The Reconstruction Republicans: Answering the Slaveocratic Revolution

The oft-narrated American story of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and segregation contains some important puzzles that are not easily resolved. Why were white Northerners, many of whom were indifferent or downright hostile to the rights of blacks, willing to fight a long, lethal war against slavery? Why, in the aftermath of that war, did white Northerners support constitutional amendments extending legal equality and voting rights to former slaves—but then allow Southern states to nullify most of those rights for nearly a century?

One way of answering these questions is to highlight race as the central factor. White Northerners (such a narrative would go), though racially prejudiced, cared most of all about preserving the Union, and in that effort were for a time able to rise above prejudice in the service of a greater cause. But after the Union was saved, their commitment to racial equality gradually faded. Their accustomed prejudice and indifference reasserted themselves, leaving the Southern states free to violate the rights of blacks.

Forrest A. Nabors tells the long story of slavery and its aftermath in a different way. For Nabors, and for the 19th century lawmakers whose arguments he features in From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction , the central story is a protracted, high-stakes contest between two radically opposed regime types: oligarchy (“the Slave Power”) versus republicanism, the regime established by the Founders, which presupposed natural and legal equality.

Nabors, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, takes as his starting point Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy as a regime “in which a rich minority rules for the advantage of the rich minority and in which the people composing that political society are ranked.” Slavery as practiced in the United States was in this sense an extreme version of oligarchy, of rule by the few for the sake of the few.

When Republicans in the U.S. Congress spoke of slavery as an oligarchy in this political sense, Nabors argues, they meant not only the rule of white over black in the South, but more broadly and fundamentally a regime in which “a few rich whites ruled over the many, both white and black,” and in which disadvantaged, non-slaveholding whites were oppressed and degraded along with black slaves. The central meaning of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, according to Nabors and the Reconstruction Republicans to whom he gives voice, was to rescue the Founders’ regime from a slave-powered oligarchical counterrevolution, and restore it to its original republicanism, grounded in the principles of natural equality and majority rule.

From this perspective, every white citizen, North or South, who did not belong to the wealthy, powerful slaveholding elite had a direct personal and political interest in resisting the Slave Power. Accordingly, the book spends relatively little space on slavery’s oppression of the slave, which it treats as well-known and undisputed, and instead emphasizes slavery’s injustice to supposedly free and equal non-slaveholding white citizens. It features a searing indictment of slavery as a fundamentally anti-republican institution in every sphere: political power, distribution of wealth, civil liberties and legal process, educational practice, and personal character. Nabors makes a strong case, for instance, that slave states’ chronic underinvestment in public education resulted not only from slaveholders’ stinginess with their money, but also because they pursued a conscious policy of keeping poor white Southerners ignorant as a tool of political control.

From Nabors’ oligarchy-versus-republicanism perspective, it ceases to be mysterious why non-slaveholding white citizens would passionately hate slavery enough to fight a lethal war against it. Indeed some non-slaveholding white Southerners were noted for their hatred of slavery, such as a North Carolinian he mentions, Hinton Helper, whose The Impending Crisis (1857), an indictment of slavery for its oppression of white citizens, was taken up by Northern Republicans. For Helper and many others, the Slave Power’s effect on non-slaveholding whites was its principal injustice. Indeed, as Nabors points out, Helper himself “hated blacks as much as he hated slavery,” and after the war joined the ranks of the segregationists.

In this sense, From Oligarchy to Republicanism provides a compelling answer to one puzzle (why so many free whites hated slavery) even as it raises another: Why was it so difficult for disadvantaged whites and blacks, both of whom were victims of the Slave Power oligarchy, to make common cause against it?

That is where historical narratives that center on race and racism are compelling. White Americans’ prejudice toward blacks and other non-European races, these would say, was powerful enough to inhibit, in most cases, interracial coalitions against a common oppressor. Nabors, though, would not put racism and the struggle against it at the center of the story of Reconstruction. Through most of the book, he submerges the theme of race. It does come in at the end, where he describes in detail the horrific violence against blacks in the post-Reconstruction South. His approach is not to deny the significance of race and racism, but instead to treat racism as the fruit and consequence of oligarchy, which as a political regime requires and fosters a social order of inequality and ranks.

