War and Secession

In a recent article by Jo Becker in The Washington Post titled "In Article, Roberts’s Pen Appeared to Dip South," the author was surprised that the esteemed and careful Roberts employed the archaic expression "War Between the States." The article begins,

When John G. Roberts Jr. prepared to ghostwrite an article for President Ronald Reagan a little over two decades ago, his pen took a Civil War reenactment detour. … A fastidious editor of other people’s copy as well as his own, Roberts began with the words "Until about the time of the Civil War." Then, the Indiana native scratched out the words "Civil War" and replaced them with "War Between the States."

Becker reveals that "The handwritten document is one of tens of thousands of pages of Roberts [sic] files released over the past several weeks from his 1982—1986 tenure as an associate counsel to the president." Nevertheless, these are obviously the most interesting among the millions of words scribbled by Roberts — and let’s keep in mind that Becker or more likely some pitiful graduate student or Post intern pored through these hand-written manuscripts to find such a delightful revelation.

Bring on the "experts"! Becker continues,

Sam McSeveney, a history professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University who specialized in the Civil War, said that Roberts’s choice of words was significant.

You see, it’s really all psychological:

"Many people who are sympathetic to the Confederate position are more comfortable with the idea of a u2018War Between the States,’" McSeveney explained. "People opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s would undoubtedly be more comfortable with the words he chose."

Oh, of course, how could we not have known? The history of political science begins in the 60s, the 1960s that is. And everyone knows what nefarious images are to be conjured from "opposed to the civil rights movement."

But I have to give Becker props for an attempt at fairness:

John M. Coski, the historian and library director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, said the term was commonplace in the South until the 1960s or early 1970s. He said some people use "War Between the States" out of habit, others think it quaint or iconoclastic, and still others use it because they believe the Confederacy was right to secede.

"You can’t always draw the inference that someone who uses the term does so with an ideological intent, but at the same time you can’t be blind to the fact that some people do," Coski said.

What is hysterical about all of this is that it’s supposed to be such an anachronism (at best) to use "War Between the States." The article misses the historical point: It doesn’t have a thing to do with one’s sympathy, but rather very simple objective historical analysis. The war in question shouldn’t be called "The Civil War" because it wasn’t a civil war, but rather a war of secession, or independence — two completely different, and one might say opposite, things. The former necessitates violence by the attempt to control everything within and without its sphere of influence, while the latter, if allowed, can take place in the context of peace.

Granted, this subtlety is lost on some. I overheard a Texas Aggie telling an errant Yankee that, "You’re lucky we didn’t win the war, or the U.S. capital would be in Richmond!" (The big irony being that this is a college where Robert E. Lee’s picture was recently removed from prominent sight for PC reasons.)

At least there are some that appreciate the difference.

Last summer I was in D.C. "testifying" before a well-known panel on science, and one of my charts stated, "What caused the failure? … The answer to the question, u2018What caused The War Between the States?’ is not u2018Bullets.’" The panel member sitting to my left smiled and commented, "The War between the States — you’re not from the South, are you?" The man on the other side of him wryly said, "Don’t you mean The War of Northern Aggression?" The former added, "Do you mean the Civil War?" I said, "I’m not familiar with that term."

I should have given them a real Foggy Bottom answer: "Sir, I am unaware of any such designation or formulation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such a designation if it did in fact exist, sir."

During my next visit to D.C., I stayed out ’til four in the morning with three Zoroastrians I met in Georgetown. (I love the Georgetown Zoroastrians.) One of them had attended one of the fine local universities, and informed me his history professor announced that "You will never hear the term u2018Civil War’ in this class, only u2018The War of Northern Aggression’!" (Incidentally, I prefer The War for Southern Independence — I think The War of Northern Aggression is too whiny.)

Well this summer I got into it with a West Pointer about The War for Southern Independence after he asked me who I thought the worst president in American history was. I told him I felt that Lincoln was the most destructive president, not only in life and treasure, but essentially brought an end to the Republic — that a strong argument could be made that any rights we appear to have are an illusion, with abundant evidence that "constitutional rights" come and go at the pleasure of the federal government.

Then I asked the question I love to ask, especially of those that consider themselves American patriots, "So you don’t believe the original thirteen colonies should have seceded? If one doesn’t believe that the southern states had the right to secede from their voluntary union, one certainly shouldn’t believe that the colonies had a right to secede from the British Empire, with the egregiousness of taxation by the Northern Empire far, far outweighing that of the British?"

I’ve been surprised at the honesty and openness of true patriots of whom I’ve asked this question.

But the bigger picture is clear, as clear as it has been in synthetic states such as “Yugoslavia” and “Iraq.” As the world gets larger and increasingly complex, political devolution is inevitable. There are innumerable serious, peaceful, secession movements afoot from Quebec to Corsica to Okinawa, and it is the duty of freedom-loving peoples everywhere to facilitate autonomy bloodlessly.