After the Capitol Terror, Forget Those “Better Angels”

We cling to Lincoln’s call for reconciliation but we need a government and an Attorney General Merrick Garland who will punish the domestic terrorists.

If there is any fixed star in the political constellation of America’s liberals, it is the omnipotence of “the better angels of our nature.” Since Lincoln first evoked them a century and a half ago, these divine beings have been invoked by good-hearted centrists in times of war, plague, or civil strife, to remind us all that God looks out for our Republic, that Americans love each other under the disguise of the current crisis, and that patience, tolerance, and love will restore “the last, best hope of earth.”

Seldom mentioned in the swirl of pieties is the fact that Lincoln first uttered the phrase on March 4, 1861—and that before the nation could even think of entertaining angels once again, between 600,000 and one million Americans would die in battle, or of disease, or from private communal violence. Or that what followed—a crude betrayal of Black Americans and the onset of the Jim Crow century—was more demonic than celestial.

That the promised angels seldom come, and yet more seldom stay, is of particular relevance now. If God ever made a good-hearted American liberal, that liberal’s name is Joseph R. Biden Jr. Uncle Joe, bless his heart, loves all of God’s children, and most particularly all of those who live in this favored land. He (I am quite sure) harbors not a drop of hatred in his heart, even for Donald J. Trump and those who are, as I write, wrecking the nation’s Capitol in an attempt to crown Trump as dictator.

Before we coo at the prospect of forgiveness, let’s remember what happened in 1865. Those million deaths brought Northern victory. Under the command of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, the Union army did not simply destroy the Rebel forces, it laid waste to the entire pretended “Confederate States,” leaving its people, black and white, prepared to surrender to any  Union terms.

And then those god-damned better angels began their old sweet song. Lincoln was initially conciliatory to those who had sought the nation’s life; then (a cautionary tale) one of them took Lincoln’s life. His place was taken by Andrew Johnson, who believed in every aspect of the Confederate creed except for secession, and who was determined to bring his fellow white Southerners back into the fold with their power virtually unchanged. He did so in a course of what historian Eric Foner called “amazing leniency,” creating by executive order new all-white state governments and restoring the political rights of the old South’s slave-owning class. By the time the 39th Congress convened in December 1865, the damage was largely done. The next three years marked a struggle to limit the damage “leniency” had wrought—one that, in the end, largely failed, ushering in another century of rule by what Unionists had called “the slave power,” which once again came to dominate American presidential and congressional politics.

There is a persistent neo-Confederate narrative about Reconstruction that many Americans profoundly believe—that, having neutered Johnson, the Radical Republicans then imposed iron tyranny on the South, producing a backlash among whites of good will that led, perhaps regrettably, to the eventual rise of segregation. That’s what I was taught in my youth in the segregated South, and even today I encounter educated adults who recite it as gospel.

It’s bosh. By the time military Reconstruction began in 1867, the economic and political power structure of the South had taken on new life. The plantation system, which required intensive black labor, was reinstated and placed in the hands of the old planter class, with federal officials requiring newly freed people to sign grotesque labor “contracts” that differed from slavery only slightly. With Johnson as commander in chief, the Army remained in barracks as the Ku Klux Klan and other terror groups murdered, exiled, and intimidated Black Southerners and white Unionists. By the time Grant became President, he could address the most grotesque forms of Southern terror—but the political impetus for true reform had passed, and Northerners began to listen to those god-damned better angels. The result, by 1876, was full-scaled Northern surrender, and the ascendancy of the Slave Power again.

To a stunning extent, that power remains in place today. Study the economic and political system of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the other former Confederate states that are now, by a bizarre coincidence, at the very center of the current Republican coalition. This power is sustained by vote suppression, brutal mass incarceration policies, retrograde labor, consumer, and social-welfare policies, and overt appeals to white racial solidarity. This power, call it what you will, has never doubted its own legitimacy, or even for a second credited those it oppresses as sharing its “better angels.”

