And the War Came: A Conversation with Allen Guelzo About the Civil War
Thinking in Public
Monday, September 24, 2012
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The civil war occupies a central place in the American imagination. It is also a central issue in terms of historical research, and it has been ever since the hostility ceased. One of the primary historians in the Civil War and our generation is none other than my guest today, Allen Guelzo. He is the Henry R. Luce, III, Professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. There he also directs the center of the Civil War era studies program. Professor Guelzo was born in Yakima, Japan. He earned the M.A. and PhD degrees in History from the University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the most respected voices in terms of the history of the Civil War. His latest book is Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Oxford University Press. Professor Guelzo, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Guelzo: Thank you very much, Al. It is very good to be talking with you.
Mohler: Your book, Fateful Lightening, arrived just as many Americans, especially younger Americans, are beginning to think through the huge momentous reality of the Civil War, but you rightly take us back long before the Civil War and you actually argue that when you think of the United States today, or even the United States in the 1830s, that is a far cry from the United States in terms of a system of government and culture that those in the early 19th century would have known. And there we find the seeds for what became the Civil War.
Guelzo: I think that the cracks that become this tremendous chasm called the Civil War, where really, they are from the very beginning. And either the founders were prepared to pave over them, or else, the founder’s believed in some cases that they would simply heal up and go away on their own. And in the case of a few of those issues, they have not only not gone away, but they in fact got substantially worse, were in fact egged on by events and changes in context as the years went by. Things of course that the founders could not themselves have anticipated, but which nevertheless, overcame the situation and long term brought us to the brink of Civil War and over.
Mohler: In your new book, you not only cover the terrain in a very comprehensive way, you bring a lot of new thought to an era that has been so well considered, dramatically so through American history. But you also have a particular style that I want to tell you I appreciated. For instance, this sentence underlying everything else that pushed or pulled 19th century Americans toward the abyss of Civil War was one very plain fact about the United States of America – its political structure. That of a union of states was a “standing invitation to chaos.” That phrase, a “standing invitation to chaos,” in many ways, actually drives, I would argue, the entire narrative of your book.
Guelzo: Well, certainly the Civil War is a testimony to what happens in the worst sense to a federation. If you conceive of a government as composed of separate, virtually free standing parts, then you always hold that possibility that some of those free standing parts may decide that they are free standing enough to go their own way. That is, quite literally, what happened with southern secession? In the secession of 1860-61.
Mohler: So let me ask you just a point blank, very direct question: Who had the better argument in that particular debate? Not in terms of what the preferred outcome might have been in terms of the war and its aftermath, but just in terms of the argument about the essence of the American system of a republican government going back to the early nineteenth century into the early constitutional era. Did the Southerners have the better argument or did the North?
Guelzo: I don’t think the southerners did. I think that the American union as a federation of states was intended to be equipoise between entirely sovereign entities and an entirely centralized homogenous government. The idea being that the states were one more example of a system of checks and balances that were worked into the constitution. A check and a balance is supposed to be existing in relationship with another entity, which in this case was to be the federal government. It was not supposed to be something that led to the very destruction and break-up of the government, and I think that is illustrated in a number of ways in the constitution itself. One is that the constitution contains no reversion clause. There is no description within the constitution about what to do in case of disaster, catastrophe, or flood or something else. There is no little glass to break marked, “Secession: This is how you terminate the constitution.” It is just not there. The other thing that is in the very warp and woof of the constitution is the way that the powers of the states are described with relationship to the federal government in Article 1, Section 10, in which the states, the constitution makes very clear, do not have the power to coin money, the power to keep permanent standing armies and navies, to conduct diplomatic relations. By the time you get down to the end of that list, we are not talking about the kind of sovereignty residing in the states, that is the same kind of sovereignty that an independent country has where a member of an existing state has, coming into a federation with others. It was a very different kind of federation than let’s say, the European Union today.
