“It has long been a grave question:” The Republican War Dilemma in American History, 1776-1861
“History has kept no account of times of peace and tranquility; it relates only ravages and disasters.” – Voltaire, Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations
“If a republic is small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it is large, it is destroyed by an internal vice.” – Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
In the wake of his resounding re-election and in response to a serenade of well-wishers, Abraham Lincoln made several remarks in November 1864 about the extraordinary circumstances of the time. He reminded the assembled crowd that a great historical question was at stake in the election and the war, a question present since the creation of the republic: “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies.” When Alexander Hamilton put forth the case for adopting the constitution, he was a bit wordier in his phrasing of this dilemma, but his point was the same:
All governments face a basic existential threat during any war, foreign or civil. Modern republics, devoted to the protection of the individual rights of their citizens, face a dilemma unknown to monarchies or any species of tyrannical dictatorship, in which the natural rights of individuals are not valued or even acknowledged. Always an experiment in so many ways, the American republic, as Lincoln tried to suggest, was passing in 1864 through the latest and most severe of trials.
Many scholars of the American Civil War and Lincoln have attempted to take their subject into an alternate historical plane, away from what came before and developed later. James G. Randall claimed the war was “sui generis,” and Herman Belz has asserted that Lincoln had an “ability to think beyond the horizons of his time and the limits of American experience.” Yet, these encomiums to uniqueness commit a grave historical injustice to the conflict and the man. Lincoln did not transcend his time at all. Unsurprisingly, he was very much a part of it. And even more than that, he was very much a part of a time earlier than his own as opposed to a transcendent future. Lincoln was a critically important part of a long historical tradition of republican thinkers who dwelled upon and dealt with the problems presented by republics at war, something I will refer to in this dissertation as the “republican war dilemma.”
The only way to understand that tradition and its significance is to examine carefully the relevant history, despite assertions that such an endeavor is not needed or of little value in this case. Certainly the Civil War was unlike every war which preceded it in American history in scope, carnage, vision, and bitterness. Although Nicholas and Peter Onuf have recently claimed that the “American Civil War was the first fully modern war,” Mark Neely is on to something important when he suggests that “we can reach a better understanding of the Civil War by viewing it from a long-range chronological perspective.” The American Civil War was only one example of a long line of republican experiments that had devolved into internal tumult. The specific reasons and circumstances, and the progress of the conflict, may have been unexpected or entirely new and unique, but just as important, the anticipation and fear of civil war had been part of America’s republican tradition long before Southern rebels fired upon Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.
Uncovering the origins of the republican war dilemma tradition in the earliest parts of the republic’s history will be the primary goal of this dissertation. The subsequent and derivative goal will be to trace the thinking surrounding this tradition through the history of the “antebellum” period, focusing on a broad selection of parties and individuals of every persuasion in the political, cultural, and intellectual world of this period. If difficulties in republicanism—extended republics, federalism, separation of powers, protecting individual rights while upholding majority rule, republican virtue—were legion and the founders of the American republic typically are lauded for solving many of them, those associated with war are never usually on the list of achievements. This is not from neglect by scholars. On the contrary, many historians of the various intellectual dilemmas which arose from republican theory have spent much of their time examining the impact of war on the other aspects they were studying. Gordon Wood, for instance, in his Creation of the American Republic dealt with the effects of the Revolutionary War for Independence on the creation of the new state governments and the subsequent rollback of many of their more radical constitutional provisions in the more sobering days of the peace following that war. But his focus and the focus of other scholars who have not ignored the impact of war on republican ideas and thinkers, was on republicanism as such, and war as an external force acting upon it, temporarily forcing it into alternative channels for only a short period before things could eventually return to some sort of status quo antebellum. I argue that it is crucial to conceive of war per se as a critical problem within the whole republican outlook because I think it is demonstrably clear that that is how republican thinkers and politicians themselves saw the issue. For a republic born in a destructive and long war, this should hardly be surprising.
Key to understanding this conception is recovering the living past that these thinkers lived with, worked with, and relied upon in their sometimes unprecedented endeavors. Trevor Colbourn pointed out more than four decades ago that for the founders “all the past was a storehouse, not of mere example, but of authoritative precedents.” In Federalist Number Twenty James Madison claimed, in very Aristotelian manner, that “Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.” Not only did this very experiential based epistemology, founded most obviously in Locke, inform the way the Founders went about creating the government, but it dominated the entire period after that and after them. Questions persisted regarding the efficacy of the republican “experiment” and its ability to survive and triumph in war. The prevailing conception of history and its proper uses, dominated as it was by Bolingbroke’s injunction about the philosophical lessons imbedded in the human past, as well as their understanding of the relevant history of republics, greatly informed how politicians approached the republican war dilemma. There were few major politicians in the period during and after the Revolution who would seriously make the case for a Cartesian approach to this matter or any other.
