"He’s not an ordinary politician. He has strong beliefs."
~ Senator Charles Schumer describing Senator James Webb
I have never met Senator-elect James Webb (D-VA), a highly decorated Vietnam War-era Marine, former U.S. Navy Secretary, novelist, screen writer, and historian, but I knew he was a man I should respect when I read his latest book, Born Fighting: A History of the Scots-Irish in America. Unlike so many books on American history, especially those about the "Civil War" era, Born Fighting gives one the impression that the author had embarked on a relentless search for truth and had no tolerance for the poison of political correctness.
My intuition about Webb was confirmed recently when he refused to genuflect, scrape and grovel, and kiss the ring of George W. Bush at a White House reception (in stark contrast to every other member of Congress in attendance). Then, a day later, I really knew that Senator-elect Webb was a man to be admired when George "Statecraft as Soul Craft" Will, the resident Lincoln-worshipping Straussian /Neocon Iraq war apologist on the Washington Post op-ed page, called him a "boor" and generally trashed him in a column. Congratulations, Senator-elect Webb!
Born Fighting is a passionate, well-researched book about the Scotch-Irish in America ("my people," as Webb calls them). Libertarians should be interested in this book, and the topic in general, because of the strong argument that Webb makes that the Scotch-Irish have always been radical individualists. "To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else’s collective judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns." Webb proved that he is a true blue Scotch-Irishman when he not only failed to bow and scrape to the Decider-in-Chief, but used the opportunity to express his opinion that the troops in Iraq, including his own Marine-son, should be brought home immediately.
In the early years of America, Webb writes, the Scotch-Irish had very little in common with the English immigrants who settled in New England — the Puritans and, later, the "Yankees." Indeed, the Scotch-Irish were among the people who were tyrannized for centuries by the British government. They eventually became a "dominant culture of the South," and comprised a large portion of the Confederate Army during the War to Prevent Southern Independence. They were typically yeoman farmers who "had no slaves and actually suffered economic detriment" from the practice of slavery. This statement is an example of what I mean by Webb’s disregard for political correctness. A prerequisite for being a "Lincoln Scholar" or a "Civil War Scholar" in American academe is one’s ability to express hatred and derision for the South, its people, its history, and its institutions. This hateful impulse is especially strong among the so-called Straussians. Webb will have none of this personally offensive, bigoted, politically-correct nonsense.
On the subject of Lincoln and his war, Webb asks why "his people" fought the way they did. He quotes historian Wilbur Cash as noting that Confederate soldiers came from a culture that produced "the most intense individualism the world has seen since the Italian renaissance." They were never as compliant and obedient as their Yankee counterparts were in the Union Army, for example, even down to their half-hearted salutes to superior officers.
Understanding this culture, which was pervasive in the Confederate ranks, Webb concludes that "It is impossible to believe that such men would have continued to fight against unnatural odds and take casualties beyond the level of virtually any other modern army [70%] —simply so that 5 percent of their population who owned slaves could keep them . . . . Something deeper was motivating them, something that appealed to their self-interest as well."
One particularly telling fact that Webb brings out about the average Confederate soldier is that he knew that slave owners in Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky were allowed to keep their slaves when the war began. The Lincoln administration’s policy was that slave owners could keep their slaves as long as their state remained in the union and continued to collect federal taxes. When the seven states of the lower South initially seceded, Lincoln was more than happy to preside over the slave states of Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee, which only seceded after Lincoln commenced his invasion of their sister states. At the time of Fort Sumter there were more slave states in the union than out of it.
Consequently, writes Webb, "in virtually every major battle of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves fought against a proportion of Union Army soldiers who had not been asked to give up theirs." This fact spoke volumes to the Confederate soldier about the true purpose of the war, and about the character of Lincoln himself.
Webb also writes of how the Confederate soldier knew that the Emancipation Proclamation "exempted all the slaves in the North," and in all areas of the South that were under U.S. Army control at the time. They understood that the union was voluntary and believed that the Constitution was on their side: "The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reserved the right to the states all rights not specifically granted to the federal government, and in their view the states had thus retained their right to dissolve the federal relationship."
So why did the Confederate soldier fight? He fought, says Webb, because "he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded." His leaders "convinced him that this was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War." The "tendency to resist outside aggression was bred deeply into every heart" of every Scotch-Irishman in America, writes the former U.S. Navy Secretary.
What a pathetic statement about the phony, false, and often just plain silly state of Lincoln and "Civil War" scholarship (so-called) that it takes a man hardened by his life experiences as a platoon leader in Vietnam (who earned the Navy Cross and Silver Star) to use simple logic and plain historical facts to contradict part of the "accepted wisdom." The politically-correct, New England version of American history that has prevailed for generations may be widely accepted, but is based much more on superstition and political puffery than reality. It will be fun to watch Senator-elect Webb as he continues to challenge other superstitions that constitute the core beliefs of our rulers in Washington (and their media mouthpieces like George Will).
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (Crown Forum/Random House).