woman writing letter

To the Editor:

I was fascinated†by John David Lewis’s article, “William Tecumseh Sherman and the Moral Impetus for Victory,” in the Summer 2006 issue of TOS. The parallel drawn between the†requirements for†defeating the South in the Civil War and the requirements for defeating states that support terrorism in the current war is noteworthy. The contrast between General Sherman’s merciless attacks on civilian sites†and the current concern over civilian casualties is striking.

Dr. Lewis noted that General Sherman had been vilified for ruthlessly crushing†the South and burning Atlanta to the ground.†Interestingly, he is also remembered for insisting on fair terms of surrender once the southern army relinquished its fight. On a recent trip to North Carolina, I visited the Bennett House, site of the negotiations that led to General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman†on April 26,†1865. The tour guide at the Bennett House pointed out that General Sherman had no desire to take revenge†against the civilian population. Since†the negotiation took place shortly after President Lincoln was assassinated,†the government in Washington was eager for revenge. Sherman’s terms were considered too liberal and were disapproved by Secretary of War Stanton. After some bickering between Sherman and Stanton, the surrender agreement was drawn.

The†terms of the surrender agreement†were†strictly limited to Johnston’s army, leaving the civilian population free to pursue their economic well-being. The agreement was designed to ensure that the southern army was completely disarmed and relied on each soldier’s or officer’s word of honor not to take up arms against the government of the United States.

The complete text of the surrender agreement:

Terms of a Military Convention, entered into this 26th day of April, 1865, at Bennett’s House, near Durham Station, North Carolina, between General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major-General W. T. Sherman, commanding the United States Army in North Carolina:

1. All acts of war on the part of the troops under General Johnston’s command to cease from this date.

2. All arms and public property to be deposited at Greensboro, and delivered to an ordinance officer of the United States Army.

3. Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate; one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by General Sherman. Each officer and man to give individual obligation in writing not to take up arms against the Government of the United States, until properly released from this obligation.

4. The side-arms of officers, and their private horses and baggage, to be retained by them.

5. This being done, all the officers and men will be permitted to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities, so long as they observe their obligation and the laws in force where they may reside.

Apparently the surrender agreement was effective. The soldiers and officers of the South did not risk breaking their word of honor and unleashing Sherman’s wrath against them once more.

Michelle F. Cohen

Columbia, Maryland

To the Editor:

In “William Tecumseh Sherman and the Moral Impetus for Victory” (TOS, Summer 2006), John David Lewis demonstrates that the Civil War offers a powerful lesson about how to win a war: “by destroying the psychological and material foundations of an enemy’s will to fight.” While this central point is clear, I find his moral evaluation of the Civil War somewhat confusing. Lewis advances both the abolition of slavery and the restoration of constitutional authority as Northern goals. Yet Northern actions do not seem to indicate a principled adherence to either constitutional authority or individual rights.

Prior to the 13th Amendment, the Constitution left the issue of slavery to the states. Thus constitutional authority would dictate advancement of abolition by amendment, not force. Further, since the Constitution does not prohibit states from seceding, the 10th Amendment seems to permit it. South Carolina exercised this option and asked the United States—a foreign power—to withdraw the troops that it quartered within South Carolina’s borders. Respect for constitutional authority would compel the United States to accept this secession and withdraw its troops, to forbid the succession or refuse to withdraw with reference to precedent, or to ask for clarification from the courts. It is not clear that the United States acted to resolve these issues by reference to precedent or by judicial process. If it did not, then it failed to acknowledge constitutional authority, and this act of force—not the firing upon Fort Sumter—would mark the transition to war.

The North could not acquire and sustain the military force that it employed against the South without conscripting men. To avoid constitutional challenges to conscription, the North suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, denying the most basic civil right to those forced into labor by the collective. Despite conflict with two of the three civil rights amendments that the States ratified immediately following the Civil War—the 13th and 14th—the United States persisted in its claim that selecting and enslaving victims from a minority for “national defense” is among its powers.

