False Virtue: The Politics of Lying About History

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In 1961 Life magazine invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (author of All the King’s Men, and nineteen other novels) to record his thoughts on the meaning of the American u201CCivil Waru201D on the centennial of that event. Warren responded with a long essay on the u201Csymbolic value of the waru201D which was eventually published as a small book entitled The Legacy of the Civil War.

If Robert Penn Warren were to write this book today, he would be loudly condemned as an Enemy of Society (and a u201CNeo-Confederateu201D) by all the usual defenders of the central state, from race-hustling u201Ccivil rightsu201D activists to beltway u201Clibertariansu201D and of course, the Lincoln Cult. For example, he wrote (p. 7) that in addition to slavery, there was a u201Ctissue of causesu201D of the war, including the dispute over the constitutionality of secession, u201Cthe mounting Southern debt to the North, economic rivalry, Southern fear of encirclement, Northern ambitions, and cultural collisions . . .u201D

There were also economic causes of the war apart from slavery, Robert Penn Warren believed. u201CThe Morrill tariff of 1861 actually preceded the firing on [Fort] Sumter, but it was the mark of Republican victory and an omen of what was to come; and no session of Congress in the next four years failed to raise the tariff.u201D

u201CEven more importantly,u201D Warren wrote, u201Ccame the establishment of a national banking system . . . and the issuing of national greenbacks . . . plus government subsidy [to corporations].u201D u201CHamilton’s dreamu201D of a large national debt was also realized, and u201Cthis debt meant a new tax relation of the citizen to the Federal government, including the new income taxu201D [introduced by the Lincoln administration for the first time].

u201COut of the Civil War came the concept of total war,u201D i.e., the bombing, plundering, and mass murdering of civilians. In this regard, Warren quotes an 1862 speech by Lincoln in which he said, u201CThe dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present . . . . As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.u201D That is, u201Cweu201D must abandon the law of nations with regard to the criminality of waging war on civilians, and u201Cweu201D must abandon the U.S. Constitution as well, since it is one of the chief u201Cdogmas of the quiet past.u201D

A major theme of The Legacy of the Civil War is that the war left the North (which is to say, the U.S. government) with u201Ca treasury of virtueu201D (p. 54). This is the u201Cpsychological heritageu201D left to the North, and it is an insidious heritage, wrote Robert Penn Warren. u201CThe Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history . . . . He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future . . .u201D (emphasis added).

Thus, this u201Ctreasury of virtueu201D would become the excuse for why the U.S. government would commence a twenty-five year campaign of extermination against the Plains Indians just three months after Appomattox; shamelessly rob the treasury for the benefit of railroad corporations; plunder the South for a decade after the war under the laughable guise of u201Creconstructionu201D; murder more than 200,000 Filipinos who opposed being ruled by the American empire after having escaped from the imperialistic clutches of the Spanish empire; and enter a European war that was none of our business to supposedly u201Cmake the world safe for democracy.u201D It was all done in the name of virtue, freedom, and democracy, or so we are told.

Robert Penn Warren called this u201Cmoral narcissismu201D (p. 72). It is u201Ca poor basis for national policy,u201D he wrote, but is the u201Cjustificationu201D for u201Cour crusades of 1917—1918 and 1941—1945 and our diplomacy of righteousness, with the slogan of unconditional surrender and universal spiritual rehabilitation for othersu201D (emphasis added).

Posing as The Most Virtuous Humans to Ever Inhabit the Planet requires that many u201Cfacts get forgotten,u201D wrote Robert Penn Warren. For example:

[I]t is forgotten that the Republican platform of 1860 pledged protection to the institution of slavery where it existed, and that the Republicans were ready, in 1861, to guarantee slavery in the South, as bait for a return to the Union. It is forgotten that in July, 1861, both houses of Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, affirmed that the War was waged not to interfere with the institutions of any state but only to maintain the Union. It is forgotten that the Emancipation Proclamation . . . was limited and provisional: slavery was to be abolished only in the seceded states and only if they did not return to the Union before the first of the next January (p. 61).

It must also be forgotten, wrote Warren, that most Northern states u201Crefused to adopt Negro suffrageu201D and that Lincoln was as much a white supremacist as any man of his time. u201CIt is forgotten that Lincoln, at Charlestown, Illinois, in 1858, formally affirmed: I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.u201D

Thus, after so much history is forgotten, and much of the rest of it rewritten as a string of fairy tales, u201Cthe War appears, according to this doctrine of the Treasury of Virtue, as a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven, like the deeds of the saints, to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders, certainly unto the present generationu201D (p. 64).

Warren quotes the historian Samuel Eliot Morison as commenting that one effect of this Treasury of Virtue on his (Morison’s) native New England was that u201CIn the generation to come that region would no longer furnish the nation with teachers and men of letters, but with a mongrel breed of politiciansu201D obsessed with u201Cprofiteeringu201D through their political connections.

Among other effects are that u201Cthe man of righteousness tends to be so sure of his own motives that he does not need to inspect consequences.u201D And, u201Cthe effect of the conviction of virtue is to make us lie automatically and awkwardly . . . and then in trying to justify the lie, lie to ourselves and transmute the lie into a kind of superior truth.u201D This, I would argue, is a perfect definition of so-called u201CLincoln scholarship,u201D especially the Straussian variety.

Warren believed that most Americans are content with all of these lies about their own history, the results of u201Cthe manipulations of propaganda specialists, and their sometimes unhistorical historyu201D (p. 79). For they u201Care prepared to see the Civil War as a fountainhead of our power and prestige among the nationsu201D (p. 76). They have been good and brainwashed as obedient little nationalists, in other words, who place a very high value on the u201Cprestigeu201D of the American state as bully of the world.

This is yet another dire consequence of the war: Americans came to believe in Alexander Hamilton’s notion that the u201Cprestigeu201D of the state through its pursuit of u201Cimperial gloryu201D was a legitimate function of government. Limiting the role of government to the protection of God-given natural rights to life, liberty, and property became one of Lincoln’s u201Cdogmas of the quiet past.u201D

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.

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