Mike Kueber's Blog

March 25, 2012

Sunday Book Review #68 – Grant’s Final Victory

Filed under: Book reviews,History — Mike Kueber @ 5:42 pm
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The first book in my to-do queue list this week was On What Matters, a book with in-depth discussions of various philosophical issues.  The book’s table of contents was irresistible – rationality, morality, values, universal laws, etc.  A few hours into the book, however, I realized that it contained much more depth than I was able to handle, and I pushed it aside.  Part of the ease in doing this probably had to do with the next book in queue – Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood.  After recently reading and greatly enjoying Bill O’Reilly’s book on Lincoln and Glenn Beck’s book on Washington, the Grant book promised to be a lot lighter than a dense 500-page book on philosophy.

Grant’s Final Victory was incredibly light.  Although I don’t know enough about Grant to challenge the author’s credibility, I am highly skeptical that Grant walked on water like this book suggests he did.  The book focuses on the last year of Grant’s life, when he was afflicted with tongue and throat cancer shortly after his betrayal by two financial criminals had left him penniless.  That story arch reminds me of Texas governor John Connally. 

Like Connally, Grant faced his financial and health crisis with courage and dignity.  During his last year, while under great pain, Grant wrote his Memoirs, which provided for his family’s financial salvation and is sometimes recognized as one of the best American memoirs every written.  As Grant himself sardonically noted shortly before he died, his writing skills had greatly exceeded expectations, just as his soldiering and political skills had done.      

But the book does not focus exclusively on the final year of Grant’s life.  Instead it often refers back to earlier times in Grant’s life.  And although it does not completely over-look Grant’s failures, such as his early military-career setbacks or his dismal business career just prior to the Civil War, these items are given only a few sentences.  Even the financial incident that left him penniless after the presidency is depicted as Grant having reasonable faith in two close associates who betrayed him.  By contrast, most facts in the book suggest that Grant was nearly a saint with respect to his character. 

Grant’s Final Victory was an enjoyable read, but I suspect the author did as much spinning as Beck and O’Reilly do.




November 21, 2011

Where is Lincoln when you need him?

Filed under: History,Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:51 pm
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I have been totally preoccupied the past few days with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals.  This Lincoln biography was suggested to me by one of my best friends, who went to law school with me and is now studying Lincoln while pursuing a doctorate at UT-Austin.  The subject of his dissertation is whether Lee and Davis should have been tried for treason.

In previous discussions with my Austin friend, I have expressed skepticism about the greatness of Lincoln. All I knew was that he refused to let the Southern states leave the Union (something I disagree with) and that he was an ineffective commander in chief who took four years to defeat a much weaker opponent.  My Austin friend suggested that I dig a little deeper, and when I asked him for the title of a book to read, he said, Team of Rivals.

Although Team of Rivals is 750 pages long, it is not a comprehensive biography.  Rather, as suggested by its subtitle, “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” it focuses on Lincoln’s unsurpassed ability to deal with conflicting demands and still achieve his objectives.  Lincoln’s presidential objectives were simple – namely, to keep the Union together and to stop the spread of slavery beyond the Southern states – and the author makes a convincing argument that no other person could have done that.  A lesser politician would have either lost the Union or allowed the spread of slavery westward.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s assassination just as the Civil War was ending deprived America of those skills that were sorely during the Reconstruction, and you can’t avoid wondering how much better off America would have been if Lincoln had served four more years.

Which brings me to the title of this entry – Where’s Lincoln when you need him?  In Washington today, the parties are behaving more like Union and the Confederacy leading up to the Civil War.  First Boehner and Obama failed, and now that the Super Committee is giving up, you can’t avoid wondering whether a person with Lincoln’s political skills could save America from its impending economic disaster.  Lincoln was a master of keeping the middle together despite the competing demands from the abolitionist Republicans and the appeasing Democrats/Whigs.  The situation today in Washington certainly has a large middle ground for resolving our current problem, but no politician seems to have the ability to control the radicals who are pulling us apart.  Perhaps the 2012 election will bring us our Lincoln.





