Our Irrepressible Conflict
By Daniel Mallock (March 2019)
Shock Workers, Pavel Filonov, 1934-35
Identity politics is not about politics, it is about people—their concept of self, and how they view themselves in relation to one another, within and without groups, the government, and society. Identity politics was catastrophically and unavoidably built into the foundations of the American edifice upon its founding. The conflict between former sovereign colonies that became states, and the central federal authority representing the union of all the states was the essential conflict that finally produced the Civil War. This was the “irrepressible conflict” that afflicted our forebears. The leap from citizen of a state to citizen of a union of states was one that not all wanted, or were capable of making. Our own unhappy generation is facing a similar existential challenge, whether this nation so conceived can endure. It is a time of revolutionary upheaval and threat, fueled by utopian dreams and the embrace by too many of failed and murderous political ideologies. We are engaged in a fundamental struggle for the future of the country, all fueled by the greatest crisis in the American left for generations. This is our irrepressible conflict.
As each colony separated from Great Britain, they then became sovereign entities. During the American Revolution these sovereign states voluntarily surrendered their independent characters and joined the American confederation—a fellowship for mutual protection, individual and national freedom—later uniting under the constitution as the United States.
In the early years of the Republic many believed that despite joining the Union (and thus becoming a part of a greater whole) the several states of the compact retained their sovereign status and that this sovereignty allowed them to nullify federal law should such laws be inconvenient or unfavorable to them. The nature of the surrender of state sovereignty was the source of much disagreement until the issue was finally resolved on the bloody battlegrounds of the Civil War.
Nullification was first suggested by Jefferson in a letter to Madison of April 23, 1799.
. . . fully confident that the good sense of the American people and their attachment to those very rights which we are now vindicating will, before it shall be too late, rally with us round the true principles of our federal compact; but determined, were we to be disappointed in this, to sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, & in which alone we see liberty, safety & happiness.
When he wrote the letter to Madison, Jefferson was then Vice President under John Adams and was actively, though surreptitiously, fighting against the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws to which Jefferson himself had been a signatory. Senator from Massachusetts (and former US president), John Quincy Adams, described Jefferson’s hyper-partisan and behind-the-scenes efforts in an 1836 speech before the combined Congress as, “at the time profoundly secret.”
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Jefferson’s opposition to the Alien & Seditions Acts become such a cause celebre for him that breaking the Union over it was not out of the question. Madison rejected this course and suggested to Jefferson that such a view was too extreme. Jefferson later told another friend that, on account of Madison’s disapproval, he withdrew from this precipice.
In 1832, South Carolina’s government declared Federal laws around tariffs to be null and void in the state, and that a state in reasserting its pre-existing sovereign character had the right to consider and take such an action. This was the implementation of concepts begun with Jefferson. President Andrew Jackson declared that he would send federal troops to South Carolina to suppress what he considered a rebellion. Finally, South Carolina cancelled their plans for nullification thus bringing that phase of the American identity politics crisis to a close.
Underlying South Carolina’s plans for nullifying federal law during the 1832 crisis was the concept of states’ rights and sectional/state identity. Many in the United States then emphasized the term “state” rather than “united” in how they viewed themselves and the country in general. Some people from Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina, for example, considered themselves loyal to their states first then to the common country of states united together under one constitution. The state-centric identity viewpoint essentially made the Union a fungible rather than a solid construct. This was the tragic identity politics of the time that the founders (and their descendants) were unable to circumvent, repress, or resolve.
Robert E. Lee was considered the most accomplished soldier in the country in 1861, and was offered the command of the Union armies to suppress the Confederacy. Instead, Lee chose to give his sword and his services to his state (Virginia). Lee saw himself first as a Virginian and believed that he owed his loyalty to his state rather than to the Union; his state affiliation was a core element of his sense of personal identity. This view was widespread among those who supported secession and those who chose to wear the gray. Lee’s acceptance of the command of the Virginia state forces was concise and clear. Later, he would become General-in-Chief of all Confederate armies.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention, —Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen on an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.
The secession of Virginia and 12 other southern states caused the greatest catastrophe in American history with the result a devastated region, and over 750,000 dead Americans. Casualties in the Civil War exceeded American war deaths in all other conflicts in which the country participated combined.