We should stop treating racism “as an uncaused primary cause and as a universally acceptable explanation for many phenomena,” writes Nabors. He adds: “Historically, the rise of the antebellum oligarchy in the South preceded the emergence of second-class citizenship for black Americans, and the sequential order suggests a causal link.” In short, for Nabors, political oligarchy grounded on slavery is the primary cause of that second-class citizenship. Racism was one of its consequences, one particular instrument among others by which that oligarchy maintained its control.

Every oligarchy takes care to divide the various subordinated groups against one another. Nabors struggles at times to account for the failure of poor whites and recently emancipated blacks to discover and act upon a common republican interest after the war. “In light of the noisy, vituperative, and pathetic demands for republican liberty in antebellum times by ruled Southern whites and their representatives,” he writes, “it is surprising, almost incomprehensible, that they refrained from unifying with the freedmen, at the price of risking the loss of their own liberty for which they had so long clamored.”

His explanation for the savage anti-black violence after the war is that disadvantaged white Southerners, oppressed by slavery, mistakenly identified the slave rather than the slaveholder as the agent of their injury: “Stripped of their republican liberty, the common people of the South viewed slaves and their ruling masters as coordinate parts of the machinery that humiliatingly crushed them.”

Nabors documents at length Republicans’ descriptions of their aims—before, during, and after the war—as restorationist rather than revolutionary: to “reconstruct” the American republic in the form intended by its Founders, grounded in natural right, equality under the law, and majority rule. On this view, “The Fourteenth Amendment was not a revolution in the idea of republicanism or republican citizenship” but “a revolution in federal enforcement” of the Founders’ original republican vision. (Emphasis in original.) The author appears to share this view of the nature and purposes of Reconstruction. It was the Slave Power oligarchy, not the Republicans, who had “revolutionized” the regime bequeathed by the Founders.

In my view, this restorationist account of Emancipation and Reconstruction is persuasive in some respects and unpersuasive in others. But Nabors presents convincing evidence that the Republican leaders themselves understood what they were doing in these terms. One of the strengths of From Oligarchy to Republicanism is that it gives extended voice to many now-forgotten Reconstruction-era Republicans such as Senator Henry Wilson (R-Mass.), Representative Martin Welker (R-Oh.), Representative Godlove Orth (R-Ind.), and Senator John Hale (R-N.H.); and to Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), who is remembered more for what happened to him (a brutal assault by a slave-state congressman on the floor of the Senate) than for the cast of his thinking.

Sumner has acquired a historical reputation as an insufferable moralist even among those who acknowledge his principled opposition to slavery and racial discrimination. (Nabors analyzes at length Sumner’s Senate speech of February 5 and 6, 1866, on the meaning of American republicanism, where he comes across as more thoughtful and less moralistic than he is usually portrayed.)

Abraham Lincoln appears in the narrative as a historical actor, but Nabors does not delve deeply into what he wrote and said. This is probably appropriate. Lincoln has long been the subject of such intense attention that it pushes other thoughtful Republicans to the background. Nor does Nabors discuss in detail the arguments of Reconstruction’s critics. It would be interesting, as a future project, to widen the ideological range of the narrative, and to compare Lincoln’s thought with that of the Republicans featured here.

Nabors’ presentation of Reconstruction as restoring the Founders’ original republican vision implicitly contrasts with Eric Foner’s 1988 book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Was Reconstruction a return to established republican principles, or the first act of an “unfinished revolution” toward the promise of a flourishing multiracial democracy? I would suggest that both frames are persuasive in different respects. Nabors is convincing about the degree to which “the Slave Power” skewed political power, wealth, legal rights, and educational opportunity for white citizens in ways sharply opposed to the kind of republic that the Founders aimed to create.

But what Republicans actually did during the Civil War and Reconstruction—emancipate millions of enslaved persons of African descent, immediately and without compensation to owners, then grant them citizenship and voting rights—was a revolutionary act. Many of the most prominent among the Founders, as Nabors points out, regarded slavery as a violation of natural right and hoped for the eventual disappearance of the institution. But in practice they were unable or unwilling to take effective steps to prevent its numerical and geographic expansion.