April 17, 2011

African-Americans and the Civil War

In a previous blog, I mentioned a recent survey that found white Americans thought the principal cause of the Civil War was slavery whereas black Americans believed the principal cause was states’ rights.   The survey surprised me, and I was surprised again yesterday when an article in USA Today reported that African-Americans aren’t very interested in celebrating the Civil War.   

I wonder why African-Americans don’t celebrate the Civil War.  Perhaps it could it be that most of the fighting was done by white Americans.  Perhaps it could be that the Union states were so complicit in the institution of slavery that their eventual “seeing the light” was too late to deserve any credit.

From a different perspective, I wonder why non-Southerners don’t celebrate the courage and honor of all of the Union soldiers.  The NY Times recently had an article about the thousands of Union volunteers who, shortly after the firing on Ft. Sumter, clamored to get in on the action.  Although the South won a lot of battles, obviously the Union won its share, too.  Why don’t Americans feel like celebrating those victories?

I’m the wrong guy to ask because I have an emotional attachment to the South.  Although I grew up in the north (North Dakota) and feel that the antebellum South had few redeeming virtues, I believe in States’ Rights and invariably root for the underdog.  If Utah had insisted on leaving the Union because of its belief in polygamy, I would have said, “See ya.”  If California wants to go because it believes in legalized marijuanca, I would say, “Have a good life.”

February 3, 2011

Secession in the 21st century

I recently blogged that I admire Rick Perry’s vision of federalism, as described in his book Fed Up.  My estimable historian friend from Austin, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, responded that Perry’s version of federalism, with some reference to secession, dated back to ante-bellum days and was supposedly extirpated by the Civil War.

Robert is a lifelong Texan who was doubly blessed to graduate from both Texas A&M and UT-Austin Law, yet he is an unabashed supporter of the Union.  By way of contrast, I am a transplanted Texas from North Dakota who is drawn to the principle of States’ Rights. 

Robert recently earned his Masters Degree in History with a Civil-War emphasis, and during one of my visits to Austin a couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of States’ Rights in the context of secession.  I wondered how the northern states could have felt so strongly about the Union in 1860 that they were willing to go to engage in America’s deadliest war to prevent secession.  After all, this country had seceded from England less than a century earlier. 

I suggested to Robert that there was no way people in the 21st century would fight and die over whether a state – e.g., California – should be allowed to leave the union; especially if the war did not involve a huge moral evil like slavery (or some would say abortion).  Academics call my position “The Choice” theory of secession.  As Thomas Jefferson said:

  • If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in union… I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate.”

Robert disagreed with Jefferson and me.  He believed that Americans still adhere to the precedent established by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  This is called “The Just Cause” theory of secession – i.e., secession only to rectify grave injustice.  The problem with that theory is that a grave in justice to me might be a minor accommodation to you. 

Since then, I have asked other friends the same question, and they tend to agree with Robert.  Further, a Zogby poll in 2008 reported that only 22% of Americans believe a state or region should have the right to secede.  Union, forever. 

Perhaps I am fundamentally a pacifist – like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah or Mel Gibson in The Patriot.  I believe in what America stands for, but if some part of America doesn’t want to be a part of that team, I wouldn’t block their exit.

Wikipedia provides an interesting list of reasons to allow secession and a contrary list to prohibit it.  Maybe it’s just me, but the pro-secession list seems long and substantive while the anti-secession list seems short and fluffy.

