by Bradley J. Birzer
What better word might explain America in 1861 than that of word Homer used to begin The Iliad: Rage.
But, rage for or against what? And, with what consequences?
A century and a half later, we must recognize the whole period as rich with potential, rich with glory and . . . ripe for corruption. Noble tragedy.
Who can forget about The Old Northwest Ordinance, passed over a half century earlier, with its pledge of true republicanism–the right of association, the freedom of land, the freedom of thought and faith, the freedom of labor–the ability to develop the gifts that God distributes to each one of us uniquely.
In many ways, this law, perhaps the most republican ever passed, was the beginning of all of the story of the American Civil War, though de Tocqueville rightly noted the tensions between the Yankee and the Southerner as early as the earliest settlement of the anti-Yankee Virginian and the anti-Anglican Yankee.
Who can forget about the syphilitic, crazed Virginian defending the rights of tradition against the “maggots of innovation” with his bull whip and high pitched voice, talking to the living and the dead, never sure to which or to whom?
In April 1865, as the war was ending, a C.S.A. officer, John S. Wise, road past the Roanoke, the former estate of John Randolph:
‘Oh, John Randolph, John, John!’ thought I, as I rode by, ‘you have gotten some other Johns, in fact the whole breed of Johnnies, into a peck of trouble by the governmental notions which you left to them as a legacy.’
Or, the stalwart South Carolinian defender of “the negative”, spilling his wine at the Jefferson Day dinner in 1830, allowing the nationalists in his party to reign supreme, but relentlessly pressing for nullification anyway?
Or, a New York politician and his “Higher Authority” speech in 1850, infuriating the entire South during last of the great compromises–as if the citizens of that noble section weren’t Christian, or, at the very least, Christian enough?
These men–we may agree or disagree with them. But who can help but admire their passion, their intensity, their lack of cynicism, their integrity, their love of a classically and Christian-rooted republicanism, and, most of all, their love of the Author of Life?
Or, who can forget the mad man, believing himself an Old Testament Prophet on the Kansas frontier, terrorizing every Southerner, who saw him as the devil incarnate, and fooling many a Northerner, who viewed him as the new savior, the gallows to replace the cross?
And, after the separation of state from Union, the destruction of the Republic in the name of even better republicanism…
A Kentuckian caught in Charleston Harbor at the worst possible time, simply a good officer. Caught between his duty to protect his men, and the fear that his actions (or, worse, his inactions) might start a war.
Which to choose: the sins of commission or the sins of omission?
Or, an Illinois man with a proud Scottish heritage, stirring up a Hornet’s Nest in southern Tennessee, giving up his life to hold the line, but only after telling his wife he had had a glimpse of heaven, and that they would share it together someday.
Or, an Illinois piano teacher, turned cavalry leader, tearing through Dixie, chased but never caught.Or, the redheaded wife of an Irish immigrant, inspiring the 69th New York, marching under the waving flag of Erin, to break the center in a Maryland cornfield, none of them to see their own victory.
Or, the 15th Alabama, with four uphill attempts to take Little Roundtop….to be driven back by a decimated 20th Maine, itself led by an unsure and untried college professor of classics and rhetoric, his men out of ammunition.
Or, the 13,000 determined Virginian farm boys crossing a mile of open field in Pennsylvania, hearing the murmuring chant of “Fredericksburg,” less than half to hear anything ever again, only ten short minutes later.
Or, the innumerable ministers and priests standing alongside their regiments, armed only with the word of God.
Or, the authoress of Little Women, who spent her days in the Civil War as a nurse, and the postbellum years an a near invalid.
Or, an alcoholic and a crazy man from the West, both failures prior to the War itself–arising to find their purpose, to be two of the three best generals in the Civil War.
Or, a Virginian, reluctant to fight, fiercely hating the enslaving of any man, black or white, rising to the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, taking up arms because it was his duty, to family, to Virginia, to God. And, always fighting as a Christian, on and off the field. A man whose very righteousness made the Union lieutenant General tremble in his presence.
Yes, these men made numerous mistakes. Too many to be counted. There was corruption everywhere. There was even serious tyranny in this fight for republicanism.
Republics, aren’t, after all, made for war. Nor, are they ever made for permanence.
But, still, these republican men–3 million strong, black, white, Irish, German, Scandinavian, English, Polish, Protestant, and Catholic–fought for SOMETHING.
In their very hearts and souls, the men lacked an ounce of cynicism, an ounce of modernity.
They fought the good fight…not like the ideologues of the modern age, but as warriors of Christendom.
All, North and South, fought for high ideals and tradition: traditions of right reason, of first principles, of Republicanism, of Christianity.
The roots of the North and the South were in the American founding, and the roots of the Founders go deep. John Adams, in 1774, said:
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.
George Washington, perhaps, summed it up best:
The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
The choice has always been clear–and it always will be. Republican thought and action has served as a remembrance, a wake-up call to right reason, to first principles, to the permanent things.
This is, in essence, the central point of the American Republic: virtue, rooted in tradition and liberty.
And, this is the intellectual and moral legacy of those who came and led before us: Moses, Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus Christ, St. Augustine, Washington, Adams, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.
The most common definition of liberty at the time of the American Revolution came from the Old Testament. From the Jewish prophet Micah 4:4:
each man shall dwell under his own vine, under his own fig-tree, undisturbed.
It is a good definition.
The alternative to republican liberty, as the twentieth-century so viciously demonstrated–is nationalism, ideology, socialism, terror, and over 200 million civilians murdered by their own governments.
The vast unmourned who lay in their killing fields are a silent testament and monument to the diabolical folly and sheer brutality of finite systems developed in finite minds.
The blacks and whites of ideology have always and can only results in the running reds of blood mixing with the browns and blacks of the soil.
Patriotism–as opposed to a false and prideful nationalism–is multi-colored and multi-hued.
It is based on defense, not aggression. It will, though, not be stepped upon. It reacts decisively when provoked.
Tom Burnett, the man of Wall Street who fought back against the terrorists in Pennsylvanian skies on September 11, 2001, perhaps expressed it best:
“We’re all going to die but three of us are going to do something,” he told his wife. “I love you honey.”
What better legacy to the Revolutionary Flag: “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Like a true Republican, a true American, Tom and his companions–patriots all–sacrificed themselves for the good of the nation.
When the vulgar General George Armstrong Custer escorted the sublime General Robert E. Lee into Wilbur McLean’s home on April 9, 1865, Lee looked at Grant’s retinue. “Good,” he said, looking directly at Ely Parker, a bronze-complected Seneca Indian, and aid to Grant, “we have a real American present. That is important for such a meeting.”
Grant replied, “Sir, we are all Americans here.”
What better words can we conclude with than those of Joshua Chamberlain’s:
Brave men may become good friends.
Only the brave have a right to enjoy the blessings of a republic.
God bless our Republic, and may He continue to present us with Heroes and Martyrs when we need them most.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.