One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
“Nowhere was the American rejection of authority more complete than in the political sphere,” writes historian David Donald. “The national government, moreover, was not being weakened in order to bolster state governments, for they too were decreasing in power…By the 1850’s the authority of all government in America was at a low point.”
“The war…has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country,” declaimed Republican Governor Richard Yates of Illinois in 1865, “to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.”
“The civil war of ’61 has made a great gulf between what happened before it in our country and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter, [George Tucker of Harvard] mused. “It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born, or in which I received whatever I got of political education and principles.”
Insofar as the war was fought to preserve the Union, it was an explicit rejection of the American Revolution.
- Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men
I have noted before the view by many – most notably (for me) from Jacques Barzun – the suicide of Western Civilization that was the Great War. There are several events that one might point to for the suicide of the liberal idea in America; in this post I will focus on one of these – the event popularly known as the American Civil War.
At a time when warfare between and among Europeans had evolved into what could be described as civilized, the war as prosecuted by the North against the South was much the opposite; General Sherman offers a prime example:
“This was differs from European wars in this particular,” the general pointed out. “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.”
Sherman was not an aberration:
Grant himself, with President Lincoln’s hearty encouragement, had already discarded any respect for the property of southern civilians when provisioning Union soldiers.
At the end of hostilities, the Union was the mightiest military power on the planet.
While the North quickly demobilized, the resultant levels were nowhere near what they were pre-war:
…ongoing military occupation of the South required a post-war standing army that hovered around 60,000 men – four times its immediate pre-war size.
The army became a tool to enforce internal order – to say nothing of the devastation later offered to the Indians. Restoring order during range wars, stamping out open polygamy in Utah, suppressing anti-Chinese demonstrations; most often, the central government used the army to break strikes.
The total armed forces would never fall below a level half-again higher than the level reached before Fort Sumter.
General Growth of Government
The war had dramatically altered American society and institutions. The South, of course, would never be the same, but the transformation of the North was also profound and permanent. The national government that emerged victorious from the conflict dwarfed in power and size the minimal Jacksonian State that had commenced the war. The number of civilians in federal employ swelled almost fivefold.
What was, before the war, a distant government became all-intrusive: taxes, drafts, surveillance, subsidies and regulations.
Central government spending had soared from less than 2 percent of the economy’s total output to well over 20 percent in 1865….
Compulsory education became the norm in the South – it had already consumed the North. Fifteen years after the war ended, the literacy rate amongst whites in the South showed no noticeable gain (it was already above 80% pre-war); but improving this measure wasn’t the objective.
Other new government adventures were begun or proliferated – some national, some local: orphanages, insane asylums, homes for the poor; state encouragement of commercial activity; bureaus of immigration were established; financial aid offered for the purchase of real estate; public-health measure, business and housing regulation, professional licensing restrictions, anti-liquor and anti-vice controls, including laws against prostitution and gambling.
Tax rates in 1870 in the South were three or four times what they were in 1860 – resulting in taxable land sold for tax defaults. Temporary taxes lasted long after the war, some permanently – the “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco, for example. The nation’s first old-age and disability scheme – for veterans pensions – swelled to 29 percent of federal expenditures by 1884.
Except for a brief span during the War of 1812, the central government’s sole sources of revenue remained – until the Civil War – import duties and land sales.
State taxation was not exempt from this money-grab: tax collections in several northern states increased more than two-fold and up to more than three-fold in the ten years from 1860 to 1870. City debt expanded three-fold in several major northern cities.
Control of freight rates and grain warehouses, state-chartered bar associations, and restrictions to the practice of medicine became the norm in many states.
The war drove nationalism in the North – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address perfectly captured this sentiment and set the tone – using the term “nation” five times, abandoning the term “union.”
Northerners now viewed the United States as a single nation, rather than a confederation or union of states.
…the ideals of state sovereignty and secession were dead.
I know, I know…The Department of Redundancy Department. Let’s just say the curve went exponential after the war:
The long war had contributed to a breakdown everywhere both in prevailing ethical norms and in the distinction between public and private spheres. “The demoralising effect of this civil war,” wrote Edward Bates, Lincoln’s first Attorney General, “is plainly visible in every department of life. The abuse of official powers and the thirst for dishonest gain are now so common that they cease to shock.”
The Grant era became so notorious for its political bribery that it has gone down in history as the Great Barbecue.
In the words of a Carpetbag governor of Louisiana: “I don’t pretend to be honest. I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics….Why, damn it, everybody is demoralizing down here. Corruption is the fashion.”
Business and railroad subsidies became the norm. And then there was this:
The South Carolina legislature at one point appropriated $1,000 to cover the gambling losses of the speaker of the house on a horse race.
Perhaps the greatest example of political corruption of the time was known as the “Tweed Ring,” so-named for its ringleader, William “Boss” Tweed:
Boss Tweed gathered a small group of men who controlled New York City's finances. They dispensed jobs and contracts in return for political support and bribes.
Estimates of the amount siphoned from state finances are as high as $200 million – if adjusted based on the price of gold (then around $19 / oz.), over $11 billion today.
On January 1, 1869, Boss Tweed's man, John T. Hoffman, was inaugurated governor New York State. In New York City itself, Tweed reigned supreme.
He controlled the district attorney, the police, the courts, and most of the newspapers.
The inner circle of the Tweed Ring were Mayor A. Oakey Hall, city comptroller Richard B. "Slippery Dick" Connolly, city chamberlain Peter Barr "Bismarck" Sweeny, and William M. Tweed himself, president of the Board of Supervisors.
Returning to Kafka:
Gregor was shocked when he heard his own voice answering, it could hardly be recognised as the voice he had had before.
No-one dared to remove the apple lodged in Gregor's flesh, so it remained there as a visible reminder of his injury….Because of his injuries, Gregor had lost much of his mobility - probably permanently….
They no longer held the lively conversations of earlier times…
"Father, Mother", said his sister, hitting the table with her hand as introduction, "we can't carry on like this. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong."
"My child", said her father with sympathy and obvious understanding, "what are we to do?"
"It's got to go", shouted his sister, "that's the only way, Father. You've got to get rid of the idea that that's Gregor. We've only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it's not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will.”
Most certainly. Yet, Kafka offers hope:
[The house cleaner] soon realised what had really happened, opened her eyes wide, whistled to herself, but did not waste time to yank open the bedroom doors and shout loudly into the darkness of the bedrooms: "Come and 'ave a look at this, it's dead, just lying there, stone dead!"