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The War Power is All Power

A bill to establish a Bureau of Freedmen’s Affairs was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 17, 1864, by Massachusetts Republican Rep. Thomas D. Eliot. Democrat Rep. Samuel S. “Sunset” Cox of Ohio responds to the bill, in part, below.

The War Power is All Power

“Mr. Cox said: “Mr. Speaker . . . the member who introduced it [Mr. Eliot] recalled to our minds the fact that we opposed the confiscation bill for its inhumanity. This bill is founded in part on the confiscation system. If that were inhuman, then this is its aggravation. The former takes the lands which are abandoned by loyal or disloyal whites, under the pressure of war; while the present system turns these abandoned lands over to the blacks.

The effect of former legislation has been, in his opinion, to bring under the control of the Government large multitudes of freedmen who “had ceased to be slaves, but had not learned how to be free.” To care for these multitudes he presents this bill, which, if not crude and undigested, yet is sweeping and revolutionary.

It begins a policy for this Federal Government of limited and express powers, so latitudinarian that the whole system is changed. If the acts of confiscation and the proclamations, on which this measure is founded, be usurpations, how can we who have denounced them favor a measure like this?

This is a new system. It opens a vast opportunity for corruption and abuse. It may be inaugurated in the name of humanity; but I doubt, sir, if any Government, much less our Government of delegated powers, will ever succeed in the philanthropic line of business such as is contemplated by this bill.

The gentleman from Massachusetts appeals to us to forget the past, not to enquire how these poor people have become free, whether by law or by usurpation, but to look the great fact in the face “that three million slaves have become and are becoming free.” Before I come to that great fact, let me first look to the Constitution.

My oath to that is the highest humanity. By preserving the Constitution amidst the rack of war, in any vital part, we are saving for a better time something of those liberties, State and personal, which have given so much happiness for over seventy years to so many millions; and which, under a favorable Administration, might again restore contentment to our afflicted people. Hence the highest humanity is in building strong the ramparts of constitutional restraint against such radical usurpations as is proposed to be inaugurated by measures kindred to this before the House.

If the gentleman can show us warrant in the Constitution to establish this eleemosynary system for the blacks, and for making the Government a plantation speculator and overseer, and the Treasury a fund for the Negro, I will then consider the charitable light in which he has commended his bill to our sympathies.

The gentleman refers us for the constitutionality of this measure to the war power [of Lincoln], the same power by which he justifies the emancipation proclamation and similar measures. We upon this [Democratic] side are thoroughly convinced of the utter sophistry of such reasoning.

If the proclamation be unconstitutional, how can this or any measure based on it be valid?

The gentleman says, “If the President had the power to free the slave, does it not imply the power to take care of him when freed?”

Yes, no doubt. If he had any power under the war power, he has all power.

Under the war power he is a tyrant without a clinch on his revolutions. He can spin in any orbit he likes, as far and as long as he pleases.”

(Eight Years in Congress, 1857-1865: Memoir and Speeches of Samuel S. Cox, Samuel S. Cox, D. Appleton and Company, 1865, excerpts pp. 354-356)

Radical Experiment in the District

On January 4, 1867, President Andrew Johnson was preparing his veto of the District [of Columbia] Suffrage Bill, telling his cabinet of issues with the Bill. He pointed out that “New York Negroes were obliged to comply with property requirements not necessary for white voters”, while other Northern States like Pennsylvania and Indiana excluded them from voting altogether.”

Johnson added that “the representatives of States where suffrage is either denied the colored man or grant [voting rights on qualifications being met] . . . should compel the people of the District of Columbia to try an experiment which their own constituents have thus far shown an unwillingness to test for themselves . . .” It was clear to Johnson that the motivation for Negro suffrage was the voting potential they held, and the potential for Republican Party political hegemony in the future. This led to virtually unbroken Republican national rule until Woodrow Wilson.

It is noteworthy that when the Emancipation Bill of April 1862 provided freedom for colored people in the District, which also compensated their owners, Lincoln insisted that the measure be coupled with a $100,000 appropriation to settle the freedmen in Haiti and Liberia.

Radical Experiment in the District

“The question of voting by Negroes had become by this time a burning national issue and one on which the Republican Party was by no means unanimous. Even in the North only six States permitted Negro suffrage without restrictions. Negroes were not permitted to vote in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and . . . New York still maintained property qualifications for Negro voters.

