The Right to Say I Don’t Care

“It was a time in our history that one does not like to look back upon . . . . Between the troublesome negroes, the unsubdued Confederates, and the lawless among our own soldiers, life was by no means an easy problem to solve.”

Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Tenting on the Plains (1893).

Thomas Bertonneau recently commented that Reconstruction soured American race relations for a century, and that the Reconstructionist revivals of 1965 and 2020 made and are making matters worse.  I would say that this is because these were and are Radical Reconstructions that commit the evil they purportedly correct. The evil they purportedly correct is violation of Kant’s categorical imperative by slavery, “Jim Crow,” and “systemic racism,” all of which scant the natural autonomy of Black subjects.  The evil they undoubtedly commit is violation of that same imperative by treating all people, Black and White, as mere means to the ends of Radical Reconstructists—as mere progress-pickers on their Radical plantation.

If you think I am overstating the case, I suggest you go to a suitable public place and in a clear voice declare, “Black Lives do not matter to me.”  I predict that your audience will not honor Kant’s categorical imperative and allow you to declare your intention to order your own life to ends of your own choosing, and also that it will do you no good to explain that you, as a good Kantian, place no limit whatsoever on the amount that Black Lives can matter to them.

The heart of Kantian ethics is respect for an individual’s right to choose what matters to him, to follow his own heart and pursue his own projects.  The greatest evil is to shanghai poor buggers and set them to unwilling work in a project that matters to someone else.  For Kant tells us that every man has a God given right to say,

“I don’t care,”

“It doesn’t matter to me,

or as Melville’s Bartleby puts it,

I would prefer not too.”

* * * * *

The words of my epigraph were written by Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife of General George Armstrong Custer, the man we today remember for losing his life on the banks of the Little Bighorn.  Elizabeth married Custer in 1864, when she was 22 and he was 24 (and already a general in the Union Army).  One year later, she followed him into Texas, where he and been ordered with a regiment of cavalry to keep the peace and discourage opportunistic meddling by scheming Mexicans politicians.

Elizabeth was not aware of the international dimension when she and Custer’s unit shipped out for Texas, which they reached by way of New Orleans and Red River.  Writing many years later, she explained that she then thought her husband’s assignment was simply pacification of tumultuous Rebs.

“All I knew was that Texas, having been so outside of the limits where the armies marched and fought, was unhappily unaware that the war was over, and continued a career of bushwhacking and lawlessness that was only tolerated from necessity before the surrender, and must now cease.”

Pacification is a word of deceptively benign appearance, since it is actually the last stage of conquest.  This pacification was not itself pacific, but was rather coercive, implacable and, when necessary, brutal.  Custer did not ride into Texas looking for trouble, but he was prepared to deal very harshly with “troublesome negroes,” “unsubdued Confederates” and mutinous malcontents among his own men.  To make this clear, he had one of the last sort shot at the center of a hollow square just outside of Alexandria, Louisiana.

As Elizabeth writes, keeping the peace between all of these over-excited hotheads was “by no means an easy problem to solve,” and the expedients adopted certainly do make Reconstruction “a time in our history that one does not like to look back upon.”  All the peoples of Texas had been profoundly unsettled by the simultaneous seismic shocks of emancipation, economic collapse, and the dishonor of military defeat, and unsettled peoples are dire, desperate and dangerous.

Mary wrote of the unsubdued Confederates,

“Texas was then a ‘go-as-you-please’ State, and the lawlessness was terrible.  The returned Confederate soldiers were poor, and did not known how to set themselves to work, and in many instances preferred the life of a freebooter.”

Many Texas Blacks likewise found it hard to settle down in the old routines of agricultural drudgery after the excitement of emancipation, and Mary agreed with the opinion that Texas Blacks were especially excitable.

“The negroes in Texas and Louisiana were the worst in all the South.  The border States had commonly sold their most insubordinate slaves into these two distant States.”

Custer’s job in Texas was to make all of these over-excited hotheads settle down and get back to work on whatever projects they might choose, provided they were lawful.  And as his wife says, this was job enough without adding an ambition to make all of these over-excited hotheads into the material and means of Radical Reconstruction.  And in any case, it would have made no sense to free the slaves and then immediately shanghai every poor bugger in Texas, Black and White, and set them to unwilling work in a Reconstruction project that only mattered to someone else.

* * * * *

The word reconstruction can mean restoration of a disturbed order or a revolution that disturbs order.  The South Carolina poet Henry Timrod spoke of reconstruction in the first sense in 1866, when he wrote:

“Spring is a true Reconstructionist—a reconstructionist in the best and most practical sense.  There is not a nook in the land in which she is not at this moment exerting her influence in preparing a way for the restoration of the South.”

