July 1, 2020


THE TYRANTS AMONG US: a review of From Oligarchy to Republicanism:
The Great Task of Reconstruction By Forest A. Nabors (Alexandra Hudson, 6/29/20, Modern Age)

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:

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. [...]

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 Civil War was a foreign war.
Posted by at July 1, 2020 12:00 AM