Now, beyond that, there are at least two other considerations that mitigate against the southerner’s argument. One is the fact that the federal government itself, while it was composed in 1787 of representatives of various states, most of the states that were in existence at the time of the Civil War, had in fact been creations of the federal government. In other words they were the states carved out of western territories that had been acquired by the United States. Those states didn’t have a prior independent existence, so to claim that they had in fact a level of sovereignty that permitted them to become independent was really begging most of the question that was involved in the secession. Then the other thing was the practical sense that, suppose the southerners did secede. Where would they go exactly? There would still be southerners looking across the Ohio River at northerners or across the Potomac River, and what would be the result of that? Well, they would beggar each other through trade wars, and up and down the Mississippi, there would be trade wars even more violent. If that was the case, then why? Why secede at all? Because you would only be making yourself poorer in the process. There was no practical way that southerners could simply take their bat and ball and go someplace else.
Mohler: And that explains why, even though there were many threats of the southern states to secede, not only over the issue of slavery, but other issues as well. There really was no secession until the very breaking point of what became the Civil War. Can you lay the landscape for us in terms of the tension points between the north and the south? Because in your book, you really very ably, and I think clearly, give a sense of impending doom as you see the tensions between the North and the South go beyond the tension points and the threats to the actual break of civil war.
Guelzo: Doom was exactly what Thomas Jefferson feared was in the future when during the compromise debates in 1820, he spoke of seeing the United States teetering toward this abyss. And you might say that the first great flash point moment is that moment over the admission of Missouri in 1820. Then the second one comes in 1850 over what to do over the lands acquired from Mexico, and then in 1854 over the western lands that had originally been part of the Louisiana purchase. You know, the funny thing is, that all the tension between north and south was really not the trigger for the war. It was the tensions between north and south over the west and what to do with the west and who was going to get to control of the west. That builds up over these decades until finally in 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected president. Now, this was a fairly routine event in our political history. Most elections of presidents have been, mercifully. Except that southerners saw in the election of Abraham Lincoln the election of an anti-slavery president who had been elected without getting a single electoral vote from a southern state. At that point, southerners believed the handwriting was on the wall. They no longer could block, could stymie, could veto attempts by the north to ban slavery from the western territories. And their conclusion was, well let’s get out while the getting is good. So, seeing no future in the executive branch for pro-slavery candidates, they one by one, the lower south states, bolt, they call secession conventions and these conventions pass ordinances of secession declaring the union between themselves and the United States severed. And it might have been clean had it not been for the fact that there was federal property in each of these states. Now, some of this federal property was easily appropriated. The mend in New Orleans, for instance, all that Louisiana did was walk in and cease it, but there were some military installations, which could not be so easily ceased, and the most obvious of them was Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. For Sumter was the pearly in the oyster, so to speak. It was the burr under the saddle because right here, smack in the middle of Charleston Harbor, the heart of the secession enthusiasm is a federal installation. It pretty much was saying, “Yeah, you could say you are seceding from the Union, but no, here we have the military installation of the United States government sitting right by the ship channel in your harbor. What you are pretending to do with secession is really just a mess of donkey sickness. That enraged southerners, and it made Sumter the final flashpoint in this series because while confederates could not let Sumter remain in federal hands, Abraham Lincoln, as the President, could not simply give it away. And so the result was a violent one. The confederacy opens fire at Fort Sumter, Lincoln responds by declaring the southern states to be in rebellion, and we have a Civil War.
Mohler: Something analogous to Poland then, in terms of the beginning of the Second World War.
Guelzo: Yes, you just watch the logical chunks of things fall into place. People looking at a situation where the really do not have options. They have to move in a certain way. So you have a certain action here, but that pushes people to a certain consequence, and the consequences conflict.
Mohler: You mentioned Jefferson’s idea of that sense of doom, and even using the word, I was so moved once again in reading your book by Lincoln’s simple expression and the war came.
Mohler: It seemed so horribly inevitable, reading the narrative.
Guelzo: Well, he did have lying back there in the overall baggage car of his thinking, this very strong Calvinistic sense that all human events are controlled and foreordained and are going to happen. And when he speaks in those terms, I think you are really hearing that ancestral Calvinism in his mind articulating the sense that the war was going to come, given the logical convictions of the south, given the logical convictions of the north, these were simply two lines that could no longer work parallel and were inevitably going to intersect.
