The Guff of History
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The Guff of History.
By Herman Kuehn.
The History of Guff would make an interesting narrative, but it couldn’t “hold a candle” to the far more entertaining story that could be told concerning the Guff of History. The war between the states is but half a century removed, and yet nine out of every ten of us believe that the crux of that conflict was the institution of slavery. That is the case because history is so readily guffable.
Mr. Lincoln was elected by a plurality of whom a plurality were opposed to the spread of the institution of slavery beyond the limits of the “slave states.” There was no thought at that time of liberating the slaves, except among a few abolitionists, who commanded no political influence whatever.
The secession of South Carolina, followed shortly by a like action on the part of the remainder of the slave states was a protest against federal interference with the perfectly legal and constitutional privilege of the holder of governmental title to property taking that property, as property, anywhere-within the boundaries of the country under the laws of which such property was legally held. The liberation of the slaves was not thought of in connection with the secession movement.
“The Union Must and Shall be Preserved” was the slogan which aroused the military spirit of the North. Just why any union that has become distasteful to any integer of it must be preserved is an interesting question with which it is not my present purpose to deal. But that was the question “before the house” at the outbreak of hostilities, and the matter of abolishing slavery was not even remotely considered.
Recruits were called for, and it was popularly believed that a strong show of military force would promptly quell the disturbance. Young men enlisted because the movement appealed to the spirit of adventure, because young fellows love to strut in uniform and pose as heroes before the girls of their neighborhood, and because a good bounty was “on the bills.” But the chief incentive, as many an old soldier will tell you (if you can get the truth out of him without any sort of guff), was the fear that whoever did not volunteer would be regarded as too cowardly to do so. All this time there was no thought of freeing the slaves.
After several unsuccessful campaigns, and after it was learned that General Sherman was not crazy, as had been charged, when he asserted that it would take no less than a million men to’ subdue the secessionists, Lincoln issued the proclamation which the guffers of history believe to have been a pronouncement freeing the slaves. As a matter of fact that proclamation was a military expedient which in effect said to the insurgents: “Be good, boys. This thing has gone far enough. If you’ll lay down your arms within a hundred days you may keep your niggers.
Up to that time not one per centum of the Union soldiers had a thought of liberating the slaves. And ninety per centum at least, would have deserted or mutinied had they believed themselves to be employed in an assault upon the “sacred rights of property” of the slaveholders. The refusal of the Confederates to submit to Federal authority, and not Mr. Lincoln’s ultimatum, was the essential quality of the emancipatory feature of that famous proclamation.
The Guffers of History do not know that not. only was the abolition of slavery not an avowed purpose of authority, but on the contrary such an intention was expressly, repeatedly and insistently disavowed by all the mouthpieces of government. Mr. Lincoln’s speeches, messages, and correspondence of that period in express terms disavowed any intention on his part or that of his party to liberate the slaves so long as they were kept within the recognized “slave states.”
And now comes the Guff of History in the person of Samuel Blodgett, who, in October “To-Morrow” cites the abolition of slavery as an instance of authority achieving its avowed purposes. Could Guffery go further?
Mr. Blodgett writes like a man who is well informed on many topics, it is therefore all the more singular that he should overlook so important a fact as that while authority certainly accomplishes much (too, too much) it never yet has accomplished anything commendable except at too great a cost, or that would not have been much better done without governmental processes. Government does, of course, do some things that may be classed as good. But these are mere incidents, just the same as a burglar may give thirty cents to an orphan asylum. Whatever government accomplishes that is not vicious is not distinctively governmental at all.
One of the funny stunts of the Guffers of History is to give authority credit for its beneficence in its lessening of its own powers. The Guffers call that “granting” liberties to the people. As for instance Good Old King John “granted” Magna Charta at Runnymede, and King George “granted” independence to the American colonists.
It probably never occurs to any History Guffer that even if it had been the avowed purpose of authority to abolish slavery, it would have done nothing more than to re-establish the status quo before government itself made slavery a perfectly legal institution. For mark you, messieurs Guffers all, slavery in the southern states was an authoritarian institution. It could not have existed otherwise.
Authority instituted slavery, and if authority had been heeded it’ would have perpetuated slavery. Slavery will normally “abolish itself” whenever authority is not upheld in legitimatizing it. This is history without any guff and therefore the history guffers will not be able to understand it. They will continue to cite the abolition of slavery as an instance of authority having achieved its avowed purposes.
And Mr. Blodgett is equally guffistical in his reference to the Vigilantes of the Golden West.
Organization, Mr. Blodgett, is not necessarily governmental. Organizations may be for governmental purposes, but most organizations are for defence. Defense against what? Why, defence against government, of course. What else do we ever need defense against?
The industrious toilers of the Far West were being victimized by pestilential invaders of their products. The invaders were exercising the distinguishing governmental characteristic of levying tribute. The miners and traders organized for defense against such invasion. The guffers of history declare that the vigilance committees were governmental. Nothing could be more fallacious. The vigilantes levied tribute on no one. They asked only to be let alone. If the invader refused to forego his governmental inclinations, and persisted in exercising the authoritarian prerogative of levying tribute he was hanged, if caught. One must be deeply immersed in guffery who cannot see that the vigilantes combined to preserve their liberties. And in that case liberty certainly fulfilled its promises.
Whitman, the greatest of Americans, in my opinion, writing of that period, suggests that the vigilantes may some day afford us the pattern upon which our social relations must be fashioned in order to assure tranquility and prosperity. I take pleasure in attesting my conviction that among the mass of truths promulgated by Whitman he never gave utterance to anything more cogent.
Of course the guffers of history are all agreed that the invaders against whom the vigilantes were organized were devotees of liberty, but that is simply because the guffers cannot possibly understand that he denies the principle who invades the liberty of another.
Mr. Blodgett knows by personal experience the weaknesses of state banking, but I judge from the way he writes that he does not attribute any part of that weakness to the fact that those banks were governmental in character. Just why he should charge that I want any scheme of authoritarian banking I cannot fathom, but probably he will some day enlighten us. When he does so he may also be able to inform a waiting world whether he knows that the avowed purpose of government in the domain of finance is to supply a circulating medium that shall facilitate exchanges. And I will inform him in advance of his effort that the actual operation of every governmental medium has been, and will continue to be the hindering of exchanges. Else interest would fall to the actual cost of organizing credits.
Mr. Blodgett informs us that he thinks we already have the freedom to exchange wheat for corn, corn for hogs, etc. Trade, Mr. Blodgett, is not barter, these days. You may have a surplus of wheat and a desire for corn. 1 may have a surplus of corn but do not want wheat in exchange. We each convert our respective surplus into money and with the money we complete the exchange. Now; Mr. Blodgett, if the medium to which we must resort is a monopoly medium our trade is not a free trade. Do you still think we have free trade?
And so I get back to my statements: “Liberty has never failed to fulfill its promises” and “Never yet has authority achieved its avowed purposes.” I may be all wrong, and it may be Mr. Blodgett’s mission to set me right, but I’d advise him to try history, minus its guff.
Herman Kuehn, “The Guff of History,” To-Morrow 2 no. 11 (November, 1906): 42-45.