Thursday, May 16, 2024

What Men Fought For in the Civil War: Confirming Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Scottish, Swedish, German, Irish, and French Soldiers of the Union Army at Corinth, Mississippi

The casualty rate for soldiers in the Civil War was higher than any war in American history. Why were these men willing to fight in such a bloody war.  What motivated them?  Were they fighting for a cause--out of a sense of duty to their country or devotion to some political principle such as liberty and equality?  Or were they fighting only for their comrades in arms?  Or were they coerced into fighting by threats of punishment for those who refused to fight?  And were the motives for the Union soldiers different from the Confederate soldiers?  

To answer these questions, historian James McPherson studied more than 25,000 letters and nearly 250 private diaries written by 1,076 soldiers--647 Union and 429 Confederate--to see what they said about their motives for fighting (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]).  Of the almost 3 million men who were soldiers in the Civil War, about 2.1 million were Union soldiers.  So the Union army was more than twice as large as the Confederate army.

McPherson deliberately excluded writing that was written for publication--such as published memoires written or revised after the war was over--because he wanted to see what the men said candidly to their wives, fiancés, family members, and friends during the war, rather than what they might want to present to a public audience.  It was also important that they could speak bluntly and honestly because the Civil War armies did not censor the writing of their soldiers.

McPherson admitted that his samples of Union and Confederate soldiers were skewed in various ways.  The most obvious is that these samples of writing excluded the illiterate.  But that is not a serious limitation considering that about 90 percent of the soldiers in the Civil War were literate.  Most of the soldiers read the newspapers that were regularly circulated among the troops, which allowed them to follow the political news and debates throughout the war.

McPherson's samples were skewed in favor of those who volunteered early in the war in 1861-1862.  His samples contained disproportionately fewer men who entered the war in 1863-1864 as draftees, substitutes, or people who enlisted only because they were paid big bounties.  But McPherson saw this bias as actually beneficial because he wanted to explain the motives of Civil War soldiers for fighting, and it was known that draftees, substitutes, and those paid bounties tended to avoid the real fighting.  

In fact, it was widely reported that about one half of the soldiers were "skulkers" who found ways to hide or run away from the fighting.  Some deserted for good.  The diary entries of a private in the 101st New York candidly recorded his avoidance of the fight at the second battle of Bull Run:  August 29, 1862: "Marched about three miles and fought all day they marched us up to Reb battery and we skidadled then I fell out and kept out all day.  Laid in the wood all night with 5 or 6 others."  August 3o: "Laid in the woods all day while the rest were fighting" (7). 

The fighting soldiers were most likely to be killed, and so we can see that the soldiers in McPherson's samples were most likely to be real fighters.  The casualty rate for all Union soldiers was 5 percent.  But 17 percent of the soldiers in the Union sample were killed or mortally wounded.  Similarly, while the casualty rate for all Confederate soldiers was 12 percent, this was 29 percent for the Confederate sample (ix). 

After World War II, many studies of combat motivation in that war concluded that soldiers in combat are mostly moved by "primary group cohesion"--fighting for the survival of one's comrades--and that devotion to patriotic or ideological causes is unimportant.  Many historians have assumed that this must have been true for soldiers in the Civil War as well.  But McPherson's study of the letters and diaries that he collected refutes this.  Two-thirds of both Confederate and Union soldiers in his samples expressed some patriotic motives (duty and honor in fighting for one's country), and over 40 percent spoke about particular ideological principles such as liberty, self-government, and resistance to tyranny (114).  For example, an officer in the 54th Ohio said he was fighting for "the guaranty of the rights of property, liberty of action, freedom of thought, religion . . . that kind of government that shall assure life liberty & the pursuit of happiness" (112).

I see evidence in McPherson's work that the Union soldiers were more moved by liberal principles, and the Confederates more moved by antiliberal principles, and that Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address correctly saw that the Civil War would be the ultimate test of the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence.  

As Lincoln said, the Civil War was a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure.  If that nation could survive the Civil War and then be dedicated to a new birth of freedom, this would show to the world that popular or republican government shall not perish from the earth.   In McPherson's sample of letters and diaries, we can see that many of the men who fought in the Civil War saw the truth of Lincoln's interpretation of the war.


In 1861, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis appealed to the revolutionary spirit of "our fathers" who fought for American liberty in 1776.  Similarly, both Confederate and Union soldiers said they were fighting for the cause of liberty that began with the American Revolution.  The Confederates said they were defending their liberty from a tyrannical government.  Unionists said they were fighting to preserve the nation conceived in liberty from being destroyed by secessionist anarchy.  Clearly, Northerners and Southerners disagreed in their definitions of liberty.

A Mississippi Confederate private wrote to his wife in 1862 that "if we was to lose, we would be slaves to the Yanks and our children would have a yoke of bondage thrown around there neck."  A Kentucky Confederate wrote: "We are fighting for our liberty against tyrants of the North . . . who are determined to destroy slavery" (106).

Confederates who were slaveholders stressed their right to hold property in slaves as the basis of their liberty.  Even soldiers who were not slaveholders stressed the property they held as members of the white race as the basis of their liberty.  A Louisiana artilleryman in 1862 wrote: "I never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person.  There is too many free niggers . . . now to suit me, let alone having four millions."  A private in the 38th North Carolina wanted to show the Yankees "that a white man is better than a nigger."  A soldier from the Shenandoah Valley told his fiancée that he would fight to assure "a free white man's government instead of living under a black republican government" (109).

The Confederates believed in equality, but it was, as McPherson observed, "the equality of all who belonged to the master race," which supported "herrenvolk democracy" (109).

Thus, as Lincoln had said, the dispute between the North and the South was a conflict between contradictory definitions of the liberty and equality affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. 

In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois, defending his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow the people in the western territories to decide by majority vote whether they would become a slave state or a free state.  He insisted that a congressional prohibition on the expansion of slavery into the western territories would violate "the sacred right of self-government" by denying the right of the people to decide by popular vote whether they would have slavery.

Lincoln was in the audience for this speech, and he immediately responded with his own speech arguing that Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act would violate the policy set by Thomas Jefferson and other American founders--starting with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787--that prohibited the expansion of slavery into the western territories.  Lincoln denounced Douglas's claim that the "right of self-government" could establish slavery because this assumed a peculiar view of liberty: "That perfect liberty they sigh for--the liberty of making slaves of other people--Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago" (1989, 1:309).

In 1864, Lincoln saw this same disagreement about liberty as the underlying cause of the Civil War:

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.  We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.  With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.  Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty.  And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny."

"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one" (1989, 2:589-90).

This is the contradiction between a liberal definition of liberty and an illiberal.  In 1858, Lincoln had stated the liberal definition of liberty as the principle that "each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights" (1989, 1:449).  Notice that this is also a liberal definition of equality--every individual is equally free in his right to do as he pleases so long as he does not interfere with the same right of every other man.


Many of the soldiers in the Civil War--both Unionists and Confederates--believed that this conflict over the definitions of liberty and equality would be decided by God in war--the "God of Battles" as they called Him (67, 72, 122, 157).  These men had been shaped by the Protestant revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that swept over America in the first half of the nineteenth century.  In many military units, the soldiers organized their own revival meetings before and after battles to stir themselves up to a religious frenzy.  The armies in the Civil War might well have been the most religious armies in American history (Ahlstrom 1972, 385-509).