Mohler: You mentioned Fort Sumter being there in Charleston Harbor. The other thing that becomes very clear, and just looking back from the vantage point of a century and a half, one has to wonder, how was it that the south thought it had a plausible opportunity of success in its secessionism as some kind of an independent nation. And you can concede, or make very clear the point, that it really was not plausible that the south could stand on its own. It would have to stand on its own along with European allies, the cotton trade, it has confidence would be a sufficient economic justification for allies to then appear, much as France has appeared, just in time to save the American revolution. They really did believe that Europe, more generally, and England, specifically, would come to their aid.
Guelzo: And why not? Because the great powers in Europe had been busy intervening to prop up the balance of economic and political power since 1815. Once Napoleon was defeated, the four great powers: the Austrians, the Russians, the French, the British, set about constructing, or reconstructing, creating this scaffolding of balanced power. And they went to war a number of times between 1815 and 1860 to maintain that balance of power of Crimean wars, a particular example that way. For southerners, why shouldn’t have it been perfectly thinkable for the British or the French also to want to maintain a balanced transatlantic economic state, and therefore intervene in North America to preserve that ongoing traffic in cotton, which was amazingly enough, we don’t really appreciate this sometimes, that cotton really is the white gold of the 19th century economy. It is to the 19th century what oil is to us today.
Mohler: So why didn’t it happen? Why did Europe in general and England in particular not come to the aid of the south in the way the south clearly expected that aid would come?
Guelzo: Well, there are complex series of reasons why the Europeans did not intervene, although it has to be said that frequently they came very close to it. I think the simplest answer is to say that they reckoned the cost and that it would be too expensive to try to intervene. Besides, if cotton was the most important thing. If cotton really was the southerner’s thought king, the European powers were soon able to find alternative outlets for cotton in Egypt and in India. And it was just less expensive to shift imports from India and Egypt than it was to mount some kind of military intervention in North America. Besides, the British and the French did not trust each other. The French had already started on an international adventure in Mexico in 1861, which the British looked at very sconce. And it is not entirely certain that the British and the French trusted each other to have been partners in an intervention. What is also true is that they probably could not individually have staged that intervention. They would have had to have done so as allies as they did in the Crimean War. So, put all those things together, and there is no incentive, or at least not enough of an incentive, and some fairly substantial reasons against. After all, even though the north was fighting the confederacy at that point and might not have too many hands free to deal with foreign bid for intervention, the Americans could still do a substantial amount of damage. The British had not forgotten the war of 1812, and they feared the possibilities of Americans turning loose clouds of privateers on the Atlantic seaways. I mean just look at what the confederate commerce raiders did in their brief hour of glory to northern commerce. It sure was that on the part of the British that my goodness, even if we do intervene, we are going to have to cope with the threat to our transatlantic trade, and that is going to be serious.
Mohler: This is of course the 200th anniversary of America’s strangest war. We call the War of 1812, and a few years ago I was reading British parliamentary debates of the Civil War era here in the United States and was reminded all over again of how uncertain Britain was of how of which to think of the United States, even in the most general terms. It was very confusing, clearly, to major British political leaders as to what they should even think of the United States.
Guelzo: Well, for the British in 1861, the big question was, “Do we regard the American Union as friend or foe? Do we regard it as a political entity that we want to be in partnership with and therefore want to use as a proxy for our own imperial designs, or is this something we would like to see broken up so we can interfere directly in North America.” And the British already had one foot there in the form of Canada, and what’s more, the European powers, even Britain at this point, are still very much hierarchical, aristocratic societies. They were profoundly uncomfortable with the bad example set by this republic in North America, and anything which might go towards destabilizing that republic, or which would show how unstable republics were, was all to the good in the minds of European monarchs and the European ruling classes, so they had, you might say, rather ambivalent feelings toward the United States. It might be a friend, but maybe it is some kind of friend we really don’t want after all.