That identity politics was one of the central drivers behind the dissolution of the country was no mystery to anybody at the time. In fact, radicals in the south had been agitating for secession, using sectional and state identity politics to diminish citizens’ loyalty to and identification with the concept of union and the federal authority at Washington, for decades prior to the outbreak of war. That the seceded states, after declaring the reassertion of their sovereign character in Ordnances of Secession, then joined a new union of like-minded states (from which secession was implied to be forbidden in the new constitution’s preamble) is perhaps a tragic irony of that particular national nightmare.
The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States:
Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain, That the ordinance adopted by the people of this State in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying and adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.
—Virginia Ordnance of Secession (April 17, 1861)
Long before secession and Civil War, secessionist identity politics radicals stoked the fires of discontent and discord by bashing the union, northerners, “Yankee” culture, the northern states, and propagandizing on the superiority of southern people, culture, and institutions (including slavery). These “Fire Eaters,” many of whom then became southern/Confederate nationalists, played a significant role in whipping up secessionist feelings in the south, and finally in breaking the Union regardless of the commonly understood fact that secession would mean war.
Nathaniel Beverly Tucker was an early fire eater radical. “After his efforts of over twenty years, he concluded, ‘our cause has gained ground. The open discussion of the question of disunion, and the clear admission . . . that disunion is not the worst of possible evils, and that Union is a means not an end, place us far in advance of any position heretofore occupied.’”
Another noted secessionist agitator, William Porcher Miles, writing in the Charleston (SC) Mercury, in May, 1860, declared his state-centric identity publicly and triumphantly. Several years previously, he had been the mayor of Charleston and, once the war came, served as a congressman in the Confederate House of Representatives.
“As a South Carolinian, Miles trumpeted, he owed his allegiance to no other ‘nation,’ and he called upon his countrymen to join him in resisting the election of a Republican president rather than submit to ‘ruin and vassalage’ in the Union.”
The relentless agitation against the Union, the bitter criticism of Yankee culture and northerners in general, the supremacist declarations about southern people and culture, and the inherent sovereignty and rights of each state finally bore its grotesque fruit—the national tragedy that most reasonable people were desperate to avoid finally came.
Jefferson in retirement, for his part, had abandoned his previous strongly held support for both secession and states’ rights.
In 1820, responding to the growing squabbling and distant hints at secession and disunion arising from the Missouri Compromise controversy, Jefferson expressed his dismay in a letter to a friend. During his own second term as president the dark shadow of secession had arisen, though from New England, due to economic suffering there resulting directly from Jefferson’s Embargo Act policy. In fact, Jefferson cancelled this policy due to a warning from John Quincy Adams, the only opposition supporter of the Embargo in Congress. Adams told Jefferson that if the Embargo was not ended swiftly, the New England states would certainly secede, and the union destroyed. Having approached the brink Jefferson turned completely in the opposite direction, and ran.
I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76—to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves—and of treason against the hopes of the world.
—Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820
Many in the midst of our current crises have noted the growing political dysfunction and divisions in our country, some have even insightfully suggested that this is a time of a “cold civil war.”
There seems little cause for doubt that ours is a revolutionary time; a time of national crisis fueled by a radicalization of mission and identity within the American political left. The crisis in the left is so extraordinary and so omnipresent that its impact is in no way limited only to the Democrat party or the general political/cultural left. Consequentially, there is a growing conflict in the national polity and a hardening of ideological views so that compromise becomes more difficult by the day.
It is disturbing to see our national history cycling, regurgitating, as it were, old conflicts, old rigidities, dismissed and discredited failures. The open society and democracy set up by the founders was understood by everyone at the time, and by every subsequent generation until now, to have been built upon the concept of tolerance for differing political views. The idea was that through debate and honest dialogue the better plan, the better approach, the better policy would consistently win out—always tempered by a unifying American principle and identity. Such a view depended upon a society of shared morals and ethics, and a country of citizens honestly striving for the most workable, the most effective solution to whatever issue was under discussion. For these sorts of debates to succeed the core unifying identity was emphasized to diminish, wherever possible, the threats to the edifice of democracy and union itself which such heated politics directly or indirectly represented: those days are gone.