A Pennsylvania soldier explained that "religion is what makes brave soldiers."  One reason why that might be true is that the Christian belief in eternal salvation and life after death in Heaven could lessen the believer's fear of death in war.  A private in the 33rd Mississippi wrote to his wife: "Christians make the best soldiers as they would not fear the consequences after death as others would."  This was confirmed by the worries of nonbelieving soldiers.  A South Carolina artillery officer admitted that death terrified him because "I am not a christian--a christian can afford to be a philosopher because he believes in a certain reunion hereafter but a poor devil who cant believe it hasn't that support" (68).

Another reason why religion might make brave soldiers is that they can believe that God is on their side, and they can pray for God's help.  The problem here, of course, is that both sides in the Civil War thought they were fighting for God's cause.  As I have noted previously, the Civil War created a theological crisis for America that was sharply stated by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural.  "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes."

The Christian churches were split over the Civil War and particularly the issue of slavery.  Many of the Southern churches pointed to the Bible's clear endorsement of slavery.  But many of the Northern churches insisted that a just God must surely condemn slavery.  Lincoln suggested that God had given no clear answer to the question of whether He willed the preservation of slavery: "The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation--the Bible--gives none--or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning" (1989, 1:685).

Both Union and Confederate soldiers prayed to God to give them victory.  This is what Locke and the American Revolutionaries called the "Appeal to Heaven"--resolving a political dispute by going to war and allowing God to decide the winner.  Preparing to go into action at Vicksburg in 1863, a soldier in the 37th Mississippi declared: "Surely the God of Battles is on our side."  An Alabama artillery lieutenant wrote in February of 1863 that "I have always believed that God was with us--if I had not my arm would long since have been palsied."  Even after the fall of Atlanta in 1864, he still could not "believe that our Father in Heaven intends that we shall be subjugated by such a race of people as the Yankees" (72-73). 

But that is exactly what some devout Yankees believed.  A Pennsylvania private was sure "that God will prosper us in the movements about to be made against this cursed rebellion."  A lieutenant in the 16th New York, who would win the congressional medal of honor, wrote in 1862 that "the cause for which we battle is one in which we can in righteousness claim the protection of heaven.  Humanity is largely interested in the issues of this monstrous rebellion hence He who is the embodiment of humanity will bestow in great abundance His blessings upon his and our cause" (73).  In their letters and diaries, many Union soldiers expressed the same confidence that God was on their side of their just cause.

Did Lincoln agree with this?  Many people have interpreted his Second Inaugural Address as implying that God had been on the side of the Union, and that the Union soldiers were fighting a holy war.  But in the passage I just quoted, Lincoln suggests that we cannot know whether God is on one side or the other in this war: "The Almighty has His own purposes."

Moreover, in the first paragraph of the Second Inaugural, Lincoln suggests that the outcome of the war will be decided not by God's intervention but by the military actions of the armies: "The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.  With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured."  By the time of the Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) the victory of the Union over the Confederacy was clearly imminent.  Four weeks later--on April 9--Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

As Commander in Chief, Lincoln had always believed that a Union victory would depend on a military strategy to guide the movements of the Union armies and a political strategy for holding together a complex coalition of groups supporting the Union cause.  His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard Lincoln walking back and forth in his bedroom late into the night as he read and digested books on military strategy.  Every day, he studied the military reports coming in from the field; and he questioned his generals and admirals about what they were doing, meeting with them in Washington or in the field, or corresponding with them.

By early in 1862, Lincoln had formulated a military strategy based on the concept of "concentration in time."  In his book on Lincoln as Commander in Chief, McPherson explains this:

"Because the Confederacy's basic military strategy was to defend the territory that lay behind its frontier, Southern armies had the advantage of interior lines.  That advantage enabled them to shift reinforcements from inactive to active fronts, as they had done at Manassas in July 1861.  This concentration in space could be overcome only if the Union employed its greater numbers (a reality despite McClellan's belief to the contrary) to attack on two or more fronts at once--concentration in time" (2008, 70).

In a letter to Generals Buell and Halleck on January 13, 1862, Lincoln explained this strategy:

"I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much" (1989, 2:302).

Unfortunately, for two years, Lincoln could not find any generals willing to take his advice.  But, finally, in early 1864, Lincoln found the general who recognized the shrewdness of Lincoln's military strategy: Lincoln appointed Grant the general-in-chief of the armies.  Grant worked out a coordinated strategy for all major fronts.  Grant ordered five separate armies to advance simultaneously from exterior lines against five smaller Confederate armies so that they could not use their interior lines to reinforce one or another of them.  Lincoln told John Hay that Grant's plans reminded him of his own "suggestion so constantly made and as constantly neglected, to Buell & Halleck et al to move at once upon the enemy's whole so as to bring into action our great superiority in numbers" (Hay 1997, 193).  As carried out in 1864 by the team of Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan, this strategy won the war (McPherson 2008).

Notice that the key to this strategy was exploiting the advantage of the Union in its greater numbers of soldiers--over twice as many as the Confederates.  This was due to the greater population of the Northern states, which gave them a greater pool of potential military recruits.

Not only was the Confederacy weakened by its small total population--about one-third that of the Union--but as a slave society, the Confederacy lacked access to 40 percent of its adult male military-age population, who were enslaved and thus not eligible for service.  This left about 965,000 free white men between the ages of 18 to 45 to draw on for military service.  But then, of course, not every adult white man could serve.  This meant that at most the Confederacy could put an army of no more than about five hundred thousand men in the field (McCurry 2010).

The greater population of the North can be explained as largely the consequence of the liberal social order in the North that had attracted millions of immigrants from overseas and many migrants from the South.  The comparatively open and free society of the North offered more opportunities for people seeking a better life than did the illiberal South where slaves did most of the work.  As Lincoln said, in the free states, an ambitious man "can better his condition" because "there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer" (1989, 2:144).  Of the millions of overseas immigrants to the United States from the 1830s to the 1850s, most of them (about seven-eighths) settled in the North.  Also, the migration of white Southerners to the North was three times greater than the migration from the North to the South.

Over 40 percent of the Union's armed forces were immigrants and the sons of immigrants--totaling about 600,000 out of 2.1 million.  The Confederacy had only a few thousand immigrants fighting for them (Doyle 2015, 158-81).

Previously, I have written about immigration as cultural group selection that favors liberal regimes.

The number of Union soldiers was also increased, beginning in 1863, by the recruitment of emancipated slaves as soldiers.  By the end of the war, there were as many as many as 200,000 black Union soldiers.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was controversial, however.  And it did provoke debates among the Union soldiers.

I will take that up in my next post.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. 1972. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Doyle, Don H. 2015. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Hay, John. 1997. Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.  Eds. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lincoln, Abraham.  1989.  Speeches and Writings.  2 vols.  Ed. Don Fehrenbacher.  New York: Library of America.

McCurry, Stephanie. 2010. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McPherson, James M.  1997.  For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In the Civil War.  New York: Oxford University Press.

