A Stocking Stuffer?

This book may be too late to order for the date when some western Christians observe, celebrate, or get the day off for Christmas. If so, then be ecumenical and try the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, January 7, one of the few times the old Julian calendar comes in handy. The book is about the Gresham family in Macon and even has the sizzle of War Between the States references. From the publisher’s website:

Invalid teenager Leroy Wiley Gresham left a seven-volume diary spanning the years of secession and the Civil War (1860-1865). He was just 12 when he began and he died at 17, just weeks after the war ended. His remarkable account, recently published as The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet E. Croon (2018), spans the gamut of life events that were of interest to a precocious and well-educated Southern teenager—including military, political, religious, social, and literary matters of the day. This alone ranks it as an important contribution to our understanding of life and times in the Old South. But it is much more than that. Chronic disease and suffering stalk the young writer, who is never told he is dying until just before his death.

Dr. Rasbach, a graduate of Johns Hopkins medical school and a practicing general surgeon with more than three decades of experience, was tasked with solving the mystery of LeRoy’s disease. Like a detective, Dr. Rasbach peels back the layers of mystery by carefully examining the medical-related entries. What were LeRoy’s symptoms? What medicines did doctors prescribe for him? What course did the disease take, month after month, year after year? The author ably explores these and other issues in I Am Perhaps Dying to conclude that the agent responsible for LeRoy’s suffering and demise turns out to be Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a tiny but lethal adversary of humanity since the beginning of recorded time.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accounting for one-third of all deaths. Even today, a quarter of the world’s population is infected with TB, and the disease remains one of the top ten causes of death, claiming 1.7 million lives annually, mostly in poor and underdeveloped countries.

While the young man was detailing the decline and fall of the Old South, he was also chronicling his own horrific demise from spinal TB. These five years of detailed entries make LeRoy’s diary an exceedingly rare (and perhaps unique) account from a nineteenth century TB patient. LeRoy’s diary offers an inside look at a fateful journey that robbed an energetic and likeable young man of his youth and life. I Am Perhaps Dying adds considerably to the medical literature by increasing our understanding of how tuberculosis attacked a young body over time, how it was treated in the middle nineteenth century, and the effectiveness of those treatments.

#woke beware.

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Monuments in Heaven

This story reminds me of a thought that occurred while singing a hymn on Sunday: will #woke Christians let David’s throne stand in the new heavens and new earth? (The story is about the toppling of a Confederate monument, Silent Sam, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.)

“Jerusalem the Golden”‘s third stanza in the old Trinity Hymnal goes like this:

There is the throne of David;
And there, from care released,
The song of them that triumph,
The shout of them that feast;
And they who with their Leader
Have conquered in the fight,
For ever and for ever
Are clad in robes of white.

So we may have a throne that commemorates an adulterer, a man who plotted the death of his lover’s husband, and a king who could not manage his own household. Not to mention that he purged the holy land of pagan dwellers. Yes, the Lord commanded it but in these times of social righteousness, such aggression is not just macro but cosmic.

Even so, Bernard of Cluny and John Mason Neale seemed to think Christians could draw comfort and inspiration from the thought of a throne in the new Jerusalem that commemorated the very flawed King David. Which makes you wonder if the pursuit of righteousness here (by some Christians) is going to be sufficient preparation for the righteousness to come.

Expiration Date Passed

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.

At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:

It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.

Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).

So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?

Providential Wisdom

I don’t believe (or much like) the phrase, common grace, but sometimes the insights of the heterodox and even the unbeliever make you wonder about the effects of special grace. Consider Noah Millman’s invocation of Abraham Lincoln for the current pissing match over Confederate Monuments (and oh by the way not all Christians are not using the Port-a-Potties). First Millman credits Lincoln with recommending “charity for all”:

North and South were compacted together within the Union, and both prospered by that union. So both North and South bore the moral stain of slavery, notwithstanding that the slaves themselves were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Southern states, and the social and economic structure of the South changed most by emancipation.

