A Response to Bateman’s “Meaning of Oaths”

Bateman has presented a provocative essay on the persistence of veneration for those who fought for the Confederacy.  (http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/what-an-oath-means?src=soc_fcbks) A couple of comments might not be out of place.

First, one feels for a man who apparently has suffered through two divorces, at least one of them ugly.  Such a situation is probably not conducive to civil discourse.

Second, I share Bateman’s opinion that MG Thomas’ service should be honored.  He served as his conscience dictated he should.  Further, Thomas’ conduct at Chickamauga and Nashville was quite skillful.  I would not besmirch the man’s reputation.

Third, the rather simple issue of Virginia welcome centers.  The Virginia Welcome Center on Interstate 81 is 2½ miles from the West Virginia border.  This is hardly evidence of some nefarious political stance.  The others, on Interstates 66 and 95, are well within the boundaries of the Commonwealth.  Northern Virginia, the DC metro area, holds a substantial population, much of it not native to Virginia.  The purposes of Welcome Centers are, first to provide travellers someplace to rest, stretch their legs and relieve themselves.  Their secondary purpose, however, is to provide travelers sources of information about attractions to visit, places to eat or stop for the night.  Placing the I-66 & I-95 rest stops where they enter Virginia would require northern Virginia/DC metro residents to drive in, towards the District to gain that information, then turn around and drive out towards Virginia to visit those sites.  Placing them at the edge of the DC suburbs means northern Virginia residents can gather tourist information on places in Virginia to visit as they head south and west.  Plus, from a pragmatic level, real estate on which to build such facilities was a good bit cheaper further away from DC.  Thus, the placement of Virginia Welcome Centers is not as nefarious as Bateman seems to believe.

More to the point of Bateman’s essay are his comments on the importance of oaths.  His comments are well-taken in places.  He makes a surprising mistake, however, when he states that his oath, as a commissioned officer, is to “the United States.”  His oath is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  The difference is a significant one.  One would think that an officer who has taken such an oath would pay closer attention to the verbiage and give some thought to what exactly that oath states, and what it means.  If the President were, for example, to order him to do something he was convinced violated the Constitution, he is obligated by his oath to oppose it.  Alternatively, he could do the honorable thing, and resign the commission, relinquish his office. 

There is a saying in the United Kingdom, “When you take the King’s coin, you do the King’s bidding.”  An officer cannot honorably take the King’s (or, in the case of the US, the President’s or Congress’) coin and not do the King’s (or President’s or Congress’) bidding.  Those who remained in the US military after the President had stated his intention to invade the seceded states in 1861 were certainly displaying a Hobbesian understanding of the nature of the federal arrangements.  A snarky commentator might say, they were embracing the “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” interpretation of the American constitutional system.  Not wishing to be snarky, we should leave the description as “Hobbesian.”

Bateman displays a style in his writings (and seemingly in his dealings with his bar-room antagonists) that is, to put it politely, excessively self-confident. He states that “at the intellectual level I was not playing fair.”  Given his obviously shallow or one-sided understanding of the political system he serves, one wonders if Bateman realizes just how true his comment might really be.  Further, he states he is “historically versed.”  Up to a point, probably vis-à-vis his barroom antagonists, this may well be true.  Has Bateman gone far enough in his historical inquiries?  (As an aside, one wonders going to a bar in search of an intellectual debate.)  Later, Bateman express surprise that “I was saying something that defied their understanding.”  The observation probably cuts both ways.  They were probably saying things that defied his understanding as well.  Like the idea that the Constitution limits the powers of the Federal government or that officers ordered to violate the Constitution are obligated not to follow such orders. 

Just because Bateman’s understanding of the Constitution is incomplete does not mean that the understanding of the historical actors of 1860-1865 was flawed as well.  Bateman’s is a 21st century understanding of the Constitution, but his essay is begging the question.  The fact is that there was an alternate understanding of the relationship between the peoples of the states and the Federal government they created, a view that differs from Bateman’s.  That was, in fact, the question at issue.  Bateman does not share that alternate understanding (nor indeed, does he even seem aware that there was any alternative view.  Nevertheless, this does not mean that men in 1861 did not hold, and act on, those differing views.  They acted differently, because they saw things differently.

Bateman panders more than little to northern sentiments.  He states that Lee “almost destroyed the United States.”  This is balderdash.  Had Lee won his war, the United States would have still existed.  It would have consisted of states whose peoples wanted to remain in the Union.  From the general tone of Bateman’s essay, it seems he would have been happier if the benighted states had been let go in 1861.  Why would one wish to keep such folk in the country?  The pandering tone is echoed in one of the people who commented on his essay.  One of the readers, Ben Buch, for example, wrote, “I’d have hung (sic) every single Confederate commissioned officer.”  One response to such a policy might well have been to make the United States during Reconstruction look like Ireland in the 1920s, possibly with a similar outcome.  The Union veterans themselves were more magnanimous.  By the 1880s, they were even holding joint veterans re-unions.  In 1958, Public Law 85-426-MAY 23, declared Confederate veterans to be US veterans.  Fortunately for the peace of the country (but not necessarily for Bateman’s ability to drink in peace), the leaders of the country since Reconstruction have chosen a higher ground than Bateman’s.

We can agree that Thomas served as his conscience dictated, but that does not require us to malign those who saw things differently.  The same could be said for those who saw things differently.  No amount of insult or bluster from statist centralizers and Hobbesians like Bateman can cover up the fact that he has some more learning to do.