The Radical wing of the Party, led by [Charles] Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, was, however, adamant on this issue. It was essential in their opinion that the colored man should be permitted to vote . . . [and] the control of the Southern States by the Republican Party could be maintained by the Negro vote, since it was quite inconceivable that the vast majority of Negroes would vote for any other Party than the Republicans who had freed them.

Realizing the difficulties of achieving Negro suffrage in the States, the leaders of the Radical Wing of the Republican Party began to turn their attention to the District of Columbia over which Congress had jurisdiction.

If Negro suffrage could be achieved in the District, with its large colored population, that would set the standard which some of the Southern States might be eventually be persuaded or compelled to follow.

Thus the municipal politics of Washington and Georgetown were to become a vital issue in the struggle for power between the Radical Republicans in Congress and Andrew Johnson, the Conservative Democrat in the White House.”

(The Uncivil War: Washington During the Reconstruction, 1865-1878, James H. Whyte, Twayne Publishers, 1958, excerpts pg. 37)

Radical Republican Motivation

Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, admitted that he had no authority to wage war against States and understood that action as treason.

As “treason” is mentioned often in Radical literature, it is important to understand the constitutional definition of this as defined in Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution:

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” And “secession” is what is celebrated in the United States every Fourth of July.

Having militarily destroyed the American South’s political and economic strength as well as causing a million deaths in the process, the Republican party was determined to maintain political hegemony and turn the South into an economic colony.

Once the South was defeated and occupied, Republicans created a solid bloc of black voters to politically dominate the South.

Radical Republican Motivation

“Although the South lost the war, the “slave power” did not give up but continued the struggle in a different form. Recognizing the continuing and persistent menace, Michigan’s Governor Henry Crapo, warned in 1866: “It is not slavery, but the spirit which seeks to make slavery the corner stone of the empire, that we now have to guard against – that element of hatred to freedom and equality that instituted the conflict . . . That spirit is neither dead nor sleeping . . . Having failed so utterly in the resort to force, it will but recuperate its energies for a more insidious attack in a different method of warfare. “

However incomplete or inaccurate they might be, such views were to constitute the bases of the Radical Republican program for a decade after the Civil War. The identification of the Republican party with the promotion of freedom and democracy against “slave power” and “aristocracy” gave the Republicans a messianic sense of destiny.

Republican identification of the Democratic party with slavery and treason made Republican control of the national government a patriotic necessity. Further, Republicans viewed the struggle as occurring between ageless, eternal principles – “slave power” and “aristocracy” were resilient, crafty, and powerful.

Far reaching and drastic measures were necessary to extirpate their roots. The Republicans willingly accepted the appellation of “Radical” . . . [and] had developed much of their program long before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The Southerners, stated [Michigan Congressman] John Longyear should be treated as subjugated enemies.

[US] Senator Jacob Howard [of Michigan] . . . wanted a genuine loyalty in the South as the basis for readmission to the Union. “The people of the North,” he prophesied, “are not such fools as to fight through such a war as this, to spend so vast an amount of treasure, as they must necessarily spend in bringing it to a successful termination – that they are not such fools as to sacrifice a hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand lives in putting down this rebellion, and then turn around and say to the traitors, “All you have to do is to come back into the councils of the nation and take an oath that henceforth you will be true to the Government.” Sir, it would be simple imbecility, folly . . .”

Until a majority became loyal [to the North], Howard advocated keeping [the South] out of the Union and in “tutelage” up to twenty years. Howard reasoned that a hostile and belligerent community could not claim the right to elect members of Congress.

“Are public enemies,” he asked, “entitled to be represented in the Legislature of the United States?” “A secession traitor,” Senator [Zachariah] Chandler growled, “is beneath a loyal Negro. I would let a loyal Negro vote. I would let him testify; I would let him fight; I would let him do any other good thing, and I would exclude a secession traitor.”

(Radical Republican Motivation, George M. Blackburn, Journal of Negro History, Volume LIV, Number 2, April 1969, Carter G. Woodson, editor, excerpts pp. 110-112)

Only Congress May Draw the Sword

Alexander H. Stephen’s criticism of President James Polk sending American troops to the Rio Grande in July 1845 and threatening Mexico, inspired his arraignment of Lincoln in 1861 for leading the country into an avoidable war.

In Lincoln’s case, his party’s governors provided the troops for his unconstitutional actions and invasion of Southern States, and subjugated a free people with an “oath of allegiance administered at the point of a bayonet.” Stephens foresaw the treatment the South would receive.

