Round-Table Conversations on World-Changing Ideas: The Founding Fathers and Civil War

Edited and condensed by David Hollander MFA '97

Anyone who's followed the rise of the Tea Party to political relevance knows that the movement regularly invokes the founding fathers.

Those in opposing political camps see this as a brazen usurpation, since the founders were intellectual elites who bore little in common with the Tea Party's anti-intellectual populism. (The liberal comedian Bill Maher addressed the Tea Party with this tidbit: "The founding fathers would have hated your guts.") But the fact is that the founders have been referenced by movements from across the ideological spectrum for more than two centuries. And Eileen Cheng's "The Founders and the Origins of American Politics" class has been looking at some of the earliest (and most divisive) American claims to their lineage.

On May 4, the discussion revolved around the Civil War's Confederate States, whose leaders claimed that the Union had sold out the ideals of the American revolutionaries by undermining the rights of states to govern themselves. What follows is a partial transcript of the class conversation, as Cheng's students grappled with questions familiar to us from contemporary politics: How could opposing forces both view themselves as the true inheritors of the founders' legacy? And how could so many of the poor—in this case, nonslaveholding Southerners—be moved to fight and die for a cause that arguably benefited only the powerful elite?

Under Discussion:
Confederate Reckoning by Stephanie McCurry (Harvard University, 2010)
Mastering America by Robert Bonner (Cambridge University, 2009)

Eileen Cheng: I wanted to start today by talking about one of the places of overlap between Bonner and McCurry. Bonner focuses on the ideology of the elite slaveholding whites, on the rhetoric they were using—but McCurry is more interested in their policies and their actions. How do the elites come out looking in McCurry's account? …

William Bellamy '13: … Members of the master class get a much harsher treatment in McCurry's text. They seem to be the only ones with secessionist tendencies, and it seems as if they're trying to manipulate the rest of the population, forcing an ideology on them that they may not believe in and probably won't ever benefit from.

Eileen Cheng: … Why would non-slaveholding white men go along with [secession]? Part of McCurry's explanation is that, in fact, some of those non-slaveholding whites did not go along with it willingly. They were manipulated by a lot of campaign rhetoric, by tricky election techniques at secession conventions, and even in more blatantly coercive ways. McCurry makes it seem as if they're not completely embracing the Confederate cause of their own accord. …

Tara Kearns '11: But McCurry is also a little bit angry. … At one point she talks about the elite's "hubris." But I think that she doesn't quite place these people who come out as "the bad guys" in the context of the time.

Eileen Cheng: … You could make the claim that [McCurry] is being sort of Whiggish by describing Confederate elites as reactionary or anti-democratic. Is she using our modern notions of democracy and projecting them back on those slaveholders?

Valentino Graci '13: Maybe to a certain extent, but at the same time she says that elite slaveholders wanted to do away with the idea that everything has to be done by a democratic vote. The actual tactics that they used show that they're not totally for [democracy].

Niccolo Brocato '11: McCurry does sort of make these slaveholders out to be the Legion of Doom. But I think she argues effectively. I couldn't help but draw parallels to the American Revolution, where there was a group at the top that decided, "We are going to have a revolution," even though a lot of the colonies were like, (recoiling) "Whoaaa."

Cameron Saunders '13: (nodding) Yeah, McCurry is criticizing Confederate elites for manipulating [secession votes], but didn't the North have plenty of dirty elections over the years? Isn't she holding the South to a different standard?

Eileen Cheng: Well, what standard of democracy are we using? By modern standards, you could say yes, this was undemocratic. The Confederate elites excluded huge portions of the population from taking part in elections. But they're using the language of the Revolution. They're saying, "this is what our country is about." I think they thought of themselves as democratic.

… A lot of historians would certainly say that if Confederate elites were anti-democratic, then our elite founders were also anti-democratic.

The founders saw actual democracy as scary anarchy. … They wanted republicanism, where the ordinary people would defer to the will of the elite. You can see how these Confederate slaveholders could really see themselves as being true to the ideals of the Revolution.

William Bellamy: I think it's safe to say, though, that when they thought they were representing the true spirit of the American Revolution, they had a unique perspective on the matter that was conditioned or structured by slavery. That's an interesting irony … what creates their notion of democracy (or at least republicanism) stems from the most fundamentally anti-democratic institution in the nation's history.

Eileen Cheng: But again, to their minds, it wasn't anti-democratic to believe in slavery; for them slaves weren't people, and to enslave wasn't necessarily to violate the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Cameron Saunders: Can we say then that the Confederacy saw the powers of the Union and of Congress [infringing on states' rights] as the equivalent of the British Parliament taxing [the colonies]?

Eileen Cheng: Well, there you see very strongly the Confederate link to the revolutionaries. They aren't imposing tyranny—the North is. And they may have a point. They can point to the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. The founding fathers were okay with having slavery be a part of the republic.

… But there's something incredibly self-destructive about what they decide to do. Secede. Fight the Civil War despite being at a huge disadvantage in terms of industrial might and sheer numbers. Why would they go to war?

Isaac Krasny '11: Well, look at the decision they were making: should they put up with conditions they objected to or should they declare independence and potentially have to defend themselves? It was the exact decision the revolutionaries had to make. They went to war against the most powerful empire in the world, knowing their chances of success were very slim. The Confederacy was facing similar odds, but they were driven by ideology, not practicality. They were asking themselves, How do we best preserve the rights given to us by the founders?

Forrest Watson '13: We talked about this last week. If you say that the Confederacy was just about slavery, you're not looking at the whole picture. … I don't think they would have taken this huge risk if it was just about finding the most practical way to keep slaves around. The Civil War had to be at least partly an ideological war.