I had long been looking forward to the release of Eric Foner’s timely new book The Second Founding: How The Civil War And Reconstruction Remade The Constitution.
It was released in the midst of a heated debate on the Right about American Nationalism, the meaning of the American Founding and classical liberalism. As a Southern Nationalist, it seems odd finding myself largely in agreement with Eric Foner, but I enjoyed the book which is more or less a positive take on beliefs about the Constitution that I have held for decades.
Neo-Confederates have always believed that Abraham Lincoln killed the Constitution during the War Between the States and that the America that had been created by the Founding Fathers was finished off in the Reconstruction era by the Radical Republicans. The South seceded from the United States to conserve the original White Republic and the Union as a federation of sovereign states which our ancestors felt was doomed under a Black Republican president. Eric Foner argues in The Second Founding that our view of history is essentially correct.
1 out of every 5 Southern White men of military age died during the War Between the States to conserve a federal republic of sovereign states based on white supremacy, agrarianism and Christianity – the South’s traditional social order. Slavery was the occasion of the conflict, not the cause. It was relatively secure where it was under the Constitution. The true cause was that the industrial and commercial North, which had always admired the British Empire, wanted to overturn our entire structure of government and make the federal government the master of the states in a new empire based on liberalism and free-market capitalism.
Federalism doesn’t exist in liberal theory. Equality is not a part of the original Constitution except in the sense that each sovereign state was entitled to equal representation in the Senate in spite of huge differences in population. Black slaves were counted by the Census under the 3/5th ratio and Indians were recognized as sovereign tribes. Liberals have always misrepresented a single line in the Declaration of Independence because the Constitution didn’t reflect their beliefs until the Reconstruction era. The Bill of Rights restricts the powers of the federal government and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.
What did this mean in practice? It meant that the Founders created a largely illiberal social order. Every Southern state maintained chattel slavery down to 1865. White supremacy became even stricter in the White Republic as free blacks lost citizenship in Pennsylvania, voting rights in a number of states and manumission laws were tightened up. Indians were removed from the Southeast to Oklahoma and were replaced by White settlers who colonized the Trans-Appalachian West. The rights of women were legally subsumed by their husbands under the legal doctrine of coverture. Women lost the right to vote in New Jersey during the White Republic. Free blacks in New England were cast into legal limbo by the Dred Scott decision. America used to be a decent and illiberal place to live because it was ruled by our ancestors until 1861.
In the White Republic, it was a crime in the South to distribute abolitionist literature. Blacks were legally forbidden from owning firearms and consuming alcohol. The First Amendment and Second Amendment restricted the power of the federal government, not the state governments. There was no such thing as birthright citizenship in a unitary liberal state. The federal government had no power to enforce civil rights or to interfere with slavery where it existed. American citizenship was derived from state citizenship which is why Southerners felt that their primary loyalty was to their states. Even the United States was used in the plural, not singular sense.
During the Reconstruction era, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery which to this day is still said to be the cause of the war. The Fourteenth Amendment, however, completely transformed the structure of our government by establishing birthright citizenship in a unitary liberal state based on equal rights. It created a consolidated despotism that empowered the federal government to restrict the powers of the state to force liberalism and free-market capitalism on the South. It was such a sweeping change that it effectively amounts to a Second Constitution. It was one that was imposed on the South at gunpoint under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 as a condition for “readmission” to the Union which supposedly we had never left when we seceded from it. The “Civil War” had been ostensibly fought by the North because secession was illegal, but during Reconstruction it was granted that we had actually left the Union.
Southerners had claimed before the war, during the war and after the war that the liberal ideal of equal rights and consolidated government would open up a Pandora’s Box of fanaticism which they called “Radicalism” or “Black Republicanism.” This is why Southerners insisted that slavery was only the “occasion” of secession. It was the “incident” that brought it about, not the real issue being contested. To be sure, Southerners thought that once abolition had triumphed and the Constitution had been overturned that the North which was thought to be so fond of “novelties” would launch and impose new social revolutions on the country and would use the power of the federal government to do it. There are no limits to the ideal of “equal rights.”
Eric Foner gleefully notes that a mountain of jurisprudence has been built upon the Fourteenth Amendment because it is our Second Constitution, but is disappointed that almost nothing but the destruction of chattel slavery has been built upon the Thirteenth Amendment. His aim in the book is to promote the idea that the Reconstruction Amendments are a “Second Founding” which can be constructed by the federal courts to use federal power to further push the frontier of progressive liberalism beyond where it is now. Sadly, he believes there was a retreat from Reconstruction from 1877 through 1945 which pared back the scope of the Second Founding.
If you think about it, Eric Foner is right. The genealogy of transgenderism can be traced back through the history of progressive liberalism to abolitionism, Black Republicanism and the Second Founding. Its most prescient Southern critics in the antebellum era like George Fitzhugh diagnosed classical liberalism and free-market capitalism as an intellectual disease and predicted that both would destroy the social fabric over time and would eventually end in socialism. It is worth revisiting his warning to future generations of Americans.
We need a Second Redemption to end the Second Reconstruction.
“We warn the North, that every one of the leading Abolitionists is agitating the negro slavery question merely as a means to attain ulterior ends, and those ends nearer home. They would not spend so much time and money for the mere sake of the negro or his master, about whom they care little. But they know that men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation – once committed to the sweeping principle, “that man being a moral agent, accountable to God for his actions, should not have those actions controlled and directed by the will of another,” are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews – to no private property, no church, no law, no government, – to free love, free lands, free women and free churches. …
Socialism, not Abolition, is the real object of Black Republicanism. The North, not the South, the true battle-ground. Like Fanny Wright, the author of American Socialism, the agitators of the North look upon free society as a mere transition state to a better, but untried, form of society. The reader will not fully comprehend the ideas we would convey, without reading “England the Civilizer,” by Miss Fanny Wright. It is worth reading, not only as far the best history of the British constitution, but as the most correct and perfect analysis and delineation of free society – of that form of society which all Socialists and all thinking men agree cannot stand as it is. The Abolition school of Socialists like it because it is intolerable – because they consider it a transition state to a form of society without law or government. Miss Wright has the honesty to admit, that a transition has never taken place. No; and never will take place: be cause the expulsion of human nature is a pre-requisite to its occurrence.
But we solemnly warn the North, that what she calls a transition, is what every leading Abolitionist is moving heaven and earth to attain. This is their real object – negro emancipation a mere gull-trap.
In the attempt to attain “transition” seas of gore may be shed, until military despotism comes in to restore peace and security.
We (for we are a Socialist) agree with Mr. Carlyle, that the action of free society must be reversed. That, instead of relaxing more and more the bonds that bind man to man, you must screw them up more closely. That, instead of no government, you must have more government. And this is eminently true in America, where from the nature of things, as society becomes older and population more dense, more of government will be required. To prevent the attempt at transition, which would only usher in revolution, you must begin to govern more vigorously.”
-George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters (1857)