Who Had the Better Argument in the Civil War?

I’ve been listening to a bunch of Al Mohler “Thinking in Public” interviews. Very good stuff. I was struck by the following exchange about the Civil War.

Mohler asks articulate and accomplished historian Alan Guelzo the following question about that war:

Who had the better argument in that particular debate? Not in terms of what the preferred outcome might have been in terms of the war and its aftermath, but just in terms of the argument about the essence of the American system of a republican government going back to the early nineteenth century into the early constitutional era. Did the Southerners have the better argument or did the North?

Alan Guelzo responds off the top of his head in one of his many extemporaneous paragraphs of well-formed prose (I’ve only heard the like in John McWhorter and Leonard Bernstein):

I don’t think the southerners did. I think that the American union as a federation of states was intended to be equipoise between entirely sovereign entities and an entirely centralized homogeneous government. The idea being that the states were one more example of a system of checks and balances that were worked into the constitution. A check and a balance is supposed to be existing in relationship with another entity, which in this case was to be the federal government. It was not supposed to be something that led to the very destruction and break-up of the government, and I think that is illustrated in a number of ways in the constitution itself. One is that the constitution contains no reversion clause. There is no description within the constitution about what to do in case of disaster, catastrophe, or flood or something else. There is no little glass to break marked, “Secession: This is how you terminate the constitution.” It is just not there. The other thing that is in the very warp and woof of the constitution is the way that the powers of the states are described with relationship to the federal government in Article 1, Section 10, in which the states, the constitution makes very clear, do not have the power to coin money, the power to keep permanent standing armies and navies, to conduct diplomatic relations. By the time you get down to the end of that list, we are not talking about the kind of sovereignty residing in the states, that is the same kind of sovereignty that an independent country has where a member of an existing state has, coming into a federation with others. It was a very different kind of federation than let’s say, the European Union today.

I’m by no means an expert in this area; I’m hardly titled to an opinion on whether Guelzo is right or not (in addition, I was born in Northern Virginia and my middle name is “Lee”); but Guelzo’s is the most direct, concise response I’ve seen to the question.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Who Had the Better Argument in the Civil War?”

  1. He does put that side of it very clearly and concisely. Though it seems rather short-sighted to say that “checks and balances” means you have to do what I say. Where I would differ with Guelzo is in saying that southern states tried to terminate the constitution when they seceded. It has always been the Southern position that the Federal government violated the constitution first and forced the war upon us. This is most clearly seen by the fact that four states did not even secede until the Federal government called out the army. Though Lincoln and the Republicans had not technically violated the constitution when the first states seceded, it was their position that they would do so. Guelzo mentions Article 1, Section 10. But he seems to miss the fact that after reading the Constitution, the states added Amendment 10 as a kind of, you know, check and balance: “The powers not delegated…are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.”

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