I was in Philadelphia. I had just watched the Federal Government crush a citizen who dared oppose it. A half-dozen grey-suited federal lawyers and another in robes, federal employees all, convinced a jury that the defendant, a naïve, amateur legal scholar who quoted the law from memory like a mad monk quoting scripture, was guilty of heresy. Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, he believes he isn’t required to file tax returns.
He is a heretic alright. He spurns conventional wisdom. He shamelessly declares there is a limit to federal power. He quotes the law to prove it. His faith in the law is unshakable. To him the law is the Holy Writ of honest government. But the government lawyer in robes put us straight about the law. “Ridiculous,” he said, “frivolous.” He, the high priest, would tell us, the uninitiated, the meaning of Holy Writ. The lawyers were not here to debate the scholar’s ravings, but to burn him. Burn him they did.
After the trial, I had to get out of the Cradle of Liberty. I brooded on the ironies of government of, by and for the lawyers. Just a couple hours away a monument to the fight against overreaching federal power whispered fetchingly in my ear.
A hundred forty two years ago, not far from Philadelphia, an army of southern rebels opposed the feds more forcefully than the Philly heretic ever would. I wanted to walk the ground on which so many men had bled for something bigger than themselves. I wanted to see a modern courtroom in the reflected glare of history. I drove to Gettysburg.
The rebels of the Confederacy thought “government with the consent of the governed” meant that if you didn’t consent, you could get out of the deal. The Baptists of the Old South thought the Union was like a Protestant marriage, something you could fix or abandon if it didn’t work out. Mar’se Lincoln would teach them otherwise.
According to St. Lincoln, the South’s affair with the North was more Catholic than Baptist, an eternal, inescapable commitment and hell to pay if you didn’t think so. In his brilliant address after the great battle, Lincoln eloquently praised government of, by and for the people. What he meant, however, and what he proved by his actions, was that government of, by and for the people would be reserved exclusively for those people who wanted to be governed by him.
The South had less confidence in the law than the Philly scholar. Jail terms and fines weren’t going to dissuade them. Until hundreds of thousands had suffered and died in four years of desperate, bloody fighting, they clung to the notion that they could govern themselves.
Gettysburg was not the last battle of the war, but most consider it the turning point, the high water mark of the Confederacy, after which “the lost cause” was truly lost.
It is the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Over 160,000 men gathered at Gettysburg almost by accident. They then spent three days in the blistering heat trying to murder as many of their enemies as they could. Over 50,000 of them would be killed or wounded.
The battlefield is much as it was when General Robert E. Lee led the 70,000 man Army of Northern Virginia against 90,000 of General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. It sprawls over miles of rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Monuments to every fighting unit in the battle dot the landscape on the ground where they fought. Stone pillars, cannon and markers of every description commemorate unimaginably brutal, murderous fighting in famous killing grounds like The Devil’s Den, The Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, and Little Round Top.
Even swarming with summer tourists there is a solemnity to the place that commands respectful silence. A spirit of romantic gallantry hovers over the fields like the smoke from a distant volley of muskets.
A modern military battle where casualties exceed 10% is considered a bloodbath. During the Civil War defender and attacker both could routinely expect to lose a third of their number. More American soldiers died in the Civil War than have died in all our other wars combined. More American soldiers died in the last 10 minutes of Pickett’s charge than have died in the last three years of war in Iraq.
Rows of now silent Union cannon still dominate the 1000 yards of open ground over which General Pickett led his famous, doomed charge on the last day of fighting. As I looked out over the ground where Pickett’s men marched into a hurricane of gunfire, I reckoned there are those who would say the Philly scholar was getting off relatively easy. A few years of air-conditioned confinement is hard to compare to a 50/50 chance of being cut to ribbons by flying lead. But it was idealists like him who led charging brigades.
The men on both sides of that murderous fight overwhelmingly fought out of loyalty and love of country. There were precious few on either side who considered ending slavery a reason for risking gruesome death. It was a romantic, sentimental time in which honor and duty were worth dying for.
Government then consumed a tiny fraction of the wealth of the nation. No man on either side would have viewed our modern state’s claim to three out of seven days of our labor as anything less than slavery.
Faced with the same oppression as the Philly heretic, there isn’t a man among them who wouldn’t have been in the courtroom with a musket demanding the patriot scholar’s release.