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Irrepressible Conflicts Everywhere

by Guest
August 24, 2001


Historian George M. Dennison suggests that already by the coming-of-age of the first post-Revolutionary generation, Americans had begun losing touch with the political doctrines and practices of the Revolution.1 Chief among these was the notion that political institutions were meant to serve actual people and were subject to modification, as needed, to that end. This is perhaps why Thomas Jefferson, for example, sometimes would say things to the effect that a little rebellion now and then was a good thing.

By the 1840s, certainly – if not earlier – many Americans had come to prize and understand order in a way that clashed with contractual, pragmatic, or utilitarian views of political institutions. This is somewhat understandable in a country where rapid territorial expansion by purchase and conquest, a revolution in transportation and communication, and the unbridled power of a largely unhampered market economy had created, for many people, a sense of disorientation and confusion. There was a wild sense of endless opportunity, but also more issues over which politicians and emerging interest groups could come into conflict.

According to Major L. Wilson, expansion into space (the frontier) and time (the future) led some Americans to adopt for their purposes an outlook very similar to what Mircea Eliade calls "the myth of the eternal return." That conception had deep roots in pagan, classical civilization, and had undergone revival in the civic republicanism of Renaissance writers like Nicolò Machiavelli, whence it trickled into the American Revolutionary synthesis by way of English opposition theorists.

In this "myth," a "cosmogonic act" of social creation is followed by a falling-away or degeneration from pattern and then, ideally, by a stage of regeneration or re-founding. This notion helped the ancients deal with the uncertainty of the future. While Wilson finds this to be "conservative" in some sense, he shows that in practice the doctrine lent itself readily to revolutionary projects presented as "restoration."


For a particular Northern political movement, whose overlap with a particular kind of post-millennialist Protestantism is worth noting, this reading of history became both worldview and program. This was the Free Soil movement, whose rank and file largely went into the Republican Party by the later 1850s.

For Free Soilers, the original founding embodied in the federal Constitution represented the height of moral and political perfection. Then, degeneration had crept in, led by the Southern states with their campaign of slavery expansion. The solution involved creating a new political will to stop and reverse Southern aggression, even at the price of a new cosmogonic act, or a re-founding.

Violence and revolution-as-restoration was already implicit in this view. These men were ready for total war and reconstruction, years before the first Southern state seceded from the union. In this crowd, Lincoln was considered a moderate.

The mythic character of this political outlook seems plain enough. One wonders if the Constitution was so perfect, after all. The Free Soilers' pretense that slavery was completely foreign to the original Constitution struck both the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Southern-rights spokesman John C. Calhoun as unhistorical nonsense. For them, the Constitution had clearly recognized slavery, even if they drew different lessons from the fact.

The essential point is that the Free Soil view deliberately blurred the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, claiming that the latter's purpose was to implement the former. In truth, the Constitution – perfect or otherwise – was a fairly practical affair designed to accommodate differing states with differing interests.


Now, my interest in this matter is not slavery, the expansion of slavery into the western territories, or the rest of it. My interest is the way in which the Free Soilers' and Republicans' view of history contributed to the most violent possible resolution of the issues on hand in 1860-1861 and then provided a bottomless source of moral rhetoric for the later US empire. As Wilson puts it, the Free Soilers' idea of "regenerating the national ideal involved a 'cultural purge' which, with the alternative of disunion ruled out, truly defined the terms of irrepressible conflict."2

The phrase italicized above underscores, for me, a certain lack of political creativity prevalent in 1860-1861. For many Northerners, the federal union had changed from a means to various ends, to an end in its own right. The union had taken on near-religious dimensions. Yet Americans had once viewed the union as a pragmatic experiment.3 Had that view lasted longer outside the South, we might have been spared our bloodiest war. I mention this in passing, since this is an antiwar site and I deny that any war is above criticism.

Leaving aside the question of whether the union was or was not of transcendent value, what is interesting is the moral posture taken by its Savers. Lincoln and his allies claimed to be working for all Americans, indeed for the future of all mankind, in their military exertions. The ideological fallout is still with us. As Robert Penn Warren noted, victory in this "civil war" – one outcome of which was emancipation – filled up a Treasury of Virtue, which later US statesmen took as proof of their inexhaustible righteousness in every succeeding controversy.

A narrow, mythic, self-centered outlook – whatever its original connection with a good cause, antislavery was – became a sort of charter for US imperialism, in the name of imposing universal values. Lincoln's and Seward's rhetorical bits about houses divided or "irrepressible" conflicts served later crusaders well. The world could not remain half slave and half free, said the Cold Warriors, referring (apparently) to geography.

Whether the Cold Warriors had any fundamental causal role in Soviet Russia's collapse seems open to doubt. On our side of the "iron curtain," the Cold Warriors' efforts at centralizing and militarizing America and its allies did bring about a world which is, in fact, half socialist and half free, that is, within countries, rather than between them. This may illustrate the perils of believing, in detail, in an inherited rhetoric.

Criticism of the reigning rhetoric of a successful imperial power is largely unwanted. In a world in which there are supposedly always two, and only two, historical possibilities, one can be seen as standing with the "other side." You don't want slavery – or Hitler, or Stalin, or Fill-in-the-Blank – to come back, do you? No – of course not, old chaps. But that is not the same thing as accepting the many myths, legends, false alternatives, and other claims on which the legitimacy of the current hegemonic power rests.

Typically, more is involved in crusades for universal values than just a sincere interest in the values. There is, after all, the crusade itself. If conflicts were always irrepressible, there would never be any peace. Here indeed is a field for the would-be critical theorists to look at, if they should ever take time off from misunderstanding "globalization."


  1. George M. Dennison, The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976), pp. 193-205.
  2. Major L. Wilson, "The Free Soil Concept of Progress and the Irrepressible Conflict," American Quarterly, 22, 4 (Winter 1970), p. 773 (my emphasis).
  3. See Paul C. Nagel, One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought, 1776-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

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