Monday, June 9, 2008

Merely a Bourgeois Revolution

When Washington turned down a third term as President of the new Republic, Napoleon said he must be the greatest man in the world. The U.S. did not otherwise get much respect in the early 19th century: the U.S. probably wouldn't stay united for long and in any case its power was negligible. The latter estimate had begun to change when the Civil War began. It had become clear by that time that the U.S. would soon present a real threat to European, and especially British interests. The Brits came as close as they could to openly supporting the South, which despite their own powerful anti-slavery lobby they tended to romanticize (soaking up the South's propaganda) as a chivalric aristocracy gallantly fending off the encroachments of the grubby, commercial, capitalistic North. According to one of the accounts I have read, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, was issued just in time to prevent the Prime Minister from recognizing the South and its right to secede.

Samuel Johnson despised the founding fathers and their revolution because they were slave-holders and he suspected that their real motive, for all their talk about inalienable rights (which he thought was merely a smoke-screen) was to make America safe for slavery. He was partly right.

Romantic intellectuals on the continent regarded our revolution with disdain because it was not sufficiently radical: it did not get the root of the problem, private property, which as anyone knew who had read their Rousseau or Proudhon, is the same as theft.The American Revolution was merely a bourgeois revolution and therefore bogus, beside the point. Karl Marx thought a lot about the French Revolution and where or how it went astray; he didn't bother much about American one which he considered to be all about class, as any right thinking revolution would be; it was just that the wrong classes came out on top, where they'd been along of course, and stayed there.

The failure of the French Revolution, and its successors in '32 and '48 drove Romanticism in on itself. In proclaiming the power of the Will over facts and circumstances, Fichte and his followers came pretty close to denying the legitimacy of all government and all law; the will, they thought makes its own laws. (See my Romantic Will postings.) But what happens when one tries that on?

Schopenhauer, who despised Fichte and thought politics, especially the revolutionary kind, stupid or irrelevant, gave romantic visionaries something new to think about.

A foot-note on the Emancipation Proclamation:

My brother, Finlay Lewis, writes
Just read your Monday blog noting the fortuitous timing of the emancipation proclamation. Antietam was crucial to that. Lincoln wrote the proclamation
in the summer of 1862 and then stuck it in a drawer, hoping to issue it on the heels of a North victory. Otherwise, he feared it would be viewed by the English (and others, of course) as an act of desperation.

As we all know, Antietam wasn't much of a victory. McClellan recoiled from attempting to deliver a mortal blow to the southern army even though he was privy to Lee's battle plan (thanks to a Union sergeant who had stumbled across a cigar wrapper containing Lee's orders to divide his forces.)

That raises an interesting question. Suppose McClellan had crushed Lee's army at that point. Would Lincoln then have had the political support in the North to end slavery or did that step require two and a half more years of bloodshed before that threshold could be crossed? The Democrats had not yet been discredited, and a smashing victory would almost certainly have so enhanced McClellan's stature that Lincoln might have had no choice but to acquiesce in his likely demand that the South be offered a deal short of emancipation.

No comments:

Post a Comment