McPherson, James M.  2008.  Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.  New York: Penguin Press.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Crisis of the House Divided in 2024: Trump and the Antiliberal Tradition in America

Some Americans shocked by Donald Trump's MAGA movement have insisted: "This is not who we are."  President Biden has adopted that as the main theme of his campaign against Trump--that Trump and his MAGA movement are trying to overturn those moral and political principles that have always defined the American people. 

But now some historians are saying that Trump's political movement has deep roots in an American antiliberal tradition that has always been set against the liberal tradition that originated in the American Revolution and the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence: since 1776 America has been split in two--a liberal America that embraces the ideal of equal liberty for all in the Declaration of Independence and an antiliberal America that rejects it.  

Two new books make this argument:  Robert Kagan's Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart--Again and Steven Hahn's Illiberal America: A History.  In this post, I will respond to Kagan's book.

Kagan elaborates an argument that he first set forth in some articles in the Washington Post.  He makes two claims.  The first is that the American presidential election of 2024 will be like the election of 1860 in manifesting what Abraham Lincoln called the Crisis of the House Divided, which will provoke a rebellion against America's liberal democracy comparable to the South's rebellion in the Civil War.  The second claim is that this crisis in 2024 is only the most recent expression of a struggle between liberalism and antiliberalism that has been woven into American history ever since the American Revolution and most dramatically displayed in the American Civil War.

Kagan predicts that if Trump wins, he will become a dictator in punishing his enemies and exercising unlimited power in violation of the Constitution; and his supporters will allow him to do this.  If Trump loses, he will say the election was stolen, his supporters will deny the legitimacy of the federal government, and those state governments under Republican control will refuse to accept Biden's presidency, and perhaps secede from the Union and form a pro-Trump confederacy.  Either way, American liberal democracy will be dissolved.

This is possible, Kagan argues, only because the many Americans who support Trump reject the liberal principles of the American Revolution, and consequently they will justify Trump's illiberal behavior.  Trump's supporters show that they belong to an American tradition of illiberalism that stretches back to the origins of American politics.

Kagan sees the Declaration of Independence as the statement of the radical liberalism of the American Revolution--that all men are created equal and equally endowed with unalienable natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that governments are instituted by consent of the people to secure these rights, and that when any government fails to secure these rights, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish that government and to institute a new government that seems to them most likely to secure their safety and happiness.  

Throughout American history, the most fundamental political debates have been about how best to extend that equality of rights to all Americans.  Kagan agrees, therefore, with Lincoln's belief that this equality of rights in the Declaration was meant to be the "standard maxim for free society" that would be "constantly looked to--constantly labored for--and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and therefore constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere" (Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857).

But from the beginning in 1776, according to Kagan, these principles have been rejected by many Americans who have embraced a racial, religious, and ethnic antiliberalism, in which America is defined not by its commitment to human equality of rights but by its identity as a white Protestant Anglo-Saxon nation.  The American antiliberal groups have included the slaveholding South, the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South, the Ku Klux Clan in the 1920s, the anti-immigration movement that led to the Immigration Act of 1924, the Dixiecrats of the 1940s and 1950s, the John Birch Society conservatives, the antiliberal conservatives associated with William Buckley, the supporters of George Wallace, the movement for Pat Buchanan, the New Right around Ronald Reagan, and now the antiliberal populists who have taken control of the Republican Party under the leadership of Trump.

Kagan believes that Trump's MAGA populism shows all the elements of American antiliberalism.  The racial element is white nationalism: all white groups have voted in greater numbers for Trump than for his opponents.  The religious element is Christian nationalism:  many of Trump's most fervent supporters want to restore America's identity as a Christian nation.  The ethnic element is Anglo-Saxon and European nationalism:  Trump's anti-immigration stance is predominantly opposition to immigrants of Hispanic, African, Middle-Eastern, and Asian ethnicities.  America is for Americans, and those Americans who do not support Trump's ethnic, religious, and racial vision of America are not true Americans.

Although I agree with much of what Kagan says, I disagree with him on three points.  First, he fails to make a good intellectual argument for the Lockean and Lincolnian interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  Second, he fails to see that over the past 250 years of American history, the liberal tradition has ultimately prevailed over the antiliberal tradition--even among American conservatives. Finally, he fails to see that as a consequence of that triumph of the liberal tradition in America, Trump and his supporters have neither the guts nor the guns for fighting a civil war to overthrow that liberal tradition.


Kagan identifies the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence (particularly in the first two paragraphs) as a concise and elegant statement of John Locke's political philosophy, and so the liberal tradition in America as based on the Declaration is a Lockean tradition of thought (13, 17, 30-31, 34, 41, 151).  Kagan says nothing, however, about Claire Rydell Arcenas's argument that the Declaration does not show Locke's influence at all.  He should have responded to her by showing the many clear echoes of Locke's language in the Declaration, as I did a few years ago.

Kagan should also have responded to Pauline Maier's claim that Lincoln's elevation of the Declaration to being America's statement of the "standard maxim for free society" was Lincoln's mythic invention.  Lincoln saw the highest moral standard for American politics stated in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence--particularly, the assertion that "all men are created equal." But Maier argued that from 1776 to 1790, almost no one thought that opening section of the Declaration was important.  It was only later, after the Jeffersonian Republicans had transformed the interpretation of the Declaration, that the "self-evident truths" of the second paragraph became the most important part of the Declaration.  

In my previous post, I answered Maier by arguing that the political philosophy of the Declaration was widely recognized beginning in 1776 as necessary for the moral justification of the Revolution, although George Mason's language in the Virginia Declaration of Rights was quoted more often than Jefferson's revision of that language, and as Maier admits, Jefferson's language had the "same content" as Mason's.  Then, beginning in the 1790s, the Jeffersonian Republicans began the tradition of quoting Jefferson's language as the most concise and eloquent statement of the founding principles of the American Revolution.  So, when Lincoln appealed to Jefferson's principles in the Declaration, he was not creating a myth but extending a tradition that had emerged early in the American founding period. 

But while Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln all agreed that we can justify the human equality of rights as "inherent in the nature of being human"--as originally expressed in the state of nature--Kagan insists that they were wrong because liberalism is "a choice, and, at root, a faith" for which there is no rational proof or justification.  "Either one believes in its principles or one does not" (13-14).

This is not much of an argument for liberalism.  Indeed, it's not an argument at all, but rather a groundless "faith" or "choice."

Kagan simply assumes without proof that there is no empirical argument for natural rights as "inherent in the nature of being human."  He thus ignores the evolutionary historical evidence that Locke was right about the state of nature as the original condition of our human ancestors and that the American Revolutionaries were right about their being in a state of nature.  I have written about this in some previous posts.

Kagan asserts: "Since the dawn of humankind, people have been ruled by tyrannies of one form or another.  That is the norm" (10).  He offers no proof for this assertion.  And he does not respond to the evidence that I and others have presented to show that democracy is natural for human societies, because it arose in our earliest evolutionary history in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands, so that it is part of our genetically evolved human nature.

Contrary to Kagan, liberalism does not depend on a blind "faith."  Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln were right in seeing that it can be supported with reasons and evidence that show how our natural rights arise from our evolved human nature.


