Why the South Fought

This piece originally appeared in Southern Partisan Magazine in 1984.


The Thirteen Colonies in their War of Independence had fought for freedom. But the French Revolution (a true revolution of an underclass) proclaimed not only liberty but equality: and that idea was loosened on the world. But liberty (freedom) and equality are natural allies only up to a point, and then enemies. They were opposed to a degree imperfectly understood by either side in the War for Southern Independence. Which principle was henceforth to limit the other? That question was at issue.

The North, fighting for a compelled union, won; but what also won was ever broadening equality, limiting freedom. More immediately what won was—America. Henceforth Virginians and Carolinians were to be Americans and even, with a grim irony, Yankees. The “United States” ceased to be a plural term: a nation supplanted the united nations. Even the word “Union” disappeared, for the ghost of the old, dead, voluntary union of states clung about it and made it un-American. The Negro also won the war, almost incidentally, for the North did not fight for him but against his master: it was not a crusade, except for a few; and emancipation, limited to the Confederacy, was an act of war, not humanity. But the great, hidden victory was that of equality: the very words “freedom” and “equality” became confused and virtually synonymous. Now, said Karl Marx in 1866, the United States are “entering the revolutionary phase.”

What won the war everywhere was “the people”: equality not quality. Instead of two voices in balance, aristocracy and democracy, only one. Nothing henceforth was to be safe that did not have the sanction of the majority of the people, even nominally in Russia. Now the duke and the university don were to be admitted to equality with the docker; three dockers were superior to the duke and the don. Minorities ceased to have rights, despite constitutions, but only privilege sanctioned by the majority. The withdrawal of the Southern states was not sanctioned, though Virginia had entered the Union with the proviso that she could withdraw. The Mormons who trekked to remote Utah because of their religious belief in polygamy did not have that sanction, despite the Constitution. And from the majority there is no appeal.

Once it had been possible to appeal from lord to king and from king to Church. Perhaps such balance can exist only in the moment of transition from one unlimited power to another. In the United States there was no such balance in reality, for President and even Supreme Court spoke in the name of the people (the Court “interpreting” the Constitution in that name). It was in the name of the majority of the people (more people in the North) that Lincoln conquered the Confederacy. And it is quite immaterial whether the majority, in fact, want what is done in their name: they cannot resist themselves or appeal from themselves.

Lord Acton, lover of freedom and hater of the corruption of power, prophesied rightly that this sort of “spurious liberty” must affect the rest of the world, and went on to say: “By exhibiting the spectacle of a people claiming to be free, but whose love of freedom means hatred of inequality…and reliance on the State as an instrument to mould as well as control society, [the North] calls on its admirers to hate aristocracy and teaches its adversaries to fear the people.”
Who could deny that America relies on the State as an instrument to mould society? In the early days of the Republic men criticized by their fellows were given to saying, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Who says it today? The states of the South were adversaries of the Northern majority: four years later they had learnt to fear the people. This is what won the war: the principle that three pawns take two castles and five pawns take the knights as well.

It is not enough to say that the South fought for slavery—although it is said. It is not enough to say that the South fought for free trade—although it was said. It is not even enough to say that the South fought for state rights. All three are true in a sense, but none tells us why the South fought and died. The South fought because it was invaded; indeed Virginia withdrew from the Union only because Lincoln intended invasion of the earlier seceded states. Then there were alien feet upon the soil of old Virginia—and in due course upon Georgia—and Southerners fought to defend what men hold dear, their homes and their land, not for conquest.

But the simple truth is that the South fought for freedom, the freedom to go their own way, the freedom to govern themselves. They had exercised this freedom, but the North denied it and invaded. Two societies, two ways of life, clashed: at issue was the compelled conformity of the smaller to the larger. The difference between the two societies, which in colonial days had been between the dominance of “God’s elect” in Puritan New England and that of great landowners in Virginia and Carolina, was deepened by climate and distance, by immigration in the North and by slave-based squirearchy in the South, and became irreconcilable, except by war or separation, when the North began in the half-born age of steam its mutation into an industrial democracy and the South remained an agrarian aristocracy.

The Southern states were in form a democracy—a slave-based “Greek democracy”—but democracy in the South was in retreat to the hills: where the Planter came (wherever the great staples would grow) he brought the ideal of the landed estate and the chivalrous gentleman. To describe both Northerners and Southerners of that time as “Americans” in today’s usage is to do violence to the truth: they were alien as well as alienated. Slavery was the economic basis of Southern society, free trade was its interest, and state rights was its defence. It fought for a way of life based upon slavery, not for slavery—an essential distinction, for squirearchy could have been based upon serfdom or tenantry and have been fought for—and against— all the same. To say that the South’s cause—freedom—was stained by slavery is to say that the cause of the Greeks at Marathon was stained by slavery. Both fought for freedom against invaders. Both would have given up their slaves for freedom, as the South offered to do for English help. The South had not yielded to the new condemnation of slavery; in time it undoubtedly would have; but time was not permitted; and the alien morality of an alien majority was imposed by conquest.

The South rightly saw a menace to its way of life in the control of the federal government by the Northern majority, and withdrew from the Union. The remaining United States could have let the Confederate States go in peace, as England was to let Canada and India go. But implicit in American democracy was the dogma that minorities—Southern or Mormon—must not be permitted to go their own way but must be compelled to conform to the will of the majority: the “king” can do no wrong. For that reason, and no other, it was “the irrepressible conflict.” “If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed,” said Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, “that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force….[l]t will have been brought about by despotism [of the majority].”

The Southerners were, precisely, such a minority fighting that “unlimited authority.” In Lord Acton’s words, the Southerners “denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority,” and the very invoking of the right of secession was “a distinct repudiation of the doctrine that the minority can enforce no rights, and the majority can commit no wrong.” Secession, arguably implicit in the constitutional compact, was the counter to the absolutism of the (distant) majority. When the North refused to allow it, the appeal was to the sword, and the right of secession perished. Lord Acton wrote later: “I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”

The South fought for the principles of 1776—the Declaration of Independence. The North, in flat denial of those principles, invaded a country whose nationhood was proved by a way of life men willingly defended and died to save. It was a way of life that was aristocratic and based (though not necessarily) upon slavery and that was (necessarily) opposed to conformity with Northern democracy. By the very nature of that democracy perhaps, it could not suffer its will to be spurned by letting the South go in peace. The South had no choice but to conform or fight for freedom. Like the Greeks confronted by the might of Persia, the South chose to fight against odds for freedom, loving freedom—again like the Greeks—not less because they held slaves. And that was the splendour they died for—the great name of freedom. But what came on, huge and very vindictive, armed with steam and endless guns, bearing the compulsive mandate of the majority of the “whole people” (i.e., the North), was not to be withstood. The South had only its heartbreaking valour and General Lee. Four years it stood with desperate fortitude, praying for help from England, and then went down and was drowned.

Sheldon Vanauken (1914-1996) was an author and friend of C.S. Lewis. His popular work, A Severe Mercy, is being worked for a major motion picture.