While the North could not claim constitutional authority or individual rights as guiding principles, these ideas certainly played into the hostilities that erupted into the Civil War. Ratification of the United States Constitution required many compromises. Some of these festered as the new nation reacted to the growth in understanding of human rights that its formation fostered. It is notable that the North and South developed a division along a line of constitutional compromise other than the issue of private-sector slavery: sovereignty. While the Constitution essentially followed the plans of those demanding a strong central source of sovereignty, the Bill of Rights appeased those demanding significant State sovereignty. The Bill of Rights placed in the States those powers not granted to the federal government, restricted federal interference with a set of enumerated individual rights, and clarified that this enumeration is not exhaustive. The North leaned toward strong central power; the South leaned toward the constitutional provisions for attenuating this power, the Bill of Rights. The North certainly advanced its position in this compromise whether or not this motivated the movement to war.

David Lanning

Eagle, Idaho

John David Lewis replies to the letters of Ms. Cohen and Mr. Lanning:

I appreciate the chance to engage with these two letters, and the important issues they raise, even though I must thoroughly disagree with Mr. Lanning’s.

As Ms. Cohen wrote, Sherman did indeed negotiate a surrender with Johnston, which the Union government did not accept. Sherman was deeply concerned that northern politicians would dictate a harsh, retributive surrender, which might push southern soldiers into guerilla warfare. Sherman saw the military as better capable of demanding and receiving the enemy’s surrender than the politicians, for whom he carried little respect.

(This is, of course, the same Sherman who hated Washington politics, and who turned down the opportunity to be president more than once. He is famous for having said that, given a choice between four years in the penitentiary or the White House, he would choose the penitentiary.)

In a letter to Grant, written on April 25th, 1865, as the South was surrendering, he wrote:

I now apprehend that the Rebel Armies will disperse, and instead of dealing with six or seven states, we will have to deal with numberless bands of desperados headed by men such as Mosby, Forrest, Red Jackson, & others who Know not, and care not for danger or its consequences.

On April 28, 1865, he wrote to his wife: “I perceive the politicians are determined to drive the confederates into guerrilla bands, a thing more to be feared than organized war.” And in a letter to Major General John A. Logan, dated May 12, 1865, Sherman wrote: “Men who are now so fierce and who would have the Army of the Potomac violate my truce, and attack our enemy disheartened discomfited & surrendered will sooner or later find foes to face of a different metal.” (Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–1865, edited by B. D. Simpson and J. V. Berlin [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999].)

Mark Twain wrote a humorous short story, “Battle for Missouri,” about small groups in the South, running into the woods to fight the enemy. The one maneuver they learned quickly was how to retreat. But there is a serious point behind the humor. Had the southern officers not surrendered their armies under oath, and bound their men to give up the fight, the result could have been as Sherman feared.

So he negotiated directly with Johnston, as one honorable soldier to another. But the surrender included civil aspects that were beyond Sherman’s authority as a general, and were rejected by the Union government. For instance, it was not within Sherman’s authority to allow southerners to return home with their horses. This was a serious issue; an enemy with a horse is very dangerous, but a farmer cannot live without it. Sherman was ordered to re-commence hostilities, and to demand an unconditional surrender. Sherman disagreed with this, but followed his orders. Johnston surrendered unconditionally.

I have sympathy for what Sherman was trying to do, but I think the northern government was right to reject the surrender. The civilian authorities must set the terms of victory, and validate the terms of surrender. It is up to the military to achieve it. That does not mean a general cannot argue for the better terms—and Sherman did—but the final decision was not his.

Like most officers on both sides, he recognized the solemn importance of an honorable surrender. Once the surrender was received, and the South returned to constitutional authority, Sherman became—as he had promised—the protector of the South from northern politicians.