Only Congress May Draw the Sword

“From [his] first speech in Congress to his last before the war, his straight line of endeavor was to preserve the Union under the Constitution. His opposition to Texan annexation was not pleasing to the South . . . and the first to bring him into national prominence, contained the oft-quoted sentences which revived against him at the South the charges of abolitionism while at the North he was accused of laboring for slavery extension:

“My reason for wishing it [the slavery limit] settled in the beginning, I do not hesitate to make known. I fear the excitement growing out of the agitation hereafter may endanger the harmony and even existence of our present Union . . . I am no defender of slavery in the abstract. I would rejoice to see all the sons of Adam’s family in the enjoyment of those rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence as natural and inalienable . . .”

The right of the Union to “acquire territory” and the wisdom of doing so were questioned. He declared for expansion but against imperialism: “This [annexation] is an important step settling the principle of our future extension. We are reminded of the growth of the Roman Empire which fell of its own weight; and of England, who is hardly able to keep together her extensive parts. Rome extended her dominions by conquest, she compelled provinces to bear the yoke; England extends hers upon the principle of colonization; her distant dependencies are subject to her laws but are deprived of the rights of representation.

With us, a new system has commenced, characteristic of the age. It is a system of a Republic formed by the union of separate independent States, yielding so much of their sovereign powers as are necessary for national and foreign purposes, and retaining all others for local and domestic objects. Who shall undertake to say how far this system may not go?”

He said, speaking of Mexican territory:

“No principle is more dangerous than that of compelling other people to adopt our form of government. It is not only wrong in itself, but contrary to the whole spirit and genius of liberty we enjoy.”

Asking if the Mexican war was waged for conquest:

“If so, I protest . . . I am no enemy to the extension of our domain . . . but it is not to be accomplished by the sword. We can only properly enlarge by voluntary accessions.”

In his denunciation of [President James] Polk’s abuse of power . . . :

“Only Congress can constitutionally draw the sword. The President cannot. The war was brought upon us while Congress was in session and without our knowledge. The new and strange doctrine is put forth that Congress has nothing to do with the conduct of the war; that the President is entitled to uncontrolled management; that we can do nothing but vote men and money to whatever extent his folly and caprice may dictate.

Neighboring States may be subjugated, extensive territories annexed, provincial governments erected, the rights of conscience violated, and the oath of allegiance administered at the point of the bayonet . . .”

(Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, Myrta L. Avary, editor, LSU Press, 1998, excerpts pp. 31-32)

Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

Alexander Hamilton was no friend of the Articles of Confederation and the decentralized republic it represented, but he did know the limits of newly-created federal power within the new constitution. His view was that States retained any authority not specifically delegated, and that State troops, as in 1861-1865, would constitutionally resist any invasion to preserve their independence and sovereignty.

James Madison wrote of this as well, stating that more than one State might band together, as in the later Confederate States of America, to resist any and all encroachments on State sovereignty by the federal agent created by the States.

Alexis de Toqueville, the French traveler in the America of 1831-32, saw firsthand the powers of “this strange new democratic monster” that would within thirty years gain control of the federal government and consolidate all, by force, into one common mass.

Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

“In Toqueville’s opinion, the many levels of responsibility acted as buffers against the tyranny of the majority that ordinarily characterized democracy. Then United States possessed a centralized government but not a centralized administration.

To what extent American self-government was an outgrowth of the federal constitution, or merely a by-product of their habits and experiences, remains to be seen. This much, however, is clear: no subject so agitated the founding fathers as the possible loss of local responsibility under a federal government. The new constitution had to be designed in a way that maximized State autonomy.

As Hamilton put it in Federalist 62, “The equal vote allowed to each State [i.e. in the Senate] is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residual sovereignty.”

Although Hamilton favored a centralized economic authority, he argued that the federal government could not legitimately use the taxing power as an excuse to interfere in the internal government of the States. In Federalist 28, he argued that State militias would be called out to resist invasions of sovereignty.

[James] Madison concurred, and in Federalist 46 suggested that the States would band together to prevent such encroachments. Even the arch-federalist John Marshall declared (in McCulloch v. Maryland) that “no political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.”

Interference in the life of local communities had been one of the complaints against the royal government. The anti-Federalists were afraid that, by adopting the Federal Constitution, they were saddling themselves with another absolutist regime. Mass democracy, as Toqueville realized, was dangerous.”

