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The cataclysm of states (1861-1865)
A brief history of conservatism, Part 6
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 30, 2013

Conservatism passed through a series of fiery trials during the nineteenth century. I will tell the tale in two parts. This essay will view conservatism and Christianity in the crucible of war, namely the American Civil War. In my next installment (part 7), I shall consider seven dark waves that passed over the land during the nineteenth century – namely (1) German "higher criticism" of the Bible, (2) Hegel's Historicism, (3) Marx, (4) Darwin, (5) Freud, (6) James' Pragmatism, and (7) Dewey's Instrumentalism. Each of these ideologies is hostile to conservatism, to Christianity, and to Western culture.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) is illustrative of several important epic conflicts of the century. In order to distill these elements of conflict, this essay shall treat the Civil War almost as though it were two wars: (1) the war to preserve the union vs. the secession movement, and (2) the war to free the slaves vs. the ostensible rights of slave owners.

The drama of the cataclysm of states comprehends a number of historical movements. Among these are evangelical revivalism, abolitionism, states' rights, the blood and soil romantic movement, romantic transcendentalism, conservative traditionalism, natural law conservatism, and the struggle to define the nation-state. Some of the conflicts between these movements were decisively resolved by the Civil War, other conflicts endured through the century, and some are with us yet.

Rally round the flag, boys

The union troops sang, "Let us rally round the flag, boys," meaning let us unite under the stars and stripes, the emblem of the federal union. The Confederate troops sang, "Hurrah for the bonny blue flag which bears a single star," meaning let us cheer for the flag of secession.

Ulysses S. Grant, born in Ohio, regarded the United States as his country, but respected states rights. Robert E. Lee regarded Virginia as his country, but regretted to see the federal union dissolved.

Lee, a distinguished general in the American Army with proven battlefield experience in the Mexican War, rejected the offer to be the supreme commander of the Union Army while it was at war with the South, and resigned his commission. He felt the weight of loyalty to his beloved Virginia to be heavier than his loyalty to the Union which he had served as a soldier all his adult life.

Like many Americans of the day, Lee had difficulty weighing these conflicting loyalties. Americans were struggling to define the concept of the nation-state and to determine loyalty due to that state by the citizen.

In our own day, conservatives remain loyal to our federal republic, while many liberals now prefer transnational associations to national interests. For example, they are offended when America behaves as a sovereign nation-state in matters of war, diplomacy, and enforcement of the law concerning border security and illegal aliens. We must return to the civil war to understand the origins of this fateful split in loyalties.

Defining a nation

As the era of kings passed, the European nations were no longer united by loyalty to a royal house. A citizen of a republic with a weak king or no king had to sort out where his loyalties should lie. America, Germany, and Italy had great political difficulties in sorting out provincial loyalties from loyalties to the nation-state. Napoleon settled the question for the French – loyalty to France would forever be supreme. However, the string of revolutions in the nineteenth century left it an open question as to what it meant to be loyal to France. Both sides in each of the revolutions claimed to be loyal to France and accused the other side of being traitors to France. The English had no doubts that they were loyal to king and country, but could not agree if that meant loyalty to England, loyalty to Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), or loyalty to the British Empire.

Natural law conservatives have sometimes wondered if God created man to live in tribes, nations, or commonwealths. Jefferson wrote in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: " assume among the nations of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them." Jefferson believed that every people-group has a right to have their own nation. He rejected the idea that the British empire was his nation. He did not believe that Virginia was a nation in the sense of natural law, but he did believe that the union of the thirteen colonies constituted a nation in embryonic form.

Nationhood, virtue, and culture

According to Montesquieu, the essential principle of a republic is virtue. When the Roman Republic became an empire, great power was concentrated in too few hands, and the liberties and character of the Roman citizens were ultimately lost. The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers under the Roman Republic had protected the liberties and encouraged the virtues of the Romans. These institutions were continued in their outward forms by Augustus, as he gradually concentrated all real power in his own hands.

Combining Locke's natural law principles with Montesquieu's vision of a Republic, many conservatives came to believe that God or nature designed man to live in nations, not in tribes and not in empires like the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Tribes do not protect the rights of the individual or encourage independent thought. Tribes do not produce civilizations or high cultures allowing for the full flowering of human nature. Only nations or city states that assume the quality of nations can do that. Empires can stimulate culture for a season, but as freedom and virtue wane, men decay and culture languishes.

Blood and soil

Why did Robert E. Lee see Virginia as his country? He did not see the federal union as his country or the Southern Confederacy as his country. Why? It had to do with how he conceived of a people-group who are entitled to nationhood by natural law.

The German romantic movement developed the theory of "blood and soil." The culture of a people mystically emerges from the soil and from the blood of kindred peoples who are close to the soil. A nation is an organic entity that emerges from the grassroots. While this theory is not without its merits, and the cherishing of folk culture can be a good thing, the belief that culture rises from the bottom up instead of descending from the top down did significant damage to Western culture during the modern era. As we have painfully learned in the twentieth century, the continuous feeding of the fads and moods of popular music and art leads eventually to a primitivism that is lower than the culture of barbarian tribes.

