We live in an age of politically shrill history: Imperial Legacies is a fine, subtle, and bracing attempt to counter this polemical misuse of history.
The University of Missouri Press has published a major new book called From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction by Forrest A. Nabors. This is the first book by Nabors, who left a business career in high technology to become a political scientist, and who is now associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska. L and L’s Lauren Weiner put questions to him about the book.
Lauren Weiner: This is a work of political history with a strain of philosophy running through it, so I thought I would begin by asking: What does Aristotle have to do with chattel slavery in America, the Civil War, and Reconstruction?
Forrest Nabors: First, on whether this is political history—I never intended to write a history simply, but to use history to address the dangers and safeguards in the American regime and in regimes that roughly copy our Founders’ model. That said, I didn’t begin expecting to write an homage to Aristotelian political science, either. But it was Aristotle who taught me that political regimes matter most of all—that we ought to pay attention to their forms, key parts, motions and the principles claimed by their defenders.
The initial question that guided my research was: Why did Reconstruction turn out the way it did? What caught my eye was a serious claim by the congressional Republicans of the time: that the South had developed in the direction of oligarchy long before the war. This claim was repeatedly advanced by those responsible for reconstructing the South. If true, I wondered why such an enormously significant fact had not been passed down in our scholarly accounts and popular recollections.
In reviewing the literature, I found that many scholars acknowledge this Republican claim about oligarchy, but not all accept it. Even the accepting ones, it seemed to me, fail to acknowledge its significance. Most studies have argued, or assumed, that the country divided along far less politically significant lines than the one I stress—a republican North and an oligarchical South. The bottom line is that if the Republicans were right, then much scholarship on Reconstruction, but also on the Civil War and American constitutional, political and social history in the 19th century, is flawed, incomplete, or flat wrong.
So I began looking at the post-bellum period but inevitably moved back to the antebellum period, tracing this regime claim that Republicans were making. And again my debt is to Aristotle. In analyzing actual regimes, Aristotle sharpens our powers of discernment like none other, ancient or modern, with due respect to the Baron de Montesquieu and a few of his caliber. To be sure, Aristotle wrote before the rise of modern nation-states and extended republics, which was sometimes frustrating when I went back and forth between my research and the Politics. But his insights are invaluable, even if we have to adapt them to modern circumstances.
What I concluded, with his guidance, was the American South really had revolutionized. And that therefore we cannot understand the causes of the war, its international importance, Reconstruction, 19th century America, or America generally, unless we start from that fact. I recognize that what I’m arguing runs against the grain of received opinion, and I accept the risks associated with making big claims. The book will either be a forgotten dud—deservedly, if the Republicans and I are wrong—or it will change our understanding of ourselves as a nation.
LW: The slave masters dominated their slaves, who were black. They also, as your book shows, dominated non-slave-owning whites. In what sense were the lives of poor whites in the South—the political majority—determined by the slave-owning minority?
FN: The slaveholding minority from the black belts where plantations were largest and slaves most numerous dominated state governments and exerted disproportionate influence on the national parties and the national government. Their conduct towards non-slaveholding whites ranged from benign neglect to principled contempt to demagoguery.
John C. Calhoun, for example, maintained that the basic unit of his ideal republic is a slaveholding family, ruled by the slaveholder, surrounded by family and slaves. He hardly acknowledged the existence of the non-slaveholder. Senator James Hammond of South Carolina and Senator James Mason of Virginia were contemptuous of the “mudsill” or “servile” class of non-slaveholders.
Then there is Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, who was in the more populist wing of the oligarchy, but was not an advocate of true popular sovereignty. He was a populist in the sense that a king who promises to put a chicken in every pot is a populist. He used race-baiting to lure poor whites into supporting slavery. His herrenvolk rhetoric ought not to be taken as proof that the South was a “white democracy”; his rhetoric was demagogic and strategic.
The condition of non-slaveholding whites was worst if they lived within or close to the black belts. Economically, their upward mobility was blocked. Because slaves supplied the labor needed by the slaveholders, non-slaveholding whites could not easily find wage-paying employment. Contrast that to the free states, where the marginal labor needs of farm owners had to be paid in wages. In the former, a labor surplus drove down wages; in the latter, labor scarcity drove up wages.
