Monday, April 11, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 12: A tale of Northern perfidy and, uh, demonism

The following Confederate tract was published in 1865, near the end of the Civil War: The Two Rebellions; or, Treason Unmasked by A Virginian [William McDonald (1834-1898)] (1865)

But it deals almost exclusively with prewar events.  Or, more accurately, with polemics about the prewar Yankees and their general depravity.  A depravity which, in the author's mind apparently manifested itself almost exclusively in the form of abolitionism.

The pamphet is pretty much worthless as far as its historical account.  Its value is in giving a glimpse at the kind of warped polemics that Southerners engaged in among themselves, which led in turn to some spectacular misjudgments.  In looking at a document like this, it needs to be remembered that by the mid-1830s, any discussion of abolition of slavery was pretty much banned in the slave states.  Abolitionist pamphets were confiscated from the mail by Southern postmasters and those who sought to bring the debate to the South were forcibly suppressed.

So when Southerners constantly heard warped views like McDonald's describing events and people in the North, they often had no offsetting debate to hear.  So they wound up believing some fantastic things that one would think a little bit of critical thought would have suggested were way off-base.

But, as we saw in the runup to the Iraq War, combine falsehoods systematically promoted with hysteria, and even in the presence of vigorous debate people can be persuaded to support some drastic things for no good reason.  Fear, hatred and a livid imagination are a combustible combination.

The general assumption of the booklet is pretty strange in itself.  Since I don't know details about its composition and publication, I don't know exactly what was going on when he wrote it.  It appears to be mostly a reworking of a presentation he prepared in late 1860/early 1861, as the secession crisis was under way, about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

But even if it was composed much earlier than 1865, it carries a heavy tone of self-justification that would carry over very strongly into the postwar Reconstruction period in the South.

His basic thesis is that John Brown's raid was a rebellion against the Constitution.  And that this earlier, smaller rebellion presaged the larger Confederate rebellion.  But he doesn't waste a lot of words on spelling out that argument.  The pamphlet is almost entirely a polemic against abolitionists and Yankees and the deep-seated evilness of their hearts.

So following are some excerpts.  In this first one, he spells out his view of how abolitionism worked its way into the minds of northern Puritans.  He seems to be using the term "Puritan" to describe pretty much everyone in the free states.  And he blames the breakout of abolitionism on deep problems within the Puritan religion:

This was not the usual mode by which abolitionism entered the Puritan mind. Abolitionism, generally, enters the Puritan mind from the propensity of the Puritan nature, or character, to substitute sentiment for practical religion, and from the cherishing of a constant desire to extenuate its own frailties by magnifying those of others. The natural consequence of the indulgence of these propensities is to supplant any possible feelings of love, which is goodness, by feelings of hatred and all uncharitableness, which is wickedness. And when this is accomplished, the singular illusion is found to exist of people going through all the forms and using all the language of earnest devotion, and imagining while they do it that the sinful feelings which animate their hearts are those of charity and love. (p. 24; my emphasis)

Don't try to follow the argument too closely, because it starts looking like jibberish pretty quickly.  A psychologist could probably use this document to illustrate the phenomenon of "projection," because its hard to overlook that he is projecting much of the fanaticism rampant in the secessionist South onto the hated enemy.  Note also in the passage just quoted that the Yankees are accused of looking down on the Southerners, an early version perhaps of today's conservatives whining about "elitism." It's hard to see how you get more "elite" than Southern planters and slaveowners.

Thus, it will be seen, that to satisfy a Puritan's conscience, who, like the rest of our fallen race, is always trying to patch up some kind of compromise with the troublesome monitor within, all that is necessary is to give him something that asks for his love and hate at the same time--hatred for the sinner and love for his victim. ... For, he will nurse his wrath with a miser's care, imagining that from it may be derived that charity of heart and love of mankind which every man needs. So, that it may be truly said, there is an aching void in the Puritanic heart for something to hate. They like to practice the divine habit of being angry with the wicked every day. They feel that they are better and stronger when they have in their minds' eye some apparently awful sinner, upon whom they can pour out all the vials of their sacred wrath; just as the devotion of the Pharisee, in the parable, was heightened by the presence of the Publican; and, when this needful sinner does not turn up of his own accord, like his pet sin, they are sure to find him out; and they will not let him alone when once they have found him. For though, like Ephraim, he may be joined to his idols, they will not let him alone. They will expostulate and reason; they will threaten and bully, and never seem to got tired of trying to make him think as they do, while, all the time, they do not desire what they are, apparently, so anxious to bring about. (pp. 24-25; my emphasis)

I suspect that we see in that passage some of the seeds of the ridiculous argument that "the Civil War wasn't about slavery."  McDonald has no doubt in his screed that abolition was the issue the spiritually defective Yankees "Puritans" used to attack the South.  But at the same time, he obsessively accuses them of hypocrisy, of not really caring about the slaves.

