The Real Legacy of Gettysburg

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1-3, 1863 in a small Pennsylvania town.  Celebrations began on Sunday and are scheduled to last all week.  Articles and commentary from across the political spectrum will flood the Internet and the airways in praise of those who fell on that hallowed ground in defense of liberty.

Yet the praise will be directed at Union forces.  But what about the 28,000 Southern soldiers who died for what they believed in?  Did they risk less?  Were their ideals any less glorious than those above the Mason Dixon line?

We have come to expect as much from leftwing Northern “scholars,” as well as Southern scalawags.  But, painfully, those who call themselves conservatives will take the Union side in the conflict as well.

On Sunday, Breitbart News featured two such pieces by Sarah Palin and historian Craig Shirley, mainly known as a scholar of Ronald Reagan.  Both articles were disheartening, to say the least.

Palin called the battle “one of the most important … in the history of mankind,” where “ordinary men … did extraordinary things to make us one nation.”  She continued, “Gettysburg is where we truly became one nation.  It was the decisive battle of a war in which we righted the unfinished business of our founding by freeing those whose enslavement was our greatest shame.”

Shirley labeled all Americans “the children of Gettysburg,” a conflict that was transformed into a “war about civil rights and the radical American conservative ideal of the expansion of freedom for all.”  The battle decided once and for all “what philosophy would rule the country, and by extension, the free world.”

And Palin and Shirley call themselves conservatives, but obviously have no clue what conservatism actually is.  For Sarah Palin, it means force the individual states into one nation, which the Founders did not desire, at the point of a bayonet.  For Shirley it means, as it does to most neo-conservatives, to force their notion of liberty on all the peoples of the world, presumably also at the barrel of a rifle.

But Shirley did get one point exactly right – the battle, and by extension, the war was fought to see which philosophy would govern the country.  The United States, from the enactment of the Constitution in 1789 until the war in 1861, battled itself over the governing philosophy that would prevail.  Until Lincoln, the conservative ideas of Jefferson had won out; after Lincoln, the liberal and progressive principles of Hamilton won the day, and has dominated ever since.

The New Hampshire libertarian Lysander Spooner said it this way in 1867:  “The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.”  This is exactly how Lincoln viewed the South and Southerners who sought to live by the principles of self-government – as nothing more than pirates.  And that was exactly how they were treated.

In terms of Shirley’s governing philosophy, the war was truly a watershed event.  And even Northerners came to see its destructive legacy.  Historian George Ticknor of Massachusetts wrote in 1869 that the war had left a “great gulf between what happened before it in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen thereafter.  It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”

In short, what Palin and Shirley seem to miss, or are too fearful to admit, the conflict cost the United States, for all practical purposes, its constitutional republic.  “The war,” wrote Governor Richard Yates of Illinois in 1865, “has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country, to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’  The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.”  And that power has yet to end.  In fact, the government controls more today, because of the war 150 years ago, than many thought possible, everything from how ketchup is made to what toilet or light bulb you can have in your home.  This is the war’s legacy.

As Palin and Shirley remind us, as did Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, the war was fought to preserve self-government, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

To quote from H. L. Mencken, one of the great journalists of the twentieth century, who penned a blistering attack in 1921 on Lincoln’s twisted logic.  “Think of the argument in it.  Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”

“What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg?” he continued.  “What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.”

And that is the real legacy of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Laurel Leader Call, Thursday, July 25, 2013


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