Without hierarchy, there can be no high culture. Taste and cultural aspiration must trickle down to the masses from an elite. This assumes that the society has a national elite that is imbued with the best of their cultural heritage.

Blood and soil can certainly produce a tribe and a narrow tribal culture. But can it produce an authentic nation and a worthy national culture? Probably not.

500 tribes

The two great attempts by Indian tribes to confederate in order to oppose white settlement (Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief; and Sitting Bull, medicine man of the Sioux chiefs) failed because both confederations shattered after suffering military defeats. In spite of the legendary courage of the individual warrior when fighting for his own tribe, a tribe is easily spooked by the "bad medicine" of the defeat of allied tribes. (Hence the Eagle tribe, let's say, "worships devils and eats horned toads. That is why they were defeated by white-eyes. Let us return to the holy hills that make us strong.")

These confederated "nations" could be formidable in united victories, as Custer found out, but they shattered into fragments in defeat. The 500 Indian "nations" is a myth. If words have meaning, these were 500 tribes, each with a unique culture drawing upon the memories, traditions, and habitations of the tribe, as filtered through the trances of their medicine men. They were not nations as Jefferson conceived of a nation.

Hurrah for the bonny blue flag

The romantic theory of blood and soil took root in the American South, but not in the North. The confederate song, "The Bonny Blue Flag," starts with the words, "We are a band of brothers, native to the soil...." Blood and soil make us bothers – and a people-group entitled to their own country.

Yankees up north, however similar in language, race, and religion, had no comparable concept of blood and soil brotherhood, and therefore, had no part of this Southern brotherhood. That is precisely why many Southerners were open to arguments for secession from the union and why they fought so bitterly when Union troops invaded. Southerners did not think Yankees worshiped devils or ate horned toads, but did think them to be money grubbers without honor, grace, manners, or common decency. Yankees were ignorant of the code of the South and were therefore outsiders to the clique. As such, they were bound to be viewed in a negative light. This is not entirely different from how the Holy Hills tribe looked askance at the strange and sinister ways of the Eagle tribe.

Was the band of Southern brothers a tribe? Yes and no. The numinous ties of blood made them sometimes act like a tribe. The ties of soil made them partly a feudal caste society of the landed aristocracy, and partly an agrarian community of small farmers. There is no simple explanation for the complex enigma of the South.

The social fabric

Traditionalist conservatives noticed that the social fabric was more tightly woven in the South than in the North. The North was more urban, mercantile, and entrepreneurial, and it had a looser social fabric. The greater unity of Southern culture was a considerable advantage during the early part of the war.

The North had three advantages to offset their looser social fabric: Christianity, idealism, and transcendentalism. The Northerners were generally more religious and more idealistic than were Southerners. Their idealism for the Union proved remarkably durable. Prior to the Civil War, the Bible Belt was in the North. Union troops often displayed a remarkable coolness in the face of death because of their faith. However, there was considerable contradiction between biblical Christianity and a cult called "transcendentalism."


The romantic movement came to the North, not in the German format of blood and soil, but in the New England format of "transcendentalism." Transcendentalism was a literary movement with mystical, pantheistic, and universalistic qualities – a forerunner of the New Age movement. The poetry of the transcendentalists was almost as cloudy and murky as New Age poetry.

Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville all wrote literary classics in the decade prior to the civil war. Transcendentalism worked in the opposite direction of blood and soil ideas. It made Northerners of different states more willing to cast aside parochial interests and join hands with those of other states to fight secessionism. The transcendentalists loved the Union and hated secession. The wrath of the transcendentalists against secessionism was sometimes comparable to the wrath of the abolitionists against slavery.

Unfortunately, later generations of transcendentalists and their heirs in the New Age Movement wanted to transcend the federal union and embrace transnational confederations. This is why some contemporary liberals are enthusiastic about internationalism, but cool towards nationalism, particularly American nationalism.

The contemporary cult of multiculturalism is the distant heir of transcendentalism. At the core of multiculturalism is contempt for America and for Western culture. Although this is bitterly denied by liberals, every devout multiculturalist will tend to blame America for everything wrong in the world, or insist that we are the moral equivalent of our enemies – no matter how evil the enemies. The historical hostility of the transcendentalists towards secessionists and states' rights advocates is much like the present hostility of New Agers and multiculturalists toward American nationalism and patriotism.

The gospel vs. blood and soil

For two hundred years, the Quakers had condemned slavery. However, it was not until the spiritual revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century that evangelicals began to join their voices with the Quakers in denouncing slavery.

According to the scriptures, Christ calls us to preach the gospel to every nation, tribe, and person. That would include the tribes in Africa and the slaves in Virginia. If a black slave can walk the streets of gold in the New Jerusalem hand in hand with the Southern planter, why must he wear chains in Virginia?

The black slave had no foothold in Southern society on the basis of blood and soil. He had no blood relationship to the white man – or none that the society could accept. Southern whites had an exaggerated idea of their kinship of blood, because they celebrated their superiority over the downtrodden Negroes in their midst. Even poor whites gloried in their superior bloodlines and their brotherhood with other Southern whites. This romantic Southern solidarity of the white race increased until the Civil War.

