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From Oligarchy to Republicanism:
The Great Task of Reconstruction
By Forest A. Nabors
(University of Missouri Press, 2017)

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato outlines five political regimes: aristocracy (rule by the few and wise), timocracy (rule by the militaristic few), oligarchy (rule by the hedonistic and unwise few), democracy (rule by the many), and tyranny (rule by a single power-hungry man). Aristocracy is Plato’s ideal regime, while oligarchy is very undesirable. The difference is not the number but the character of the rulers. In both regimes, the polis is ruled by the few. In an oligarchy, however, they lack virtue, ruling for themselves instead of for the common good.

In From Oligarchy to Republicanism, Forrest A. Nabors uses Plato’s typology to recast the common narrative of the American Civil War. The conventional account pits pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions against each other. Nabors argues that the war is better understood as a clash of political regimes: the democratic North versus the oligarchic South.

That is not to say that Nabors downplays slavery. The wretched institution is central to his story. But he argues that the crucial issue was less slavery in itself that the kind of regime that slavery created in much of the United States. He writes:

Slavery had revolutionized the Government. The great principles of the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence had ceased to have practical existence in a large part of the Union. Liberty of speech, freedom of the press, and trial by jury had disappeared in the slave States.

Nabors’s argument echoes prewar Republican rhetoric claiming that slavery in the Southern states was a threat to the survival of republicanism throughout the Union. Slavery, he argues, led the Southern gentry to think of themselves inherently superior to most of their fellow human beings, an attitude antithetical to the American project founded on the equality of persons. In Nabors’s telling, these sentiments transformed the South into a society of barons and serfs rivaling any in history. In this sense, the Civil War could be seen as a continuation of the struggle against feudalism that began in Europe.

This development sometimes occurred self-consciously. Wealthy white Southerners re-created a pseudo-medieval culture of leisure and honor, inspired by the myths of the chivalrous aristocracy of the Old World—right down to reviving joust tournaments. Southern aristocrats sought to distinguish themselves in their lifestyle and manners not only from slaves but also from their poor white neighbors and from Northerners. For the Southern ruling class, other classes and segments of society were neither their equals nor worthy of respect. That is the essential feature of oligarchy.

One well-known incident illustrates this attitude, though Nabors only mentions it in passing. In May 1856, Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts senator and one of the most vociferous opponents of slavery, leveled an especially charged attack against one of his colleagues. South Carolina’s Andrew Butler, Sumner claimed, had taken “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery.”

Preston Brooks, the other member of South Carolina’s senatorial delegation, took Sumner’s remarks not only as an affront to Butler but also as an affront to himself and his state as a whole. Had Brooks viewed Sumner as a peer, the South’s code of chivalry would have required him to challenge Sumner to a duel. But Brooks did not see Sumner as his equal. After the Senate adjourned, therefore, Brooks approached Sumner from behind, drew his cane, and beat Sumner unconscious.

Charles Sumner’s Wisdom

It took three years for Sumner to recover from Brooks’s attack, but he emerged an even stronger and more passionate opponent of Southern oligarchy. Sumner’s first speech upon his return to the Senate explained how slavery destroyed masters’ respect for the democratic principles upon which the American republic was built. Slaveholders’ character, Sumner said, had been deformed by the practice of mastery over others. This deformity of character corresponded to the political regime in which they lived, which produced “American barbarians.”

To think of the conflict between the North and South only as one of freedom versus slavery was mistaken. Rather, the war was a struggle between civilization and barbarism. Slavery was barbaric, Sumner argued, because in being subjected to slavery, “man, created in the image of God, is divested from the human character, and declared to be ‘chattel’—that is, a beast, a thing, or an article of property.”

“Bad as slavery is for the slave,” Sumner went on, “it is worse for the master.” He noted that George Mason had said that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,” that Thomas Jefferson had claimed slavery “transforms those into despots,” that John Locke had declared slavery “the state of war continued,” and that Adam Smith had concluded that “there is not a Negro from the coast of Africa who does not possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving.” Violence, not love of humanity, shaped the moral character of slaveholders and thus the political character of slave states. Slave society was founded on brutality, and its leaders were trained to use violence to make their way in the world, which deformed their souls and obscured their sense of morality.

The pride of slaveholders made them unaware of this deformity. As Sumner argued, they had inverted the Founders’ intent. America’s Founding Fathers fought for popular rule, believed in the equality of persons, and had tried to limit and contain slavery. By the 1840s, slaveholders believed themselves naturally superior and tried to spread slavery throughout the continent. The extent of the slave-masters’ revolt against the Founding would be explicitly acknowledged by Confederate leaders. “The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically,” Alexander Stephens explained in 1861. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Slavery is so obviously evil to modern minds that words like Stephens’s create the sensation of stepping into an alien world. By highlighting the deeper roots of Southern oligarchy—and revealing the deeper, basic darkness of the human soul for domination over others—Nabors helps us see that we are never finished building the character necessary to sustain our republic.

Slavery, after all, could be abolished. But the desire for power over people, for superiority over groups, is natural. An ally of Sumner’s, Ohio’s Tobias Plants, isolated the “selfishness which disregards the rights of others” as the “essential spirit of slavery.” As Plants noted, selfishness is not bound to one place or personal attribute or heritage. It is a “sin” that all persons of all times and places are susceptible: it knows no “geographical lines, or is limited to any particular color of skin” and “may be just as active and remorseless in the home of a domestic tyrant in Massachusetts as upon the cane-fields of Louisiana.”

Although a proclivity to selfishness is found everywhere, certain regimes restrain it more than others. The Founding was such a moment of restraint. “Selfish men would gladly have made everything subservient to their own aggrandizement, and to accomplish this would have formed an oligarchy, a monarchy, or a despotism,” Plants observed. “Good men would gladly have laid the foundation of the structure upon the broad principles of right and justice, and would have invited them in to the forms of a pure republic.” In America, good men prevailed: the people were established as sovereign rulers of the republic upon the principle of natural equality. It is our task to maintain their accomplishment.

Alexandra Hudson is a 2019 Robert Novak journalism fellow, a Young Voices contributor, and a writer based in Indianapolis. She is writing a book on civility and civil society.

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