There are some studies that try to show that free labor was well-paid in the slave South, but they do not make sense to me. If jobs did pay well and were easy to find in the South, why do we not find capital accumulation among non-slaveholders? Why do we not find non-slaveholders investing in land and slaves? Instead we find land-ownership and slaveholding in the South concentrating into fewer proprietors even as aggregate slave counts were rising.
The slaveholders could easily outbid a wage-worker when it came to buying land. In the North a man could work, save cash, and acquire his own farm, which he worked with his own hands and the laborers he hired.
With regard to education, we might put it this way: Could a talented, poor child from a non-slaveholding white family in the Southern black belts rise to a respectable profession? That would be very difficult. Southern governments controlled by the slaveholders resisted the adoption of the common school model that arose in and spread from New England. Instead, they funded woefully inadequate “pauper schools” on the one hand, and on the other, private academies and universities for the scions of the rich. Without adequate elementary education, the talented child from a poor white family could never attend a private academy or a university.
Freedom of speech and assembly, moreover, were restricted by the ruling oligarchs, and they used mobs and extralegal coercion to quell dissent. Some scholars point out that the legal restrictions mainly targeted antislavery speech and assembly but even so, these restrictions are not insignificant. They made sense from the oligarchy’s point of view—slavery was the basis of their rule—but from the white majority’s point of view, they prevented political organizing that aimed to establish true popular sovereignty. Some in the South who tried to organize chapters of the Republican Party were driven out.
So what could the poor whites do? Often they left. Emigration patterns show non-slaveholding whites fleeing the black belts. Sometimes they went to the upcountry where they were beyond the reach of the oligarchs. To maintain their independence, they often avoided commerce, used barter, and kept to themselves. Sometimes they left their states. A branch of my family were poor whites and did this. My paternal grandfather’s family were settlers in the Spartanburg-Greenville area of South Carolina, but they gradually moved west, hopping from one state or territory to the next along the same latitude: Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and finally, to northern New Mexico (after the Civil War), where my grandfather was born.
LW: You draw upon primary source materials—in particular, the direct statements of elected members of the Republican Party during the Reconstruction Congresses (38th, 39th, 40th). Did your researches uncover anything that surprised you?
FN: I found many surprises. Some impressions haunt me still. While Indiana Representative George Julian was visiting Union prisoners recovering at Andersonville, one very ill soldier begged in a whisper to be allowed to serve again if he should live. Here was an unknown young American whose love for his country’s cause sought no publicity and outshone his fear of his own imminent death. Julian reported being “unmanned by my tears.” When he stepped outside, he found Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade sobbing like a child.
I also came across the speech of Representative Robert Brown Elliott of South Carolina in favor of the failed Civil Rights Bill of 1874, which would have achieved much of what the 1964 Civil Rights Act achieved. This inspiring and tragic speech should be a standard text in every American school. Elliott was among the first class of black Americans to serve in Congress and was a gifted orator. You will not find a more eloquent statement in praise of our system of government anywhere, and he points the way to a bright future if the Congress were to legislate strong enforcement of civil rights.
Black Americans would become super-patriots, Elliott promised, and he closed with verses from Ruth 1:16-17: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” Reading these words, one got a glimpse of what a great future our nation blew. Elliott was a black Alexander Hamilton who bled red, white, and blue. Rejection of his cause left a long trail of understandable bitterness.
Another surprise was the character and conduct of Northern statesmen. Members of Congress from the free states were by and large born into ordinary or poor families. Their eloquence and education testify to the success of the American regime in establishing merit and not high birth or hereditary wealth as the basis for judging fitness for office. They exhibited many of the virtues of aristocracy though born commoners. They taught me to believe that, given a fair chance to rise, free people will produce a greater number of characters who can out-perform royalty, aristocracy, and the well-born every time. Many demonstrated remarkable courage and confidence in our system of government and principles when the choice was between action or submission.
