A Republic of Patriots or a Confederacy of Dunces?


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.

4 thoughts on “A Republic of Patriots or a Confederacy of Dunces?

  1. Well written post. I would respond with a defense of the South but don't have time for the research. The flags will go away in time as America becomes more mobile and ethnically diverse. But there is a Southern culture apart from institution of slavery and there is a dignity in defending your homeland that is bypassed in such posts as yours. Shelby Foote commented on a dialog with Southern POW in the Ken Burns Civil War series. “Why are you fighting? Because your down here.” And there is General Lee, whose loyalty lay with his State. For these people, it wasn't about slavery. And it wasn't the direct threat of losing the institution of slavery that prompted the South's rebellion. Before the War, Lincoln wasn't threatening to take slavery away from the States that allowed it.

    Ken Burns went on to comment that before the War it was The United States are and after the War, The United States is. We gained a new unified National Identity. But the underlying tension of States' rights is still there. I disagree with you about the Confederacy of Dunces. I think this time wisdom lays with the States and in limiting the role of central government. States have to balance their budgets, the Federal Government only has to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

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  2. Kevin, I love my Italian heritage without glorifying Fascism or anti-Semitism. While Foote accurately represents the defensive posture of the average Johnny Reb, it does not excuse their defense of an evil regime. In your answer be sure to reference the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents and how their defense of evil governments is different.

    And do you actually believe that state governments have balanced budgets? (Yes I know what the law says and I'm telling you the law is a ass.) No wonder you keep voting Republican.

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  3. The only specific 'states rights' that the SC Declaration of Succession talks about is slavery, namely the refusal of some northern states to return escaped slaves, and the fear that Lincoln was going to abolish slavery. If SC were to secede and become an independent country, I fear it would quickly become one of the most repressive, ignorant, and poorest nations in the world.

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  4. Kevin Shelton I never tried to excuse anyone from supporting slavery. I pointed out that the average Johnny Reb was fighting for home and that General Lee sided with his State. Those fighting for the Taliban are explicitly fighting for the beliefs of the Taliban and still do. We didn't attack the Taliban or Iraq for their beliefs or practices or oppression, we attacked them for attacking or threatening to attack us. If you look at the other articles of succession you posted, only Virginia mentions slavery and that only in reference to the hostile actions perpetrated by the North against such slave holding Southern States. If the North had not committed such acts of violence as those referenced by all the States of Succession, then maybe there wouldn't have been a Civil War. Your post refutes none of my points. There was no legislation threatening to abolish slavery. Lincoln responded about Succession, not slavery.

    I honor the valor, the culture, the sacrifice and tragedy of those who fought for home and family and freedom from oppression. It is ironic that those who fought for freedom fought for a government that supported such an affront to freedom with the institution of slavery that oppressed thousands of human beings. However, it is that Spirit of Freedom and Love of State that led to the Revolutionary War and establishment of the United States in the first place and remains behind the tension we experience today.

    The difference between the States and the Federal Government when it comes to debt is that States are cutting budgets like crazy. The federal government is not. States might be overbudget, but they are struggling to balance the books. The federal government is not striving to cut spending.

    I vote for the Republic of Patriots fighting against an overreaching, irresponsible federal government bent on controlling and taxing its population into subservience and I pay homage to those who died defending their homeland at a time when love of State guided the destinies of men.

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