This perspective was what made it possible for Lincoln, in the midst of war, to speak of achieving a just and lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It is easy to argue that such a lasting peace would require honoring the honest—if, in Lincoln’s view, badly mistaken—conviction of men like Robert E. Lee that their actions were not rebellion but a defense of their country. Indeed, it is hard to see what “charity for all” could mean if it did not extend to a man of Lee’s widely-touted honor and integrity, or those who cherish his memory. Reconciliation could be achieved between North and South on the basis that while the political matter of secession was settled on the battlefield, there was honor on all sides. Those were precisely the terms that prevailed from the end of Reconstruction through the era of the Civil Rights movement.

Of course, reconciliation is not easy (and doesn’t come by way of statements and letters):

Reconciliation in the present means reconciliation of conflicting narratives of the past, finding a place for all of our varied common ancestors. But the axes of conflict between those ancestors may, themselves, be irreconcilable.

We may fool ourselves to think that matters are simpler elsewhere. Attila may be honored in Hungary without upsetting the descendants of the cities he sacked; Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be honored as the father of the Ukrainian nation notwithstanding that his men perpetrated the most horrific massacres of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the illusion of integral simplicity is as deliberate as it is false, as the currently bloodletting in Ukraine and the escalating authoritarianism in Hungary should demonstrate.

Regardless, no such illusion is possible in America, which is torn not on one seam but on many. Wounds still bleeding must be triaged for present succor, but our national memory must be capacious enough to acknowledge the whole truth, and not only the truth of victory, for there to be any lasting reconciliation. Lincoln’s insight is still relevant. We should properly judge slavery to be an unequivocal evil, and the Confederate cause to have been unsalvageable because it was fundamentally and overwhelmingly that evil cause—not only of defending but of extending slavery. But we should not delude ourselves that, had we sat in our ancestors seats, we would have judged our own cause any more rightly than they did.

Millman is not thinking President Trump will help but is looking to ordinary people for help (can Christian social justice warriors find their inner average?):

Today, we are led by a President as far from Lincoln’s spirit of charity as it is possible to imagine. And so it rests on the shoulders of ordinary Americans to eschew malice. It falls to the descendants of slaves to see men like Lee through the eyes of the descendants of planters, as the exemplar of their country’s virtues, and dispute their place in national memory in a spirit that appreciates that fact. And it falls to the descendants of planters to see him through the eyes of the descendants of slaves, as the American version of Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s favorite general, and let that understanding give them pause when they consider rising to defend his honor.

Imagine that. Being holy means giving up contempt and hatred for other people and trying to identify with them, you know like, grieving with those who grieve.

1776 and 1861

Brexit is more or less hardwired into the American outlook. But somehow we fought a war that cost close to 700,000 lives to preserve not a federation but a union, not a republic but a nation. That’s what makes America great (many suppose).

But H. L. Mencken thought otherwise. He saw that the Brexit of 1776 also implied the Secexit of 1861:

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege. H. L. Mencken, “Five Men at Random” 1922

Sacrilege? If you think the U.S. is holy. If it’s just one more liberal society, on the order of Canada or Switzerland, you might agree with Mencken.

Only In America

From Julia Ward Howe, back to Jesus, and then forward to the Eucharist:

In the first moments of consciousness, Julia Ward Howe’s creativity penned what we now call “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Published in The Atlantic Monthly and sung to the tune of John Brown’s body, the song went viral, as we would say today, changing the war’s narrative from secession rights into a crusade for freedom.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Howe claimed that the song came to her on the border of consciousness, linking the Christ of long ago to the future of the war and the freedom of the slaves.

No one who preaches the Gospel can extol war. It is ever a curse and a sorrowful affliction. Yet consider the strength that Union soldiers took from this song, the consolation that Union families found in it. On June 8, 1968, as the train bearing the body of Senator Robert Kennedy rolled through Baltimore on its way to the capitol, the crowd along the tracks broke into the hymn’s refrain. I remember the song on the night of Sept. 11, in New York City. It wasn’t sung against someone; it was sung for those who had suffered a terrible injustice.

As America observes Memorial Day Weekend, the church celebrates Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. The feast exists to foster devotion to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Paradoxically, pondering the humanity of our Savior is one way to see the extraordinary divine gift, which is the Eucharist.

