A fastidious editor of other people’s copy as well as his own, Roberts began with the words “Until about the time of the Civil War.” Then, the Indiana native scratched out the words “Civil War” and replaced them with “War Between the States.”

The handwritten document is one of tens of thousands of pages of Roberts files released over the past several weeks from his 1982-1986 tenure as an associate counsel to the president.

While it is true that the Civil War is also known as the War Between the States, the Encyclopedia Americana notes that the term is used mainly by southerners. Sam McSeveney, a history professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University who specialized in the Civil War, said that Roberts’s choice of words was significant.

“Many people who are sympathetic to the Confederate position are more comfortable with the idea of a ‘War Between the States,’ ” McSeveney explained. “People opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s would undoubtedly be more comfortable with the words he chose.” ~The Washington Post

If this truly lame eleventh-hour attack is any indication of the how little the leftists have to use against him, John Roberts can rest assured that his confirmation will go very smoothly. Two things to take away from this non-controversy: Roberts is at least remotely historically literate and the editors and reporters at the Post are not (no surprise about the latter). Those who “prefer” to call the war of 1861-65 the War Between the States are at least a bit closer to the truth of the matter than those who call it the Civil War, but even the former phrase is something of a fudge of the historical issue. But it need not say anything about one’s political alignment or views of historical events–the usage of one name or another is simply a measure of minimal literacy or the lack thereof. Those who refer it to it as the War Between the States grasp, however vaguely, the federal nature of the original Union and the meaning of words, while those who insist on Civil War are either politically motivated or illiterate and ignorant or all of the above.

As many of us already know and have heard repeated ad nauseam, a civil war is, properly speaking, a war for control of a state or government: the wars between Marius and Sulla or among the triumvirs that ultimately ended the Republic were civil wars. The stasis in the Greek polis was a civil war. Wars of secession (which the American wars of 1861-65 and 1775-83 were) are wars with the objective of separating one or more polities from an existing polity. It is as close to being the opposite of a civil war as a war can be. The Dutch wars with the Spanish would fall into this category. The French, God bless them, are more accurate in their description of our own War of Secession, which they call precisely that. Perhaps they are still somewhat concerned to use language accurately.

“The Civil War” as a phrase describing our Iliad, as it is sometimes melodramatically called, makes an implicitly Unionist (and historically false) claim about the nature of the Republic and the war, as if “the Union” was really imperiled by the free exercise of state sovereignty, when, of course, a Union of that sort only existed because of the free alliance of several states in common cause. As someone very wise once noted (I believe it was probably Thomas DiLorenzo), the incorrectly-named Unionists did not save the Union, but ensured that the political arrangement of a union of states was no longer possible, North or South.

Calling the war a War Between the States rather muddles the issue, since neither Northern nor Southern states as such initially started the war (Northern politicians and Northern interests, yes, but we can hardly pin it on, say, Ohio and Pennsylvania), and “the states” were organised into two very clear and coherent sides representing dueling visions of American politics. War Between the States is a diplomatic way that Southerners could continue to express a basic truth about the war (the central, overriding and essential part played by states’ rights and self-determination in the Confederate cause) without having to utter the false name Civil War. In truth, the only resemblance between our experience and that of Rome after her civil wars was the onset of autocracy and the death of the Republic, so there is little reason why any literate person with a minimal knowledge of American history should refer to the war in this way, except perhaps as conventional shorthand for uninformed audiences whom the speaker is seeking to educate in the erroneous nature of that label. If we should not more properly call it the War of Secession or the War of Southern Independence (or, as real old Southerners used to call it rather appropriately, the War of Northern Aggression), we might call it the War of Consolidation or, as Dr. Wilson recently put it in the September issue of Chronicles, the War Against Southern Independence.