The rabble of Imperial Rome

The study of history reduces to two tasks. One: reading primary sources. Two: assessing their credibility. If we know whom in the past to trust, we know the story of the past. Until he makes this judgment, the historian is no more than a database administrator.

How do we assess the credibility of a dead man? If he was live, we could talk to him. We could see if he had a shifty look, if his hands trembled, if he grinned frequently to impress the gullible. Him being dead, all we have is his books and his skull.

But there is one obvious approach: we can test predictions against hindsight. If a source predicts X and X later happens, we are objectively entitled to suspect that X has a clue.

He could just be lucky, of course. And the man who predicts correctly that his neighbor’s house will burn down is a prophet, until a can of gasoline is found in his garage. The Anglo-American journalists of the 1930s were almost unanimous in predicting a second war with Germany. That war came—but who caused it? The activities of these prophets are by no means above suspicion.

Where can we find prophets who are not arsonists? We can read the losers, those whose actions are by definition futile. The man who predicts that his neighbor will burn his own house down, before his own house burns down, shows every sign of being a reliable source. Did he torch his own house, to implicate his neighbor? Possible—but unlikely.

One figure who scores high on this test is an old UR favorite, the Confederate theologian R. L. Dabney. From his Life and Letters of Thomas Jackson (1866):

History will some day place the position of these Confederate States, in this high argument, in the clearest light of her glory. The cause they undertook to defend was that of regulated constitutional liberty, and of fidelity to law and covenants, against the licentious violence of physical power. The assumptions they resisted were precisely those of that radical democracy, which deluged Europe with blood at the close of the eighteenth century, and which shook its thrones again in the convulsions of 1848; the agrarianism which, under the name of equality, would subject all the rights of individuals to the will of the many, and acknowledge no law nor ethics, save the lust of that mob which happens to be the larger.

This power, which the old States of Europe expended such rivers of treasure and blood to curb, at the beginning of the century, had transferred its immediate designs across the Atlantic, was consolidating itself anew in the Northern States of America, with a wealth, an organization, an audacity, an extent to which it never aspired in the lands of its birth, and was preparing to make the United States, after crushing all law there under its brute will, the fulcrum whence they should extend their lever to upheave every legitimate throne in the Old World.

Hither, by emigration, flowed the radicalism, discontent, crime, and poverty of Europe, until the people of the Northern States became, like the rabble of Imperial Rome, the colluvies gentium. The miseries and vices of their early homes had alike taught them to mistake license for liberty, and they were incapable of comprehending, much more of loving, the enlightened structure of English or Virginian freedom.

The first step in their vast designs was to overwhelm the Conservative States of the South. This done, they boasted that they would proceed first to engross the whole of the American continent, and then to emancipate Ireland, to turn Great Britain into a democracy, to enthrone Red Republicanism in France, and to give the crowns of Germany to the Pantheistic humanitarians of that race who deify self as the supreme end and selfish desire as the authoritative expression of the Divine Will.

Check, check, check, check and check. One wonders what the Rev. Dabney would have made of the Love Parade. No, actually—one doesn’t wonder much at all.