Arguments to allow secession:

  • The right to liberty, freedom of association, and private property
  • Consent as important democratic principle; will of majority to secede should be recognized
  • Making it easier for states to join with others in an experimental union
  • Dissolving such union when goals for which it was constituted are not achieved
  • Self-defense when larger group presents lethal threat to minority or the government cannot adequately defend an area
  • Self-determination of peoples
  • Preserving culture, language, etc. from assimilation or destruction by a larger or more powerful group
  • Furthering diversity by allowing diverse cultures to keep their identity
  • Rectifying past injustices, especially past conquest by a larger power
  • Escaping “discriminatory redistribution,” i.e., tax schemes, regulatory policies, economic programs, etc. that distribute resources away to another area, especially in an undemocratic fashion
  • Enhanced efficiency when the state or empire becomes too large to administer efficiently
  • Preserving “liberal purity” (or “conservative purity”) by allowing less (or more) liberal regions to secede
  • Providing superior constitutional systems which allow flexibility of secession
  • Keeping political entities small and human scale through right to secession

Aleksandar Pavkovic, associate professor in Australia and the author of several books on secession describes five justifications for a general right of secession within liberal political theory:

  • Anarcho-Capitalism: individual liberty to form political associations and private property rights together justify right to secede and to create a “viable political order” with like-minded individuals.
  • Democratic Secessionism: the right of secession, as a variant of the right of self-determination, is vested in a “territorial community” which wishes to secede from “their existing political community”; the group wishing to secede then proceeds to delimit “its” territory by the majority.
  • Communitarian Secessionism: any group with a particular “participation-enhancing” identity, concentrated in a particular territory, which desires to improve its members’ political participation has a prima facie right to secede.
  • Cultural Secessionism: any group which was previously in a minority has a right to protect and develop its own culture and distinct national identity through seceding into an independent state.
  • The Secessionism of Threatened Cultures: if a minority culture is threatened within a state that has a majority culture, the minority needs a right to form a state of its own which would protect its culture.

Arguments against secession:

Allen Buchanan, who supports secession under limited circumstances, lists arguments that might be used against secession:

  • “Protecting Legitimate Expectations” of those who now occupy territory claimed by secessionists, even in cases where that land was stolen
  • “Self Defense” if losing part of the state would make it difficult to defend the rest of it
  • “Protecting Majority Rule” and the principle that minorities must abide by them
  • “Minimization of Strategic Bargaining” by making it difficult to secede, such as by imposing an exit tax
  • “Soft Paternalism” because secession will be bad for secessionists or others
  • “Threat of Anarchy” because smaller and smaller entities may choose to secede until there is chaos
  • “Preventing Wrongful Taking” such as the state’s previous investment in infrastructure
  • “Distributive Justice” arguments that wealthier areas cannot secede from poorer ones

June 13, 2010

“Our peculiar institution” and abortion

Filed under: History,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:47 am
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As I previously mentioned, I am reading A Patriot’s History of the United States to refresh my recollection of a subject that I last studied formally more than 30 years ago in college.  My reading has progressed to Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War.  

For several decades leading up to the Civil War, American politicians struggled with “our peculiar institution,” which was a euphemism used by those who didn’t like the term slavery.  Unfortunately, because our politicians failed to do their job successfully, 620,000 American soldiers died. 

As the authors of A Patriots History, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, described the various efforts by politicians to resolve the slavery issue, I was struck by the similarities of slavery with America’s current political disagreement regarding abortion.  Both issues involve an individual’s personal morality, there is no middle ground, and an individual’s position is not susceptible to reasoning, analysis, or persuasion.  Abolitionists believed that slavery was immoral, just as pro-life people believe that abortions are evil.

During my readings, I was also struck by the slavery position taken by Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.  You may recall that Douglas was the Illinois senator who defeated Lincoln in a 1858 senatorial race, but then lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.  Douglas was a pragmatic politician, and he argued that the voters of each state should have the right to decide whether to allow slavery in their jurisdiction.  That happens to be exactly the position I took on abortion during my congressional race. 

As a congressional candidate, I argued that Roe v. Wade should be reversed because this issue should be decided by the people, not by judicial legislation.  And consistent with the Tenth Amendment, this issue should be decided by each state, not the federal government.  Furthermore, there is already precedent for the states successfully handling another comparable issue – i.e., the death penalty. 

