In his excellent history of the United States between 1789 and 1815, Empire of Liberty, Gordon Woods writes: “By the end of that second war against Britain in 1815, the central impulses of the Revolution had run their course. Americans believed that their Republic was at last secure and independent, free from hostile mercantile empires and the ravages of European wars that had tormented them for over two decades. Democracy and equality were no longer problematic issues to be debated; they had become articles of faith to be fulfilled.” The nearly 800 pages that follow lay out the Founder’s great debate: between a strong federal government with a standing army and a confederation of independent states, each with its own militia, akin to the modern European Union. A half century after Jefferson, the issue appeared settled: this was a federal republic, not a confederate union.
The great debate grew out of America’s original sin: the enslavement of captured Africans whose cheap labor powered the economic ascent of what would become the powerful nation the world had ever known. Though 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War that ostensibly started over the the meaning of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution–that is federal versus states rights, it was really over only one of those “rights”: the right of some people to own other people. The evil of slavery, and the religious and philosophical cartwheels which were necessary to defend it, nearly tore the idea of this “nation so constituted and so dedicated” to shreds. The 14th Amendment took another century to be fully recognized in the Civil Rights Act. And still, there are those today who question its validity, though in terms more circumspect than before.
From South Carolina, where the treasonous symbol of the Battle Flag of the Army of Virginia still flies proudly at the Statehouse steps, to Virginia itself, where a proudly Christian evangelical Governor has just declared this to be “Confederate History Month” (only belatedly noting that, yes, those glorious patriots of the Old South did own black people and that was not nice), the notion of a federal republic is once again under attack. It’s not just the idealists of the Myth of Confederate Glory that are undermining the republican ideals: Congresspeople, like Iowa’s Steve King and Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann regularly use language laced with revolutionary rhetoric.
So is the Republic falling apart, or is this simply the renewal of the American ideal, the purification of our republican soul? If Gordon Wood is right, it’s only the latest act in a play over two centuries old, which will, in due time, subside. If he’s wrong, then we have once again stepped on to a battlefield “testing whether that nation or any so conceived so dedicated can long endure.”
We may now longer be a Republic of patriots. We may now only be a Confederacy of dunces.