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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Nation the Antagonist of the Confederacy

By Elisha Mulford (1833–1885)

[From The Nation: the Foundations of Civil Order and Political Life in the United States. 1870.]

THE CONFEDERATE is the immediate antithesis to the national principle, as the confederacy is the necessary antagonist to the nation in history. This antithesis becomes apparent in every aspect in which they may be regarded. The nation, as the organism of human society, presumes an organic unity: and its being, as organic, is that which no man can impart. The confederacy assumes the existence of society as artificial, as formed through an association of men in a certain copartnership of interests, and as only the aggregate of those who, before living separately, voluntarily entered it. The nation is formed in the development of the historical life of the people in its unity; the confederacy is a temporary arrangement which is formed in the pursuance of certain separate and secular ends. The nation in its necessary being can have its origin only in the divine will, and its realization only in that. The confederacy assumes the origin of society in the voluntary act of those who separately or collectively enter it, and its institution has only this formal precedent. The nation is constituted in a vocation in history, and therefore has its own purpose and work; and of this it cannot divest itself, as if it was an external thing, nor alienate, nor transfer it to another. The confederacy is the device of a transient expediency, and in conformance to certain abstract or legal notions, or formulas, as the exposition of a scheme. The nation exists as a relationship, as it is in and through relations that personality is realized; and it can neither have its origin in, nor consist with, a mere individualism. The confederacy comports only with an extreme individualism,—the association of private persons, the accumulation of special interests, to be terminated when these may dictate or suggest. The nation exists in an organic and moral relation to its members, and between the nation and the individual no power of earth can intervene. The confederacy is only a formal bond, and the individual has no more, in the state, an end in correspondence to his moral being; and it is thus that the word confederate has become stamped with a certain moral reprobation. The nation exists in its unity in the divine guidance of the people. The confederacy allows only the formal unity which is created in the conjunction of certain men or associations of men.

Their antithesis appears the more obvious, the more intimately they are regarded. The confederacy assumes only the aggregation of separate parties, as individuals or societies, but allows no principle in which a real unity may consist, nor the continuity in history of the generations of men. It is a formal order whose condition is a temporary expediency, and its limitation is defined in that, and not in the conditions of an organic and moral being. It is not the guidance of the people in its vocation, in the realization of its being in history, but its structure is framed after its own device, and out of the material which it has heaped together. It builds of its own brick and mortar—which it has accumulated—what it alone can build, although its brick be as venerable as that upon which Mr. Carlyle has pronounced his political eulogium, building after its own scheme in the structure of society a Babel, and the result, which is not only a recurrent fact but a moral necessity, is that the work fails of all permanence in history, and the builders are driven away, or, if it be preferred, they go away with confusion and division.

The antithesis which appears in the national and confederate principle has its manifestation in history. The confederate principle in its necessary sequence can bring only division, and unity and order are established only in the same measure in which it is overcome. The security, which it has made its single aim, it has failed to obtain; and in the furtherance of private and special interests it has been rent and broken by them. The pages of history contain everywhere the record of its disaster. The illustration of its course and its consequence appears—as in these lands also it had its widest construction—in Greece and in Germany. The termination of the history of Greece is abrupt, as if the sudden and violent issue of crime. It was as the confederate spirit came to prevail, in the division of her separate communities, and in the exclusive assumptions and supremacies of these communities, in the precedence of Athenian, and Spartan, and Theban, and Macedonian power, that the strength, which in its unity of spirit had triumphed over the multitudes of Asia, was lost; and in the dissension of these communities, which preferred alliance with a foreign power, so entirely was the national purpose effaced, and in the rivalries and jealousies of private ambition and devotion to private ends, the life of Greece was destroyed. The only union sought or allowed was in that fatal device, a balance of power, which was always irregular and disturbed, while separate communities with their separate interests alternately contended for the supremacy. The disease in the members could be overcome by no organific force working in the whole, for this was prevented by the assumption of a merely formal relation. Then followed a succession of internal wars, interrupted only by transient intervals of peace. The greater power of the confederate principle was then also in those communities where a system of slavery predominated, as in Sparta; while in Athens there remained until the close the memories and hopes of a national life. This has left its expression in some of the noblest political conceptions in literature. And still it is in Athens that the national life of Greece is slowly reillumined. But the issue of the confederacy was a disaster from which none were exempt. The citizens of Athens themselves were disfranchised. The separate communities sank into the condition of Roman provinces, and the ruin involved the whole, and the subjection of the whole to a foreign power. The termination of the drama has been fitly represented by the historian, when the last great patriotic statesman of Greece went alone into the temple of Poseidon, to hail and welcome death. The most complete recent illustration of this principle is in the German Confederation. The assumption of the rights of sovereignty by petty states and municipalities, each with its claim to independence and legitimacy, divided the people, and in its resultant weakness left it through centuries the ally or the subject to some imperial power. The mockery of the power of a great people was in the construction of the German Bund. It was the prop of weak and pretentious sovereignties—mere lords of division at home and agents of imperial powers abroad. It led the people across every frontier as the antagonist of nations; and France, and Italy, and Denmark, in turn, have felt its assault. It could not protect the people from domestic tyranny, nor avert foreign invasion. In the most immediate danger to the people it could not act; while the Turks were before Vienna, Diet after Diet was held, but no common action followed. There are none of the great highways of Germany over which her own soldiers have not been compelled to march as the ally of a foreign power, and none of her capitals over which they have not aided to hoist a foreign flag. It is only after long humiliation that there comes the dawning of the unity and freedom of the German nation. There is alike in ancient and modern history, the evidence how deadly a foe the confederate spirit has been; how close its alliance has been with slavery and with the predominance of every selfish interest; how, through the division and resultant weakness of the people, it has opened the way to foreign supremacy and to imperialism, and how long has been the battle which the nation has had to fight.

The nation attains the realization of its sovereignty and its freedom only as it strives to overcome this false principle, and yet as its root is in a selfish tendency, it is only at last overcome in the close of the conflict of history. The confederacy in itself has no permanence, but the evil principle, the bite of the serpent, remains, and in some sudden moment it may rise and strike at the life of the nation. With the people of the United States the conflict of the nation and the confederacy passed through a long period of years, until the character of the principle and purpose in each was to become manifest, and they were to meet face to face, and over a continent from its centre to the sea their armies were to be gathered, and in a struggle of life and death, not only for those who are, but for those who shall be, the issue was to come forth in the judgment of Him with whom are the issues of eternal conflicts.