Mohler: One of the greatest pleasures in revisiting an issue as large as the Civil War, is speaking to someone who has the big picture as well as so many of the details that are missing from the story, at least in many accounts. I appreciated especially Allen Guelzo’s attempt to go back to the beginnings of the American republic and to show how the seeds of the civil war were sown even then to follow through the story of America’s very weak government, in terms of the era even after the ratification of the constitution, and of the fact that the civil war was ominously predictable, and of course nonetheless, there is incredible human responsibility at every turn in this story. One of the best parts of this book is also how he deals with the reality that the civil war was not just an American story. It involved other parts of the world as well, including England in particular. But that raises a host of issues, which is why this conversation needs to continue.
Professor Guelzo, you are a major biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and published that biography years before you wrote Fateful Lightening. What did you learn about Lincoln, in terms of writing this present volume that you didn’t already know as a very respected Lincoln biographer?
Guelzo: Al, I am learning something new about Lincoln new every day. The sheer tidal wave of information. Every time I pick up a new book, I am finding some little nook and cranny. I think what is particularly forward in Fateful Lightening, is the integration of Lincoln as an individual, who I studied from a biographical point of view in the overall network of the civil war and the complexities of the civil war. Because he really did stand in the center of so much politically, militarily, even economically, and it was a very different kind of work to synthesize what I had read about and written about with Lincoln in these very individual and specific ways, and put it into this larger picture.
Mohler: Well, it is a larger picture. It is a picture that never lacks Lincoln as a central character, and one of the things I appreciated about your book Faithful Lightening, is how Lincoln’s moral leadership becomes very, very clear. And in some sense, I would argue that you vindicate him against some more recent critics, in terms of his presidential leadership.
Guelzo: Well, Lincoln has always attracted both his profound admirers, but also his profound enemies. That was true even while he was still president. I think that today, living as we do in a very cynical context, and a culture that prizes, that almost emblazons cynicism all over it, to approach Lincoln without anything except a smirk, is difficult for us. To see in Lincoln and example of greatness rather than an example of something you would find when you open a tabloid newspaper, seems to us almost naïve, a throw back, and yet when you come and deal with the man seriously, he grows and grows and grows upon you. One of his secretaries, John Hay, who was a graduate of Brown University and was hired by Lincoln to serve in the White House from Lincoln’s inauguration onwards, had every reason to look down his nose at his backwoods attorney, this man with no college education or no education to speak of, and yet two years into the war, Hay wrote in his diary, “I have never really understood until now how thoroughly in control the tycoon (that was his nickname for Lincoln) is of every event.” And then he added, “There is none so good and wise and kind as he. I believe God put him in this place.” Now, we both know that familiarity is supposed to bread contempt, and in someone like John Hay, contempt might have come very easily, but instead, two years on, Hay is in fact even more wondering and admiring of Lincoln than he had been at the very beginning. I think it is an experience that a lot of people have when they come to grips with Lincoln. There are depths in the man, and there are extraordinary qualities in him which make him in many ways a representative man of American politics and American culture.
Mohler: Certain events, percentages, and pecks, have a particular pull upon the American psyche and our understanding of ourselves. I am particularly, I’ll admit to you, haunted by Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and you open Fateful Lightening on the very day he gave that address.
Mohler: As a theologian, and a historical theologian, I have to say that I don’t believe I have ever read any political document, any document of state that is so laden with theological, biblical, overtones as that singular address.
Guelzo: And do you know what is even more remarkable, is when you back peddle a bit and look at this in the context presidential utterances, the previous fifteen presidents never made more than the most conventional passing references to God, and in some cases it was so conventional it was to be almost empty of meaning, it was the providence that guides us or the creator who has done this. But it is there because that is simply in the nature of rhetoric in those times. Lincoln’s second inaugural is a dramatic departure from that. We hear of someone who is invoking God – not just for the purpose of gussying up what he has to say politically, but in order to subordinate political considerations to what the will of God is and the search for trying to understand what the will of God is. If a president today were to make such an utterance, I’m sure that we would be hearing no end of protests and nasty off adds about “Why is the president’s religion into this? That is supposed to be something for private conscience.” And yet here is this man who otherwise had such a minimal personal religious profile, uttering something that you would expect to hear in a sermon, and a sermon by a profound and learned theologian. It is a remarkable speculation on the justice of God, on the will of God, and how humble we have to be before the mysterious ways of God. That is like no other political statement I think I have any knowledge of.
