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The Rhetoric of Lost Causes

Written by Gary North on June 27, 2015

One of the problems with any revolution is this: if you lose it, the survivors learn to live — and then prosper — under the victors’ rule. This always happens. After the surrender, the survivors make peace, not just militarily, but also socially and ideologically.

This is why the rhetoric of revolution looks silly in retrospect after a failed revolution. It looks magnificent only if the revolution is successful. Then the words will be invoked down through the ages, until there is another successful revolution against the legacy of the old one.

Here is the institutional problem. A revolution by definition rejects the prevailing political order. But it can do this only because the revolutionaries have long accepted at least 90% of the existing order’s first principles. Revolutions are not invasions, after all. They are made by recently loyal citizens.

So, the revolutionaries invoke their new rhetoric about a life-and-death confrontation against majority rule. Meanwhile, a majority of the population thinks the prevailing political order is a pretty good system. A revolution takes place only because a hard-core minority finally decides not to be part of the majority. Then they take up arms against the government to which, until a week earlier, the revolutionaries had sworn allegiance. Think “South Carolina in December 1860.” They had voted in November.


The showdown always comes with a new flag. There has to be a new flag. The flag represents the troops on the battlefield. It represents the cause, which soon becomes a sacred cause. The cause is equated with a new sovereignty, which is then linked to God.

A classic example is the speech that Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard gave to his troops in 1861 on the occasion of the adoption of yet another Confederate flag, the stars and bars.

A new banner is intrusted to-day, as a battle-flag, to the safe keeping of the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers: your mothers, your wives, and your sisters have made it. Consecrated by their hands, it must lead you to substantial victory, and the complete triumph of our cause. It can never be surrendered, save to your unspeakable dishonor, and with consequences fraught with immeasurable evil. Under its untarnished folds beat back the invader, and find nationality, everlasting immunity from an atrocious despotism, and honor and renown for yourselves–or death.

This came from the lips of the man who oversaw the firing of the first cannon shot from the shore to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. His target was Maj. Robert Anderson, who had taught him artillery at West Point. The barrage failed to kill anyone in the fort, but a horse died.

(To read the rest of my article, click the link.)

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