Even if there is a good case to be made for liberalism, we have to wonder how successful it has been in persuading the American people.  If American history since 1776 has been a perpetual struggle between a liberal tradition and an antiliberal tradition, has one side emerged as stronger than the other?

Kagan's answer is unclear.  Sometimes he says that "large numbers of Americans" or "millions of Americans" are on the side of antiliberalism, and at other times he says that "half the country" is antiliberal.  But then he also says that at the founding "the great majority of Americans" were antiliberal.  And yet in the 1950s, antiliberalism "had fallen into minority status in both parties."  He also says that in recent history "the core antiliberal constituencies were declining in absolute numbers in the country at large, but as a percentage of Republicans, they were growing in both numbers and influence."  He quotes Glenn Ellmers (a scholar at the Claremont Institute) as saying that "most people living in the United States today--certainly more than half--are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term," because only "the 75 million people who voted" for Trump in 2020 are true Americans.  (Previously, I have written about how Trump has split the Claremont Institute, with people like Ellmers taking the side of Trump against Jaffa's legacy of Lincolnian liberal conservatism.)  But then Kagan says that no more than "tens of millions of Americans will follow Trump wherever he leads."  (See pages 3, 5, 8, 77, 89, 94, 124, 135, 141, 161, 182, 196.)

In the final paragraph of his book, Kagan concludes that the future of American liberalism looks good--if it can survive the 2024 election:

"Meanwhile, the overall long-term prospects for American liberalism are actually bright, if only because the demographic shift is a reality that can't be blinked away.  White supremacy is another Lost Cause.  As America becomes increasingly multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural, and as it becomes impossible for any single ethnoreligious group to dominate American politics and society, the appeal of liberalism as the only means of holding such a society together should grow.  Many white people may not change their attitudes toward other racial and ethnic groups--after all, they haven't changed in two hundred years--but their ability to fight to preserve their hierarchies will diminish because they will be too badly outnumbered.  That is why 2024 is the year when the antiliberals hope to overthrow the system.  It may be their last chance" (217-18).

I agree that the "demographic shift" towards a "multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural" America favors liberalism.  But I also believe that there has been an intellectual shift in the moral and political culture of America that favors liberalism.  If we don't see that intellectual shift, that's because most of what Kagan identifies as antiliberal conservatism is only a pretense of antiliberalism that disguises an underlying liberal conservatism.

For example, Kagan speaks of Patrick Deneen as one of the leading antiliberals in America today (176, 185).  But as I have argued, if you study Deneen's writing carefully, you will see that he is actually a liberal!  As an illustration, you will notice that while Deneen praises John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony as the antiliberal founding of America--in contrast to the Lockean founding in 1776--Deneen refuses to defend the theocratic code of laws in Massachusetts--such as capital punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, witches, blasphemers, and those who refuse to worship God in the right way--because Deneen believes in the liberal principle of religious liberty, and so he's on the side of Roger Williams rather than Winthrop.

If you wanted to see a true model of antiliberalism, you would have to look beyond American history to Joseph de Maistre. In reaction against the French Revolution, Maistre initiated a Counter-Enlightenment tradition of thought based on a theocratic authoritarianism--the idea that all government comes from some unquestioned coercive authority that is divinely infallible and that all such authority is derived from the Pope as God's representative on Earth.  He proposed a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to the throne of France, ruling under the supreme authority of the Pope in both temporal and spiritual matters.  Atheists, Jews, and heretical Christians (such as the Protestants) should be suppressed.  He claimed that the rationalist rejection of Catholic Christianity and theocratic monarchy was responsible for the disorder that followed the French Revolution of 1789.  Even the most extreme right-wing Catholic Integralists in France today who profess to be in de Maistre's tradition can't endorse his theocratic authoritarianism.

As compared with de Maistre, almost all American conservatives today--even those who pretend to be antiliberal or post-liberal--are really liberal conservatives.  You can see that in the debate that has recently emerged between the "National Conservatives" and the "Freedom Conservatives."  If you compare the "statement of principles" for National Conservatism with that for Freedom Conservatism, you can see that they agree in affirming the liberal principles of individual equality and liberty, and thus reject any ethnoreligious antiliberalism.  

For example, in the National Conservatism Statement, the section on "God and Public Religion" includes this: "Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.  At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children.  Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes."  

That's a long way from the theocratic coercion of Winthrop or de Maistre.

Here's the section on "Race" in the National Conservatism Statement:  "We believe that all men are created in the image of God and that public policy should reflect that fact.  No person's worth or loyalties can be judged by the shape of his features, the color of his skin, or the results of a lab test.  The history of racialist ideology and oppression and its ongoing consequences require us to emphasize this truth.  We condemn the use of state and private institutions to discriminate and divide us against one another on the basis of race.  The cultural sympathies encouraged by a decent nationalism offer a sound basis for conciliation and unity among diverse communities.  The nationalism we espouse respects, and indeed combines, the unique needs of particular minority communities and the common good of the nation as a whole."

This "decent nationalism" is a liberal multiracial and multiethnic nationalism.

What we see here is the ultimate triumph of the liberal tradition in American history.  The critical turning point in that history was the Civil War.  That war was a test of whether a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could endure in a war with a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal.  The victory of the Union over the Confederacy was, as George Fitzhugh sadly conceded, the victory of John Locke over Robert Filmer.

Moreover, there is a good argument for saying that the military superiority of the Union over the Confederacy really was in some ways a product of the Lockean liberal culture of the North.  Consider, for instance, how the greater population of the Northern states over the Southern states arose from differences in migration.  Before the Civil War, the migration of white Southerners to the North was three times greater than the migration from the North to the South.  At the same time, seven-eighths of the immigrants from overseas settled in the North.  (This later became important for the Union army: 24 percent of all Union soldiers were born abroad [McPherson 1997: ix].)  In the 1840s alone, the population growth in the North was 20 percent higher than in the South (Kagan, 70).  Proslavery Southern leaders saw this population growth in the North as the single greatest threat to the South, which is why they fought so hard to expand slavery into the western territories, and thus increase the number of slave states.

What we see here is what evolutionary scientists call cultural group selection through migration and assimilation, in which countries with cultural traditions of freedom have higher fitness than countries that are less free.  John Locke understood this, which is why he argued that free societies benefited from having open borders, so that they could attract migrants from less free societies.  The freer societies with a growing population of productive and inventive people become the more prosperous and powerful societies.  In this way, people "vote with their feet" in favor of freedom.

And of course, not only did many white Southerners migrate to the North, many slaves ran away to the free states, forcing Southern slaveholders to demand that people in the North capture these fugitive slaves and return them to slavery.  That's why the debate over the fugitive slave laws was so intense.

Because of its larger population, the Union had a larger pool of men from whom soldiers could be recruited.  Consequently, the Confederate soldiers were badly outnumbered by their opponents: of the 3 million Civil war soldiers, over 2.1 million (70 percent) were Union soldiers.

Now, of course, once Reconstruction was ended, the Jim Crow South did preserve some of the Southern antiliberal tradition for almost a hundred years.  But even that was eventually defeated by the liberal tradition of the Civil Rights Movement, signaled in 1965 by an American President from the South, speaking before a joint session of Congress, declaring: "We shall overcome."