That power suffered serious setbacks in November. Georgia seems to be emerging from its Confederate past, as other states like Virginia have done.  But as in North Carolina, the forces of reaction remain strong there, and will seek to reclaim the state. The structure and confidence of the old slave power remain intact. Don’t underestimate the extent to which it is determined to rule again.

It is assembling itself again, before our eyes. As I write these words, an armed mob has broken up Congress by force. If the logic of events is not reversed, this fresh hell will, in a few years, roll to another hideous conclusion. It can only be stopped if the (briefly) victorious progressive and liberal forces adopt a different slogan than “better angels.”

What comes to my mind comes alas, from lower regions. It is the advice given to Macbeth by the infernal Second Apparition: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute.”

Trump’s January 2 phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger was a naked solicitation to the highest of crimes, the theft of state power. And that phone call led directly to bloodshed inside the Capitol; into an attempt by a mob, incited by the president, to achieve at last the goal that eluded Jefferson Davis—the destruction of the U.S. government and the Constitution.

A nation in which such attempts are forgiven— seen as forgivable, if unfortunate, foibles of a defeated ruler—is no longer a self-governing republic. Politically, at least, it is a failed state, its institutions reeling through a storm with no one at the helm.

So to hell with the god-damned angels. Let’s talk about crime, sedition, treason, and murder.

Good-hearted liberals have repeated endlessly over the past four years that the criminal justice system must not be annexed to executive discretion—that investigation and prosecution should be legal judgments, not amenable to what the occupant of the White House believes will best serve political or partisan ends.

If that’s right, then it holds true just as strongly when a new President wants to embody flabby good will as when an old President wanted to express criminal vindictiveness. A healthy legal and political system need not be vindictive. But it must take it seriously when powerful leaders seek to strangle it. Fecklessness is not generosity; it is folly.

Among the minor events of this wretched day was President-elect Biden’s announcement that he will appoint Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit as the nation’s next attorney general. Like anyone who has met Judge Garland, I revere the power of his mind and the largeness of his spirit. I hope that he has the bloody-mindedness needed to pursue crime and criminals, no matter how high or popular. In this respect, the man may have met the hour: one of the most inspiring parts of Garland’s resume was his devoted prosecution, during his years at the Justice Department, of the Unabomber case and of the bombings at Olympic Park in Atlanta and the Murragh Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He has taken the measure of domestic terror; let us hope he can recognize it at all levels of power. If he does find it, no good-heartedness should stay his hand. A political appointee must not prejudge political foes; but neither may he or she ignore evidence that must be investigated because to do otherwise would upset people.

The impulse of liberal Democrats is to forgive and forget. In 2009, Barack Obama explicitly pulled back from pursuing the crimes of the George W. Bush administration. As a result, the Trump administration has pursued bolder crimes—crimes of private greed, like the self-dealing of federal agencies with Trump’s businesses; crimes of policy, like caging babies; and crimes of power, like attempted vote-stealing and an assault on Congress.

January 6, 2021, is a day that demands a reckoning. It is a new rebellion by what Walt Whitman called “Slavery—the murderous, treacherous conspiracy to raise it upon the ruins of all the rest.” Whitman’s answer was clear: “Assassin! then your life or ours be the stake, and respite no more.” Instead, the leaders opted for “better angels.”

The Confederate leaders committed crimes against the Republic and crimes against humanity, and the better angels sang hosanna as they stepped back into positions of honor and authority. (Consider, for example, that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens was originally charged with treason—but was magnanimously forgiven, serving in Congress for a decade before becoming governor of Georgia.)

Kindly Uncle Joe appeared on television Wednesday afternoon to assure us that what is happening in Washington “is not who we are”; but it is most assuredly one enduring, venomous aspect of our national character that must no longer be ignored. I despair at the prospect that the new President will adopt heavenly forgiveness as his modus operandi. Some crimes cannot be forgiven—and certainly never forgotten or covered up. Until the nation receives a full accounting, and until criminality pays a suitable price, our institutions will lie open, undefended against those who openly aspire to break them up by force.

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Garrett Epps

Garrett Epps is legal affairs editor of the Washington Monthly. He has taught constitutional law at American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke, and the University of Oregon. He is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.