Mohler: You are no doubt familiar with the Quaker theologian, Elton Trueblood.
Guelzo: Oh yes.
Mohler: As you probably know, he was a close, personal friend of President Herbert Hoover, another Quaker, by the way.
Mohler: He gained an appreciation of Lincoln, looking back as not only in a man of historical interest, but also theological interest, and he described, and I often think of this, he described Lincoln as “America’s theologian of American anguish.”
Mohler: And the word, “anguish” just frankly flows through every page of your book, and by the time you get to the second inaugural address, as Lincoln is certain the war will soon be over, but then the real order, the real struggle, will begin. He seems to have this impending sense, once again, of doom. That there is something coming after this that may be even more anguishing than what comes before, but yet he is also certain that there is a purpose behind the United States of America that isn’t merely a national purpose.
Guelzo: I think that for Lincoln, to speak of the American Experiment, and to use the word, “experiment,” it was to speak of something so unique that he would even refer to Americans as God’s almost chosen people. And he would apply to the future of America, the prospects of America, the idea that the United States was the last best hope, and that our republican robe is soiled, and it has to be washed clean, and you almost hear these echoes of John’s revelation here. The saint’s washing their robes. And that Biblical rhetoric, again, this is not just window dressing. This is something, which is worked right into the sense of a man himself.
Mohler: Trueblood makes the point, and his familiarity with Herbert Hoover was at least a counter point to this. That American statesmen or statesmen on the world’s stage are not supposed to show emotion. They are stoic figures. And if they ever show emotion, it has to be the emotion of jubilation or national celebration, and Lincoln stands out not only in American history but virtually in the history of the world in terms of an individual who before the people in his inaugural address, his second inaugural in particular. He just speaks with such deep anguish about the nation he has been reelected to serve.
Guelzo: Yes. Because he is saying to people, “Here both north and south, read the same Bible, pray to the same God, the prayers of both could not be answered because both are praying for victory.” Well, only one can be victorious. But does that mean then, that God has simply decided that the north is righteous and the south is evil? No. The fact is that both sides could not have their prayers heard, but the truth is that neither side has had their prayers fully heard. Why? Because both sides have been in brewed in this original sin of the American Republic, which was slavery. And both of them have to accept the chastisement of this war as their just due from God, a God of justice who exacts from everyone the full measure of punishment for their sins.
Mohler: You just can’t imagine a contemporary American president speaking that way. It is just not in our political imagination.
Guelzo: Al, I can’t imagine a previous president before Lincoln ever having ever been able to say that kind of thing. In that respect, Lincoln is remarkably unique among American presidents, not to say American politicians.
Mohler: Well, you mentioned the besetting sin at the origins of the American experiment and that being slavery. Various debates have been really a part of the American culture going back to that era, and even before the constitutional era, what is your evaluation now, standing at the vantage point of 150 years and more later, of exactly what was at stake in terms of the slavery issue by the time you get to Fort Sumter?
Guelzo: The slavery issue is not just a question about, well, do we have the right to own slaves; it really became an enormous fork in the road for American culture because slavery was defended and justified in terms that really departed significantly from the mental framework of the founders. The justifications for slavery were all built around a very romantic, anti-rational philosophy of culture. It was the same philosophy that in Europe was glorifying nationality based upon blood and race and soil and ethnicity, and which, in the 20th century, blossomed into the most hideous flowers of warfare and genocide; whereas Lincoln is speaking very much as a man of the 18th century. He is speaking as someone who values rationality; who adores the principles, the natural law principles of the Declaration of Independence; and who is seeking for a standard of natural right that can be recognized by everybody. For Southerners, slavery was defended in a surprisingly amoral way. It was defended on the grounds of power, of racial inequality, racial inferiority. Lincoln is opposing slavery on the grounds of a natural, inherent right that everyone is born with: to liberty. And slavery, to the extent that slavery violates that natural right, it’s a violation of every other system of natural right that God has put into the universe. It’s interesting in this respect that Lincoln’s politics are all built around a philosophy of natural right and natural law, so that he himself is not a demonstrably religious individual. Nevertheless, he still believed that there was a right and a wrong that not only existed above politics, but there was a right and wrong that everybody could apprehend.