Now, I confess that I appreciate a good purple-prose polemic every now and then.  And this one is pretty ripe:

Whenever the mind singles any one of them out and contemplates his character for a moment, so vast and incomprehensible is the magnitude of the iniquity discovered, that the imagination, exhausted in its efforts to take in the idea, produces the invariable conclusion, in every instance, that the grandest villain of them all has at last been found. Not that the magnitude of the iniquity discoverable in each case, is equal, but that each exceeds the capacity of our comprehension. Nor even that they are similar, for, as Christians are all said to have special gifts to do good, according to their talents, so, these mercenaries of Satan seem to have special gifts to do evil, according, to their natural and acquired powers of wickedness. (p. 64; my emphasis)

Wow!  So vast and incomprehensible is the magnitude of their iniquity ... their sinfulness exceeds the capacity of our comprehension ... they're mercenaries of Satan with special gifts to do evil with their natural and acquired powers of wickedness.  I think I'm just going to have to borrow a couple of those phrases for regular usage!

In one section, he talks about some of the greatest villains of Northern abolitionism: Charles Sumner, John Parker Hale and William Seward, plus a few lesser figures.  Apparently he found Seward to be the worst of them all.  Or so I gather from this comment:

[Horace] Greely [sic]and his colaborers [sic] may be said to be possessed of devils; but, is it questionable whether Seward is not the very Devil himself. (p. 68)

And you thought that bit about "mercenaries of Satan" was just a rhetorical flourish!

Actually, a large part of his pamphlet is taken up talking about how the Yankee Puritans are plainly the tools of Satan and his minions and their religion is perverted and destructive to the core and so on and so forth.  I don't get the impression that he meant it only metaphorically.

Describing John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, in which several black men participated, McDonald found a particular horror in the experience of Brown's white captives who were assigned black guards:

This entrance of negro actors on the stage was the change of scene that was the most unexpected and horrible. It was strange and terrible enough to be kidnapped, robbed, and insulted, but to have the custody of your person put into the hands of one of a despised and brutal race was an indignity which passed all conception. (p.81)

That passage also gives us a glimpse of the fear of slave insurrections in the slave states.  They were downright paranoid about it.  Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, as the saying goes.  There were various forms of slave resistance and some cases of organized armed revolt.  But there was never anything close to a slave insurrection, even after the Emancipation Proclamation.  What happened then was more like a general strike by the slaves, many of whom walked away from their former masters.

McDonald also explains at some length that the "Puritans" envied the cultivated Southern slaveowners because of the spiteful envy in their evil-encrusted souls.  The following is one example, that also makes the argument that abolitionism was merely the issue in which Yankee spiritual depravity manifested itself:

It was foolishly supposed that their whole antipathy was against the institution of slavery; hence they were merely called fanatical abolitionists and quietly despised. But these men, especially the more crafty of them, were making the proposed destruction of slavery a means and an end, at the same time. Their ruling passion was desire of power, and they declaimed against slavery, more for the purpose of obtaining, that, than from any real philanthropic aversion to the institution. True, they hated the slaveholder because he was a gentleman whose courtesy and courage annoyed them; but they cared nothing for the slaves. (pp. 114-115)

If that sounds reminiscent of "they hate us for our freedoms," that's not an accident.  "They hate us because we're gentleman" and "they hate us for our freedoms" are both ways of saying "they're jealous because we're better than them."

Again, the notion that slavery had nothing to do with the war, or that the South was somehow and multicultural paradise for blacks - both neo-Confederate favorites - didn't occur to McDonald, the gentleman from Virginia.  Slavery was too obviously at the core of the disputes.  And the postwar desire of former Confederates to distance themselves from the now-thoroughly-discredited system of slavery had not yet come into play, because the war was not yet over.

But some of the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate argument that the war was about other things stems from this sort of argument.  The Yankees didn't really care about the slaves, McDonald wrote.  It was all a cover for their lust for power, he said.  I suspect that not only was there the obvious attempt to paint the hated Yankees as completely evil in every way, including their sneaky deception.  There was probably more than a little wishful thinking involved, too, along the lines of:   If we lose the war, we might get to keep the slaves, because the Yankees don't really care about doing away with slavery.

There's also a weird kind of circular logic going on here, weird but common even today.  The argument assumes that the only legitimate reason for criticizing slavery was sincere, disinterested devotion to helping the slaves for pure humanitarian reasons.  Because the abolitionists are not like that, the argument goes, their arguments against slavery are meaningless.

Yet what do the people making this argument think about a guy like John Brown, who came about as close as one can come in this world of being such a disinterested fighter against slavery?  Well, of course, they trashed him as being just as demonic as everyone else in the movement - with the possible exception of William Seward, aka Satan.  Check out McDonald's pamphlet to see how many ways he considered John Brown to be the spawn of hell.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

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