Thomas Jefferson denounced slavery both for its violation of natural rights and its corrupting effects on republican character. But for Jefferson slavery could be abolished only if the former enslaved race were colonized to some other part of the world; he could not imagine a flourishing multiracial republic encompassing both former slaves and former slave owners. Abraham Lincoln, too, originally supported colonization—though only if it was voluntary, and Lincoln never made colonization a precondition for taking action against slavery as Jefferson did. It was black Americans’ willingness to fight for the Union during the war that ultimately persuaded Lincoln that a multiracial republic was possible.

Most of the Reconstruction Republicans who supported unconditional emancipation, citizenship, and the franchise for freed slaves during and after the war had vociferously denied any such intention before the war. Nabors may be right that they saw themselves as restoring the Founders’ republican vision. But ultimately it took revolutionary actions to do so. In my judgment, Republicans accomplished a greater and more radical work than their minds could comprehend. And yes, the work remains an unfinished one.

In the wake of last summer’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville—a march whose pretext was the removal of a Confederate monument—Forrest Nabors’ book is a timely reminder of the full range of anti-republican institutions that the Confederacy fought a war to try to perpetuate.

Reader Discussion

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on May 29, 2018 at 03:27:48 am

Thanks to the better uses of modern technology, I am able to respond to the surprising review by Dr. Read right here and right now. I thank him for paying close attention to the argument of the book. He has understood what I wanted to say quite well.

With respect to Sumner, for me, he ranks among the very best or the best of the Republicans for theory and historical research. He was as openly devoted to, and outspoken about American principle as anyone in his age, so much so, that often he could only see what should be done and not what had to be done in light of what was best, or, in other words, he lacked one of the most important attributes of statesmanship. He was, by his own admission a slave to principle, or, according to Lincoln, who did possess that essential attribute of statesmanship, "my idea of a bishop." Nevertheless, Sumner saw principle more clearly than anyone else, and was far more than the braying schoolmarm as some have portrayed him. Bishops, one could say, made Western Civilization what it was and biships must have brains. Sumner had plenty. History has not yet begun to do him justice apart from some black American scholars in the 20th century.

Yes, I avoided talking about Lincoln, on purpose, but I have tried to cast the drama in the book under his ever-present shadow.

The most important question raised by this review is whether the Republicans were revolutionaries. The word revolution, properly speaking, carries its own referent - a prior political regime. And what was the prior political regime? If you read the founding and the Constitution the way I do, it is clear. The founders attempted to establish a natural rights republic, to borrow Prof. Zuckert's phrase. The founders were revolutionaries themselves, and inherited monarchical institutions. As all revolutionary founders must do, they attempted to reform those inherited institutions and slavery was the most potent of them all. But because the oligarchic counterrevolution in the South was so successful, so much so that they brought on civil war, we do not adequately distinguish the southern American founders and their counterrevolutionary southern grandsons. Their success at thwarting the development of American republicanism in the South has obscured what the founders did do to doom slavery. For the forty years after independence, most republican American statesmen did believe that slavery would die out, and most American statesmen were republicans.

No, the Republicans were simply doing what could have and would have been done eventually if it had not been for the southern statesmen's revolution against the model of government established by American founding. They were principled opponents of American republicanism and slavery and oligarchy obtained new life as a result, which demanded the measures taken by the Republican Congress, consistent with the aims of the founding.

I agree with you that Jefferson and other southern republicans in the founding era could not imagine equal citizenship for the freedmen. Nevertheless, they worked towards that end that they could not imagine, notwithstanding the colonization effort, which amounted to 'take your natural rights and go and enjoy them.' Emancipation and equal citizenship were the inevitable outcome of their domestic policy, domestic manumission, diffusion and finally, state abolition.

The problem of the American founders, slavery & republicanism is the subject of my next book, so I better not try to write it now!

Many thanks, Dr. Read for your kind & thoughtful review.

Forrest Nabors

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Forrest Nabors
on May 29, 2018 at 03:51:56 am

One final postscript, addressing this comment: "Nabors struggles at times to account for the failure of poor whites and recently emancipated blacks to discover and act upon a common republican interest after the war." Perhaps I did not state or defend my position clearly enough. In my mind, my position is clear, and to know the answer best to the question raised, we must understand the nature of oligarchy. In chapter 7, I address the injury sustained by poor whites as a consequence of slavery and oligarchy, their awareness of their injury, and why they blamed blacks. Perhaps I could have said that to us it might seem incredible that poor whites sacrificed their liberty to deny it to the freedmen, but the cause of their conduct and its effects follow the logic of oligarchy.