(The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming, Transaction Publishers, 1988, excerpts pg. 200)

The American Right of Revolution

The northeastern United States of the late 1820s were sufficiently prosperous to have a large group of “substantial citizens” . . . manufacturers and journalists interested in the cause of domestic industry, and their purpose was to influence the passage of a new tariff act.” For the most part these men were industrialists and focused on increased profits, not national stability.

The South was in economic distress at the time and the new, higher tariff “seemed to end once and for all any prospect of relief, and many [Southerners] were ready for outright rebellion, even as New England had been in 1814.”

For South Carolina to nullify a federal law it viewed as obnoxious and injurious to its citizens, was a full expression of the Tenth Amendment — inserted into the Constitution for an obvious purpose. The next logical step of an injured State would be peacefully withdrawing from a political union which no longer fulfilled the purposes for which it was formed. And if withdrawal was met with violence, revolution was next.

The American Right of Revolution

“Controversial as Nullification was in the absence of original records before 1828-1833, Americans still continued to believe in federalism and States’ rights. In the words of Alexander Johnston, “Almost every State in the Union in turn declared its own sovereignty and denounced as almost treasonable similar declarations by other States.”

Herman V. Ames in fact compiled a “collection of documents on the relation of the States to the Federal Government” in 1911. They were “selected especially,” he observed, “with a view to illustrate the development of the “compact theory” of the Constitution and the doctrine of “State Rights,’ State opposition to the Federal Judiciary, and the different phases of the slavery controversy, culminating in the secession movement.”

That we believe otherwise today, in Nullification’s unconstitutionality and [John C.] Calhoun’s and the South’s apostasy from the beliefs of the founders and framers, is explained by another and longer era of historical amnesia by which original intentions as described herein in length were not so much forgotten as between 1789 and 1819, but purposely misinterpreted both to nullify the Nullifiers of South Carolina and to establish a mythical history for a new nation in the making that was the central development of the years after the War of 1812 and until the Civil War.

While this more liberal-democratic-egalitarian-nationalist America was yet inchoate as the confused politics of the 1820s and 1830s inform us, it was there nonetheless in Jacksonian Democracy and nationalism and radical abolitionism which were, it is forgotten, minority movements. The union of the States persisted with the 18th century Whig-republican ideology still extant as the core set of beliefs within the misnamed Democratic party that was really republican with a small “r.”

The liberal-in-a-neo-Hamiltonian sense-Whigs of the 19th century co-existed long enough to make party politics interesting and popular and the preserve the old union of the States. If not republicans, most Americans before the Civil War remained at least federalists. Nullification may have come and gone, but the “right of revolution” continued to be accepted as an original intention and the ultimate means to preserve liberty.”

(Nullification, A Constitutional History, 1776-1833, Volume II: James Madison and the Constitutionality of Nullification, 1787-1828, W. Kirk Wood, University Press of America, 2009, excerpts pg. 105)

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

Washington’s warning regarding foreign entanglements, as well as John Quincy Adam’s belief that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, were forgotten by Woodrow Wilson’s reign. In the latter’s time there were those in Congress who saw that Britain was a preferred creditor of American business interests and thus had to be bailed out with American lives and fortune.

The question must be asked: Had Britain been left on its own to seek an armistice with Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm remaining on the throne, would a German nationalist rising out of American intervention and German defeat have occurred?

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

“[In] the period of neutrality of the First World War more Southerners opposed intervention and Wilson’s foreign policies than they did intervention and [FDR’s] foreign policies in the period of neutrality of the Second World War.

In an editorial of March 11, 1917, the Greensboro Daily News said the rich and the heads of corporate industry wanted war, not the great, silent masses. It was persuaded by its readers’ letters, it said, “that the masses of people of this section have little desire to take a hand in Europe’s slaughter and confusion.”

Several Southerners in Congress, such as Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, majority leader in the House of Representatives, and Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, opposed Wilson’s foreign policy and upheld traditional isolationist views. Vardaman belonged to that “little band of willful men” who in February 1917 successfully filibustered against Wilson’s Armed Neutrality bill and was one of the six senators who voted against war with Germany.

In his opposition speech of April 8, 1917, to Wilson’s request for war, Kitchin insisted that the President’s foreign policy had been pro-British from the outbreak of hostilities. “We are to make their quarrel, right or wrong, our quarrel,” Kitchin said. “We are to fight out, with all the resources in men, money and credit of the Government and its people a difference between the belligerents of Europe to which we were and are utter strangers.” This was a view many isolationists, North and South, could accept.

