Saturday, November 06, 2004


This essay is called

"The Civil War Must Be Refought In Every Generation"

I wrote it 1996, after listening to Robert Dole accept the Republican nomination for President. I did not try to update it (although since I wrote it on a word processor, I just had to spend the morning re-typing it), as I feel that even my references to things that are not currently discussed are about things just lurking under the surface.

It is my bedtime story, and it informs everything political and historical that I write.

It is a little pedantic, as I cover points that you all know about. When I re-read it, some of it seemed contradictory, but I realize that what it proves, again, is that I stand in an odd place politically. There is a little more conservative blood in me than in most self-described liberals, but not enough to be a Republican!

Having written such a long essay, I will not mouth off any further except to say

(i) in fighting the fight, always remember that the things you fear have not happened yet, and may not happen at all. It is always better, if harder, to respond to reality.

(ii) that although Bush and Cheney lead this parade, and will have to pay for it at great cost over the next four years, I don't think they are really of it. Their complaints go even further back than the Civil War. The essay that applies to them is:

"What Was So Wrong With George III Anyway?"

Here it is --


We are still, 200 years later, a new experiment on the face of the earth. We are a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that certain truths are self-evident. All men are created equal. We are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We, the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, founded a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

It is easy to say that we fall short of these ideals every single day. For about fourscore and seven years, the ideals themselves were questioned. Some argued that all men were not created equal, and that the best way for some men to live was as the property of other men. Citizenship was not granted on the basis of where you were born, but on the color of your skin.

Some argued that the people had no legitimacy to form a more perfect Union. Some said that the people had nothing to do with the Union, that the Union was one of States, not people. It was, after all, the United States of America, and not the United People of America. Any rights that the people had came from the individual States, and not the United States.

In 1856, former President Fillmore ran for election with a third party, the Know-Nothing Party. He won 21 percent of the popular vote on a platform that sought to eliminate benefits to immigrants, whether they were citizens or not. There was a feeling that Germans and Roman Catholics were taking too many jobs from real Americans.

Then we engaged in a great civil war, in which those believed in one ideal fought against those who believed in another ideal. Meade held off Lee at Gettysburg. Sherman burned down Atlanta and Charleston. Grant marched into Richmond.

The single fact of our history is that the Union won the Civil War in 1865, and those who lost it have been trying to reverse that result ever since. When people say that the 60s are a mistake, or that such and such a thing proves that the 60s spirit is still alive, and that people have the power, or that such and such a thing proves that the 60s are over, and good riddance, I always have to ask them which 60s they are talking about.

Slavery was abolished in the 60s, and the 14th Amendment gave all citizens equal rights. Among other factors, a labor movement, a woman’s suffrage movement, a civil rights movement, and a nationalist Supreme Court, tried to inch the concept of equal rights closer to reality.

Land was plentiful. If you lacked an opportunity, or could not take advantage of an opportunity, you could go west.

We needed more help, and with more open-handedness and more open-heartedness than any people in the history of the earth, we invited people who were willing to work to come join us. We educated the children of these people. We demanded that the government educate them. We took advantage of this education. We succeeded and succeeded.

From another land, a power arose that believed that more people were more equal than others. That some people were slaves, and that other people really weren’t people at all. This power felt that citizenship was not to be based on who you are, or where you were born or what you agreed to do as a citizen, but on who your great-grandfather was. We smote that power and we ruled the world.

Were things better then, as Bob Dole says they were? I guess if you are the only country standing after the rest of the world is destroyed, things will be better for the winners. If we wanted to destroy the rest of the world, and be winners like that, things could be “better” again. Sexual repression and rigid religious intolerance did not make things better then. Low taxes, no Miranda rights, and lynchings did not make things better. Winning World War II made things better.

A Cold War simmered after that. We were opposed by an evil empire. Why was it evil? One reason was that it took a good idea – our idea of government of the people, by the people, and for the people --- and perverted it. We won that war, too.

After the Cold War ended, we saw something strange happening. We discovered that in places like Yugoslavia, 45 years of totalitarianism, of police state repression and fear, could not wipe out the basic centuries-old animosity that people had for their neighbors.

The same is true here in the United States. The great animosity that never quite went away and that revived itself full-throttle after the United States won the Cold War, was the great fact that the Union won the Civil War in 1865, and the losers have been trying to reverse that result ever since.

When Newt Gingrich speaks of a Contract with America, and when Pat Buchanan speaks of a cultural war, and when, most surprisingly to me, Bob Dole, the man from bleeding Kansas, in accepting the Republican nomination, denigrates the legitimacy of the executive branch to spend tax dollars, and relies on the “American people” (whoever they are), we discover that despite the fact that all Americans have fought to defend this country through two World Wars, a Cold War, and assorted other wars, despite the unparalleled success of the United States from 1865 to 1996, we cannot wipe out the basic fact that not everyone accepted the result of the Civil War.

The Civil War must be refought in every generation, and in this generation, there are times when it seems that the losers of the Civil War are winning the latest battle.

The battle manifests itself in a platform that attempts to deny the basic rights of citizenship to children born in America. It defines citizenship, just as Millard Fillmore and the Know-Nothings did, just as slave owners did, totally on who your grandparents were. If there is an “American people” as Bob Dole say, and not “American citizens” as the Constitution says, you wind up with a nativist Republican platform plank.

The battle manifests itself in any and every discussion of block grants. Only in an environment which values states rights over the rights of people could we pass laws where a taxpayer from New York or California pays money to Washington and then be told by Washington that the money was being transferred to Little Rock and Jackson without any oversight, without any right of the person from New York or California to know what the money was being used for. This is neither a state tax nor a Federal tax. It is a state with certain values trying to assert primacy over a state with other values.

The battle manifests itself in any and every discussion of the legitimacy of Federal taxes. If we the people tried to form a more perfect Union, and the Federal government, over the long term, is somewhat responsive to we the people, then the government is worthy of our financial support. After all, without the Federal government, we would not be as prosperous. Through the coordination of the Federal government, we the people built canals, built turnpikes, built the railroads, supported the transcontinental cable, built the interstate highway system, launched telecommunications satellites, flew to the moon, and through the military, developed the Internet. People made financial fortunes standing on the shoulders of the efforts of we the people. Everyone’s tax dollars went to developing the tools through which many of these efforts were possible.

However, if the government of the United States is to the individual states what the United Nations is to the individual nations, then paying taxes to the Federal government can be seen as intrusive, redundant, and illegitimate, despite the Constitutional amendment expressly allowing Federal income taxes. If the Federal government is not worthy of financial support, it is not that important, and it should not be too worrisome to shut the Federal government down.

The very notion of a “Contract With America,” the very choice of the words “Contract With America.” no matter what its contents, implies that the government is not of the people, by the people, and for the people. The very notion of a Contract “with” America implies that government is an outside alien entity that needs to enter a contract with the American people (whatever that means) to be legitimate.

That, however, was not the result of the Civil War. The result of the Civil War was that there is no Contract with America. There is a contract of, by and for America. It is called the Constitution. It is made among people with American citizenship, which is a privilege that comes with being born on the land, or comes by meeting certain minimal citizenship requirements. I hold these truths to be self-evident. Pat Buchanan does not.

The people who wish to defend the Constitution better wake up and go to war to defend it. The people against the Constitution have been wide awake for a very long time.