How To Win The ‘Cold Civil War’

Alan Keyes | Former Assistant Secretary of State

When our Constitutional government is implemented according to its terms, political leaders have to develop the habit of thinking in terms of principles and common purposes, instead of just reacting to happenstance.  Thanks to the elitist faction’s war against God (which includes the absurd doctrine of a “living constitution” written in rootless terms with no reliable meaning), the good citizens, and those whom they elect as their representatives, are not compelled to justify their views and proposals in terms of the common understanding of justice, right and rights that forms the common ground of their existence as a people.

Some time ago, I refreshed my remembrance of the Jacksonian era by revisiting Andrew Jackson’s biography.  Jon Meacham’s account of it (American Lion) includes the debate over tariffs, most remembered for Massachusetts’ Senator Daniel Webster’s reply to Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina, renowned for the peroration that evoked the “sentiment dear to every true American heart—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”  It’s worth remembering, however, that Webster’s appeal to the common heart of the American people occurred in the course of a debate over a proposed resolution requiring that the committee on Public Lands be instructed to inquire and report the quantity of public lands remaining unsold within each State and Territory, and whether it be expedient to limit for a certain period the sales of the public lands to such lands only as have been heretofore offered for sale, and are no subject to entry at the minimum price. And, also, whether the office of Surveyor-General, and some of the land offices, may not be abolished without detriment to the public interest; or whether it be expedient to adopt measures to hasten the sales and extend more rapidly the surveys of the public lands.

Though it appears in the guise of an administrative question, the resolution deeply concerned sectional interests.  It had to do with how the economic and political development of the West would affect the balance between North and South; slave states and free; as well as the competing imperatives of domestic industrial development vs. the expansion of the slave-labor plantation system. Though Webster’s speech is the one best remembered, it owed much to the fact that he was challenged to rise to the occasion of Haynes wide-ranging discourse, which pitted confederal liberty, in the guise of state and sectional interests, against Constitutional nationalism, embodied in the federal union the Government of the United States is supposed to represent.

Both speeches discussed what seemed to be an administrative question in terms of larger circumstance and fundamental principle.  Webster aptly illustrated the common sense this involved in the metaphor with which he began:

When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence, and, before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we are now…

The Webster-Hayne exchange was a passage in the long prelude to the outbreak of the American Civil War.  Recently, Carl Bernstein described the contentious incivility of our present politics as a “cold civil war.”  Other commentators and pundits pretend that we live in an era when the nationalist fervor expressed in Webster’s peroration is enjoying a dramatic revival—for good or ill, depending on the factional identity of the observer.  But the sense of fundamental principle and purpose both Webster and Hayne relied upon plays little or no part in our political discourse.

This neglect of principle is a tactical maneuver in the ongoing (and increasingly successful) elitist faction offensive against our constitutional self-government.  At its root, the word “principle” has to do with what comes first.  Like written laws, a written constitution is a reminder of what was said and agreed upon, in the first place, as the basis for understanding and action.  People who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution commit themselves to remember those first premises, so that their ongoing activity respects the purposes, standards and procedures set forth in them.

Socialism and pragmatism are the ideologies presently predominant in America’s elitist faction.  Both dogmas reject and despise the resort to principle that is a characteristic of constitutional statecraft.  For both, what matters for action is simply what’s happening, not any abstract judgment about events, made in light of premises previously ascertained.  This deprecation of abstract thought presumes and produces an obsessive preoccupation with power and its effects. This preoccupation mimics the discipline of empirical science, but without regard for the rule of reason (imposed by rigorous mathematical analysis) by which scientific results are produced, evaluated and applied.

But even if it were amenable to such discipline (as some quantitative social scientists pretend) the results would be inadequate for human affairs.  Human decisions about justice involve self-perceptions and comparisons that cannot easily be quantified.  Pride, humiliation joy, anguish and love are human experiences no fixed scale can weigh.  They are measured along a sliding and variable scale that, as we endure them, seems to stretch out almost to infinity.  As human beings, we judge all manner of greatness, including goods as well as evils, rights as well as wrongs, according to this scale.  It’s why, when we judge of human rights and justice, philosophers and poets, too must be consulted, for they often come closer to making these intrinsically abstract, yet deeply concrete experiences susceptible to judgment, than any quantitative scientist ever could.

Daniel Webster’s famous speech made a critical contribution to the moral equation that eventually contributed to the convictions that brought on the Civil War.  But, in its aftermath, those same convictions allowed Americans to recover their Union. If we are indeed in the midst of a “cold civil war”, it’s a good time to ponder Webster’s discourse.  It examples something of the union of reason and poetry, philosophy and religion, required to help us remember our common identity as a nation.  Yet this is the very admixture the elitist faction’s present corruption of our political life seeks most to discredit and defame.  There is no clearer evidence of that faction’s profound hostility to our nationhood.  Nor is there a better example of the qualities we must seek,  as we look to find champions of justice, right and liberty, to articulate and seal our convictions, as we strive to turn the tide against its dissolution.

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