Mr. Lanning’s letter brings up a series of important issues, including: the relationship between the moral and the constitutional, the question of a constitutional power to secede, the extent of presidential authority in a time of emergency, the status of slavery under the Constitution, and the motivations of the North to fight the war. Detailed discussions of these issues were beyond the scope of my article, but a brief presentation was required to set the context for Sherman’s victory.

A moral evaluation of the South and its secession is different from a constitutional evaluation. Morally, the case against the South is open and shut. If it is not possible to morally condemn a political system that had institutionalized chattel slavery, and was killing thousands of fellow countrymen in order to preserve it, then morality has no meaning. No political argument—such as the idea of state sovereignty—can mitigate the fact of this moral crime. The southern slave system was so monstrous that particular violations in the North—such as the draft or suspension of habeas corpus—paled beside it.

But one must not read one’s own moral views into the Constitution; one must follow what it says, and argue for amendment if it should be changed. What was the constitutional status of slavery, of an amendment, and of the secession? I am not a constitutional expert, but here is what I think.

Slavery was, of course, constitutional in southern states. But slavery in the South was not the major issue. There were new territories opening up in the west, and the South was desperate to see slavery spread through them and become law, in order to prevent a majority of free states from passing an amendment against it. In other words, the spread of freedom was a clear threat to southern political and economic life as it existed before the war. Southerners did all they could to bring slavery to those territories, arguing, for instance, that white settlers should be allowed to vote to be slave vs. free, and to impose their vote on the state as a whole. These voters would be white males who met a property qualification, and many had strong pro-slavery positions.

Lincoln agreed that slavery should be allowed in the South—since it was constitutional—unless and until it was abolished by amendment. He distinguished his personal, moral evaluation of slavery from his responsibility to uphold the Constitution. But he was opposed to slavery spreading into new territories. The South recognized the threat that such freedom posed to its “way of life,” rejected Lincoln’s position, and, immediately upon his election, withdrew from deliberations and fired on a Union garrison. At this point, there was no possibility that an amendment to the Constitution could resolve the issue; the South had rejected the Constitution in order to escape such an amendment.

Regarding a state’s “right” to withdraw from the Constitution, this is a contentious issue among constitutional scholars. In my view, there is an overt contradiction involved in providing, within the Constitution, a way to withdraw from the Constitution. One cannot cite the provisions of a fundamental law as a means to reject that law. The Constitution was ratified by the states, and there is no process (nor should there be) for periodic re-ratification or withdrawal. That the Founders did not include such language does not mean that secession is a power reserved to the states.

Mr. Lanning writes: “Respect for constitutional authority would compel the United States to accept this secession and withdraw its troops, to forbid the succession or refuse to withdraw with reference to precedent, or to ask for clarification from the courts.” I reject this entire argument, since there can be no “respect for constitutional authority” on behalf of those who reject the Constitution. Did the South ask for such clarification in the courts prior to secession? Yet there was no precedent for secession, and eighty years of constitutional deliberation was the relevant precedent for how they should proceed.

Suppose the Union had asked for clarification from the courts, and the courts had agreed with the Union—what then? The South had rejected the Constitution, and would have rejected the court’s opinion. It would surely be indefensible to claim that the South should be able to cite a favorable decision in order to restrain the country from which they had seceded, but should then be able to reject an unfavorable decision in order to remain in secession. In the end, the southern rejection of the Constitution makes any question of its interpretation moot. Constitutional authority had to be re-established before it could be interpreted.

As to a power to secede, the Constitution itself, Article 6, states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.”

Southern officials were sworn to uphold the Constitution—they broke their oaths when the Constitution threatened to become a danger to their slave system. One may claim that Union troops in a state that has ratified the Constitution are a “foreign power,” but that claim does not make it so. Further, as I discussed in my article, the North did claim the authority of the Constitution; and, as Sherman recognized, many in the South would “bless those who have persistently maintained a Constitutional Government strong enough to sustain itself, protect its citizens, and promise peaceful homes to millions yet unborn. . . . To those who submit to the Rightful Laws & authority of their State & National Government promise all gentleness and forbearance. . . .” (TOS, Summer 2006, p. 39)

On another level, Mr. Lanning is correct to question the motives of the North. What were they fighting for? Is the claim that they were fighting for individual rights valid, given the military draft, the suspension of habeas corpus, and so on?