The church professes that Christ was always “true God and true man” but that declaration doesn’t address the nature of his consciousness, his creativity. We have no interior access to the mind of Jesus, no way to watch how his divine and human natures interacted with one another. We do know that Christ possessed faith, which suggests that his incarnation represented some emptying of his divine consciousness. So our Lord would have come to that supper, the night before he died, a true man, one who had even reason for fear for his future, knowing that death was nigh.

That night Jesus did something similar to Julia Ward Howe. Seeking solace and strength in the past, he immersed himself in the faith of his people, reciting the promises made to Israel. And with radical hope for the future, the Son of Man gave himself over to the God of Israel, calling him “Father.”

When the church prays in that same voice and measure, expressing the very same surrender to the Father, we believe that Christ is truly present among us, in the mystery of his Body and his Blood, a sacramental splice between the ancient past and the, yet distant, future. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church stands with the Son, giving herself completely into the hands of the Father.

Americanism lives. Sloppiness beats scholasticism again.

Did Memorial Day Give Us the Confederate Flag?

What’s the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day? The straight answer is that the former commemorates soldiers who died in battle, the latter honors all soldiers (even Bowe Bergdahl?). The funny answer is we get Memorial Day off as part of a three-day weekend to kick-off summer. On Veterans day we work in preparation for Thanksgiving and the big holiday season (some call Advent).

The difficult answer is that Memorial Day started to remember soldiers who died in the Civil War, Veterans Day for troops in The Great (Pretty Good?) War. Now, just like with three-day weekends for Presidents, Labor, and Columbus, we lump all soldiers into holidays that originally referred to specific wars.

You have to wonder if this is the best way to remember veterans or deceased soldiers when you get one day for all of those soldiers. David Rieff has a new book out arguing that remembering the past can actually be harmful:

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.

In the case of the United States, our memories of the past don’t necessarily lead to bloodshed, but they do make us uncomfortable. Memories of slavery and segregation put whites and blacks in awkward relations that leave persons with no experience of owning slaves or Jim Crow feeling the legacy of racism should all inform interactions between whites and black, from chance encounters on the subway to public school hiring practices.

But how much is our own government to blame for the way some southerners keep the memory of the Confederacy alive? Memorial Day originally was all about remembering the Civil War, with blacks, Yankees, and Southerners all vying to honor their side:

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Right on either side of Alabama, there are two places with the same name.

Like the one over in Mississippi, this Columbus was founded in the 1820s and sits just a few minutes from countryside in almost any way you drive.

Residents say it was here, in the years after the Civil War, that Memorial Day was born.

They say that in the other Columbus, too.

It does not take much for the historically curious in either town — like Richard Gardiner, a professor of teacher education at Columbus State University here — to explain why theirs is the true originator of a revered American holiday and why the other is well-meaning but simply misguided. . . .

Waterloo, N.Y., was designated the official birthplace of Memorial Day by presidential proclamation in 1966, and indeed, beginning in May 1866, Waterloo held an annual townwide commemoration.

But women in Boalsburg, Pa., which has a claim as the holiday’s birthplace, began decorating graves each year as early as October 1864. In and around Carbondale, Ill., according to the Jackson County Historical Society, there are two markers making such an assertion in two different cemeteries. James H. Ryan, a retired Army colonel, has descended into the Logan archives and come out with a strong case for the town where he lives, Petersburg, Va.

This — readers, please take note — is just a partial and by no means definitive list.

But the claims of the two Columbuses, eyeing each other across Alabama, are among the more nuanced and possibly the most intertwined.

Maybe the solution is Rieff’s distinction between memory and history:

History is really about the past. There’s the great English novelist L.P. Hartley, who wrote a book called The Go-Between. And the first line of that book is “The past is another country. They do things differently there.” History is about the difference between the past and the present. Memory is about using the past for the purposes of the present, or for some group in the present. History is critical history … Memory serves the present. History is the material out of which this collective memory is made. But collective memory, commemoration, is not history. If it is history, it’s so simplified and reduced to be, as I say, to be closer to myth than to history in any usable sense.

That distinction may explain why this Old Life historian gets the last Monday of May 2016 off from research to do yard work.

When People Believe in God . . .