But then is it likely, as Kagan predicts, that after the election of 2024 Trump will lead his MAGA movement in a new rebellion against the American liberal tradition that will provoke another civil war?  After all, if the people do have the right to overthrow an unjust government, as the Declaration of Independence says, and if Trump and his supporters believe that the American liberal regime is unjustly oppressing them, then they should be willing and able to launch an antiliberal rebellion.

I don't think so.  As I said three years ago, the response of Trump and his supporters to his defeat in the 2020 election shows that they do not have the guts or the guns to rebel against the American liberal political order.

He did not have the guns because military leaders such as General Mark Milley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) made it clear that they would not allow the military to support a presidential dictatorship.  And he did not have the guts because he lacked the courage to assert his dictatorial will in violation of the Constitution.  He displayed his unmanly weakness on January 6 when he failed to lead the march on the Capitol as he had promised earlier in the day, and instead he watched the attack on TV at the White House, as if it were an entertaining TV drama.  Later, he meekly condemned the insurrectionary violence that he had inspired, and he told the insurrectionists to "go home with love and in peace." As Nicholas Fuentes of the white nationalist "America First" internet broadcasts said, Trump on that day proved to be "very weak and flaccid."

Kagan writes:

"What we are witnessing, however, is not a political battle but a rebellion.  The events of January 6, 2021, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past.  Though it may have been shocking to see normal, decent Americans condoning a violent assault on the Capitol, that event demonstrated that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions" (215).

But as shocking as the January 6th insurrection was, it could have been much more shocking.  Trump could have ordered the military to support the insurrectionists and to take control of the Capitol.  And he could have ordered his MAGA supporters to rise up and follow his leadership as the American Caesar.  He didn't do that because he didn't believe that Americans would support an antiliberal revolution to overthrow the American constitutional order.

By contrast, in 1861, Southern political leaders could count on there being a sufficiently strong antiliberal tradition in the South to support a Confederacy of states in rebellion against the national government.  

I am not convinced by Kagan's suggestion that when Trump wins or loses the presidential election of 2024, there will be such a strongly antiliberal MAGA movement that it will support Trump in becoming an antiliberal dictator. 

Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Discovery of the Declaration of Independence by the American People: A Response to Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997) is the best single book on the history of the Declaration of Independence.  I say that because I have learned more about the Declaration from this book than from any other.  Nevertheless, I disagree with some of her primary claims.

Here is her summary of her argument:

". . . The Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely, then recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republicans, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after another.  The politics that attended its creation never entirely left its side, such that the Declaration of Independence, which became a powerful statement of national identity, has also been at the center of some of the most intense conflicts in American history, including that over slavery which threatened the nation itself.  In the course of those controversies, the document assumed a function altogether different from that of 1776: it became not a justification of revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged" (154).

Here and throughout her book, Maier was elaborating ideas first set forth in 1962 in an article by Philip Detweiler--"The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years."  She was also developing the arguments from people like Willmoore Kendall, Mel Bradford, Garry Wills, and the young Harry Jaffa about Lincoln's "inventive" interpretation of the Declaration at Gettysburg.

Although I agree with much of this, I disagree with three points:  her sneering scorn for the elevation of the Declaration "into something akin to holy writ," her claim that the Declaration was "at first forgotten," and her assertion that originally the Declaration did not provide a "moral standard" for government.


As suggested by her mocking title, Maier was disdainful of the religious language and rituals that treated the Declaration as "American Scripture."  She began and ended her book describing her visit to the "Shrine" for the Declaration of Independence and the other "Charters of Freedom" in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington.  This reminded her of "the awesome, gilded, pre-Vatican II altars of my Catholic girlhood," and she was disgusted by it all (xiv).

Well, of course, many of us--particularly, those who are academic scholars--will find this sacralization of American political documents a bit ridiculous.  But what's the harm in doing this?  Maier thought this really was harmful.  Here's the last sentence of her book:  "The vitality of the Declaration of Independence rests upon the readiness of the people and their leaders to discuss its implications and to make the crooked ways straight, not in the mummified paper curiosities lying in state at the Archives; in the ritual of politics, not in the worship of false gods who are at odds with our eighteenth-century origins and who war against our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time" (215).

But she offered no evidence to support this claim.  And a few paragraphs before this passage, Maier praised Martin Luther King for his "I have a dream" speech in 1963--the centennial of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation--delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  King's quoting from the Declaration was part of a sermon filled with Biblical references and imagery.  And so, he was promoting the religiosity of "American Scripture."  But he did this to advocate political change to fulfill the Declaration's promise of equality of rights for all, which advanced the Civil Rights Movement, and thus expressed "our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time."


Maier said the Declaration was "at first almost entirely forgotten."  That "almost" is significant.  I agree that from 1776 to 1790, there were few prominent references to the Declaration--particularly, the second paragraph (the self-evident truths).  But even so, it was not entirely forgotten during this period.

In his critical review of Maier's book, Michael Zuckert pointed to two important references to the Declaration in the 1787 debate over the Constitution (Zuckert 1998:358-59).  First, Zuckert cited Federalist Number 40, where James Madison quoted from the Declaration.  Second, Zuckert quoted the Antifederalist writer Brutus as saying: "If we may collect the sentiments of the people of America, from their own most solemn declaration, they hold these truths as self-evident, that all men are by nature free.  No one man, therefore, or any class of men have a right by the law of nature, or of god, to assume or exercise authority over their fellows.  The origin of society then is to be sought, . . . in the united consent of those who associate."

I have a copy of a letter that Maier sent to Zuckert about his review (October 16, 1999), in which she said that this evidence actually supported her argument.  She noted that Zuckert had not actually quoted the passage from Madison, which referred to "the transcendent and precious right of the people to 'abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.'"  She said that since this "imprecise quotation" referred to the Declaration's assertion of the right to revolution, this supported her argument that the Declaration was originally understood as declaring the Americans' right of revolution, but without giving any attention to the Declaration's assertion of equality and inherent rights and the government's duty to secure those rights.

Maier said that the passage from Brutus also sustained her book's argument.  Although Brutus's reference to "self-evident" truths echoes the Declaration of Independence, his statement "that all men are by nature free" sounds more like Virginia's Declaration of Rights adopted in June 1776 after revising George Mason's draft--"all men are by nature equally free and independent."

In her book, Maier did indeed argue that Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights had much more influence on the other revolutionary state bills of rights than did the Declaration of Independence.  But it's hard to see the point of this argument given that she had written that Jefferson's "rewriting of Mason produced a more memorable statement of the same content" (134).  If Jefferson's Declaration had "the same content" as Mason's Declaration, then it would seem that the two declarations were in agreement in their principles.

In her article in the Washington and Lee Law Review, Maier rightly noted that Zuckert had misquoted the passage from Brutus. Brutus had not referred to the Americans' "most solemn declaration" but to their "most solemn declarations" (Storing 1981, 2:372).  Brutus was surely referring not just to the Declaration of Independence but to the state declarations of rights, such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  But if these state declarations of rights have "the same content" as the Declaration of Independence in their statement of principles, it's hard to see Maier's point here.

