My friends who oppose the war that the United States is waging in Iraq may not fully appreciate the enormity of the task they have undertaken. They are trying to alter the soul or personality of their country, which was founded on the principle that killing people is an honorable way to solve economic and political differences. If you do not agree with my assessment, I suggest that you consider the contribution of the two presidents whom we extol on the third Monday in February.
The first, George Washington, led what began as a tax-payers’ revolt and which evolved into a rebellion against the duly constituted authority of the crown and parliament. Most historians agree, that the protests over taxes were based on the colonists’ rights as Englishmen and that as Englishmen they were probably better off than the ordinary people living in Great Britain. The armed rebellion was supported by a minority faction of disgruntled people who resented the taxes being and restrictions on trade imposed by a distant authority. At the Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1775, Washington was one of those who most favored war to settle their grievances. Why else did her appear in full military uniform at every session?1 I cannot help but wonder what his attitude might have been if the British authorities had not rejected his petition for a commission in their regular army.
When the news reached Europe that the Continental Congress had issued an elaborate justification for the war—dated July 4, 1776—the wording of the document produced everything from smirks to scorn: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How could the American colonists themselves take seriously such a statement knowing that one in every five people in the colonies lived as a chattel slave?
A sufficient number of men, however, were willing to put aside questions of justice and morality and follow Washington to a war in which 25,000 of them were killed. The dead represented approximately 1% of the 2,500,000 estimated population of the time. According to reports, the British and their Hessian mercenaries lost nearly as many. Two results of this war that claimed 50,000 lives get little attention on Presidents’ Day.
The first is that the separation of the United States from Britain allowed for the continuation of slavery in this country for decades after the heinous practice had been stopped throughout the empire. Parliament abolished slavery in 1833. By contrast, in this country slavery continued until 1865, enshrined in the Constitution, which declared every slave to be three-fifths of a human being.
The second result of the bloody rebellion was the establishment of a tradition in which war is glorified as a means of settling economic and political disputes. It was this tradition that made possible citizen support for another war with Britain in 1812 and the war in which we stole the northern Mexican provinces,1846-1848.
The tradition of glorifying war also made possible the actions of the other president whom we honor in February, Abraham Lincoln. In their reflections on the Mexican War, President Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward agreed that “one fundamental principle of politics is to be always on the side of your country in war. It kills any party to oppose a war.”2
Even Lincoln’s admirers question his claims to have constitutional authority for launching the war against the Confederate States and for his suspension of habeas corpus. Even they admit that he spurned the delegations from the South seeking a way to a peaceful settlement. Because of the terrible guilt the nation rightly suffers for allowing slavery, people forget that Lincoln’s war initially was not about slavery but about forcing the southern states to stay in the Union. As Lincoln famously wrote to Horace Greeley:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because it helps to save the Union.”
True to his word, in 1863 in order to discourage England’s entry into the war on the Confederate side, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which in fact freed no slaves at all. He simply declared that the slaves within the states and parts of states still in rebellion were free. That is, Lincoln proclaimed the freedom only of the slaves who were currently beyond the protection of the federal government. The slaves in the Union and in the parts of the South under federal control were still the property of their white owners.
The war was about the right of states to secede from the Union, a right established by the Declaration of Independence, a right asserted by South Carolina as early as 1833, a right claimed by the New England states several times in the nineteenth century. To deny the right of secession, Lincoln sent over 600,000 young men to their deaths.
Without our tradition of glorifying war, I doubt that Mr. Bush could have garnered enough support to launch his invasion of Iraq. To my friends who want to put an end to this cruel and immoral war, I say let us put a stop to the glorification of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Let us stop the glorification of the two presidents whose support made these wars possible.
1. Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p.69
2. quoted by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 546