Kitchin and the South resented, among other things, Britain’s blockade because of its adverse effect on cotton and tobacco growers . . . [as] in the first two years of the war, the South suffered more from the blockade than any other section. The possibility that the Southerners in Congress might join with the German-American and Irish-American elements to force a retaliatory arms embargo against the British for suppression of the cotton trade with Central Europe appeared in 1915 as a grave threat to Anglo-American relations.

“The cotton producers of North Carolina and the entire South are aroused over the action of Great Britain in declaring cotton contraband,” Claude Kitchin announced, according the Greensboro Daily News of August 27, 1915, “and they want the Administration to be as emphatic in dealing with England on this score as it has been dealing with Germany over others.”

Throughout the South there was a widespread campaign for retaliation against the British government.

The British, to pacify the South, finally made a secret agreement with the American government to buy enough cotton to stabilize the price at ten cents a pound. British buying . . . soon drove up cotton prices and the crisis passed.”

(The South and Isolationism, Alexander Deconde; The South and the Sectional Image, The Sectional Theme Since Reconstruction, Dewey W. Grantham, editor, Harper & Row, 1967, excerpts pp. 120-121)

America’s Slide Toward Totalism

Robert A. Taft, son of William Howard Taft, was the last prominent Republican who might be considered a classical liberal and conservative Republican. Another would not appear until Barry Goldwater in the mid-1960s, and no more to this day. For the 1952 presidential election, he was cast aside by the Republican Party to make way for Dwight Eisenhower, a career military man with no political ideals or experience.

Though a constant critic of Roosevelt’s assumption of powers not granted to the executive, it is difficult to understand how Taft could state that he was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who began in earnest the erosion of constitutional principles and whom FDR emulated.

America’s Slide Toward Totalism

“By the time Bob Taft was elected to Congress, the New Dealers’ admiration for the Soviet experiment had diminished markedly, yet there remained the possibility that the United States might slide, almost unwittingly, toward totalist politics.

The maintenance of ordered freedom being the root of Taft’s politics, he never ceased to warn the American public against the erosion of constitutional principles, and he never was deterred by ridicule.

“The trend of thought on forms of government throughout the entire world,” Taft insisted, “has been pushing all peoples consciously or unconsciously away from democracy to different forms of totalitarianism. In Europe, democratic ideals were crushed between the dynamic dogmas of Communism and Fascism.

In the United States, we often lose sight of the real nature of the principles on which freedom depends, in our desire to remake our world according to the popular method of the day – methods formulated for the most part by European socialists.”

The American people had perceived by 1938, he said, that this tendency was most perilous; but the coming of the war diverted public attention from such fundamental concerns. So in speech upon speech, during the Second World War, Taft prodded Americans into vigilance against the encroachment of collectivist ideas and measures at home. Some of the basic principles of American politics already had been damaged, he declared in 1941:

“We have seen during the past twelve years a steady increase in government regulation of business and of the individual, and we have seen, through courts which are hardly independent of the executive, a constant tendency to increase the powers of the federal government over the States, and the powers of the Executive over the individual.”

He saw his prediction[s] fulfilled:

“In our efforts to protect the freedom of this country against aggression from without, we are in a situation today where we must constantly be on guard against the suppression of freedom in the United States itself . . . Unfortunately the [Roosevelt] administration, more than any other in the history of the country, is utterly unscrupulous in its demand for more power . . .”

(The Political Principles of Robert Taft, Russell Kirk and James McClellan, Fleet Press Corporation, 1967, excerpts pp. 62-64)

“Who Shall Restrain the Will of the People?”

The American Founders foresaw the problem of abuse of power and the rise of a president who would cut the shackles of the Constitution, though they more feared sectionalism and an evil combination of the branches of government.

The abuse of power arose with a president who fomented war upon a State, which is treason under the Constitution, raised an army without the consent of Congress, and threatened to arrest and imprison all who defied him. With the formerly federal government afterward under absolute executive and congressional control, the schools educating young citizens on their fealty to national power.

James Louis Petrigu (1789-1863) was a South Carolina Unionist and served as that State’s attorney-general. His stated faith in education as the bulwark of a republic was unfortunately upset by government control of the schools.

“Who Shall Restrain the Will of the People?”