By the 1850s, the oligarchy was in sight of its goal, seizing the reins of American government, and did not flinch from using intimidation or personal violence to bring men to obedience. The oligarchs’ frequent, violent outbursts in Congress really surprised me. But the Republicans stood up to them, consistently relying upon the power of persuasion to explain what was happening to the country, to refute the oligarchy, and to rally the people. They were determined to put their views and the oligarchy’s views to the test, and to submit to the outcome of a free debate.
One example of this is a forgotten Republican from New York, Representative Charles Van Wyck. Before the war he delivered a speech explaining his switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. He described the despotism and violence instigated by his former party’s leaders in the South. While Van Wyck spoke, Representative Reuben Davis of Mississippi shouted him down with invectives and challenged him to a duel in indirect but clear language, proving Van Wyck’s point. Van Wyck kept his composure and continued speaking, which exposed him to the charge of cowardice. But he proved that although he disdained violating parliamentary decorum, he was no coward. When war broke out, he voluntarily vacated his seat in the Congress to join the Union Army. He saw combat, was wounded, received a battlefield promotion to Brigadier General before the war’s end and rejoined the House of Representatives during Reconstruction. Later, he became a Senator from Nebraska.
Finding these things in our past has made me suspicious of any limitation on free speech today, whether by government coercion or the heckler’s veto. When free debate flourishes, the witnesses to the debate, that is, the people, can see who is right.
Another surprising finding: In an era when the central moral principle in the Declaration of Independence was brandished frequently, hardly anyone in Congress mentioned John Locke when discussing the Declaration’s antecedents. Instead they tended to invoke the Christian idea of natural equality and to quote the Bible.
For the Republicans, the Declaration was a secular expression of a truth found in the Bible. Scholars seem to have devoted too little attention to the piety of the Republicans and over-associate Locke with the American Founding and later recollections of the Founding. It is more proper, I believe, to understand that Locke’s ideas share a family relation with the ideas of the American Protestants in New England, whose settlement predated Locke’s birth. Those American ideas found in the Declaration seem to be copied from Locke because they passed through the medium of a Locke-admiring Jefferson. The point is, those ideas first grew and spread in America without Locke’s instigation and were never understood to be cribbed from Locke as is often said nowadays.
LW: Do you believe that Reconstruction was doomed to fail?
FN: The answer depends on what yardstick we use to measure success or failure. Is success the establishment of republicanism in the South, which entailed 1960s-style de jure citizenship for black Americans, and the purification of republicanism in the whole of the nation? By that standard success was incredibly difficult to attain. You cannot build Rome in a day, and in the South, we were building a Rome from oligarchic material. Certainly, losing the far-seeing Lincoln made the task even more difficult.
One difficulty was that the Republicans were not fully confident that the Constitution gave them a warrant to occupy the South indefinitely—although I do believe that the basis was always there, in the Guarantee Clause, as Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts argued. I agree with his colleagues’ critique of his policy positions, but on constitutional interpretation, political theory, and history, Sumner was quite apt. British historian W.R. Brock blamed Reconstruction’s failure on the Constitution, which, he said, restrained Congress from holding the insurrectionary states as conquered territories. But Brock accepted the antebellum mal-interpretation of the Constitution created by oligarchs, for oligarchs. That interpretation certainly did limit the national government, which was the political purpose for which the interpretation was invented. Northern doubts about their constitutional authority undermined support for the coalition in favor of staying the course in the South and enforcing republican norms.
Another major problem was that the Southern states were once again a permanent part of the government once their representatives were readmitted into Congress. Hence, if those states had not been successfully reconstructed from oligarchy to republicanism, or if they backslid after rejoining the Union, the oligarchic rulers would once again be part of the government that was supposed to eliminate their minority’s power.
Some of the very same people who had borne the oligarchic cause were well-positioned to interfere with attempts to plant republicanism over the oligarchy. The erstwhile Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, was back representing a Georgia district in the House of Representatives in 1873. He led the successful opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Bill, against the eloquent Representative Elliott, whom I mentioned. Stephens’ famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he introduced the Confederate constitution that he had drafted, praised inequality and maintained that the American Founders were fundamentally wrong. Then there he was, a dozen years later, resuming his antebellum career in the U.S. Congress, locked in parliamentary battle with a black man, whose speech on the other side quoted the “Cornerstone Speech.” Elliott’s conduct exploded the theory of Stephens in person, on the House floor.