In addressing the beliefs held by some partisans prior to the Civil War that states have the right to nullify federal law, former president John Quincy Adams said, in the same speech to Congress referenced above, “. . . holding the converse of these propositions with a conviction as firm as an article of religious faith, I too clearly see to admit of denial, that minds of the highest order of intellect, and hearts of the purest integrity of purpose, have been brought to different conclusions.” (p.175)
It is a perfectly expected consequence in any debate in a free society such as ours that not all will agree; disagreement is, after all, the driver of debate. In previous eras, prior to our present unfortunate one, most Americans were united by a common identity (to which they adhered with pride) and reverence for the Constitution so that particular debates and disagreements would not/could not destroy the unity of the polity. The unity of the country was fundamentally about shared identity and shared support for the constitution. These structurally significant safety elements, a shared morality and support for the constitution, that national leaders for generations have understood to be critically fundamental in sustaining the Union itself have been now destroyed.
The great crisis of the American left has eroded American concepts of national identity and replaced it with a deconstructionist, post-modern, conglomeration of victimized identity groups such that politics on the left is often about which identity group is the most victimized (at any given moment) and therefore requires the most press, credulity, sympathy and, of course, funding. Leftist opposition to constitutional norms and to the American political/economic system itself is now widely known. In fact, some Democrat representatives and even presidential candidates for 2020 now proudly declare their allegiance to socialism (Mr. Sanders of Vermont and others) and opposition to certain elements of the constitution and to the foundational concepts of the American system itself.
More disturbing still is the use of the term “revolution” by the most vocal new Democrat member of Congress (and darling of the false journalists of the leftist fake press). Confirming from the inside that rumors and accusations against the press of hyperbolic leftist bias are true, journalist Lara Logan, unfortunately famous for having been assaulted and raped on the streets of Cairo during the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, confirmed that the mainstream press has been co-opted and corrupted by the socialist/utopian/communist/globalist/identity politics/Democrat “revolution.”
The press in the United States is certainly free, but it is not objective and unbiased. Journalism standards have changed radically in recent decades—objectivity is not a priority any longer and has been replaced by political partisanship and the legitimization (at least within their circles) of “activist reporting” which is simply another way to describe the coarse manipulation of the readership by fake journalism and partisan hackery.
The unity of the polity is, in our unhappy era, utterly disrupted by the great crisis of the American left and, most particularly, its embrace of ideologies, philosophies, and concepts that have already been dumped into the trash heap of history. What can we discern when the greatest political party of the American left retrieves the junk ideologies of history (socialism, utopianism, communism, Jacobinism) from history’s garbage bin and offers them as replacements for the principles and documents of the founders? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that ours is a time of deep confusion, crisis, loss of faith, and revolution—all of it churning from the crisis within the American left.
The political conflict between Democrat and Republican/Left vs Right is a philosophical war played out now in the political battlegrounds of the country; in the media, in the courts, and the halls of government, boardrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, restaurants, and many other places. It is a philosophical conflict so fundamental that scraping the politics off the whole disreputable mess reveals the existential danger that it presents and the ugly, bitter horror of it all.
Ours is not the only generation (nor time or place) to suffer through broken, corrupt, and morally and philosophically debased revolutionary times. Observe the following diary entry by Victor Klemperer, a loyal German, harassed, threatened, and abused by the growing Nazi revolutionary nightmare in Germany in 1933. Klemperer, a brilliant and respected academic prior to the rise of the Nazis, a veteran of WW1 and someone who considered himself a true German patriot, was marked for nothingness and death by the Nazis due to his Jewish heritage. Though he no longer considered himself as Jewish, this was irrelevant to the race-obsessed lunatics of the NSDAP. His two-volume diary is a classic of human suffering and survival, and the victory of patience, courage, and character (and some luck). It bears special emphasis here that the Nazis were proud socialists.
As is clear from Klemperer’s comment below, written at the close of the year during which Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, the ugly conflicts playing out in the German political world were truly a shallow façade masking a great ideological and philosophical perversion and national collapse into moral and ethical corruption and evil. The struggle in Germany as documented by Klemperer and so many others, and fully known now to history was, much as it is here and now in our country, not about party per se but rather about philosophy. In corrupted, dysfunctional (and revolutionary) times, politics becomes a philosophical battleground.
