Editor's Pick

We Will Berry You

The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice
by Wendell Berry
Shoemaker and Company, 2022; x + 513 pp.

Wendell Berry, a poet, novelist, and philosopher well known for his protests against mechanized agriculture and for his defense of the “land ethic,” is not a thinker one would immediately associate with Ludwig von Mises, and indeed, in economic theory the two are far apart. But there is nevertheless a passage in Mises’s Socialism that is central to Berry’s concerns.

The passage I have in mind is this:

When society’s existence is threatened, each individual must risk his best to avoid destruction. Even the prospect of perishing in the attempt can no longer deter him. For there is then no choice between either living on as one formerly lived or sacrificing oneself for one’s country, for society, or for one’s convictions. Rather, must the certainty of death, servitude, or insufferable poverty be set against the chance of returning victorious from the struggle. War carried on pro aris et focis [for hearth and home] demands no sacrifice from the individual. One does not engage in it merely to reap benefits for others, but to preserve one’s own existence.

Berry uses a similar idea to explain and defend the South’s standpoint in the Civil War, but he does not do so in the way one might expect. Far from extolling the virtues of antebellum slavery, he condemns it as a grievous sin. In this connection, he makes an interesting criticism of John C. Calhoun, who deemed manual labor beneath the dignity of gentlemen, fit only for slaves. Berry argues that it was in part the unwillingness of elements among the Southern planter elite to acknowledge the virtue of work that led them to turn away from the Jeffersonian position that slavery is a great evil. In this connection, Berry quotes John Quincy Adams, a great opponent of slavery whom he admires: “I told Calhoun I could not see things in the same light—It is in truth all perverted sentiment—mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for Freedom” (Adams, quoted on p. 298).

If slavery was wrong, why, then, does Berry defend the South’s position in the Civil War? His answer is that the great bulk of those who fought for the South did so not to entrench slavery but rather to protect their land and homes from invasion: “But from the point of view of the Confederate soldiers, the great fact of the war, once it had begun, was that their country had been, and was going to be invaded. They shared with [Robert E.] Lee a settled determination to defend their homelands and their people” (p. 203).

In arguing in this way, Berry agrees with Murray Rothbard, another thinker not usually coupled with him. Like Berry, Rothbard argues that the Southerners were defending their lands from invasion:

In 1861, the Southern states, believing correctly that their cherished institutions were under grave threat and assault from the federal government, decided to exercise their natural, contractual, and constitutional right to withdraw, to “secede” from that Union. The separate Southern states then exercised their contractual right as sovereign republics to come together in another confederation, the Confederate States of America. If the American Revolutionary War was just, then it follows as the night the day that the Southern cause, the War for Southern Independence, was just, and for the same reason: casting off the “political bonds” that connected the two peoples. In neither case was this decision made for “light or transient causes.” And in both cases, the courageous seceders pledged to each other “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

If it is objected that without the war, the end of slavery might have been indefinitely postponed, Berry admits that he has no easy answer but that he does know that the violence of war exacts tremendous costs. He reminds us that the “crusade” mentality led to later disasters:

[The Civil War] remains popularly credited as the solution, entirely good, of our worst national problem. So successful were we at solving our own great problem that we have generously undertaken to solve international problems and the problems of other nations also by force of war and with the same assurance of our goodness in doing so. If we have a sort of notion of preventability, we are not long detained by it. We appear never to bother with the question of net good. We went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan as if such questions could not be asked, as if no useless war had ever been fought, and in a nationalist confusion of pride, fear, moral certainty, and (never dismissible) the allure of profits in the war industries. (p. 85)

In condemning the stern moralism of the Northern aggressors, Berry again finds himself at one with Rothbard.

The Civil War seems to me to have been, to an extent sufficiently noticeable, a conflict of patriotism, which is to say love for one’s actual country or the land under one’s feet, against nationalism, which is to say allegiance just short of worship to a political idea or ideal and to a government. The difference is well illustrated by the anthems of the two sides: the jaunty “Dixie,” which celebrates the “land where I was born,” versus “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a hymn sure enough of a sanctified nationalism, in which the misfortunate Jesus once again shows up in uniform. (p. 250)

In like fashion, Rothbard says:

The Northern war against slavery partook of fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle and the birth of a perfect world. The Yankee fanatics were veritable [Isabel] Patersonian humanitarians with the guillotine: the Anabaptists, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of their era. This fanatical spirit of Northern aggression for an allegedly redeeming cause is summed up in the pseudo-Biblical and truly blasphemous verses of that quintessential Yankee Julia Ward Howe, in her so-called “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

We have much to learn from Berry’s profound defense of the local and particular against militarism and fanaticism.

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