Moreover, there were other clear examples of the Declaration of Independence being cited in the constitutional ratification debates that Zuckert did not mention.  An Antifederalist--"A Georgian"--referred to "our glorious Declaration of Independence" as a model for "the principles of republican liberty and independence" that should be the model for a federal constitution (Storing 1981, 5:129, 135).  In the Pennsylvanian Ratification Convention, John Smilie complained about the lack of a bill of rights in the proposed Constitution, and insisted: "Let us recur to the memorable declaration of the 4th of July, 1776."  He then quoted in full the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence (Bailyn 1993, 1:805).

Clearly, the Declaration of Independence was not "completely forgotten" during this period from 1776 to 1790.


Maier's most fundamental argument in her book is that the Declaration of Independence as written in 1776 had only one function--to declare and justify revolution--and that it was only many years later that it was transformed so that it had a second function: to provide "a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged," with the most prominent principle of that moral standard being the Declaration's assertion that "all men are created equal" and endowed with equal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (154-55).  

That "moral standard" was stated in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.  But Maier claimed that from 1776 to 1790, almost no one thought that opening section of the Declaration was important.  It was only later, after the Jeffersonian Republicans had transformed the interpretation of the Declaration, that the "self-evident truths" of the second paragraph became the most important part of the Declaration.

Elaborating the story first told by Detweiler, Maier said that in the early years after 1776, the Declaration was celebrated as a practical event--the effective declaration of America's independence from Great Britain--but not as a statement of theoretical principles ("We hold these truths to be self-evident").   In the annual Fourth of July celebrations, almost nothing was said about those principles.

That began to change in the 1790's.  One early sign of the change was an article in a Philadelphia newspaper published on July 7, 1792, where the writer said that the Declaration was "not to be celebrated, merely as affecting the separation of one country from the jurisdiction of another; but as being the result of a rational discussion and definition of the rights of man, and the end of civil government" (Detweiler 1962, 565).

But in 1792, talk about "the rights of man" conjured up images of the French Revolution, which was politically polarizing for Americans.  The Federalists and the Republicans had become the two major parties, and while the Federalists were anti-French and pro-British, the Republicans were pro-French and anti-British.  The Federalists were not inclined to celebrate the Declaration of Independence because it was associated with the French revolutionary spirit, and it was critical of Great Britain.  And since the Federalists were opposed to Jefferson, they could not revere Jefferson's Declaration.

Once Jefferson became President in 1801, his party gained political dominance, and the Jeffersonian Republicans began to create the new image of the Declaration of Independence as the statement of the distinctively American credo of the natural equality of man and government as securing the natural rights of man.  After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party disintegrated, and the Jeffersonian Republican view of the Declaration became pervasive.

As the American debate over slavery intensified during this period, many abolitionists invoked the Declaration's principle of human equality as a moral standard for condemning slavery as naturally unjust. while many proslavery Southern leaders denounced that assertion of equality as a dangerous falsehood.  Although Lincoln did not agree with the abolitionist demand for the immediate abolition of slavery, he did agree that the Declaration's principle of equality was morally right, and that this justified prohibiting the introduction of slavery into the western territories.

Against this, Stephen Douglas argued that the principle of popular sovereignty should allow the people of the western territories to decide by majority vote whether they wanted slavery or not, and that the Declaration was never intended to assert a principle of human equality by which slavery could be morally condemned.  For Douglas, the Declaration had only one purpose--to explain and justify American Independence from Great Britain.

According to Maier, Douglas was right about the original meaning of the Declaration: it was only a Declaration of Independence, and it was not intended to assert the moral standards for a free society, as Lincoln believed (203-206).  What Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address--finding the national identity of America in the Declaration's principles of equality and liberty--was morally inspiring but historically false.

What Maier failed to see, however, is how the actual text of the Declaration explained and justified the Revolution through a general theory of just government (in the first two paragraphs) that also set the moral standards for judging the conduct of any government.  Michael Zuckert has made the best case for this in his essay on "Locke in America: The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence" (Zuckert 2002, 203-234).  But as I have said in a previous post, I disagree with Zuckert on one point:  while he says that the Declaration assumes a "mythic history" of human politics beginning in the state of nature, I see that history as an empirically true evolutionary history from the state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

When the Jeffersonian Republicans directed public attention to the high moral standards for politics set in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration, they were not creating a fictional "myth," as Maier claimed, but making a true discovery of what was really there in the text of the Declaration.  As one historian of the American Revolution has described it, this was "The Discovery of the Declaration of Independence by the People of the United States" (Fitzpatrick 1924, 9-20).


Bailyn, Bernard, ed.  1993.  The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification.  2 volumes.  New York: The Library of America.

Detweiler, Philip F.  1962.  "The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years."  William and Mary Quarterly 19: 557-574.

Fitzpatrick, John C.  1924.  The Spirit of the Revolution: New Light from Some of the Original Sources of American History.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Maier, Pauline.  1997.  American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maier, Pauline.  1999.  "The Strange History of 'All Men Are Created Equal'".  Washington and Lee Law Review 56: 873-888.

Storing, Herbert J., ed.  1981.  The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 volumes.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zuckert, Michael.  1998.  "A Work of Our Own Hands."  Review of Politics 60: 355-360.

Zuckert, Michael.  2002.  Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy.  Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas.

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Evolutionary Origins of the American People in the Declaration of Independence

                                   John Trumbull's Painting "The Declaration of Independence"

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

From the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, the reader must wonder about its assertion of peoplehood.  What makes a people "one people" separate from other peoples?  This is the question posed today by Trump and other "populist" leaders around the world, who claim to defend the "people" against the evil elites who are "the enemies of the people."  Does the identity of a people depend on their shared ethnicity or race, as the ethnic nationalists would say?  Or can the identity of the American people arise from their dedication to the principles of equality of rights in the Declaration of Independence, which would allow for a multiethnic and pluralistic national identity?

I have argued that Abraham Lincoln was right to root the national identity of the American people in the Declaration of Independence as the moral foundation for the Constitution.  I have also argued that the Declaration of Independence expresses the political thought of John Locke, and therefore we can see the evolutionary history of America as the symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

The best objection to all of this is that it is based on two historical myths--the myth that the Declaration of Independence is a Lockean document and the myth that the story of the American people is the story of their efforts to fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  I have answered the first charge in my response to Claire Rydell Arcenas's book on Locke in America.  But I have not yet answered the second charge, which was most fully developed in Pauline Maier's book American Scripture (1997) and in an article in the Washington and Lee Law Review (1999) that summarized the argument of her book.

I will begin in this post with what Maier identifies as the best statement of the myth of the Declaration of Independence--by Lincoln.  Then, in a second post, I will survey Maier's account of how that myth emerged in the first 100 years of the Declaration from 1776 to 1876.  Finally, in a third post, I will argue that contrary to Maier, this myth is a true myth:  it is not a fictional fabrication of American history but a discovery of the historical truth of the Lockean story of America as captured in the Declaration of Independence.


The best and most influential proponent of the myth of the Declaration of Independence that Maier wanted to debunk was Lincoln.  The most memorable statement of that myth is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

When I was a fifth-grade schoolchild in DeSoto, Missouri, my teacher (Helen Rolfing) required all of her students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  Each of us had to stand before the class one by one and recite it.  I remember that while the beginning and the end were easier to remember, the middle was hard--"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground."  