This is the characteristic fact of the year that has come to an end, that I had to break with two close friends, with Thieme because he is a National Socialist, with Gusti Wieghardt because she became a Communist. With that neither has joined a political party, rather their human dignity has been forfeit.
—Klemperer diary, December 31, 1933
Fundamental to understanding the current state of American cultural and political affairs is an appreciation of the lessons of history, as well as how to apply them to today, if at all possible.
William Seward, a New York senator and later Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration said, in 1858, that the political crisis of that time was “an irrepressible conflict between two opposing and enduring forces.” He was referring to a large block supporting slavery and state-oriented identity politics and another large block opposing both. These fundamental philosophical, political, and cultural differences are at the root of the outbreak of civil war in 1861.
Much of the language of that time is eerily and disturbingly familiar. It is the language of rancor, of intellectual failure and rigidity, of hardened hearts, and panic. The New York Tribune in an 1855 editorial, wrote that “we are not one people. We are two peoples. We are a people for Freedom and a people for Slavery. Between the two, conflict is inevitable.”
There is a great conflict now underway in our politics as consequential as any in our national past. People who believe the American experiment is a failed effort that therefore must be “fundamentally transformed” are opposed by those who entirely disagree and cherish their personal freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution; it is a philosophical and ideological conflict. The struggle is more accurately described as an ideological war now most clearly illustrated by the widening rift and growing vitriol between Democrats and Republicans, “liberals” and conservatives, in the political battlefield.
One can perceive the union of the American states as a fellowship. The purpose of the fellowship has always been about mutual security and mutual benefit. It is, and always has been a quest for human freedom in a world in which such things had never previously been codified, and never properly made available nor made feasible or functional—or sustainable. There are always those who oppose such things and prefer the fake security of powerful governments (or religions) to dictate thoughts and decisions that are by natural right the purview of the individual. “The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true.”
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced his most recent run for president on February 19, 2019. His campaign message is clear: “Together, you and I and our 2016 campaign began the political revolution. Now, it is time to complete that revolution and implement the vision that we fought for.”
What is the revolution to which the senator from Vermont is alluding? It is the fundamental transformation of the United States into a socialist (then communist?) country. President Trump declared in the recent State of the Union address that the United States would “never be a socialist country.” Trump reiterated this point several weeks later in a speech in Miami where he proclaimed that Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela would soon be free countries once again. “To those who would impose socialism on the U.S.,” he said, “we again deliver a very simple message: America will never be a socialist country.” Trump also asserted that “the twilight hour of socialism has arrived.”
The lines are drawn and the conflict is now fully engaged. At stake is the future of the country and nothing less.
The founders learned from the French Revolution that “the people” can become a mob, and a mob can and will destroy a democracy; the mob becomes the enemy of freedom. They therefore built into our political structure a system of checks and balances meant to prevent mob rule.
From the Russian revolution the lesson was learned that Communism is a failed and evil system; a lesson that American leftists have forgotten, or choose to willfully ignore. Similar lessons were learned from the communist revolution in China.
When the Chinese Cultural Revolution occurred in the mid-1960s under Mao Zedong, a grotesque period of starvation, death, and the vicious abuse of academics and intellectuals, lessons were learned then, too. Some few insightful scholar/analysts have noted that elements of the American leftist social justice ideology are Maoist in character.
One victim of the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was Ji Xianlin, then a senior professor of languages and co-department chair at Beijing University. In his memoir of survival during that nightmare time, “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” he wrote,
I believe that the Cultural Revolution can serve as an excellent example of what not to do; reflecting on it will show us, by extension, how to act in the future. This is of crucial importance in helping our country to move forward. If we don’t learn from it, we will have missed an unprecedented opportunity.
It is clearly of great value to learn the lessons of history. At the core of the study of history is the desire to avoid repeating costly mistakes—in particular to know what not to do. What do we say when a large segment of the citizenry does not agree with this obviously true statement?
When our founders created the country, they were well aware that there was unfinished business: the problem of inequality and slavery. They knew that they could not both solve the conundrum and have a country; they chose the latter and trusted that warnings from them would inspire the wisdom of future generations so that they would solve what the originators could not.