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Forrest Nabors
on May 30, 2018 at 15:06:08 pm

When reading the review, the excerpts of the book on Amazon and the authors comments, I had the feeling that the terms Republican and republican were being conflated. Certainly, the natural home of the Radical Republicans of the 1860s was the old Whig Party which had an institutional loathing of both the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison and, prior to the Revolution, of their local 40 shilling freeholders. The core of the Radical Republicans were nothing more than Conscience Whigs. To them, the 40 shilling freeholders they had to deal with in the North were nothing more than a rabble or a potential mob who needed to be suppressed. Linking a bunch of Codfish aristocrats to rural republicanism is jarring and needs some explanation.

In 1789, the Whigs in Charleston, SC, thought and behaved very much like the Whigs in Charlestown, MA. During its existence, the Federalist Party made a point of offering a balanced ticket of candidates usually from Massachusetts and South Carolina. At the time, everyone knew that proportionally the small "r" republican enfranchised 40 shilling freeholders in Massachusetts vastly out numbered the number of similarly enfranchised voters in the Slave States.

I think you must also address the fact that everyone knew perfectly well what was going on in the Slave States in 1775 (indeed, between 1689-77 the policies of the Board of Trade made bond slavery legal in all the British colonies and no colonial or provincial assembly could prohibit it) yet their joining the Union was thought to be indispensable in 1789.

Black slavery or bond slavery had been going on in the proprietary plantation colonies since 1662. I think the reason the Slave States were welcome is that the plantation economies of the Slave States generated about 90% of the US's foreign exchange through 1860. The suggestion here is that the proprietary plantation colonies of the South had always been politically and culturally different from the commercial colonies of the North and that the proprietary colonies had always been wealthier than the commercial colonies. Follow the money; that is what Hamilton and the Whig/Federalists always did. See; "The Slave Power" by John Gorham Palfrey (a collection of abolitionist essays by Palfrey published in the Boston Whig in the 1850s.)

Also, there is the problem of the Radical Republicans' objections to Andrew Johnson. Johnson wanted to break the Slave State oligarchy by pardoning all of the white residents with estates worth less than $20,000. At the time, at least three Free States also prohibited Blacks from voting. The Radical Republicans objected to Johnson's plan and insisted that the free white lower classes remain disenfranchised that the the former slaves be enfranchised. They question is "why" if the objective of Reconstruction was to guarantee a republican form of government for all consistent with Art. IV, § 4.

If the Civil War was not the War of Northern Aggression, as the Lost Cause diehards said, what was the point of disenfranchising the white male electorate if the intent of the Radical Republicans was not merely to create a collection of puppet regimes in the former Confederate States?

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on May 30, 2018 at 15:52:09 pm

