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The empire is peace

At least that is the old Latin maxim that has been used by every nation and empire builder since Nineveh and Tyre to justify their actions. There is a propensity to treat American history as though it has happened in a vacuum and while our continental territorial integrity has not been violated in any significant way by opposing armies we have been subject to contagion by foreign ideologies since well before our founding. Many years ago I happened to be reading Vidal’s Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zürich about the same time and was stuck by how similar the protagonists were. This could not be explained by any affinity between the authors since one was a moral giant and the other a moral leper so there had to be some other basis in fact for it. Finally, after a review of many of the writings of both, it has become evident that both are expressing many of the same ideas in their writing and there is an odd synchronicity in style between them.

It has been a popular parlor game in the opposition press to accuse every president of being out of step with the founders and the Constitution since 1789 and as suffrage and circulation have increased in tandem the vehemence of the accusations has reached ever increasing crescendos. Thomas Jefferson and James K. Polk gave credence through territorial claims to manifest destiny and Lincoln, though both the Homestead Act and the transcontinental railroad, turned the claims into fact. The Civil War may have garnered all of the headlines but historically it was a side show with opposition to slavery used a public rallying cry to defeat a competing economic elite.

While the broad shape of the river may be the competition of economic elites there are other forces in competition that go back to the reasons for the similarities between Lincoln and Lenin. The American revolution is popularly portrayed as an event of the “enlightenment” and it certainly had elements of that period’s philosophy interwoven throughout it but more fundamentally the revolution was the last legitimate child of the Magna Charta and the French revolution was the first bastard of the “enlightenment.” Every complaint in the Declaration of Independence has its origins in the great charter and the body of English common law derived from it. This is of the greatest importance when you consider that this law was derived from religious principles about the nature of both man and the state.

The “enlightenment” was entirely the child of rationalism which swings from the right,  if it works efficiently do it,  to the left,  if it feels good do it,  often incorporating the worst excesses of both but always without reference to any sort of objectively knowable moral authority. From 1789 forward various parts of Europe teetered between calamity and anarchy and only found unity is common cause against France and Napoleon. A brief peace followed Napoleon with the first modern European Union under Metternich but this collapsed in the Revolutions of 1848 and it is these revolutions  and how they impacted the American nation that are our point of contemplation here.

Before he was an icon of Soviet hegemony Karl Marx was the Jefferson of these revolutions having written the Communist Manifesto for the Communist League which was a group of German workers in London. Despite the calls of the Manifesto for the workers of the world to unite by the time the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany had been issued in Paris in March of 1848 they called for only:

  • Unification of Germany
  • Universal suffrage
  • Abolition of feudal duties

There was a certain coalescing of peasant, bourgeois and even some of the minor nobility in opposition to absolutism on the part of the monarchies but gradually much of the nobility and middle class were pulled back into the camp of established authority and the revolutions failed in the immediate sense. In the long run Marx and Engels would spend the next fifty years developing the underpinnings of a system of liberation that would enslave most of the world in the following century.

But even the immediate results of the Revolutions of 1848, including the seeming victory of the forces of reaction, had profound consequences as they did give rise to nation states which were often the result of the unification of former feudal states, that had what passed in the 19th century for universal suffrage and whose economies were based on the new demands of industrialism as finally supreme over agrarianism.

If all of this begins to sound like Lincoln, the abolitionists and the radical republicans had more in common with Karl Marx than Carl Lotus Becker we can prove the point by considering the letter written by the former on the occasion of Lincoln’s having secured a second term:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epic, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counter-revolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding “the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution”, and maintained slavery to be “a beneficent institution”, indeed, the old solution of the great problem of “the relation of capital to labor”, and cynically proclaimed property in man “the cornerstone of the new edifice” — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Of course Marx is wrong about the war having been about freeing slaves but he was right on target in recognizing an ally who wanted a strong central government and most of the other goals he would outline in Das Kapital. It is a major shortcoming of Lincoln scholarship that there is not further exploration of his involvement with the ideas of 1848 in his inversion of the goals of the American revolution of 1776 launching instead government of the people, by the people and for the people which is simply an alliteration of the tyranny of absolute popular sovereignty.

Beran’s book is a good place to start but I don’t think he fully realizes the implications of the company he has placed Lincoln in.

Forge of empires, 1861-1871 : three revolutionary statesmen and the world they made    New York : Free Press, 2007 Michael Knox Beran Statesmen History 19th century Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiv, 477 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

In the space of a single decade, three leaders liberated tens of millions of souls, remade their own vast countries, and altered forever the forms of national power:

* Abraham Lincoln destroyed republican government and replaced it with a strong central government whose standing army had gone from worst to first during his time in office.

* Tsar Alexander II superficially broke the chains of the serfs and brought the rule of law to Russia while in fact doing little more than creating a veneer that would hide the real revolution until it was too late.

* Otto von Bismarck threw over the petty Teutonic princes, defeated the House of Austria and the last of the imperial Napoleons, and united the German nation into a nationalistic force that would twice plunge the world into war in the following century.

The three statesmen forged the empires that would dominate the twentieth century through two world wars, the Cold War, and beyond. Each of the three was a revolutionary, yet each consolidated a nation that differed profoundly from the others in its conceptions of liberty, power, and human destiny. Michael Knox Beran’s Forge of Empires brilliantly entwines the stories of the three epochal transformations and their fateful legacies.

Telling the stories from the point of view of those who participated in the momentous events — among them Walt Whitman and Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Chesnut and Leo Tolstoy, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie — Beran weaves a rich tapestry of high drama and human pathos. Great events often turned on the decisions of a few lone souls, and each of the three statesmen faced moments of painful doubt or denial as well as significant decisions that would redefine their nations.

With its vivid narrative and memorable portraiture, Forge of Empires sheds new light on a question of perennial importance: How are free states made, and how are they unmade? In the same decade that saw freedom’s victories, one of the trinity of liberators revealed himself as an enemy to the free state, and another lost heart. What Lincoln called the “germ” of freedom, which was “to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind,” came close to being annihilated in a world crisis that pitted the free state against new philosophies of terror and coercion.

Forge of Empires is a masterly story of one of history’s most significant decades.


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