Let us first acknowledge that the South started the draft in April, 1862, almost a year earlier than the North did, and that southern states exempted slave owners from it (the twenty-slave laws). There should have been no draft for either side—but this does not make the northern effort illegitimate, any more than the draft in World War II meant that America was fighting for something unconstitutional. Like the habeas corpus suspension, the draft was a temporary measure, intended to last for the duration of a critical emergency, not a permanent institution akin to slavery in the South.

As to habeas corpus, again, southern leaders also suspended it—but the constitutional issue could not arise in the Confederacy, since the South had rejected the Constitution. The Constitution itself, article I, section 9, says habeas corpus may be suspended “when in cases of rebellion . . . the public safety may require it.” Lincoln’s suspension was reviewed by the Supreme Court, and was found unconstitutional. He ignored the ruling. There are complex issues of constitutional interpretation and presidential powers that are relevant here. Does the president have the responsibility, under his oath, to protect the Constitution by extraordinary means if he thinks it is being annihilated? Or, must he decline to use his power if Congress or the States oppose such use? If so, why should Congressional power be greater than that of the Commander in Chief? Perhaps Lincoln did usurp the Constitution, but context remains important. The Constitution, and the Union, were being destroyed. Lincoln saved both. His success allowed later Americans—including southerners—to better apply what he had saved.

But the question of what the North was fighting for turns us back to the actual causes of the war. The overt reasons for which people claim to fight may mask deeper issues that remain unstated. What, I will ask, was the real cause of the war?

Proximate (or immediate) causes must be distinguished from more fundamental causes. The Greek historian Thucydides was the first to make this distinction explicit; he distinguished “pretexts” (the immediate events that result in conflict, including local crises and the things people say about them) from the “truest cause.” The latter may be unrecognized and unspoken of—but it is powerful, and sets the terms by which particular issues are handled.

For instance, in the Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta took sides in regional disputes. But this raises the question of why Athens and Sparta took sides as they did, and allowed local confrontations to become a global war. The truest cause of the war, according to Thucydides, was the growing power of Athens and the fear this engendered in Sparta. This is true whether or not anyone involved in the war recognized it. The war would decide whether Athens would continue to grow in power or that growth would be reversed.

Using Thucydides’ terms, the truest cause of the American Civil War was the growing strength and widening application of freedom—especially by the northern abolitionist movement—and the fear this engendered in the South. The fear was motivated by the possibility of an amendment to abolish slavery, which would become a certainty if more free states were added to the Union. The South rightly feared this as a threat to its “way of life” whether or not anyone explicitly recognized the issue. Whatever the pretexts were, the North was, in fact, fighting to maintain a Union that would constitutionally eliminate slavery in the South.

I did not write that the war was waged by the North to end slavery in the South, because it was not—at least not at first. I wrote that

the overall trend of the antebellum South was toward the enslavement of an entire class of people, and the extension of this monstrous practice into new territories. The overall trend in the North, even if evolving slowly, was toward liberty for everyone. The war would determine which of these two trends would guide America’s future. (p. 24)

This was the issue in the war: Would the Union remain intact and move—albeit slowly, inconsistently, even fitfully—towards an expansion of liberty and a fuller recognition of individual rights? Or would the Union fragment, with slavery institutionalized on its borders, and freedom on the defensive? Whether or not anyone recognized it, the issue at stake was freedom vs. slavery, across the range of a continent. All those who value the full emancipation of black Americans, and women’s suffrage, ought to acknowledge that it would not have been possible had the South remained outside the Union.