Thank you for your comments, EK. Here are my answers:
1. "Linking a bunch of Codfish aristocrats to rural republicanism is jarring and needs some explanation" - My explanation is less important than the explanation by the Republicans themselves. They explain what the link was - opposition to slavery & its creature & patron, rising oligarchy. The book covers that ground, showing what the Reconstruction Republicans who helped found the Republican Party said about its founding. Republicans of all stripes banded together to oppose the enemy of republicans of all stripes. In short, I think you make too much of these distinctions within the Republican Party, which disappeared when facing they all faced the oligarchic threat.
2. You say, "In 1789, the Whigs in Charleston, SC, thought and behaved very much like the Whigs in Charlestown, MA;" but then, "...the proprietary plantation colonies of the South had always been politically and culturally different from the commercial colonies of the North...". I agree with the latter statement, and republicans in the "culturally different" former plantation colonies had a lot of work to do to reform them, and make them into republican societies on the model of VA, a process midwifed by Jefferson et al, that an English writer called Jefferson's effort to "Yankeefy" Virginia. That project was abandoned when the rising generation of Southern statesmen abandoned genuine republicanism and embraced oligarchy. With regard to your first statement, I can go so far as to agree that Northern and Southern whigs eventually made common cause as a members of a national party (I think you might be referring to the Federalists). But in political character, their respective domains were very different. I refer you to the extensive entries in Josiah Quincy's diary when he visited SC before the war, as a representative of Boston's committee of correspondence.
3. The question of black disenfranchisement or limitations imposed on black enfranchisement in the free, middle Atlantic states did come up during Reconstruction. I stand by Sumner's response: In the North, black disenfranchisement was a moral wrong; in the South, black disenfranchisement subverted republicanism. Madison's definition of republicanism, sovereignty of the people in Fed #39, supports Sumner. There Madison writes that it is essential that power is "derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it." That is, disenfranchisement of a minor part on the basis of race violates the principles of natural rights republicanism and is a moral wrong; disenfranchisement of a major part on the basis of race does not deserve "the honorable title of republic." Due to slavery, it was not just slaves who were disenfranchised before the war. The effect of slavery robbed poor whites of political power as well. Hence, the difficulty of the Republicans' task was rather tough.
4. "... Johnson wanted to break the Slave State oligarchy by pardoning all of the white residents with estates worth less than $20,000." No. After he ascended to the presidency, Johnson doled out pardons to the very wealthy, which is to say, he abandoned the project of breaking the oligarchy whom he had so vociferously attacked before the war, in the US Senate. To understand Johnson, I think it is important to remember that he was, after all, an oligarchic man; that is, he was raised in oligarchic society, though he was not a member of the ruling class. He identified himself with a formerly ruled class - the poor whites. His behavior after the war can only be understood, in my view, in light of that fact. We must ask, What do the leaders of the oppressed in oligarchies do when they ascend to power? Often, they become oppressors in their turn.
5. "I think you must also address the fact that everyone knew perfectly well what was going on in the Slave States in 1775.... [T]he Slave States generated about 90% of the US’s foreign exchange through 1860." You seem to want to say here that the founders were proslavery on the basis of financial gain. If this is so, then it does not make sense that they gave Congress a positive power to abolish the slave trade after Jan. 1, 1808 (which they promptly did); why they forever abolished slavery from all the territories the fed gov't held at the time of the founding; why the middle Atlantic slave states eased manumission; why they interfered with foreign slave importations into newly acquired LA territory. The historical record is full of their explanations for these measures. They say that they wanted slavery to end, because a) it was wrong in light of principle; b) it eroded republican society & government, which in their view, was the only just form of government. Of course, there were exceptions, a majority of GA & SC founders and a minority of VA, NC and MD founders.

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Forrest Nabors
on May 31, 2018 at 16:07:31 pm

I remain uncomfortable with the idea that the Radical Republicans of 1865 are an accurate proxy for either the Republican Party formed in 1854 or the broad coalition party that elected Lincoln in 1860. After the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which attacked the idea of the fundamental sovereignty of the states by holding, in essence, that while any state could enslave a person no state could then set that person free, there was a political re-alignment in US politics.

The fundamental issue was union or dis-union and even in New England, which had bona fide abolitionist credentials dating back to 1641, abolitionists were not in the majority. Indeed, in 1861 Gov. Andrew of Massachusetts endorsed the decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) which returned a child born in a free state along with her mother to slavery in Maryland. This was a fundamentally Whig decision because it elevated the right to property (the summum bonum of every Whig and proto-Whig from Ireton and Hobbes onward to Locke, Burke and Hamilton) over every other right. In this case the property interest was in a person. The only difference between Joseph Story (the author of the decision and a Codfish aristocrat from Marblehead, MA) and Taney was on the point of whether the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required free state authorities to actively assist slave catchers holding federal warrants.

Henry Wilson, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens and even Lincoln all followed the same path to the Republican Party of 1860; Whig, Know Nothing or Free Soil, Republican.

I still think you are reading far too much into political labels. The first axiom of small "r" republicanism is that a people have the right to change their form of government. That was the reason the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630, it was the operating principle of the Long Parliament between 1642-49, it was the core assumption of the Declaration of Independence and it was restated as recently as the Atlantic Charter. The Confederate act of secession was based first on the republican principle of self-determination that was clearly articulated in the Dutch Act of Abjuration of 1581. Other core republican principals dating back to England in the 1640s are liberty of conscience, the sovereignty of the governed, majority rule and very broad if not universal adult suffrage. I think the only point that the CSA can be faulted on is the scope of suffrage (here, I'm stuffing slavery into the suffrage pigeon-hole but I recognize that slavery is a profound and fatal corruption of republicanism) but since 1780 Massachusetts had actually been narrowing suffrage and limiting the autonomy of the town governments where the franchise to vote was nearly universal for males.