The works of historians specifically about war and its impact on political philosophers of the late enlightenment, along with their political offspring, are many and disparate, rarely in conversation with one another. The most rigorous and interesting attempt to grapple with the long history of republican government and, more importantly, republican thinking is Paul A. Rahe’s three-volume Republics Ancient and Modern (1994). War permeates all three volumes, notably in the breathtakingly violent world of ancient Greece. By the time one gets to Volume III—Inventions of Prudence: Constituting the American Regime, Rahe has made a compelling case that “in the short run, war—whether present or merely anticipated—can and often must override all other priorities and render even the achievement of justice a matter of secondary concern.” Rahe’s account of republican history, while vast and complex, and dealing with war frequently and often, still falls short. His purpose was a different one and so it is no surprise that his three volumes do not attempt to conceptualize this republican war dilemma as a specific concern, let alone to offer anything resembling a comprehensive account for the American case. My dissertation will seek to modify and build on Rahe’s work and explain more fully the role war played for American political thinkers during and after the revolution and in the years leading to the Civil War.
David C. Hendrickson, in 2003 and 2009, has addressed security against international threats as a primary concern in the formation of the American Constitution and the internal political disputes of the republic right down to the Second World War. “Far from being indifferent to the security problems that have drawn the anxious attention of internationalists in the twentieth century,” Hendrickson argues, “Americans were obsessed by them from the American Revolution to the Civil War,” Hendrickson’s work seems a logical fit for the core historiography of this dissertation. Closely related to Hendrickson’s efforts are those of Max M. Edling, whose A Revolution in Favor of Government (2003) makes the claim that the debate which occurred at the founding of the republic was “neither… a debate about democracy nor liberalism, but… a debate about state formation.” While Hendrickson’s previous work seemed far more in tension with Edling’s approach, his latest scholarship comes closer to accepting Edling’s dismissal of the ideological context of state formation to focus far more on the alleged realpolitik primacy of the republic’s creation. My reading of the sources leads me to challenge this argument. State formation requires that the sort of state being formed have definition and underpinning. Those definitions and underpinnings are what made the English monarchy different from ancien régime France and what made them both different from the United Provinces of Holland as well as numerous other states and polities around the globe including, after 1789, a newly constituted American republic. That all of these governments shared the basic obligation to protect themselves from internal tumult and foreign aggression does not change the fact that a limited republican government such as existed in United States faced a series of challenges and questions not faced by other governments. Edling hints at this point obliquely when he correctly points out that “In important respects, this government was not a limited government, as the conventional interpretation of the Constitution holds, but an unlimited government.” But, even in the direst of circumstances, civil war, the political thinkers and politicians in power did not conceive of the republic’s power in this way. Lincoln, in the midst of “the greatest of calamities,” conceived of his role in crushing the Southern rebellion to be of limited scope and power. While he could and did confiscate all manner of property in the South and wage war on citizens he never acknowledged as being of a legally separate nation, he did not operate in a world without legal, constitutional, boundaries and restrictions. That Edling’s assumptions about what sort of government was created at the founding—an unlimited one—are not confirmed during what can only be described as the perfect crisis for vindication, suggests that he missed something fundamentally important. That something was the historically important and fundamentally republican question Lincoln posed and that I quoted at the opening. The republic had to be able to survive any sort of war to protect the rights and liberties it was established to protect without destroying them in the effort. It was a difficult balancing act that Lincoln, and those nationalists who came before him, were always aware of and which suggests that their own conceptions of their roles and responsibilities is at variance with that which Edling has constructed for them.
One other work that presents a broad interpretation of war in the early republic is Scott Silverstone’s Divided Union: The Politics of War in the Early American Republic (2004). Silverstone posits that while the republic did go to war twice between 1789 and 1861, the more remarkable thing is how many times war was averted or rejected by the government during that same period. While I will take issue with Silverstone’s claim that “the American founders did not have an empirical record to examine in order to evaluate how closely the actual behavior of federal states matched their theoretical expectations,” the question he identifies as being of primary concern to the founders is one which I will try to carry further into the history of the republic: “while the U.S. republic would not be immune from the worst traits of human nature, would the republican institutions of government hold them in check to decrease the likelihood that ambition, greed, or passion would actually drive the United States to war?”
The first chapters of this dissertation will draw together the philosophical and political influences on the founders concerning the topic of war while also looking to the experiences and lessons learned in the opening decades of republican governance. For example, General Washington’s supreme crisis at Newburgh in 1783, to be covered in Chapter Three, is indicative of the “extra” considerations that went into the republican mindset when dealing with issues related to war and its successful prosecution. It is far too easy to dismiss this episode as mere talk on the part of some disgruntled officers who were tired of not being paid by an inept Continental Congress, but that would be a mistake. Even if the conspiracy was ultimately illusory, Washington’s response to it demonstrated just how much war, in this case civil war, loomed in his understanding of the history of republican success and, more importantly, failure. Writing to Alexander Hamilton, himself no novice in the too-often sad and short history of republics, Washington told his friend and former aide that preventing “Civil commotions” that would “end in blood” was a predicament “as critical and delicate as can well be conceived.” When Washington finally gathered his officers together to shame them from any notions of acting against their government he held nothing back, telling them:
Washington’s knowledge of the tragedy of Cato the Younger, both of the man and the republic he tried to save, ran much deeper than simply a fondness for Joseph Addison’s dramatic adaptation. For the rest of his public career, Washington would do his utmost to keep his republic out of wars foreign and civil, not merely because he was not fond of warfare, but because, as he told Hamilton, if the cause which the revolution had been fought for—self-government and individual rights—failed, then “the blood we have spilt in the course of an Eight years war, will avail us nothing.”
