Our Founding Fathers understood that they had inaugurated a republican federal union unique in its balance and distribution of powers. Unlike their descendants, who self-indulgently congratulate themselves on their democracy, the Fathers also understood that the preservation of such a regime was a daunting and demanding task, requiring virtue (in the masculine Roman sense) on the part of the citizenry as well as national good fortune. How to prevent rulers from usurping the rights of the people in the long run—as rulers inevitably tend to do—and, on the other hand, prevent majority rule (in its proper role as the deliberate sense of the people) from devolving into tyranny?

From the beginning, the founding generation identified dangers to the republican federal union under two antagonistic rubrics worked out in the quarrels between the friends of Mr. Jefferson and the friends of General Hamilton. The latter believed the greatest danger to be “disunion,” that without a vigorous central power, self-government would perish from its own anarchic tendencies. The Jeffersonian party felt that liberty could be destroyed just as surely by another danger, “consolidation”: the absorption of the sovereignty of the inhabitants of the various states by any or all branches of a “general government” intent on grasping powers beyond its legitimate and limited few.

Jefferson clearly regarded disunion as the lesser evil. Disunion would disperse but not necessarily subvert government of the people, especially since no one generation could irrevocably bind posterity. It mattered little if the Union broke into independent states or into two or more confederacies: self-government would survive and thrive. But to invest the central government with the powers and divinity that had once been attributed to monarchs (i.e., “consolidation”) would certainly destroy self-government.

No people has ever forgotten, misunderstood, and misrepresented their history as have Americans, who recently celebrated the bicentennial of their Constitution without even mentioning the ideas of republicanism and federalism, though these were once considered to be the essential and unique features of the American regime. This is, to make a long story short, because in the middle of the 19th century the ideal of—and the instinct for—republican liberty was replaced by the doctrine of the state as a divine instrument of progress, both economic and moral. Each succeeding generation has enhanced the progress of consolidation through the pursuit of bestowed and managed prosperity and of the most socially destructive goal, egalitarianism. Impatient of constitutional principles that present obstacles to this pursuit, the American regime calls itself a “democracy because it reflects “majority rule.” Very seldom, though, docs majority rule express the deliberate sense of the people. More often than not it is a fluctuating coalition of self-interest groups (“factions” to the Founders) or an accidental “majority” like the 43 percent of the half of eligible citizens who voted that elected Clinton and the 39 percent that elected Lincoln.

One of the few certain laws one learns from the study of history is this: the pendulum always swings back, in some fashion or other. Throughout the civilized world people are, after more than a century of the seemingly inevitable progress of “consolidation,” seeking once more to constitute their own self-governing communities and to take back their fate from the swollen, greedy, incompetent, and irresponsible bureaucracies that govern them. So it may be time for a fresh look at the great conflict that lies at the center of our history, the last great anti-consolidationist rising that is still, in terms of the quantities of blood shed and the revolutionary objectives consummated, the largest event in our life as a people. To crush self-government in the Southern states required the life of every tenth northern, and every fourth Southern, white man.

For the current generation it is difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to imagine a conflict over principle. The Civil War, it assumes, could not have been about principle; it must have been about conditions: i.e., the status of the African-American (a misreading reenforced by the tendency to equate victory and virtue, even retrospectively). Yet while the war certainly crushed disunion, the status of the African-American remains even today a largely unsolved problem in the north as well as in the South. It is a neat historical serendipity that the fine documentary edition of the papers of President Jefferson Davis has just reached the secessionary year of 1861. The very skilled and knowledgeable editors have included Davis’s most important state papers, a judicious selection out of an overwhelming corpus of documents that illuminate the creation of the Confederate government in the midst of life-and-death struggle.

The glamour of the Confederate military leaders is fixed in the understanding of the world; as long as men continue to admire courage, chivalry, dash, and honor, only the hopelessly churlish can fail to be moved. The civil leaders of the South have fared much less well. Yet Davis is one of the most interesting men in American history, a tragic hero of epic dimensions. If the moguls of Hollywood docudrama had any taste and any sense of history they could find in Davis a story worthy of the pen of Shakespeare. Jefferson Davis and Varina, his wife, had one of the truly great romances of American history. I exaggerate not in the least: she was beautiful, passionate, highly intelligent, courageous, and loyal almost beyond crediting—truly one of the handful of the most remarkable and admirable women in all of American history.

Lincoln was lucky to leave the scene when he did, a martyr without the stain that Reconstruction would inevitably have brought to his reputation. Davis, by comparison, was traduced by a government that kept him shackled in prison for two years, while denying him the trial he craved. He could not be brought to trial because, of course, any open and fair judicial proceeding would have established beyond any doubt that secession by state government from the Union is not treason. Who knows but that we might have here a rediscovered hero of the future, when the impatience of the people with the ever-encroaching state has reached its limit. In the meantime, if you wish to begin to understand the story of our country, I recommend that you read the letter Jeff Davis wrote on January 20, 1861, to his northern friend Franklin Pierce, as well as his farewell speech to the Senate the following day as he withdrew to join his seceding state: “W’c recur to the principles upon which our government was founded. We but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence.” Or his inaugural address on February 18 of the same critical year: “Our present condition . . . illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed. . . . We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of our government. The Constitution formed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States.”


[The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 7: 1861, edited by Linda Lasswell Crist and Mary Seaton Dix (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press) 557 pp., $50.00]