. . . they believe almost anything. That isn’t how G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote goes, but it seems more accurate than the one he actually penned: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) believe a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible, which is hard enough to believe. And when it comes to national holidays, Christians believe even more stuff that may be comforting but doesn’t have a lick of logic attached to it. Consider Lincoln, the Civil War, and Memorial Day from the perspective of that unbeliever, H. L. Mencken:

Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s.

Mencken also takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who favors a two-state solution in Israel but insists that the Confederate States were always misbehaving:

The Douglas debate launched [Lincoln], and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Could it be because Mencken didn’t believe in God he could cut through the shine of the halo and see civil religion for the idolatry it is?

The Burden of Being Presbyterian

From a recent review of Stonewall Jackson’s biography (thanks to our federal capital’s correspondent):

Though Jackson’s soldiers were in awe of him, he was a camp-and-battlefield tyrant who arrested and court-martialed subordinates for the slightest disappointment of his expectations. J. William Jones, an army chaplain and biographer of Robert E. Lee, believed that Jackson “probably put more officers under arrest than all others of our generals combined.” In August 1862, Jackson put a brigadier-general and five regimental commanders under arrest after discovering that some of their men had purloined, for firewood, a few rails from “a certain worm-fence at a little distance.”

But Jackson was also, for all his maniacal furies, a man of unusually intense Christian piety. James Power Smith, a member of Jackson’s staff, recalled that he “was that rare man . . . to whom religion was everything.” Beverley Tucker Lacy, a Presbyterian minister who served as a chaplain-at-large for Jackson’s troops, remembered that Jackson thought “every act of man’s life should be a religious act,” even “washing, clothing, eating.” Religion opened up in Jackson what amounted to a different personality. His prayers were “unlike his common quick & stern emphasis,” Lacy recorded. They were “tender, soft, pleading” and full of “confession of unworthiness.” He prayed with a self-effacement that carried “the doctrine of predestination to the borders of positive fatalism.”

One part Tim Bayly, one part John Piper.

Yowza.

Rebellions, Good and Bad

While Rush Hannivine (a conglomeration of Rush, Sean, and Mark) bemoan the federal government’s shut down of war memorials (and closing them to veterans), John Judis likens the Shutdown to one of the worst crises in American history. Since (all about) I am in the middle of a course on the Civil War and how Americans remember it and conjure its meaning, I was taken aback by any comparison of the current dysfunction in Washington (though it is constitutional dysfunction since the Constitution was designed with built-in dysfunction) to a war that took 640,000 lives and that forever underscores the dysfunctions of the founding (as in states vs. federal prerogatives or the legality of slavery). For all of the memorials that Americans have funded, built, and maintained, they don’t seem to be very adept at remembering arguably the bleakest part of U.S. history.

But Judis sticks to his comparison:

There is no simple explanation for why this is happening now, but there are precedents in American history for the kind of assault on government that the Republicans are mounting. First, there is the South of John Calhoun, which Sam Tannenhaus wrote about in The New Republic. Calhoun developed the doctrine of nullification—that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws—in order to justify South Carolina’s opposition to tariffs adopted in 1828 and 1832. Calhoun’s doctrine became the basis of the state’s rights argument against attempts by the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery and a century later to enforce racial desegregation.

Secondly, there is the rise in 1937 of a conservative coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and rural Midwestern Republicans to block and repeal the New Deal through parliamentary maneuvers and investigations, which I wrote about two years ago. Calhounist nullification anticipates the anti-federal tactics of today’s Republican right. The conservative coalition of the late 1930s anticipates the composition of today’s Republican coalition and its grievance: the expansion of the federal safety net. Both of these older movements cited the United States Constitution as their authority for attempting to defy or dismantle the federal government. Like today’s Republican rightists, both older movements claimed to represent tradition and morality against a decadent modernity. They looked backwards. They were reactionary rather than conservative movements.

What happened to these movements gives some indication of what could happen to today’s Republican intransigents. The Calhounists precipitated a civil war, in which over 600,000 Americans died. The conservative coalition, on the other hand, faded temporarily from view and only reemerged in the last decades. That was because in 1941 Americans went to war against Nazi Germany and Japan. World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security. If World War II had not intervened, it’s very likely that the conservative coalition would have grown stronger, and would have been able to stop the expansion of, if not undermine, social security.