One of the greatest tragedies of American history was born the day the country began, an “irrepressible conflict” according to a later Secretary of State, William Seward. Regardless of the lessons of history—regardless of the many failed systems and ideologies, and of their casualty counts in the tens of millions—all now widely unknown and ignored within the American left—there is a new irrepressible conflict.
One of the tools of the Democrat socialist/communist/globalist/utopian “revolutionaries” is the creation of disunion and discord in the national life by a bitter and irreducible emphasis on identity politics whose purpose is the destruction of the single, unifying national identity: American.
Kamala Harris, Democrat senator from California and newly declared candidate for president, was publicly criticized by her own father for using identity politics and stereotypes for her own political gain. In an extraordinary statement (February 15, 2019) published in Jamaica Global, Ms. Harris’s father, Donald Harris, a professor of economics at Stanford University, wrote:
My dear departed grandmothers (whose extraordinary legacy I described in a recent essay on this website), as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics. Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.
Dr. Harris’s comments were a direct response to his daughter’s reply to a New York City interviewer who asked her if she smoked marijuana, to which she answered, “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
This incredible, public rebuke of a child from a parent is both unusual and revelatory, and speaks a great deal to comparative character between father and daughter. More importantly, it leads us to a possible resolution of our own difficulties, and a reassertion of national unity in the face of the culmination of decades of discord, revolutionary agitation, and internal conflict all originating from the great crisis in the American left.
In the late 1970s, Jamaica experienced extreme political violence between left and right on the streets of the national capital, Kingston. Bob Marley, the first international reggae music star and informal goodwill ambassador of his island nation (later a national hero of Jamaica), was invited to perform at a massive concert in the capital city to encourage unity in the country. The event was called “The One Love Peace Concert.” The two leaders of the national political blocks, Prime Minister Michael Manley and his rival Edward Seaga, were invited to attend—both accepted.
Late in the evening, Bob Marley and his band The Wailers took the stage. When the band played the hit song “Jammin’” Marley began to improvise. As the band played on, he called Manley and Seaga to the stage and both mounted the steps. When they approached Marley, the singer took their hands and placed them together. Marley sang/chanted to the music: “. . . could we have, could we have, up here onstage here the presence of Mr. Michael Manley and Mr. Edward Seaga. I just want to shake hands and show the people that we’re gonna make it right, we’re gonna unite, we’re gonna make it right, we’ve got to unite.”
Our political, philosophical, and ideological lines are drawn; a conflict for the heart and future of the United States is underway. There ought to be no surprise that the great conflicts of human belief would be played out here, that is whether or not human freedom and individual rights are practical and supportable and whether or not a government founded on these principals can survive. These have always been the essential questions posed by the existence of the United States.
Bob Marley’s admirable efforts to unite his troubled country were unsuccessful; the political conflicts and violence continued unabated. It’s a matter now for history to attend to, and for us to learn the lessons.
The present political, ideological, and moral conflict in the United States cannot be repressed, it is already here. The question now is if this nation “can long endure?” We are now engaged in a great test of the Union, in fact a test of the essential character of the country itself; it is therefore proper to close with Lincoln. In his first Inaugural Address he finished that great speech with this:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
There is no peacemaker; there are only Americans and our better angels.
 John Quincy Adams, Address to the combined House and Senate following the death of James Madison, 1836.
“The American Statesman: A Political History Exhibiting the Origin, Nature and Practical Operation of Constitutional Government in the United States; The Rise and Progress of Parties and the Views of Distinguished Statesmen on Questions of Foreign and Domestic Policy,” by Andrew W. Young, (New York, 1855), p.175.
 “The Fire-Eaters” by Eric H. Walther, (Louisiana State University Press, 1992); Tucker letter to Hammond, 1850. p.47fn.
 Ibid., p.289fnMercury, May 21, 1860.
 NSDAP was the official name of the Nazi party. The acronym is translated as: National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei).
 “I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years,” by Victor Klemperer (v1 of 2); (Modern Library Paperbacks, 1999), p. 45.
 “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien; volume one, “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
 “Peking University” in the text.
 “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” by Ji Xianlin, (New York Review of Books, 1998, 2016), p.139.
 The author had the pleasure of seeing Bob Marley and The Wailers in concert in Boston, Massachusetts.
Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War and is the author of The New York Times Bestseller, Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution. He is a Contributing Editor at New English Review.
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