We were being indoctrinated in the catechism of America's political religion.  We had little understanding of what it all meant, except that it had something to do with equality, freedom, and the Civil War.  As we looked up at the wall behind the teacher, we saw two big pictures--George Washington on the left and Abraham Lincoln on the right.  We learned the stories about Washington as the Father of the County and Lincoln as the Savior of the Country in the Civil War--whose saving message was expressed in the Gettysburg Address.

We were confused by the first sentence--what's a "score"?  Miss Rolfing explained that "score" was the language of the King James Bible meaning "twenty."  So, "four score and seven years ago," calculated from 1863, when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, would have pointed back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence.  "Our fathers brought forth" the new American nation when it was dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence--particularly, "the proposition that all men are created equal."

Many years later, as a college student, and as a college professor teaching a course on Abraham Lincoln, I saw the subtleties of the Gettysburg Address that I could not see as a fifth grader.  While the Declaration of Independence holds it to be "self-evident" that all men are created equal, Lincoln speaks of this as a "proposition."  In Euclidean geometry, which Lincoln studied, a "proposition" is a statement that is "proposed" to be true, and it must be proven to be true, in contrast to a self-evident truth or axiom that we know to be true without any need for proof.  In 1859, Lincoln had said that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society" (Speeches and Writings, 2:19).  As an example of an axiom in Euclidean geometry, that two lines equal to a third are equal to one another is a self-evident truth about equality.

But that all men are created equal did not seem to be an axiomatic or self-evident truth in 1863, because Americans were fighting a civil war caused by a disagreement over whether that was true, or whether its truth meant that slavery was morally wrong.  The second sentence of the Gettysburg Address pointed to that disagreement: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."  But this "test" in the American Civil War seemed to be not so much a test of the truth of a proposition about equality as a test of endurance or strength in war.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery for those who died in the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, which had become the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and a decisive victory for the Union, fought near the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 1-3, 1863.  A day later, on July 4th, the Union won another decisive victory when the Confederates surrendered to General Grant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in half.  Was Lincoln suggesting that the military victory of the Union in defeating the Confederacy would "prove" the truth of the proposition of human equality in the Declaration of Independence?  If so, would that mean that might does make right?

In 1838, in his Address to the Young Men's Lyceum, Lincoln had said that the American revolutionary founders "aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves" (Speeches and Writings, 1:34).  Perhaps, then, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was suggesting that a Union victory in the Civil War would be "a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition"--namely, the capability of a people dedicated to popular government based on the principle of human equality to defeat a military insurrection designed to overturn that government as founded on that principle.

Surprisingly, however, Lincoln implied that both the Union and the Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed themselves to preserve the American nation.  "We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."

"But, in a larger sense," Lincoln observed, we cannot dedicate this ground beyond what the "brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" have already done.  "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Lincoln then concluded with his longest sentence, about one-third of the length of the entire Gettysburg Address.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

This concludes the third of the three paragraphs of the Gettysburg Address that tell a three-part story of American life and death.  First, there's birth--"our fathers brought fourth . . ."  Then, there's sacrificial death--"those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."  Finally, there's rebirth to eternal life--"a new birth of freedom," so that popular government "shall not perish from the earth."  (Doesn't this evoke the Christian story of Jesus?)

In this speech, Lincoln was speaking not only to Americans but also to all of Europe and Latin America, where people were watching to see whether the American model of democracy would indeed "perish from the earth."  Both the Union and the Confederacy had sent diplomats and special agents to Europe seeking support for their causes.  Lincoln and his Union agents had presented their cause--particularly with the promise of emancipation of slaves--as representing universal republican principles that were, as Lincoln said in 1862, "the last best, hope of earth" (2:415).  Charles Darwin was one of those British abolitionists who attentively followed the events of the Civil War in the newspapers, cheering when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and celebrating when Lee surrendered.

That the Civil War was indeed a crucial turning point in the geopolitical struggle between liberal republicanism and oligarchic authoritarianism is the argument of Don Doyle's book The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2015).  I would say that the victory of the Union in the Civil War was a decisive turn in political evolution by cultural group selection that favored the Lockean liberalism of the Declaration of Independence.

Some of the proslavery Southerners understood this.  Before the war, George Fitzhugh had condemned the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence as a statement of Locke's false teaching.  In 1866, Fitzhugh said that the conflict in the United States between the North and the South was a continuation of the debate in seventeenth-century England between Locke and Sir Robert Filmer.  The radical North was on the side of the Whigs and Locke.  The conservative South was on the side of the Tories and Filmer ("The Impending Fate of the Country," De Bow's Review 2 [1866]: 561-70).  The Union's victory in the Civil War was Locke's victory over Filmer.

Lincoln could see this as a vindication of what he had been saying for over ten years about how the American dedication to the Declaration of Independence had been tested in both war and peace.  In 1852, he had observed:  "On the fourth day of July, 1776, the people of a few feeble and oppressed colonies of Great Britain, inhabiting a portion of the Atlantic coast of North America, publicly declared their national independence, and made their appeal to the justice of their cause, and to the God of battles, for the maintenance of that declaration" (1:259).  This appeal to "the God of battles" is what Locke and the American revolutionaries called "the Appeal to Heaven."  Strangely, however, in both the American Revolution and the American Civil War, both of the opposing sides prayed to God for His help.

In fact, the Civil War became a theological crisis for America, because both proslavery and antislavery Americans looked to the Bible as supporting their position.  In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln sharply stated the problem: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other" (2:687).  But the Declaration of Independence confidently appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in declaring that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

And yet the fact that the Declaration of Independence did not mandate the abolition of slavery across all of America could be cited by people like Stephen Douglas as evidence that the equality of rights proclaimed in the Declaration was the political equality of free white men in America and other free white men in Great Britain, and thus it was not understood as an equality of all men of all races.  Lincoln responded by arguing that the equality affirmed in the Declaration was really meant to be an equality of all men of all races, but it was a matter of practical necessity to compromise with slavery for a limited period of time, while working for its ultimate extinction--and in particular, the national Congress should prohibit the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories and states.

Lincoln agreed with Henry Clay that "all men are created equal" is a true statement about men in the "state of nature" before the establishment of government.  Clay had said: "If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should to incorporate the institution of slavery among its elements."  "Exactly so," Lincoln observed.  "In our new free territories, a state of nature does exist," and therefore, as Congress lays the foundations of a new society in those free territories, "it is desirable that the declaration of the equality of all men shall be kept in view," and the introduction of slavery into those territories should be prohibited (1:822-23). 

In his 1857 Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln insisted that both Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney were denying "the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration.  He explained:

"I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.  They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.  They defined with tolerable distinctness, in which respects they did consider all men created equal--equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'  This they said, and this they meant.  They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them.  In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.  They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.  They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere" (1:398).

This is the Story of America as the Story of the Declaration of Independence:  equal liberty for all is the "standard maxim" for America that is "never perfectly attained" but "constantly approximated" across American history "as fast as circumstances should permit."  