Mohler: It was universally accessible.
Guelzo: Exactly. This is what Paul talks about in Romans about the Law that even the Gentiles understand, that’s written on the heart. This is the same kind of thing that Thomas Aquinas is talking about when he is laying out in the Summa Contra Gentiles how missionaries can appeal to heathen who have never heard about Jesus, have never heard about the gospel. Nevertheless, says Thomas, you can appeal in a preparatory way to this natural sense of right that everybody has built within them. And, of course, even CS Lewis in his apologetical works made that same appeal to a natural knowledge of things that are good and things that are wrong. Lincoln is really inhabiting that same mental universe, whereas Southern slavery is being justified purely in terms of inequality, and power, race, and soil, and blood, and when we see, in the 20th century, what terrible consequences of those romantic ideas had, I think it should make us shrink back and say, “It’s a good thing we did not as a nation go down that path lest we find ourselves in some of the same cataclysms that overcame the other nations in the 20th century.”
Mohler: Looking back, I find myself able to lend some credence to any number of arguments made on both sides of the sectional crisis, but when it comes to the most fundamental issue, and that’s the issue of slavery in terms of moral question and then the issue of the survival of the union, I have to tell you, I found most satisfying and deeply poignant the way you ended your book, and that was with the illustration of the most—September the 17th, the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who you point out, had been a lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts on that day, received a red rose from his fellow justice Edward Douglas White, a former Confederate Soldier from Louisiana, and they joined each other on the court, at least by 1902. And then you write, “It was the kind of sentimental gesture that Holmes appreciated,” and you also said that Justice White had a point to make. “‘My God,’ the old Confederate would mutter in palpable horror as he reflected on the war he had lost, ‘My God, if we had succeeded.” It’s a powerful way to end the book.
Guelzo: It’s a marvelous illustration of people coming to their senses who have been told like David, “Thou art the man,” and realizing, “My God, we almost drove this right off the cliff.”
Mohler: Looking at the larger issue of the war and of all the constellation of issues that arose within it, several modern historians, very recent historians, have been looking at the influence of evangelical Christianity, both in the North and in the South. Did you learn anything new in your consideration of Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, in terms of how that faith contributed to the arguments, the understandings on both sides of the Civil War?
Guelzo: Well, it certainly did, and, in some respects, there’s a lot to find there that’s disappointing because, even as Lincoln said, both read the same Bible, both pray to the same God. Now he said it must seem strange that you would pray to God for the power to take bread out of the mouths of someone else who has earned it, but then Lincoln immediately closed off that line of thought by saying, “Well let’s judge not that we may not be judged.” He had, in fact, the bigger game that he was hunting there in the second inaugural, but there were many people in the South who really believed that that was, in fact, what they were entitled to. Lincoln’s argument runs in exactly the other direction, and what he wants to do is to point people towards a larger set of questions that evangelical Christianity really does a lot to frame for him. Because as many Southerners as there were who would quote the Bible about Onesimus being sent back to Philemon and about servants obey your masters, as many Southerners as would make that kind of argument from the Bible, there were many other Northern evangelicals who pointed out that, well, you can’t really make the kind of equivalence between Southern slavery and the slavery that’s being described in the Old Testament or the New Testament. They’re really two very different institutions. They made the point that if slavery looked like the slavery we described in the Bible, then that would be one thing, but slavery being practiced in the South is anything but. It’s something not only entirely different, but completely noxious. And, therefore, evangelicals in the North really put weapons into the hands of Northerners to turn the war from being just a political contest to really being a moral crusade. The big question then becomes, “Was that a wise thing to do?” By converting the war from being just a political context into being a moral crusade, did you up the ante of self-righteousness so much that the only conceivable end to the war was going to be with one side or the other completely destroyed. This is a potent question, and it still sits out there haunting us because it sits on the line between private religion and public policy.
