Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gettysburg, 2011

There are two more years to go before the Sesquicentennial of the single biggest battle in North or South America: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which took place in late June, early July 1863, approximately a year after the passage of Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act.  We (my aunt and I) visited the park today, missing the annual reenactment (on purpose), and a few of the points of interest.  That was not on purpose; we just couldn't find them, especially the statue of Father Corby, Catholic chaplain of the 69th New York Infantry, who later became president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

I had never been to the battlefield.  Visiting it on possibly the hottest day of the year for one's initial visit gives a whole new appreciation of what the soldiers endured -- and they were in wool uniforms, carrying full packs, not light summer clothing and driving around in an air conditioned automobile.

The sheer size of the battlefield is also an eye-opener.  You don't really get an appreciation of it from books or even the Ken Burns series.  Almost by accident we found the Union position where Pickett's Charge was broken.  Looking across the fields that the Army of Northern Virginia had to cross before reaching the Union forces, . . . indescribable.

We went to the Visitors Center first, of course, to pick up a free map and ask directions to Father Corby's statue (evidently a very popular point of interest, but not given a special number on the auto guide map).  We stepped into the book and gift store on the way out, just to check it out.

There was, as you might expect, a moderately large number of books and videos about the Civil War in general, and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular.  They appeared to range from the fairly decent to the excellent; we could have spent our entire budget there alone, so we spent nothing.

From a Just Third Way perspective there was, however, one book conspicuous by its absence: David Christy's 1855 Cotton is King.  If, as many authorities assert, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin inspired the North to end slavery, Cotton is King convinced the South that it could not survive economically without it.  Christy's well-argued (but seriously flawed) case was that the economic prosperity of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on the slave cultivation of cotton and other agricultural commodities.  Consequently the Southerners, whether or not they owned slaves, were convinced that without slavery the economy would collapse.

Obviously that was wrong.  Lincoln's Homestead Act demonstrated that there was a better and more profitable way to increase production and exports, and at the same time provide a broad base of consumer demand for the rapid industrial and commercial expansion that followed the war.  This, too, came to an end with the Panic of 1893 when the growing number of people dependent on wages alone began changing the character of the economy, from an ownership system to a wage system, and the role of government began expanding at an increasing rate.

The problem, of course, was that when the "free" land made available by the Homestead Act was no longer so freely available, widespread ownership of landed capital was not replaced by widespread ownership of commercial and industrial capital.  The Currency Principle, in part that the only way to finance new capital formation was to cut consumption and save, virtually guaranteed that small ownership of commercial and industrial capital would deteriorate and, finally, disappear as a dominate force in the economy.  Ownership of the new commercial and industrial capital, and consequently the control over money and credit, became increasingly concentrated, the wage systems spread, and the Welfare State achieved dominance as the "only" possible arrangement of the economy.

The Battle of Gettysburg, put into perspective, is not only (as Lincoln said) an affirmation of what America means.  Within the Just Third Way, the passage of a Capital Homestead Act by 2012 would not only validate the sacrifice of men on both sides, but lay a solid foundation for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

#30#

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