It is certainly true that the Constitution was a product of compromise, and there were fault lines dividing the Union according to different conceptions of sovereignty. But given the full context, including the widening application of freedom, the conflict growing over the spread of slavery into the territories, and the fact that the South necessarily gave up any claims to constitutional protections when it seceded, I cannot see any legitimacy in the states’ rights position. I can—and do—criticize particular actions of the North, but the South was deeply wrong on principle. Arguments about sovereignty come back to the one big issue where state sovereignty was invoked: chattel slavery, a grievous destruction of individual rights.

There is something else to be said about the war here. Given the premise of states’ “rights”—and the claims by the states to sovereignty over chattel slaves—the South lost the war: The southern states had to give up the notion that they had a “right” to enslave. But these states never had those “rights” to begin with, for no group of people can ever have a right that does not exist in individuals. No group has any right to deny the Rights of Man. From the perspective of individual rights, then, the South was a winner in the war. Constitutional protections were re-established for its people, and slavery was tossed into the ashcan of history. That was a great political achievement for everyone.

John David Lewis

Ashland University

Ashland, Ohio

To the Editor:

Just War Theory vs. American Self-Defense,” by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein (TOS, Spring 2006), articulates a theory of self-defense superior to what has heretofore driven American public debate. It identifies both a moral theory of war and the philosophic roots of much misdirected thinking. But I have some reservations about the article’s application to recent history.

The authors are unenthusiastic about the war in Iraq, and emphasize the greater danger of Islamic Totalitarianism originating in Iran. Their point is well taken, but I think their case neglects political realities of winning popular support and funding for war. Myriad problems cannot be solved without philosophic revolution, and the article contributes toward that end. In the meantime, we do the best with what we have. Undoubtedly, America would have been better served by presidential or congressional leadership in 1979 that would have initiated a prompt military response to the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran. Unfortunately, our leadership failed miserably. Offenses in Iran should not be ignored, but I view the war in Iraq differently than the authors.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he struck a country in a region where America had long declared a vital security interest. The United States had no option but to retaliate. Our president did so. The military response dramatically demonstrated, around the world, America’s will and ability to retaliate in a manner not seen since World War II.

We left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War because of commitments to regional allies. America cannot enact its will around the globe without allies. Hussein was kept in check after the war by a continuous American military presence in the region, including the enforcement of no-fly zones. Like Libya’s Qadhafi before him, he made numerous attempts to test the limits of American resolve.

With regard to the second Gulf War, the best judgment of U.S. and allied intelligence professionals was that Saddam Hussein attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction. He had a clear history of aggression. Americans understood this. On the basis of the information available, the U.S. was justified in acting decisively to remove him from power.

I agree that Islamic Totalitarianism and the country of Iran are security concerns of utmost importance to the United States. A president’s ability to act militarily is limited, however, by the ability to persuade enough Americans to support military action. The failure to act on the seizure of the American embassy in Iran occurred more than twenty-five years ago. It is stale in the memory of many Americans. Iran continues to support Hamas and other terrorists. I will applaud a successful effort to shepherd political support for taking disabling action against Iran, but I do not naysay the Iraq war.

Our country’s current president is dangerous in his political relations with the religious right. In articulating a rationale for his foreign policy, he is uneven. Nonetheless, the administration of George W. Bush acted to crush an aggressor in a region of importance to the United States. Even as events stand, I view that action as a step forward in American foreign policy.

Richard Wickline

Biscoe, North Carolina

Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein reply:

Dear Mr. Wickline,

Thank you for your kind words about our article.

The thrust of your criticism is that we are overly harsh on President Bush, “naysaying” a war in Iraq that “crush[ed] an aggressor in a region of importance” simply because it is not as good as is conceivable—“neglect[ing] political realities of winning popular support and funding for war.”

We disagree both with the positive characterization of Bush’s Iraq war, and with the suggestion that this war is as good as we can hope for given “political realities.”

The Iraq war, contrary to your letter, did not “crush an aggressor”—not in a way that constitutes an act of self-defense. To be sure, it drove Saddam Hussein to the point of eventual capture—but it did so by means that made America less safe than before Hussein’s rein.