Mohler: Well, it certainly stands at the center of my attention at the moment if for no other reason than I serve as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution born in Charleston, South Carolina, in terms of the lives of two of its founders, Basil Manley, Sr., who had been pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston before the Civil War, and then was born literally institutionally in Greenville, South Carolina, and then interrupted by the war. It has been founded in 1859 and thus was a very young institution, interrupted by the war. Most of its faculty and many of its students entered the confederate ranks. I have to go back to something you said and suggest that I actually wish, and when I look back to the arguments that were offered on both sides, I actually wish the debate had been more frequently framed as you framed it there. Unfortunately, I think also one of the legacies of the Civil War is a resurgence of theological liberalism, that’s not an anachronistic term, but looking back it was that kind of logic that was used actually by many people in the North on the debates on slavery when they actually said about so much of what was in the Scripture, certainly dealing with these issues, “Yes, I know that’s what it says; let me tell you what it means;” rather than the better argument which is what you presented, which is that you can’t make the equivalent of Southern chattel race-based slavery with any form of slavery found in either the Old or the New Testaments. You know, you just want to go back and clean up those arguments, excruciatingly so.
Guelzo: The curious thing about that is that there were Southerners who in fact felt very keenly the difficulty of making that kind of argument from the Bible. The best example of that is a South Carolinian, James Henley Thornwell. Thornwell—arguably the sharpest theological mind in the South in the Civil War era—Thornwell defended slavery, yet, at the same time, he also turned around and criticized the practice of slavery in the Southern states, and he saw this gap between the slavery that was being practiced and what really ought to be the boundaries of slavery. And he pushed those boundaries of slavery so far in New Testament directions that it really bordered on ceasing to be slavery at all. What I mean is that Thornwell, for instance, criticized slaveholders for their practice of selling slaves, breaking up families, setting the marriage bond completely aside. Thornwell said, “This is part of our practice, but this is not good. God is going to judge us for this.” So there were Southern voices criticizing Southern slavery as it was practiced too, and those voices tended to get swept away with the outbreak of the war—Thornwell himself did not outlive the war; he died in 1862—but there were many Southerners who were profoundly uncomfortable with the argument from the Bible about slavery and the reality of it as it was practiced in the South before the Civil War.
Mohler: And it remains this great moral wound at the very heart of the American experiment and, frankly, the heart of Christianity as well with virtually all the denominations divided over the question of slavery, and with the legacy continuing in terms of not only the sectional divide you see, but a theological divide. There still is a distinction, in many ways a palpable distinction theologically between the North and the South that has roots going all the way back before the Civil War, but I would argue again it was exacerbated by the war and by the process of reconstruction. You, by the way, deal with reconstruction in a way that I’ve really not seen any other historian do by taking us up to the gilded era and showing continuities between the America of the earliest 20th century and the late 19th century and the agony of reconstruction. It makes me wonder what your next project is going to be.
Guelzo: Well, if I knew what my next project was going to be, I could probably tell you more about it. I’ve got right now in the hopper a very large book on the Battle of Gettysburg, which we hope to get out before the sesquicentennial of the battle next year, and I have one or two smaller projects, but I suppose the floor is open from nominations. And it sounds like what you want me to do is to take reconstruction and deal with that.
Mohler: Insofar as I have a say in the matter of exhortation, I would tell you that I want the next volume to Fateful Lightning, and I want to pre-order it.
Guelzo: I see. Alright; I will put that in my list of requests and in my suggestion box, and we’ll see what comes out of it. I will say this that reconstruction is a critical era. People tend to treat it just as though it was the last chord of the Civil War symphony; it’s really a good deal more than that. It does open the door to a very different kind of America and many of the changes that we often impute to the Civil War are really more properly laid at the doorstep of the reconstruction era. You had mentioned theological liberalism as an example. Theological liberalism is a phenomenon which actually occurs on both sides of the old Mason-Dixon Line. There are a number of the most important liberal figures, not only in places in the North, in Northern churches and Northern seminaries—I think of people like David Swing or Charles Augustus Briggs—but there were also very prominent Southern liberal theologians, and that too is a by-product of the cultural tensions and disappointments that we see emerging out of the reconstruction era.
