In Which an Important Question Is Begged

Published:April 29, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Eric Foner, the official stamp on his Pulitzer still wet, objects to the argument made by University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War. Shorter Gallagher: Northerners fought the Civil War to save the Union; emancipation became acceptable only once it became clear that it would serve the larger goal. Foner’s response:

Ultimately, Gallagher’s sharp dichotomy between the goals of Union and emancipation seems excessively schematic. It begs the question of what kind of Union the war was being fought to preserve. The evolution of Lincoln’s own outlook illustrates the problem. On the one hand, as Gallagher notes, Lincoln always insisted that he devised his policies regarding slavery in order to win the war and preserve national unity. Yet years before the Civil War, Lincoln had argued that slavery fatally undermined the nation’s ability to exemplify the superiority of free institutions. The Union to be saved, he said, must be “worthy of the saving.” During the secession crisis, Lincoln could have preserved the Union by yielding to Southern demands. He adamantly refused to compromise on the crucial political issue — whether slavery should be allowed to expand into Western territories.

One quibble with Foner (and his Times editors, who should know better): to “beg the question” does not mean to beg someone to ask a question! Our friends at Language Log offer a helpful summary of the phrase’s history and, more importantly, its meaning, which is to “assume the conclusion,” i.e., to engage in a circular argument. (I learned this at the University of Iowa, for crying out loud.)

Of course, the LL scholars also suggest that if, like me, “you complain about others’ ‘misuse'”—devastating scare quotes, those—”you come across as an annoying pedant.” An annoying pedant? Okay, fine. So now what?

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

Did you hear that Eric Foner? Did you hear that New York Times?

Which only begs the question … why did Union soldiers fight?

IMAGE: Company D, U.S. Engineer Battalion; Petersburg, Virginia, 1864