LW: In terms of contemporary views, one sometimes encounters the argument that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights. When did that argument arise, and how consequential is it today?
FN: That states have rights that are recognized in the Constitution is indisputable. The Founders explain that the preservation of states’ rights is essential to the preservation of republican liberty. I call the Founders’ doctrine, states’ rights properly understood.
The argument that states have the rights of sovereign states was invented by John C. Calhoun and has no defensible basis in the Constitution or in constitutional history, in my view. This became the core of the Southern apologia for secession almost immediately after the war ended.
The Founders held that, as long as the states were republican in form (Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution), they had the right to exercise all of those powers not delegated to the federal government primarily by Article I, Section 8, and not denied to the states in Article I, Section 9. This, of course, is the basis of federalism, or the division of governing power between state and national governments. The division was necessary to preserve self-government in the parts and in the whole of the Union, because the republic was extended, which was unprecedented.
The implied aim of this device was to insure that the national government only exercised governing powers with national objects in view, most clearly illustrated by such cases as war and international trade. If the local concerns of the people were subject to laws made by the national government, then rather than governing themselves, they would, in effect, be governed by an outside power, which is the definition of imperial government. This is not a problem in small republics but is in a large republic.
The Founders acknowledged that the people, through their states, had another important right: the natural right of revolution, which could be exercised, as the Declaration says, if the general government violated the natural rights of the people. This was the justification offered by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions authored by Madison and Jefferson in response to the Adams administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts. Those resolutions eschewed revolution and took an intermediate step, nullification of those laws.
Calhoun claimed something far different in substance about the rights of states under the Constitution but made his claim appear as similar as he could to the Founders’ view, twisting the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Madison’s report of 1798 for his purposes. He argued that the states were sovereign. He reinterpreted the Union as a league, which could be abrogated at will and without cause. He contested some of the explicit powers given to the general government by the Constitution, namely the tariff (Article I, Section 8), and averred that the states, not the Supreme Court, were the highest court of appeal on the constitutionality of powers exercised by the federal government. He “found” a constitutional right of states to spread slavery in all the national territories. He interpreted the Guarantee Clause to mean that the national government was obligated to preserve whatever form of government pre-existed in a state, and to consider it republican merely by virtue of having pre-existed there.
I won’t be able, in this interview, to trace and retrace the manifold consequences of his theory, which is discussed in my book. Suffice it to say that all elements worked toward overthrowing republicanism and establishing oligarchy as the new model of government in the United States.
After the war and emancipation, Alexander Stephens, first, and Jefferson Davis, later, wrote accounts of the Civil War, both claiming that it was fought over contrasting views of the Constitution. Theirs was Calhoun’s—and this ought to have been unpopular among the majority of white Southerners, seeing as Calhoun’s constitutionalism served oligarchy and prevented majority rule. But because at that later time the Republicans were trying to affirm black American citizenship in the South, and black citizenship was unpopular among the white majority, the Calhounian theory, encompassing states’ rights, gained popularity. It colored Southerners’ take on the past conflict and their current politics. They could use it to blunt the reach of the general government into their states where they wanted to preserve racial segregation and discrimination. Remarkably, Calhoun’s constitutionalism has outlasted de jure segregation.
His influence has been extremely harmful. Before the war, slave-state governments’ encroachments and usurpations threatened self-government and republican liberty; today the threat is from the federal government. States are becoming mere administrative sub-units of the federal government, which has accumulated vast unenumerated powers. The executive has usurped legislative powers. Many who see this and deplore it invoke Calhoun and states’ rights, which harms the cause of restoring constitutional government in two ways.
First, Calhoun is the wrong guide. His constitutionalism improperly draws the line between state and federal government too far in favor of states.
Second, his constitutionalism suffers from the discrediting taint of its strong association with slavery, oligarchy, and segregation. Those who invoke the language and substance of Calhounian states’ rights repel decent Americans who might otherwise be receptive to the cause of restoring constitutional government.