Of War and Freedom

Independence Day 2013 had perhaps a more than usual significance for our national holiday. On that day, 150 years before, the Army of the Potomac waited on the hills and ridges south of Gettysburg for a rebel assault that did not come. Though General Meade and his officers and soldiers were unaware of it that morning, the rebel army was beaten, after three fruitless days of attacking the soldiers of the United States to clear a path to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself. Instead, Robert E. Lee was engaged on July 4, 1863, in plans to extricate what was left of his army from Pennsylvania and get it across the Potomac and into Virginia before it could be destroyed.

On that same day a thousand miles to the southeast, the rebel army in Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to the U.S. Army and General U.S. Grant. It was strategically an even more important victory. The fall of that rebel stronghold would lead to the free navigation of the entire Mississippi River, from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, for all shipping loyal to the United States, and it divided the rebel Confederacy in two.
As Grant reflected later in his Memoirs,

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after. (Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p.297)

Some who are not friends of the United States Constitution make the false claim that the War of the Rebellion was clear evidence that the Constitution was hopelessly flawed, that the war revealed the weakness of the American government rather than its strength. Such critics little understand history or what a rare thing it is for nations—or rather the people of nations—to learn to be willing to settle issues of life, death, and livelihood by the casting of ballots. It is an acquired discipline.

Consider how very few democracies or republics have been established and accepted by the populace without the people being convinced by bloody war and rebellion that deciding issues by votes and law is superior to trying them by force. England had many civil wars and rebellions on its way to rule by parliaments instead of kings. France, too, went through several revolutions before its current Fifth Republic achieved political stability. The Weimar Republic of Germany teetered for some fifteen years until it descended into the Third Reich, and only upon ruins was a stable federal republic built. Japan at last settled for meaningful republican government after its military dictatorship completely prostrated the nation in World War II. Republican government was only months old when the Bolsheviks replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the verdict is not yet in as to whether the Russian nation has embraced free republican government even now. Similar stories can be told all across the globe, about China, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, and many other lands that through trauma and struggle came today to be governed by leaders chosen by the people limited in their authority by viable constitutions.

But if the American War of the Rebellion demonstrated the challenges to constitutional government in the first one hundred years of the Republic, it also showed its strength. That can be illustrated by what its critics consider its most damning flaw, for they denounce the document for enshrining human chattel slavery instead of abolishing it. In this they are entirely wrong. The Constitution took the thirteen new American states as they were in the late eighteenth century and brought them into a society of constitutional freedom incompatible with slavery, where the operations of that Constitution would sooner or later bring slavery to an end.

It is true that there are provisions in the Constitution as adopted in 1787 that recognized slavery. That was the price for bringing the slave-holding states into the Union within the structure of the Constitution. That very Constitution, however, made it impossible for slavery in the United States to endure. Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, war waged by the people under that very Constitution was abolishing legal slavery in America. Perhaps there was a time when it might have ended peacefully, but peacefully or not, slavery in the United States had to end.

As Abraham Lincoln predicted at the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” I believe that Lincoln knew which would triumph, but I do not know that he suspected that he would be the constitutional officer that would see that the Union was not dissolved and that all of the United States would become free.

By the end of 1860, slaveholders knew that they could not retain slavery if they stayed under the Constitution. Sooner or later, the votes would be cast to end the practice. The slaveholders chose to rebel and get out from under the Constitution before its principles of human freedom inexorably overcame them. But once under the Constitution, it was too late to leave. Under the organization of the Constitution, the armies of the Republic were organized and put down the rebellion and slavery, holding congresses and conducting elections along the way.

The War of the Rebellion did not free the land from enemies of freedom and constitutional law. Those who would impose their will on their neighbors remain with us today. Their freedom is protected by the Constitution. But the Constitution has ever stood in the way of their plans to subjugate their fellows, and it will continue to do so as long as it is upheld. Hence the relentless efforts to undermine it, to claim it a flawed document, or pronounce it a “living document,” changeable at the whim of politicians and judges who are allowed to raise their own will above its meaning. Our devotion to that Constitution, if we are to remain free, cannot be any less than that of those who fought at Gettysburg and other battles of freedom. As we remember them, it is our turn to show “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”.

(First published July 11, 2013)