the Union states that won the Civil War, a country the former Confederacy has had virtually no hand in making. The descendants of the former Unionists need to remind themselves of this fact as they, along with a majority of Americans, deplore what their country has since become. For people whose hearts pump Confederate blood, a certain smugness is understandable, and even pardonable. Though their ancestors failed 150 years ago, Goliath has succeeded in destroying himself.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture DECEMBER 12, 2014