Nativist contradictions

Were not the slaves close to the soil and thereby worthy of consideration according to blood and soil principles? White men believed that they alone had a vested interest in the soil. Blacks might work the land, but only those who owned the land were "native to the soil." Landless whites were potential owners of land and therefore were honorary "natives."

This kind of reasoning indicates that Southern nativism had been subsumed by a caste system. However, this is a contradiction in ideas. A caste system is a top-down affair. Nativist dogma is a bottom-up conception. The black slaves were at the very bottom of the hierarchy and were closer to the soil than any other group. Southern nativism was self-contradictory.

In contrast, race and the ownership of land had no bearing upon whether one was a citizen of the United States. Therefore, black volunteers were recruited to fight for the Union army.

The fiery gospel

"I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. / They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps. / I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, / His day is marching on. // I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel, / 'As ye deal with my condemners so with you my grace shall deal.' / Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel, / Since God is marching on." (Battle hymn of the Republic, 2nd and 3rd verses.)

Historians seldom understand how fiercely religious the Civil War was. The war was in the middle of the longest and most broadly experienced revival America has ever had. No other revival has come close to this revival in the deep and long-lasting change it brought to American national character, American politics, and American religious orientations.

Many Christian historians are drawn to great preachers and have overrated those revivals that had spectacular evangelists. The forgotten revival of the mid-nineteenth century had no human leader and no preacher who stood out among the others. Yet, no revival permeated the consciousness of Americans throughout the land like this one. We must look through the lens of fiery revival to appreciate the intense words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861.

A revival of prayer

On September 23, 1857, a Christian layman started a noon prayer meeting for New York businessmen. Six men came. By spring, many noon prayer meetings had sprung up with attendance of 10,000 persons. By March 1858, large cities and small towns across the country were experiencing a revival of prayer. Chicago had a daily noon prayer meeting of 2,000 persons. Philadelphia had 4,000; Charlestown, South Carolina, had 2,000; and Louisville, Kentucky, had 1,000.

The big-city newspapers devoted front-page coverage to the revival. They called it the Layman's Prayer Revival.

Let us die to set men free

The Civil War broke out in 1861, and the first big battle was at Bull Run that July. Fervent prayer continued in the cities, but the focus of the revival shifted to the camps of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. "I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps." Most of the revival meetings in the camps were small circles of troops gathered around a lay minister who had joined the army. However, these impromptu gospel meetings were everywhere amidst the "hundred circling camps."

At first, transcendentalist sentiments to crush secessionists prevailed among the troops. However, the watery gruel of transcendentalism is unsatisfying to men facing death in battle. The troops turned from the pabulum of transcendentalism to the red meat of God's judgment, death, and hell, and to Christ's bloody ordeal on the cross that opens the door of heaven.

"As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." The soldiers began to see themselves as holy crusaders to free the slaves and crush the bondman. If Jesus died to rescue us from sin, condemnation, and hell, they reasoned, let us offer ourselves to die in battle to free the slaves.

The Southern Bible Belt

After the Civil War, substantial parts of the South were a smoldering ruin. In their agony and despair, many Southerners cried out to God for mercy and succor. The revival shifted southward. That was the beginning of the great day of the Southern revival preacher. From that day until this, most American evangelists of national stature have come from the South.

After 1970, a disproportionate number of leaders of the conservative movement have come from the South. Most Southern states are now "red states" in presidential elections, which means they usually vote for the Republican candidate.

Fruits of victory

Union victory was a vindication of the Union, the gospel, and the natural law rights of the individual. Transcendental romanticism was encouraged, and blood and soil romanticism was discouraged. America's destiny as a continental, industrial, mercantile, and entrepreneurial power was confirmed. Americans, North and South, would heretofore be patriotic about America more than their states of residence.

Every great resolution of history has a downside. Having been set free from the ties of blood and soil community, Americans gradually became hyper-individualistic at the expense of community. With the role of blood and soil in the formation of culture now dismissed, the doors to mass immigration were opened wide. The conception of nationhood and citizenship became cloudier and more abstract.

The encouragement of transcendentalist sentiments led to utopian notions of internationalism – and a rejection by many liberals of national patriotism. Although liberals bitterly deny it, disparagement of national patriotism almost always comes from the left, almost never from the right. This baggage of the Civil War still weighs heavily upon our shoulders.

Sometimes, liberals attribute patriotism to nativism. They forget that the rise of American patriotism involved a renunciation of sectional nativism. The continued tone of American patriotism is to lift us up above parochial interests to celebrate our common participation in the nation as an entity blessed by God and by a fortuitous history.

A bulwark for the nations

The ultimate consequence of the Civil War is that America is a strong nation and is essentially Christian in its ideals. It retains the character of a Republic, even though it is capable of extraordinary unity in times of peril. The Republic retains the separation of the three branches of government as called for by Locke and Montesquieu. However, the president wields exceptional executive powers in times of war, as Lincoln did during the Civil War. The fortuitous combination of strength and freedom is unusual in history. As the sole superpower of our age, America is a gift of providence to the world. It is a bulwark of freedom during a time when extraordinary evil is rising in the Muslim east.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31