“As Petigru understood it, the United States Constitution confirmed what the Revolution had aimed to achieve. Reversing the Confederation’s dispersal of power was but a minor part of its accomplishment, for it had by its division of legitimate governmental power between the individual States and the federal union ensured the Revolution’s goals of restricting centralized public authority in the interests of individual liberty.

But individual freedom, as Petigru said in his 1844 Fourth of July oration, required positive government as well as restraints on legitimate power. This too the Constitution had accomplished with its system of checks and balances. Without both the powers allotted and the restraints imposed, “there would be no barrier between a dominant majority and the object they mean to effect.”

Thus, by creating a constitutional union that divided sovereignty between State and nation and checked the evil of concentrated power in any one branch of government, the American people had fulfilled the promise of their revolution.

But the problem of abuse of power was not obviated by the broadly democratic underpinning of the American experiment. Nowhere did Petigru more clearly address that dilemma than in the question he asked that Independence Day audience: “For who shall control where all are equal, or how shall the people restrain the will of the people?”

The best means to control the popular passions implied in his question was education. If a republic was to survive, he thought, its government must provide the schools necessary to cultivate in all its citizens the intellectual independence that was “the bright side of Democracy.”

Without access to knowledge, citizens would lack the ability to challenge their government, and individuals the means to protect their freedom . . . [and] withstand the force of majority opinion. And given Petigru’s opinion that “the Majority are wicked is a truth that passed long ago into a proverb,” republican government could not long survive unless it sponsored that learning, for “what hope is there for the human race when there is no minority?”

(James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter, William & Jane Pease, University of Georgia Press, 1995, excerpts pp. 149-150)

Worship of the Dynamo

Clement Eaton wrote that the plantation society of the Old South emphasized the family far more than in the North, and family graveyards were a familiar sight south of Mason and Dixon’s line. The family altar was a part of its religious mores, devotion to kin and tradition was essential, and “people were evaluated not so much as individuals but as belonging to a family, a clan.”

Additionally, the old Southern culture was different from our own age in its greater devotion to the classics; Hugh Swinton Legare of Charleston believed that their study “would form in [students] a pure taste, kindle their imaginations “with the most beautiful and glowing passages of Greek and Roman poetry and eloquence” [and] store their minds with “the saying of sages,” and indelibly impress upon their hearts the achievements of the Greek and Roman heroes.

The quest for the Northern conception of progress, unrestrained social change and an embrace of industrial capitalism changed all this.

Worship of the Dynamo

“The United States . . . does not possess many of the conservative advantages enjoyed by most premodern cultures . . . [and is] made up of dozens of peoples and cultures. Some are compatible with the culture of the original, predominantly British settlers; others are not.

We have long since lost our reverence for tradition. If the United States has a national tradition, it is the habit of change and the worship of the dynamo. Our most poignant folk hero is John Henry, the defeated enemy of progress.

The ordinary restraints imposed by community and religion survive most powerfully in the distorted forms of intolerance and superstition – much like the bizarre remnants of ancient paganism that endured for several centuries beyond the official Christianization of the Roman Empire. All that seems to bind us together as a nation is a vague ideology of liberty, equality and progress.

Apart from a certain natural inertia, there are few restraints on social innovation. Far from being unique, the United States has been, much like Athens, the education of the modern world.

Herein lies the special quality and crisis of our civilization. Our original and creative minds seethe with new ideas. A few of them are productive, but in the nature of things, most are not. There is nothing wrong with originality, but what is missing from the modern scene are all the powerful restraints, the governors that control the speed of social change, the filters of experience and tradition that sort out the practical from the merely clever.

What we lack are the divine oracles that thunder against any trespass upon ancient rights and any invasion of the nature of things. We have our prophets, it is true, but most of them insist on being creative men of original genius.

The family and the church have not disappeared . . . But they survive in isolated and individualized forms, which cannot impose much restraint upon the community or the state. In the 1980s . . . American families cannot even be sure of their right to rear their children without government interference.

The churches have seen their actual power reduced even more than the family. Today . . . the tax-exempt status of churches is regarded as a privilege granted by an indulgent government. Church schools are regularly taken to court in efforts to make them conform to the model of public education.

What is unsettling is the idea that community bodies – like local churches – have no part to play in exercising social control, that power is exclusively a function of the government and perhaps, the mass media.”

(The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming, Transaction Publishers, 1988, excerpts pp. 8-9)

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