A Presidential Inauguration 150 Years Ago

It was generally ignored, but this past February 18 was an important anniversary in American history. It was on that date 150 years ago that Jefferson Davis, former U.S. Senator and former U.S. Secretary of War, was inaugurated as the first President of the C.S.A., the Confederate States of America. Alas, he was also that nation’s only president. Four years after his inauguration the nation ceased to exist, though 250,000 men gave their lives fighting to defend its independence.

Why “alas”?

Numerous reasons can be given, but at a time when Americans are finally showing some resistance to Big Government’s ever-increasing intrusion into the details of their lives, as witness the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement, there is one in particular that invites consideration before any other. Adopting virtually in its entirety as its own the U.S. Constitution, but interpreting key provisions according to their original sense, the Confederacy was organized around the principle of states’ rights. This, more than anything else, distinguished it from the U.S. and most other modern nations, the “more” including slavery. (Slavery, after all, existed in states that did not join the Confederacy, and also in other nations at that time.) It put the Confederacy solidly at odds with the most pernicious of all the tendencies of the modern leviathan-state, including the U.S.: to concentrate political power in a centralized government.

Together with the defense of their way of life, safeguarding the principle of subsidiarity (to put it in Catholic terms) is why the Confederates fought back when Union armed forces invaded. When they failed in their fight Americans everywhere stopped saying “The United States are…” as they had before 1861. They began saying “The United States is…” Had they succeeded, and then stayed loyal all these years to founding principles, there would be today at least one major nation in the world where the lives in society of citizens were regulated by local government instead of by one-size-fits-all rules set by far-away bureaucrats with nothing to justify their existence except setting still more rules. Who knows? Such a nation might have served as a model for others.

Mention was made above of the Confederates defending their way of life. This brings us to a reason why Christians may especially lament the failure of the Confederacy to secure independence. The way of life of its people was agricultural. It was rooted in the land. On the land is where the family, the domestic church, is most apt to flourish. Why?

Without turning these lines into an essay on the subject, the reason is simple. A real home is not simply where members of a family sleep at night, as with a typical suburban household today. Integral to a farm family’s living on the land is their spending their days working that land together. The kids may have to spend part of the day learning school lessons, but they also have chores to do. And of course Dad and Mom are always nearby, not away in an office cubicle somewhere.

It also happens that a man who has a piece of land where he can raise food for himself and his family is going to be freer from the control of other agencies, like government and corporate interests, than will be men who live elsewhere and work for somebody besides themselves. Today, not simply farmers, but craftsmen, doctors in private practice, scientific researchers on their own, artists, anyone working independently in any line of work, are all on the verge of extinction. This might be different had the Confederacy endured and its people maintained their way of life.

Another specifically Christian reason it is lamentable that the Confederacy failed to secure its independence is that its society was hierarchical. That is, it corresponded to the organization of the Church, Heaven, and everything else in Creation that is natural. This was another characteristic that set it apart from, and at odds with, most of the modern world and the way it is governed. One of the basic principles of that governance is that everybody is equal.

Since men are not naturally so, state action becomes necessary in order to make them equal, and inasmuch as the less gifted are inherently unable to rise to a higher level, others who could excel must be kept at the lower one, or reduced to it. The result is a universal leveling. Eventually, instead of the rare and excellent being prized, they are disparaged. Mozart is contemptuously dismissed as “high-brow” and rap hailed as “music”. Great books by “dead white men” are branded as “irrelevant”. Instead, the likes of Dan Brown are downloaded onto Kindles by those who still read at all. The dumbing down of America as exemplified by the public school system is obvious. The reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator is better illustrated by the degeneration of “higher education” into no more than vocational training, and lately vocational training to no end. (Does anybody know the number of Starbucks baristas saddled with huge college-loan debt whose degrees have nothing to do with pouring coffee? In a hierarchical society the work you do and life you lead might not be at the top, but neither would you be left asking, “What’s the point?”)

Of course more than education is affected by the adoption of low standards. Coarse language becomes commonplace. Vice is paraded. Acts once regarded as heinous become protected by law. Honor, probably the quality most prized among the men who populated the Confederacy, runs out of us as fast as value out of the once powerful dollar.

During the next four years, numerous events having to do with the War Between the States will be commemorated nationally, as the inauguration of President Davis was not. Since we have remembered it here, let us offer one more reason, a specifically Catholic one, for lamenting the Confederacy’s failure to secure independence.

The Faith, though its adherents were a minority in the Confederacy (as also in the Union), flourished in those states in ways it did not elsewhere. For instance, there was no city in the Union that was Catholic like New Orleans at that time. Catholics also had the only real schools to speak of, which is why leading families of the region often sent their children to them, as was President Davis himself when he was a boy. If such realities opened society in the Confederacy to a Catholic influence at its highest levels, it also made that society tolerant of other minorities. So it was that representatives of the then-sovereign and allied Cherokee nation were welcomed into Congress in Richmond. So it was, also, that the first Jew named to any American cabinet was Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State. Today, even a casual visitor to towns of the former Confederacy will be struck by the harmony and courtesy marking relations between the races and that are too often absent in Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit or, as far as that goes, Washington, D.C., where the present lines are written. How much social strife and pain could have been avoided if the side that won the war had been open in the same way?

More to the point, had the Confederacy endured, those children educated in Catholic schools would have grown up to become its chief figures in society, culture and politics. Thus might there have arisen in North America a Catholic nation, one that over the years would lend support to other such nations, or at least refrain from attacking the Catholic interest overseas, as when – to offer but one example – the U.S. acted in the name of “religious freedom” to overthrow the government of President Diem of South Vietnam back in 1963, leading to a war as pointless as a restaurant waiter’s college degree. As things stand, of course, there is not now any nation left in ex-Christendom that can still be called Catholic, or not any with real weight in the world (one thinks of Malta).

As we have said, it is all to be lamented.

A bit of irony: The Confederacy lacked a national anthem when President Davis was inaugurated. Bearing in mind that the spirit of the Confederacy was profoundly anti-modern, which it to say, contrary to the chief tenets of secular liberalism, it brings an ironic smile to the lips to hear that the band providing music for the occasion turned to some that is indubitably stirring but also is that of the marching song of the Revolution. They played the Marseillaise.

“To arms, citizens! March on! March on!”