Civil War buffs say it’s self-evident the South was finished when Vicksburg fell on the fourth of July 1863. Niall Ferguson disagrees—the decisive event occurred earlier. History and human nature remind us how self-evident truth is not always self-evident. In the case of America for example, the decisive date might not be the Fourth of July 1776.
On the fourth of July 1863, Vicksburg surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, splitting the Confederacy in two. This is considered to be one of the turning points of the war, but “from a financial point of view, it was not really the decisive one,” writes Niall Ferguson, a British historian.1 He says the key event happened in 1862, when David Farragut seized control of New Orleans, the Confederacy’s main cotton port.
Cotton was the key to the Confederacy’s finances. The South first financed the war by selling bonds to its own citizens, then turning to Europeans, who showed little enthusiasm. “But the Southerners had an ingenious trick up their sleeves,” Ferguson writes. The Confederacy issued cotton-backed bonds that promised investors a seven percent return along with the option of taking physical possession of the cotton at any time.
To ensure this rate of return, the South drove up cotton prices, which drew European investors. However, with the fall of New Orleans on April 29, 1862, investors could no longer cash in their bonds without running a Union blockade. The bonds became worthless, so the Confederacy printed more money and prices rose by about 4,000 percent. On closer inspection, it’s not self-evident that the fall of Vicksburg was the decisive event in the Civil War. It might have been the capture of New Orleans in 1862.
The ancients studied history and human nature and understood how self-evident truth is not always self-evident to everyone. Adjudicating the differences required a referee. The Judeo-Christian tradition looked to institutional authorities as judges. In his Summa Theologica, for example, Thomas Aquinas wrote how “the existence of God is self-evident” by way of revelation—church authority and scripture—as well as reason.
The Protestant Reformation redefined how individuals ascertain truth. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, challenging the church’s authority. What made Luther remarkable, Joshua Foa Dienstag writes, was not his view of God but “his views about humans, their capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”2 Truth still required revelation and reason, but its veracity was now judged by the individual’s conscience. This is an astonishingly naïve view of human nature, as scripture says conscience can be corrupted without the correctives of healthy cultures and institutions. “The Pandora’s box that Luther opened at Leipzig,” writes Richard Popkin, was his “new criterion: that what conscience is compelled to believe on reading scripture is true.”3
A third view of self-evident truths emerged at roughly the same time. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650) asked similar questions and came up with similar answers: “In whom can we trust,” Descartes asked, when “there is hardly a statement made by one man, of which the opposite is not loudly supported by some other?” The answer was truth is a matter of rationality and science, not revelation and religious authority. This too is an astonishingly naïve view of human nature. It was to become Enlightenment modernism, the foundation for Benjamin Franklin’s famous edit.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred.” Franklin scratched out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.” Walter Isaacson, president of The Aspen Institute, notes, “By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead to an assertion of rationality.”4 He “was consciously trying to create a new American archetype.” Franklin wanted to create a nation where, according to historian Gary Wills, reason, science, and skepticism would be considered “a clear advance over medieval arguments from authority and legend.”5
This is why the Fourth of July 1776 is one of the turning points in American history but the decisive events happened earlier, in the 1500 and 1600s. Modernism gave rise to America as well as a unique form of faith: American Evangelicalism. Historian of Religion Sidney Mead described it as “the fruit of strange bedfellows: Enlightenment modernism and English pietism.”6 Modernism makes the individual authoritative while pietism makes passion the ultimate virtue. The evangelical form of individual religious experience grew rapidly because it resonated with American culture. It was, wrote William James, free from institutional authority and opposed to any “institutional form.”7
The trajectory of Enlightenment modernism, along with American Evangelicalism’s anti-institutionalism, subjected American institutions of education, media, business, and politics to the ideologies of Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Darwinism says self-evident truths evolve, Freudianism says individuals ought to express what seems self-evident to them, and Nietzsche took religion entirely out of the equation. It’s self-evident that the New York State Senate would essentially say gay marriage is a self-evident truth.
In the parable of Pandora’s Box, the problem is the deed cannot be undone. How is it possible for Americans to adjudicate their different takes on truth in a culture of individualism? How can American Evangelicalism, aping individualism and intensity, be a corrective influence? These are hard questions since history and human nature are not the strong suits of the evangelical form of individual religious experience. If they were, they’d recognize the defining events occurred long before the Fourth of July 1776.
1 Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (New York, NY: Penguin, 2008), p. 92.
2 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
3 Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003,), p. 5.
4 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 312.
5 Garry Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 35.
6 Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1963).
7 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven, CT: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.