In other words, Timrod saw reconstruction of the South as a return to normal.  This new normal would be conditioned by the reality of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments and the constraints of “a more perfect Union,” but it would in all other respects return the South to the status quo ante bellum.  There would be no revolution in the Southern way of life.

Timrod’s view was substantiated by the Roman law of postliminium, which describes the restoration of rights to a conquered or captive people.  Preliminaries occur before one crosses a limen, or boundary.  Postliminaries occur after one crosses a boundary.  The postliminarium of Roman law thus described what occurred after prisoners of war crossed the boundary into their own country, or after the boundary of their own country advanced to reclaim the territory of a captive people.

And postliminarium said that what occurred was that these captives were in either case restored to their status quo ante bellum.  As Grotius puts it in The Law of War and Peace (1635).

“Upon any one’s returning to his former condition by the law of postliminium, all his rights are restored as fully as if he had never been in the hands and power of the enemy.”


“What has been said of individuals applies to nations: so that a free people, who have been subjugated, upon being delivered from the yoke of the enemy . . . will recover their former condition.”

In the case of the American South, the law of postliminium said that when the South had crossed the line and was delivered from the yoke of the enemy, the former Confederates were restored to their former rights.  And among these rights was the Kantian right to shrug off Radical Reconstruction and say,

“I don’t care,”

“It doesn’t matter to me,

or as Melville’s Bartleby puts it,

I would prefer not too.”

8 thoughts on “The Right to Say I Don’t Care

  1. Pingback: The Right to Say I Don’t Care | Reaction Times

  2. In the decades leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, White New-Orleansian society and Creole or mixed-race New-Orleansian society had developed a healthy modus vivendi. The Creoles were the petit-bourgoisie or small shop-keepers of the French quarter and adjacent neighborhoods. The variety of their services and goods enlivened trade in the city. The Creoles were tailors and haberdashers, wine-merchants, mercers, grocers, and restaurateurs. They had their own opera house. On the outbreak of hostilities, the Creoles raised two companies of “Native Guards” for the defense of New Orleans. Among the enlistees were my great-grandfather, Albert, a private soldier, and his elder brother, Arnold, a captain. They never fought under Confederate colors, but when the Union took New Orleans, they were given the unique chance to re-enlist under the Stars and Stripes, forming the Corps d’Afrique, the first “Negro” outfit in the Federal Army, preceding the much more famous 54th Massachusetts under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. There is no movie about the Corps d’Afrique’s bloody participation in the River Campaign.

    Arnold Bertonneau was prominent in Creole Society. With his friend and associate, Monsieur Roudanez, he published La Tribune de Nouveau Orleans (on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in French and on Tuesday and Thursday in English). The Tribune was a Republican, anti-slavery, and guardedly anti-secessionist newspaper. In 1864, Arnold composed and began advocating for the Creole Petition, which urged the granting of the Franchise to the Creoles. He traveled to Boston and Washington DC, gave speeches before legislative bodies, and had meetings with Frederick Douglas and none other than President Lincoln.

    Under Reconstruction, Arnold — and the Bertonneaus at large — at first seemed to benefit. Arnold Bertonneau became the first “colored” tax-official in Louisiana. But the benevolence proved short-lived. The alliance of vengeance-obsessed Northerners with ex-slaves erupted in hostility from both sides. Because the Creoles — despite their willingness to form units to defend the sovereignty of their city — had voiced sympathy for the North, whites turned against them. Because they were traditionally a free people (they were known since the time of Andrew Jackson as “Les gens de couleur libres”), the ex-slaves, egged on by the Radicals, reviled them. The Bertonneaus hung on as long as they could, but beginning in the late 1880s and early 1890s, they decided that it was impossible to remain in New Orleans, and they began to leave for California. They settled in Pasadena and “passed as white.” By the start of the the First World War, the family had relocated en masse.

    The Creoles would have liked to play a mediating role between white and black society in the Post-War years. They might have. Reconstruction sabotaged their efforts.

  3. Thanks for the interesting family history. I remember some of this from earlier posts and comments you’ve written. You know that Voegelin wrote that revolutionaries never think seriously about what happens after the revolution. Even when they have a point about the injustices of the old system, they fail appreciate that it provided a degree of social and economic stability. I prefer the word settlement over the word system, since it recognizes the importance of habit and custom in the stability of a system. Your New Orleans forebears had a secure place in the old settlement. They were a true minority, and therefore vulnerable if either of the two large populations turned against them, but they had filled their unique social position for so long that no one was inclined to question it. That old settlement was destroyed in the Great Social Disturbance of Reconstruction, and when the dust settled your forebears’ niche was gone.