Mohler: Well, that’s why you have to write that book, but, in the meantime, tell us about the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College.
Guelzo: Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College is a program that has two components. One is an undergraduate program where a student can come to Gettysburg College and major in any of the other majors that are offered on the campus, from physics to English, and also minor in Civil War studies. We have a rotation of courses that are devoted to various aspects of the Civil War and a student can take those courses and emerge at the end of their four-year-undergraduate career with not only their degree in their major, but with their minor in Civil War studies. And what better place to do Civil War studies than here in Gettysburg, which is really the epicenter of Civil War interest. The other aspect of the program is the Gettysburg Semester, which is a kind of study-away program. You know it’s very popular these days in colleges and universities to spend a semester studying someplace else, and usually students go abroad. Well, our alternative to that is to say, “Well don’t go to another country, go to another century. Come to Gettysburg for a semester—the Gettysburg Semester—and spend that as an emersion semester completely devoted to Civil War related courses and Civil War studies.” So with those two programs, we have students not only from the college, we also have students from all over the country coming to spend the Gettysburg Semester with us, and, between them both, we probably have more fun than is legal.
Mohler: Well, I can tell you that if I were a college student, I think I would be ready to sign up.
Guelzo: Well, I certainly hope so because we have a very good balance, I’m happy to say, between students from the North, students from the South, students from the West Coast, and it’s always a great surprise for students coming from different points of the compass to meet each other and to discover that each section, each region, each state, still has a very particular take on the Civil War. And we get some wonderfully interesting moments among our students in dealing with the Civil War.
Mohler: Mr. Allen Guelzo, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Guelzo: Al, it was a real pleasure to talk.
Mohler: A conversation like this helps to affirm that the Civil War, and other events in history of that magnitude, are simply too massive to be covered well in any one book, in any one career, or, for that matter, in any one historical memory or imagination. We’re staggered by the magnitude of the massiveness of this story, the magnitude of this event, and the difficulty of coming to grips with it even 150 years after so many of these events took place, but for Americans the Civil War demands our interpretation. And that’s why we’re so indebted to historians such as Allen Guelzo for assisting us in that interpretation.
For American Christians, the Civil War is no simple issue. It is connected to so many other interconnected questions that simply cannot be avoided; questions of, of course, everything from states’ rights to the reality and horror of chattel slavery in the United States. We also recognize that the story of the Civil War is not just about a political division in the nation; it was also a theological and denominational division between Christians in the North and Christians in the South. It also involved two vital interpretations of Scripture in a worldview distinction that threatened to do great ruin to the idea of Christianity itself. What we find in the aftermath of the Civil War is not only what Americans knew as the historical period of reconstruction; we also found a great need for theological reconstruction as well. Americans, North and South, American Christians wherever they are found still have a lot of thinking to do when it comes to the Civil War. There is a lot of grief and tragedy here. There is also the triumph of freedom in the midst of a very dark and ominous chapter in our nation’s history. In a Genesis-three world, a world of fallen sinners doing the very best they can under many circumstances, you find a circumstance in which, for instance, even Abraham Lincoln sometimes was not sure what was right, but he did know what was necessary. There are torturous questions, in terms of historical interpretation, and these will continue. This is not something that American Christians can avoid; it is something that American Christians should take on as a matter of not only our intellectual responsibility, but our theological responsibility as well. That’s why an author like Allen Guelzo, who is theologically as well as historically informed, is so helpful to us, and a conversation like this is so necessary.
For American Christians, we need to recognize that a historical event of this magnitude not only demands our continued thinking, but our continued reading. Even a book as valuable as the book we’ve been discussing today, Al Guelzo’s new book Fateful Lightning, is an invitation to yet further reading, further discussion, further consideration. This is a place to start, but it’s a conversation that simply isn’t going to end. Again, thanks to my guest, Allen Guelzo, for thinking with me today.
Before signing off, I want to remind you about the first annual Expositor’s Summit, an important conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary October 30th through the 31st of this year. The theme of this year’s conference is “Preaching in a Post-Everything World.” Please join me along with John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, and others for this annual conference on the campus of Southern Seminary. For more information, visit sbts.edu.
Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.