Examples abound moving forward, from the fear of ambitious and conspiratorial individuals as diverse as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Andrew Jackson to the quite obvious real war situations against Great Britain in 1812-1815 and Mexico in 1846-1848. But there are other very serious episodes that litter the history of the early republic and antebellum periods, from the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1794 to the attempt of South Carolina nullifiers to reject federal law and threaten secession in the early 1830s to the general southern threat of secession in 1849 and 1850. While it may seem that these episodes are separated greatly in time, the people intimately involved in them are often the same. To illustrate this point briefly, I need only name a prominent few of the figures that will be analyzed and discussed in this dissertation: Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), Henry Clay (1777-1852), and Winfield Scott (1786-1866). Between them, these men were involved in ways important and meaningful in the following crises: the American Revolution, the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty debates, the Burr conspiracy and/or treason trials, the War of 1812, the acquisition of Florida, the Nullification Crisis, the Mexican-American War, the Crisis of 1850 and its compromise, and the Civil War. In some of these episodes, they were spectators and observers more than participants while in others they were principal actors who exerted great influence over events. They are but a puny sample of only some of the most prominent people one could cite to make this point. Many aged second generation republicans made it to see the republic falter into fratricidal bloodshed. While the political landscape and intellectual concerns certainly changed over time, the continuities which remained in personnel, problems, and ideas are striking. It is those continuities in the face of massive changes socially, culturally, and economically that will take up the greater portion of this dissertation.
The dissertation is organized to move forward chronologically within each chapter, but also thematically by chapter to cover as many different aspects of the republican war dilemma as possible. After an introduction that will explicate how philosophers and historians set the intellectual stage for the American founding fathers to conceive of and attempt to solve this problem, the first chapter will open this investigation in the fires of the American Revolution. That these issues had to be recognized and dealt with in the midst of a war merely adds to the heightened sense of the difficulty of the task the American Revolutionaries grappled with for eight years. Chapter Two examines the confederation period and the adoption of the Constitution. War was a central concern in this period as centrifugal forces in the West and internal weakness threatened to rip the fragile republic in pieces. Solving the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation as related to war and Union without destroying republicanism outright was a tightrope walk, but one that had to be attempted. Chapter Three examines a related, though peculiar, phenomenon related to war and the historical understanding thinkers at the time had of it: the designing ambitions and conspiracies of “dangerous men.” In a country so vast and with such a commitment to liberty, how would the republic defend itself against the machinations of the unfettered genius that it prized, fostered, and in some cases deified? Chapter Four examines the major foreign conflicts of the period surveyed by this dissertation. What led the republic to war and how did the execution of those wars show (or not) the concerns of the republic’s leadership for the issues involved in the republican war dilemma? Chapter Five will delve into the actual “rebellions” and near-rebellions the republic faced in the decades leading up to the Civil War. What response did the republic’s leaders take to combat these threats and what precedents did these reactions establish? Chapter Six will tackle, in broad strokes, the two outlying but very important issues of Indian warfare and the military threats and perils wrapped up in the institution of slavery in the American republic. Chapter Seven will end the story in an examination of Lincoln and the great Civil War he confronted when he became President. That calamitous episode provides the proper end point of this examination because of the thematic and conceptual continuities leading to the conflict and its clear status as the most serious military calamity to befall the republic at any point in the time when the republican war dilemma was still consciously thought of as fundamentally important to the republic’s survival. The conclusion will attempt to make the case for why this research and the republican war dilemma itself have continuing relevance in a world almost completely post-modernly oblivious to the warnings of Thucydides, Gibbon, and The Federalist.
The force of historical example, what Bolingbroke simply called “history” and that Madison labeled “experience,” lost some of its staying power over the years. By the end of the great bloodletting of the 1860’s it was no long exactly clear how the Peloponnesian War or the last partition of Poland spoke to the problems of the reunified and reconstructed American republic. The self-styled American Brutus, John Wilkes Booth, exclaimed to a puzzled and growingly alarmed crowd at Ford’s Theatre “sic semper tyrannus!” to tie himself to that noble assassin of the last days of Rome’s republic, but his understanding and application of that history was largely anomalous and vestigial. By 1865, all historical precedents and references seemed growingly inapplicable and irrelevant. What prior republic of so great a size had fought a horrible civil war over slavery and survived the experience with its republican liberties and principles intact, let alone enhanced by it? The ancients and all that came after them were at that moment as remote to those Americans as they are to present-day Americans, a far cry from the very real relevance they had held for American thinkers and statesmen leading up to the Civil War. This dissertation seeks to recreate that world. It will show how war itself played a central role in that historical understanding and in the precarious worrying done over the republic’s ability to survive without disintegrating or becoming the tyrannical leviathan Booth thought he was destroying and that thinkers like Thomas Hobbes thought was inevitable.