A lot of Americans think the death penalty is immoral, but most are comfortable with allowing each state to decide how it feels.  My home state of North Dakota does not have a death penalty, but my adopted state of Texas does.  Even though there are occasionally a few out-of-state protestors outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville for executions, the practice is generally accepted as a legitimate state power even by those who personally oppose it.   

Douglas’s position in favor of state sovereignty over slavery was never tested because Lincoln took a stronger anti-slavery stance and won the election.  It is doubtful, however, whether the southern states would have stayed in the Union even if Douglas had won.  They felt that their “peculiar institution” would never be accepted by the northern states and that secession was an inevitable necessity to maintain their way of life.  As Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.  Or as Mao Zedong said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”  Let’s hope that the abortion issue can be resolved civilly over time without war.

April 20, 2010

Johnny Reb and Confederate History Month

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:33 pm
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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) recently got in trouble for issuing a proclamation that recognized April 2010 as Confederate History Month.  The proclamation upset some people because it failed to acknowledge that the Confederacy was forever stained by its precipitating raison d’être – i.e., slavery in the South.  McDonnell apologized for the oversight and revised the proclamation to include a paragraph acknowledging the stain of slavery on the Conferacy, but before the controversy could go away, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) exacerbated the situation by asserting that the original proclamation was not a mistake and that every mention of the Confederacy does not require an anti-slavery caveat – “I don’t know what you would say about slavery, but anyone who thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing – I think it goes without saying.”  Not coincidentally, Barbour routinely issues similar proclamations in Mississippi without an anti-slavery caveat.

I have attached below a copy of the amended proclamation, and I believe the amendment was appropriate.  I understand Barbour’s assertion that every mention of the Confederacy doesn’t require an anti-slavery caveat, but the inclusion of a caveat in the context of this proclamation seems appropriate. 

Disputes like this are certain to erupt again and again until we either discuss our way to a consensus or, more likely, we agree to disagree.  Can we have a consensus on the following:    

  • Should white Southerners be proud of Confederate war heroes?  Clearly, yes.  Although many Americans failed to show proper respect to our servicemen who returned from Vietnam, our nation has clearly evolved so that now servicemen who return from Iraq are honored even by those who vehemently oppose the Iraq war.  Johnny Reb unquestionably was a gallant and brave soldier serving his state, and he deserves honor for his conduct. 
  • Should white Southerners be proud of the Confederacy?  I think, no.  Although some white Southerners argue that the Civil War was about States’s Rights, I believe the general consensus is that the Civil War was fought because the South felt the North was threatening the long-term viability of slavery, and Governor McDonnell’s amendment acknowledges this – “the institution of slavery led to this war.”  Thus, secession over slavery is nothing for white Southerners to be proud of. 
  • Should white Southerners be proud of the ante-bellum South?  I think, yes.  Although slavery was, as Governor McDonnell recently stated, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights,” the stain of slavery should not blot out everything else that was good about the old South.  Let’s not forget that Washington and Jefferson were Southern slave owners who made immense contributions toward making America what it is today – a beacon of liberty for the entire world.  We can continue to honor them without routinely including an obligatory anti-slavery caveat.

Emotionally, I stand squarely on the side of honoring Confederate heroes even though my home state of North Dakota didn’t exist at the time of the Civil War and it is stocked with people who emigrated from northern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Thus, the Civil War and slavery are not directly a part of my heritage.  Yet I have always been attracted to the thought of Johnny Reb, the underdog who rebelled against the heavy hand of the federal government (even before I learned about States’ Rights).  This attraction came to full bloom during college when I was exposed to Gone With The Wind.  I became so enamored of Rhett Butler and the South’s rebel cause that I briefly considered changing my name to Rhett Ezekiel Bayou, or REB for short.  However, because slavery was not directly a part of my heritage, and because I have no close African-American friends, I am probably not sufficiently sensitive to the stain that slavery has left on people or institutions, and I need to occasionally remind myself of that, just like Governor Bob McDonnell did.   


Confederate History Month

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS,  Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.