As I have argued in previous posts, those who see evidence in some of his debates with Douglas that Lincoln was a white supremacist are mistaken.  He did say "that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people" (1:636).  But notice that he is silent about what he might say in the future.  And in fact, in 1865, he endorsed a free state constitution for Louisiana "giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man" (2:700).  

Moreover, I have argued, there are good reasons to believe that if Lincoln has been a modern Supreme Court Justice he would have supported the constitutional rights to racial intermarriage (in Loving v. Virginia) and same-sex marriage (in Obergefell v. Hodges); and he would have said that these decisions properly enforced the principle of equal liberty in the Declaration of Independence.

But was Lincoln right about the original meaning of the Declaration of Independence?  Maier argued that Stephen Douglas's interpretation of the Declaration was actually an accurate account of the original history of the Declaration; and what Lincoln presented was a mythical distortion of that history.  I will take that up in the next post.



Doyle, Don H. 2015. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1989. Speeches and Writings. 2 volumes. New York: Library of America.

Maier, Pauline. 1997. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Maier, Pauline. 1999. "The Strange History of 'All Men Are Created Equal.'" Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (Summer): 873-888.

Monday, April 15, 2024

If Bonobos Are Aggressive, Does That Deny the "Self-Domestication Hypothesis"?

                                                Vergil, A Male Bonobo at the Cincinnati Zoo

For many years, I taught a course at Northern Illinois University on "Chimpanzee Politics," which included some comparative study of chimpanzees and bonobos, the two primate species most closely related to human beings, because all three species evolved from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago.  

Every time I taught the course, I took the students on a field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has the largest captive group of bonobos in the world (over 20 individuals).  I have also been to the Cincinnati Zoo, which has about 12 bonobos.  Of course, it would be better to study the social behavior of bonobos in the wild.  But that is hard to do because they are only found in one place in the world--in dense rainforest areas south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Even those biologists who go there to study them find it hard to observe them as they move through the dense canopy of the rainforest.

Chimpanzees seem to be far more aggressive and violent than are bonobos.  Male chimps attack females and other males.  Sometimes these attacks are lethal.  Male chimps also form coalitions with other males to assert a male dominance hierarchy over females and other males.  These male coalitions also patrol the borders of their community, and they can launch attacks against other communities--even to the point of annihilating the whole community in war.

By contrast, bonobos have never been observed to engage in lethal attacks on other bonobos.  Female bonobos seem to be dominant over males.  And the females form coalitions with one another to attack males and mediate their conflicts.  In contrast to chimps, bonobo communities have never been observed to go to war with one another.  Bonobos from different communities can interact with one another peacefully.  All of this peacemaking depends on mutually pleasurable bisexual lovemaking--rubbing their genitals together--females with other females and with males.  This is why the bonobos have been dubbed the "hippie apes" who "make love not war."

Comparing human beings with these two ape species in working out the evolutionary links between the three species has provoked a debate among evolutionary biologists and social scientists.  The Hobbesian scientists argue that human beings are closer to chimps, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of war.  The Rousseauean scientists argue that human beings are closer to bonobos, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of peace.

In my posts on bonobos and the human state of nature, I have argued that Locke's account of the state of nature is closer to the truth than either Hobbes' or Rousseau's, and that evolved human nature combines the natural propensities of both chimps and bonobos.  As Steven Pinker would say, our human nature has both Inner Demons and Better Angels.  Lockean liberalism constructs a cultural niche of social institutions, mental attitudes, and moral traditions that tame the Inner Demons while eliciting the Better Angels to motivate voluntary cooperation and nonviolent relationships.

But in contrasting bonobos and chimpanzees, we should not assume that bonobos are utterly peaceful.  That bonobos are often aggressive in their attacks on one another is made clear in new research by Maud Mouginot and her colleagues that was just published online on Friday (Mouginot et al. 2024).

The message from this study as reported in the press--as in Carl Zimmer's report for the New York Times--is that "male bonobos commit acts of aggression nearly three times as often as male chimpanzees do."  That would seem to deny the common view that chimps are far more aggressive than bonobos.  But if you read the article carefully, you will see that the story is much more complicated than that.

Mouginot and her colleagues employed what scientists studying animal behavior call the "focal-animal sampling" method (Altman 1974).  All occurrences of specified actions of an individual, or specified group of individuals, are recorded for a pre-determined period of time.  

For their study, they had all-day focal follow data for 14 chimpanzee adult males from two communities in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and 12 bonobo adult males from three communities in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They had recorded hundreds of aggressive dyadic interactions, including contact aggression (physical contact such as hit, pull, bite, kick, or jump-on) and non-contact aggression (such as charge and chase).  They had also recorded whether the focal-male was the aggressor or the victim and whether he was interacting with another male or with a female. 

They wanted to use this data to test the "self-domestication hypothesis" of Brian Hare and Richard Wrangham.  They suggested that bonobos evolved to be less aggressive than chimpanzees just as dogs evolved to be less aggressive than wolves.  Humans selected less aggressive (or friendlier) wolves to become their companions, and over time, wolves evolved into dogs through domestication by human selection.  Similarly, if female bonobos formed coalitions to punish aggressive males, and if females preferred to mate with less aggressive males, which would tend to produce less aggressive offspring, bonobos could have been self-domesticated for being less aggressive or friendlier to one another (Hare, Wobber, and Wrangham 2012).

Moreover, Hare and Wrangham have also suggested that humans could have undergone a similar process of evolution by self-domestication to be less aggressive or friendlier towards individuals within their community (Hare 2017; Hare and Woods 2020; Wrangham 2019).  I have extended this idea of human self-domestication to explain the evolution of Lockean liberalism and the bourgeois virtues as symbolic niche-construction.

What Mouginot and her colleagues have found does not deny the self-domestication hypothesis of Hare and Wrangham, although it might require some refinement in the theory.  They found that there was a higher rate of male-male contact aggression among bonobos than chimpanzees.  And in both species, the more aggressive males had higher mating success.  But they found no evidence to contradict the observation that bonobos never kill other bonobos, while chimpanzees do kill other chimpanzees in fighting both within and between communities.

One possible explanation for why bonobo males engage in more non-lethal aggression with other males than do chimpanzee males is that since bonobo females prevent males from forming coalitions, bonobo males can attack other males without suffering reprisals from male coalitions.

As Hare told Carl Zimmer, the one dramatic difference in aggressiveness between the two species remains:  "Chimpanzees murder, and bonobos don't."


Altman, Jeanne. 1974. "Observational Study of Behavior: Sampling Methods." Behaviour 48: 227-65.

Hare, Brian. 2017. "Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for Prosociality." Annual Review of Psychology 68: 155-86.

Hare, Brian, and Vanessa Woods.  2020.  Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. New York: Random House.

Hare, Brian, V. Wobber, and Richard Wrangham.  2012.  "The Self-Domestication Hypothesis: Evolution of Bonobo Psychology Is Due to Selection Against Aggression."  Animal Behaviour 83: 573-85.

Wrangham, Richard.  2019.  The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Zimmer, Carl.  2024.  "No 'Hippie Ape':  Bonobos Are Often Aggressive, Study Finds." The New York Times, April 12.