False Virtue: The Politics of Lying About History

by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

In 1961 Life magazine invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (author of All the King’s Men, and nineteen other novels) to record his thoughts on the meaning of the American “Civil War” on the centennial of that event. Warren responded with a long essay on the “symbolic value of the war” which was eventually published as a small book entitled The Legacy of the Civil War.

If Robert Penn Warren were to write this book today, he would be loudly condemned as an Enemy of Society (and a “Neo-Confederate”) by all the usual defenders of the central state, from race-hustling “civil rights” activists to beltway “libertarians” and of course, the Lincoln Cult. For example, he wrote (p. 7) that in addition to slavery, there was a “tissue of causes” of the war, including the dispute over the constitutionality of secession, “the mounting Southern debt to the North, economic rivalry, Southern fear of encirclement, Northern ambitions, and cultural collisions . . .”

There were also economic causes of the war apart from slavery, Robert Penn Warren believed. “The Morrill tariff of 1861 actually preceded the firing on

[Fort] Sumter, but it was the mark of Republican victory and an omen of what was to come; and no session of Congress in the next four years failed to raise the tariff.”

“Even more importantly,” Warren wrote, “came the establishment of a national banking system . . . and the issuing of national greenbacks . . . plus government subsidy [to corporations].” “Hamilton’s dream” of a large national debt was also realized, and “this debt meant a new tax relation of the citizen to the Federal government, including the new income tax” [introduced by the Lincoln administration for the first time].

“Out of the Civil War came the concept of total war,” i.e., the bombing, plundering, and mass murdering of civilians. In this regard, Warren quotes an 1862 speech by Lincoln in which he said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present . . . . As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.” That is, “we” must abandon the law of nations with regard to the criminality of waging war on civilians, and “we” must abandon the U.S. Constitution as well, since it is one of the chief “dogmas of the quiet past.”

A major theme of The Legacy of the Civil War is that the war left the North (which is to say, the U.S. government) with “a treasury of virtue” (p. 54). This is the “psychological heritage” left to the North, and it is an insidious heritage, wrote Robert Penn Warren. “The Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history . . . . He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future . . .”.

Thus, this “treasury of virtue” would become the excuse for why the U.S. government would commence a twenty-five year campaign of extermination against the Plains Indians just three months after Appomattox; shamelessly rob the treasury for the benefit of railroad corporations; plunder the South for a decade after the war under the laughable guise of “reconstruction”; murder more than 200,000 Filipinos who opposed being ruled by the American empire after having escaped from the imperialistic clutches of the Spanish empire; and enter a European war that was none of our business to supposedly “make the world safe for democracy.” It was all done in the name of virtue, freedom, and democracy, or so we are told.

Robert Penn Warren called this “moral narcissism” (p. 72). It is “a poor basis for national policy,” he wrote, but is the “justification” for “our crusades of 1917–1918 and 1941–1945 and our diplomacy of righteousness, with the slogan of unconditional surrender and universal spiritual rehabilitation for others”.

Posing as The Most Virtuous Humans to Ever Inhabit the Planet requires that many “facts get forgotten,” wrote Robert Penn Warren. For example:

[I]t is forgotten that the Republican platform of 1860 pledged protection to the institution of slavery where it existed, and that the Republicans were ready, in 1861, to guarantee slavery in the South, as bait for a return to the Union. It is forgotten that in July, 1861, both houses of Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, affirmed that the War was waged not to interfere with the institutions of any state but only to maintain the Union. It is forgotten that the Emancipation Proclamation . . . was limited and provisional: slavery was to be abolished only in the seceded states and only if they did not return to the Union before the first of the next January (p. 61).

It must also be forgotten, wrote Warren, that most Northern states “refused to adopt Negro suffrage” and that Lincoln was as much a white supremacist as any man of his time. “It is forgotten that Lincoln, at Charlestown, Illinois, in 1858, formally affirmed: I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Thus, after so much history is forgotten, and much of the rest of it rewritten as a string of fairy tales, “the War appears, according to this doctrine of the Treasury of Virtue, as a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven, like the deeds of the saints, to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders, certainly unto the present generation” (p. 64).

Warren quotes the historian Samuel Eliot Morison as commenting that one effect of this Treasury of Virtue on his (Morison’s) native New England was that “In the generation to come that region would no longer furnish the nation with teachers and men of letters, but with a mongrel breed of politicians” obsessed with “profiteering” through their political connections.

Among other effects are that “the man of righteousness tends to be so sure of his own motives that he does not need to inspect consequences.” And, “the effect of the conviction of virtue is to make us lie automatically and awkwardly . . . and then in trying to justify the lie, lie to ourselves and transmute the lie into a kind of superior truth.” This, I would argue, is a perfect definition of so-called “Lincoln scholarship,” especially the Straussian variety.

Warren believed that most Americans are content with all of these lies about their own history, the results of “the manipulations of propaganda specialists, and their sometimes unhistorical history” (p. 79). For they “are prepared to see the Civil War as a fountainhead of our power and prestige among the nations” (p. 76). They have been good and brainwashed as obedient little nationalists, in other words, who place a very high value on the “prestige” of the American state as bully of the world.

This is yet another dire consequence of the war: Americans came to believe in Alexander Hamilton’s notion that the “prestige” of the state through its pursuit of “imperial glory” was a legitimate function of government. Limiting the role of government to the protection of God-given natural rights to life, liberty, and property became one of Lincoln’s “dogmas of the quiet past.”

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