You mention "genuine republicanism" but I remain uncertain about your definition of republicanism. Certainly the distinctions between an upper class Presbyterian/Grandee/Whig/Federalist, on the one hand, and the down market Independent/Leveller/Commonwealth man/Democratic-Republican, on the other hand, have been the fundamental political divisions in Anglo-American politics since 1645.

Along these lines, and since you mention Josiah Quincy II and the Boston Committee of Correspondence, I am reminded of Chapter 5 of Richard D. Brown's "Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts; the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-74" (1970). The BCC's invitation to the towns to correspond was couched in the language of the English Whigs that had evolved after 1714 and cited Locke and Blackstone. In general, the towns agreed but their replies were couched in the language of the Bible, Coke and local tradition, which were also the primary sources of the English Independents and Levellers of the 1640s. It was also the language of Trenchard and Gordon, the Commonwealth men who authored the Cato Letters of the 1720s, and of Thomas Paine and Thomas Young in the 1770s.

Also, it appears that Quincy II was regaled with stories about the Regulators when he visited the Carolinas in 1773. Yet 15 years later the Whig authorities in Massachusetts suppressed Shays' Rebellion (without objection from Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Elbridge Gerry) with the same enthusiasm as did the proprietary governors of the Carolinas suppressed the Regulators in the 1760s. In 1791, Hamilton and Washington's Federalists reacted the same way towards the Whisky Rebels in Pennsylvania. Of course former Provincial Governor of MassachusettsThomas Shirley's observation to Quincy II that the Carolinas were more like Jamaica and the BWI than New England was nothing more than common knowledge.

Whigs and democratic-republicans are two very different strains of liberal Anglo-American politics but they are also the fundamental particles of any functioning constitutional democratic republic - the Whigs need the republicans as much as the republicans need the Whigs, They will always be firmly united against what both perceive to be a greater evil but otherwise, in a functioning democracy, they are separate and distinct and in dynamic opposition. Sometimes, perhaps like now, they are polar opposites. I believe Sumner, Stevens and Wilson were Whigs masquerading as democratic-republicans and I can not take their representations at face value. This is not to disparage Henry Wilson, the patron of the 22nd Mass. Vol. Inf., the friend of Clara Barton and of all veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic and a very decent man by all accounts. You can't say the same about Sumner and Stevens, they were simply vicious ideologues.

This is interesting. I do not mean to disparage your work. God knows writing a book is quite beyond the capacity of most of us. I merely wish to offer my observations.

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on June 01, 2018 at 09:01:35 am

On the issue of the supposed republicanism of the CSA, it is important to distinguish (as Nabors does, following Aristotle) between the form of a regime and the persons who rule the regime, wielding those forms. The old Soviet Union (for example) looked like a republic, formally. But of course the real rulers were the top members of the Communist Party, which had its own parallel formal/institutional apparatus. Whether they are right or wrong in a given analysis, folks who complain about such-and-such a country being ruled by a 'deep state' are trying to make the same point. In his book, Nabors offers a careful analysis of how the slaveholding oligarchs in the South 'worked' republican institutional forms to establish political dominance over their fellow 'whites.'
Another element of any regime, according to Aristotle, is its purpose or 'telos.' The purpose of the American founders, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, was to secure unalienable natural rights. This, along with the rejection of oligarchy/'aristocracy' as a principle of rule, is what distinguished American republicanism from the European kinds. As is well known, Calhoun and his allies rejected the core principles of the Declaration, pretending that they were importations from France.
This book is a major work of scholarship. I believe that it will inform discussions of the Civil War and Reconstruction from here on out.

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Will Morrisey
on June 01, 2018 at 16:50:53 pm

Great stuff.

But Sumner really is one of the more extreme examples in history of a leader precise on principles of justice (and thus "ahead of his time" on any number of issues) being both generally daft in politics, and regularly unjust to others in his deeds and words. I suspect the correct summary judgment on his entire career would be that he ultimately harmed his principles more than he helped them. When I read the Brands biography of Grant, it was painful to see how the promise of the Reconstruction Republicans was so often harmed by various problematic aspects of Sumner's influence.