Dismissing these rebellious Americans as reactionary is one way to make sense of U.S. history, but it stumbles and breaks its neck when U.S. administration after U.S. administration supports rebel groups in places like Syria and Egypt. Had a U.S. administration in 1861, say, opted for a two-state solution to the U.S. — which is what many Americans support in Israel — the South may have had the U.S.’s blessing in secession. In other words, Americans on both the left and the right are remarkably selective in how they celebrate freedom fighters, independence, and resistance to tyranny. What is still lacking is some kind of metric that says Muslim rebels are better than Christian southern rebels who are both inferior to deist Tea Party (original) rebels. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate of rebellion at all times and in all places. But I do tire of making the South the whipping boy for defenders of the federal government when America has a long tradition of resisting the consolidation of power in the hands of centralized (national) authorities. If folks like Judis can seen the problem with Hitler or Assad, how about the NSA under Bush and Obama?

The other annoying part of Judis’ comparison is to suggest that the Shutdown may turn the U.S. into the Weimar Republic.

The civil war, as Marx once wrote, was a revolutionary clash that pitted one mode of production against another. Nothing so momentous is at stake today. It also pitted one region against another, and it was fought with rifles and men on horseback. The largest effect is likely to be continued dysfunction in Washington, which if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left. Think of Italy, Greece, or Weimar Germany. Or think about what the United States would have been like if World War II had not occurred, and if Europe, the United States, and Japan had failed to pull themselves out of the Great Depression.

This is the Chamber-of-Commerce take on the Shutdown — it’s bad for business and all those programs that the economy funds through taxation and regulation. What Judis seems to forget (again) is that if you want economic growth, at least the kind we now “enjoy” with a stock market that rises seemingly independent of employment rates, property values, manufacturing, or agricultural output, a civil war may be what the Chamber ordered. Here is a reminder from Allen Guelzo:

Northern financiers benefited in even more remarkable ways [from the Civil War]. The seven Democratic administrations that straddled the first six decades of the nineteenth century gave little if any encouragement to the development of American finance by holding the government’s role in the economy strictly to exchanges of specie. A good deal of the capitalization of American industry in the 1820s and 1830s had to be imported from abroad. But the war and the Republicans changed that: First, the threat of the civil war drove foreign investors off the American securities market, drove down demand, and allowed American investors to step into the vacuum; then, the Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ abiding suspicion of the financial markets and took the nation off the gold standard; finally, the immense amounts of money needed to carry on the war crated a new class of financiers — bankers, insurers and brokers such as Jay Cooke — who dealt in unprecedented volumes of cash and securities. The creation of the national banking system in 1863, and the subsequent disappearance of state bank currencies from Northern circulation, helped to further shift massive new amounts of financial power in the hands of financiers.

But there was a downside, one that may still be fresh in our memory:

Northern finance quickly outstripped the capacity of the Federal government to oversee and regulate it, and the financial community soon found itself agitating for a return to the gold standard, to to restrain the freewheeling dealings of the financial markets, but to slow down currency inflation and attach the markets to a standard independent of federal control. This meant, in effect, returning the United States to its dependence on the international flow of specie, especially through the hands of British financiers, and when the British financial markets failed in 1873, they carried Jay Cooke and other American financiers down with them.

Guelzo continues:

The most important change in the shape of the postwar American economy was organizational rather than industrial or agricultural; . . . Before the Civil War, only about 7 percent of American manufacturing was organized in corporations. . . . By 1900 corporations accounted for 69 percent of all manufacturing. . . “Now,” warned James A. Garfield in 1874, “a class of corporations unknown to the early law writers has arisen, and to them have been committed the vast powers of the railroad and the telegraph, the great instruments by which modern communities live, move, and have their being.” (Fateful Lightning, 519-21)

The lesson very could well be that original notion of too big to fail came with a refusal to allow the South to secede and thereby reduce the size of the U.S. By insisting on perpetual union and continuing to mock those who dissent from the federal government’s demands for uniformity and standardization, the U.S. has become the sort of imperial power against which its founders rebelled.