Journalism could use a civilizing touch or two from parliamentary procedure. Under Robert's Rules, a man who has been fouled in the game of debate may rise on a point of personal privilege. I do so now.
My friend George Will, who espouses such problematical causes as the Chicago Cubs and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, can err in the most beguiling ways.
As a loyal Illinois boy, he makes it a continuing duty to perpetuate Mr. Lincoln's heresy that the South seceded "illegally" in 1861.
That I do not mind, for the point is endlessly discussable. What I mind is that Will has twice now named me as the quasi-official guardian of "the mischievous doctrines of the Confederacy." He says I exhibit "the perversity characteristic of (my) turbulent region."
I am ordinarily glad to serve as a straw man, but Will's provocation has become unendurable. I do not suppose, as he does, that our debate over the nature of the Union as it was in 1861 could lead to actual hostilities on "the dark and bloody ground of a new Antietam."
Our darkest encounters have occurred at a Chevy Chase delicatessen where Will regularly commits, in my presence, the provocative act of drinking cream soda with his smoked salmon. Anyone who will, when good beer is available, stoop to cream soda in public will also bend history a bit. But then, cream soda is hazardous to clear thought.
In fact--and herewith my point of personal privilege--I am not much of a fan of the "mischievous doctrines of the Confederacy," at least in the sense Will implies. Had I been present and voting in 1860, I hope I would have shared the sensible view of my Carolina ancestors that smashing the Union over slavery was a foolish and tragic act.
In holding that view, the earlier Yoders were hardly exceptional in their time and place. In the election of 1860 there was a substantial unionist majority in the Upper South, and in the secession conventions of Virginia and North Carolina the secessionists repeatedly failed to carry the day.
If the state of historical instruction were better--or, in Illinois, less tendentious--schoolchildren would learn, because it is true, that had Lincoln made his views clearer in the hiatus between Election Day 1860 and Inauguration Day 1861, the departure of the Upper South might have been avoided. The tragedy of mixed signals, the energy of the Deep Southern fire- eaters and the inconsistencies of the abolitionists ("Let the erring sisters depart in peace," counseled Horace Greeley) were too much.
In defending Lincoln's doctrine that the Union could not have been peaceably and legally dissolved, George Will overlooks five or six decades of settled doctrine. The Union, as distinguished from the nation, originated in 1789 when the states in their last act of uncoerced sovereignty "ordained and established" it. The phrase "we the people" occurs in the Preamble because sly dogs like Gouverneur Morris sought to disguise, in populist language, a genteel coup d',etat.
Thereafter, the voluntary origins of the compact were acknowledged by New Englanders in threatening secession during the War of 1812 and, implicitly, in the terms of admission granted the Republic of Texas in 1845.
My friend Will, who sat long in youth among the learned doctors of Oxford and Princeton, carried away a touch of political mysticism. Possibly he read too much Hegel, who preferred abstractions to historical facts. I have no doubt that Hegel, too, cudgeled his brains with cream soda at the back tables of Potsdam delicatessens.
The origins of this lingering dispute between Will and Yoder, like those of Dickens' famous case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, are now obscure and are in themselves of limited interest. We are all mere Americans now. We are all mere Americans because Lincoln had the better of the argument between 1861 and 1865--not by force of historical learning but by the superior force of Gen. Grant's foot soldiers.
What Harold Laski once said of English sportsmanship applies to the Lincoln-Will doctrine of the Union. "When the gentlemen of England cannot win by the rules," said Laski, "they change the rules." The Will-Lincoln forces won the argument over the rules of the Union all right. But only after, and by, changing them. That isn't doctrine; it is history.