Even on the matter of principle, I wonder. I have a vague recollection, gained from Sumner statements presented in Eric Sands's book on the demise of "Lincolnism" during reconstruction, that Sumner in a few key ways failed to live up to the natural rights type of republicanism that the West Coast and Mid-West(Zuckert) Straussians describe. The overall impression is that he was not as solid/consistent on natural rights as Stevens or Lincoln. I'd be happy to be have my hazy impression on this point corrected if it needs to be. I only dabble in this area.

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Carl Eric Scott
on June 01, 2018 at 17:26:59 pm

Carl, I think my book will balance out your impressions about Sumner, which tend to be correct in my view, but not quite right. Carl Schurz was among the best intellects of that era's Republicans, a friend of Sumner's and said in his memoirs that Sumner was crisp on principle but unsuited for constructive legislation. That squares with your view, but Schurz did recognize that in their era principle had been dangerously flagging. After all, years of appeasement is what allowed the southern oligarchy and slavery to grow stronger. Sumner shored them up and stood fast against the rising oligarchy when it was not popular to do so. He was a morally courageous man, in other words, when moral courage was wanting. My book makes that clear, I hope. On the question of his inability to exercise prudence, I think it is worth pointing out that he sponsored legislation that would strike Union victories from national battle flags and other military memorabilia, for the purpose of national reconciliation, which he explains on the Senate floor. This does not square with the neo-Confederate claim that Stevens and Sumner were vindictive, a portrayal flogged by the Dunning School scholars, not to mention, A Birth of a Nation. In my view Sumner deserves first prize for consistency on natural right. His public positions and arguments were always well considered and clearly anchored in principle. Anyone whose belief is founded on natural right cannot fail to see that consistency when reading any one of his speeches. Nevertheless, I do agree with Schurz that his stubborn adherence to principle was sometimes an impediment to the very policy goals informed by his principles.

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Forrest Nabors
on June 03, 2018 at 12:34:12 pm

Professor Nabors' book is still on my "buy" list. In the meantime I remain confused by the question posed in an earlier comment: why did the white victims of the slaveholding oligarchy not form common republican cause with its black victims rather that signing up for 100 years of Jim Crow vigilantism? It occurs to me that that question may have a simple answer: that the slaveholding oligarchy very skillfully deployed the political ideology of racial superiority as a psychological divide and conquer political tactic through which it made allies rather than enemies out of the oligarchy's white victims. In effect, the oligarchy said, "Here, red necks, is your true enemy, the Negro, your inferior peer group. Join us in subjugating them lest they deny your superiority and undermine your rightful place in the social/political hierarchy. "

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 03, 2018 at 12:46:57 pm

What you say here aligns with my fuller explanation in Chapter 7. My only emandation I would make is that although the oligarchs did use race to divide the ruled classes as you surmise, the structure of the oligarchic regime already drove wedges within the ruled classes, and color was one line between those ranks. In oligarchy, ranks are inflamed against each other, which makes sense, because if the ruling principle is natural inequality, then liberty is up for grabs, and one's possession of liberty is dependent upon the outcome of struggle. Therefore, mutual animosities, whether latent or open, develop. So, once the iron rule of the oligarchy was removed, those mutual animosities exploded. And unfortunately, color distinguished some ranks, which made those ranks easier to recognize - and target. Hence, I argue, as Prof. Read correctly recounts, that racism is tied to oligarchy. My position is that slavery can only be justified on oligarchic grounds, strengthens oligarchy and undermines genuine republicanism.
Thank you for putting my book on your buy list. If you have more thoughts, feel free to email me.
Forrest Nabors

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forrest nabors
on August 08, 2018 at 14:10:47 pm

Warm congratulations to Professor Nabors whose fine new book, "From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction," has just received an outstanding review and endorsement by Professor and noted Civil War historian and author Allen Guelzo writing in the current issue of the Claremont Review. https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/bullwhip-feudalism/

I suspected that Nabors' book may be exceptional when I first read the review in L&L by James Read in May, felt confident about my suspicion when I read Nabors' thoughtful replies to each of the comments on the L&L review and knew for certain that the book was terrific and ground-breaking when I read it.


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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 08, 2018 at 17:59:43 pm

Thank you, Pukka!

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Forrest Nabors

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