    • The Bertonneaus originated in Saint-Domingue de l’Ouest, what we now call Haiti. When the black revolution ran out of white people to kill, it started to murder the Creoles, which is why the latter ended up, mostly, in New Orleans. It was a French-speaking place of refuge. The slave rebellion in Haiti was stirred up and manipulated by actual Jacobin interlopers, who brought with them the same bloody hatred of settled life that they had exercised in France under the Revolution. It occurs to me that Radical Reconstruction was the French Revolution of the U.S.A. Haiti has never recovered from its catastrophic origin — and never will. Maybe we could justifiably say that the U.S.A. has likewise never recovered from its bout of Jacobin violence.

    • Even when they have a point about the injustices of the old system, they fail [to] appreciate that it provided a degree of social and economic stability. …

      Quite. I would even go so far as to say that they (radicals/fanatics) fail to appreciate that the old system provided a great deal of social and economic stability. But what is that to fanatics?

      As I’m sure you’re aware, R. L. Dabney discussed this feature of fanaticism many times in his own writings, pointing out as many times as well that *all* (no exceptions – name one) human institutions are inherently flawed to some degree or another. Some more, some less. It is therefore that radicalism/fanaticism *always* ‘has a [legitimate] point about the injustice of the old system,’ albeit fanaticism always overexaggerates the extent of the injustice(s) of the old system as well, while it simultaneously underexaggerates the extent of the injustices inherent to the system(s) it (fanatically) favors. See, e.g., Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, etc.

      But we also know that fanaticism cannot be reasoned with as to a flawed system’s providing social and economic stability to those under its sway, top to bottom; it must overthrow the old, (relatively) stable system, and replace it with a system riddled with social and economic instability. Hence, the (perpetual) revolution can never end unless or until fanaticism has been put down and ground to dust, or, until it has successfully destroyed every last vestige of social cohesion and stability within the society in which it is (stupidly) given free rein.

      The people of the ‘Old South’ understood this better and more completely than most moderns can begin to understand or even believe. They (influential Southrons) of course knew that their system contained its own inherent flaws; but they also knew that to overthrow it and replace it with northern fanaticism’s vision of utopia would severely destabilize the South and ultimately ruin it, socially and economically.

      I’ll provide a few quotations corroborating the above in a separate comment. Your readers should know, however, that the few I provide are literally the tip of the iceburg; I could provide dozens (hundreds, even) from dozens of authors if only I had the time to dig them up, and it were realistic to post them in a blog combox in any case.

      • When a society is under regime A, there will always be fanatics who imagine how much better it would be under regime B. A lot of the time, regime B is most notable for giving the fanatics higher status, but there are also cases where even conservatives will agree that it would be lovely to live under regime B. However, the killjoy conservative immediately adds, we can’t get there from here, or at least we can’t get there in a condition to enjoy regime B. We would, for instance, have to pass through a period of famine and civil war that would brutalize everyone who survived it. Of course the fanatic sees this period of famine and civil war as an attractive feature of his plan.

        I recently read an essay written about 1910 and based on a speech a Houston lawyer gave to the University of Texas alumni association. It was basically an explanation and defense of the regime we are now taught to call “Jim Crow.” Its general theme is that “Jim Crow” was a rational adaptation of Southern realities to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. I was glad I had my smelling salts close at hand! One of the interesting things in this essay was the author’s clear sense that misrule has serious consequences, such as famine and civil war. If the cotton doesn’t get picked, people begin to starve and the cotton-pickers starve first. He clearly did not hate the (largely Black) working class, but he was not about to hand them political power for the same reason he was not about to hand out guns to children.

      • As God is my witness, I have never *hated* anyone based on the color of their skin. I admit distrusting the other in certain ways (with the “sacred franchise,” for example), however. You can call it the color of their skin, or the content of their character as the basis of my distrust as you like. I’m a realist, and a race realist t’boot. As such, I cannot fail to make the connection between the color of their skin and the content of their character. There is a very good reason that the vast majority of the ‘most dangerous cities in America’ vs the “safest” (according to NeighborhoodScout) are consistently and almost invariably majority black, or at least majority non-white.

  4. P.S. to the first comment. I believe that the attitude of the Bertonneaus after Arnold Bertonneau’s death in 1912 was: We now see to our own business, our own prosperity; about “causes” — we don’t care.


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