Quoting our essay:

In Iraq, since our declared purpose is the well-being and happiness of Iraqi citizens, the countless hostile Iraqis feel free to condemn our troops, to incite violence against them, and to provide refuge to insurgents. President Bush has stressed that we did not go to war against Iraq (only against Saddam), but for the Iraqi people. Thus, we did not make it a priority to defeat them. Almost daily in Iraq, our troops risk their lives because of rules of engagement that place the lives of Iraqi civilians above their own. This was evident in our withdrawal from Fallujah in 2004 when we feared civilian casualties, and in the fact that when we returned to Fallujah in 2005 we allowed tens of thousands of people, including thousands of insurgents, to leave the town before the battle began. Indeed, from the first bombing, the war has been conducted in a way so as to minimize Iraqi casualties, and at almost any cost. Is it any wonder that an insurgency arose? Is it any wonder that leaders and citizens of other terrorist nations feel no real pressure to stop threatening America? . . .

Observe that in Bush’s policy the “liberation” of Iraq is not seen as part of defeating that country, but as replacing the necessity of defeating it. And the magical inspiration it is supposed to provide to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and so on, will allegedly replace the necessity of militarily confronting those nations. Since Bush feels morally unwilling to defeat our enemies, he regards it as necessary to delegate that task to their subservient and sympathetic populations. Instead of making us more secure, this policy has inspired the Iraqi insurgency, made Iran and Saudi Arabia feel more confident than ever, and may well allow the Iraqi people to eventually vote their country into an Islamic dictatorship akin to Iran. (Given the big victories by religious Shiite politicians in Iraqi elections so far, they are well on their way.) And because our failure to defeat our enemies only contributes to the success of Islamic Totalitarianism, our support for elections in the Middle East foretells that Islamic Totalitarians will “democratically” be given greater influence; we have already seen increases in the political influence of even more committed supporters of Islamic Totalitarians in Saudi Arabia, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. (pp. 37, 42)

If America had truly “crushed” the Iraqi enemy, our enemies in the Middle East would be terrified of earning America’s wrath; as evidenced by their actions, they do not fear us—they view us, with contempt, as a “paper tiger.”

There is a strong case to be made for Bush’s actions being worse than nothing. He has so mis-identified the threat, our goals, and the means of achieving them, that we are not at all safe. And even if Bush’s actions are barely better than nothing, this should not placate us—they are certainly dreadful, and a clear and present threat to our lives.

As for “political realities,” we grant that it would be impossible in today’s political context for a leader to prosecute the war in the fully egoistic manner that we advocate. But it would certainly have been possible for a leader to prosecute a war in a manner far better than Bush did. After the attacks on 9/11, Americans were willing to support nearly anything President Bush asked of them. There was real talk to the effect of “end states that sponsor terrorism.” Further, there was much available knowledge about Iran’s continuing, aggressive support of Islamic terrorism that implicated it as an urgent threat to be ended. It is conceivable that, after 9/11, a president could clearly identify the enemy and its state sponsorship, and declare America’s unequivocal right to self-defense. President Bush did none of these.

Your letter implies that President Bush would like to attack the Iranian government, but the American people won’t let him. If anything, the reverse is true—much of America would be willing to attack Iran, if only their thinking were not so corrupted by President Bush, along with other altruist politicians and intellectuals. To the extent that Americans are reticent to go to war with Iran, it is largely thanks to Bush’s altruistic war in Iraq. By fatally engaging our troops for no clear purpose and with no clear standard of victory—while posing as a “hawk”—President Bush has discredited all proposals for strong, purposeful military action.

Finally, even insofar as the policies we advocate are politically impossible today, we believe it is still crucial to advocate them. It is our job as writers and intellectuals to make clear to those who will listen what the proper course of action is and why it is proper—not to pander to their ignorance or wrong ideas. If we can influence them even a little in our direction, it will make a big difference.

Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein

The Ayn Rand Institute

Irvine, California

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