Skip to comments.Defending Lincoln
Posted on 05/17/2002 1:51:36 PM PDT by aconservaguy
CERFDOM WEEKLY COMMENTARY
There is a disturbing historical bandwagon being boarded these days by some prominent libertarians and quazi-libertarians -- people who have dedicated their lives to spreading the message of the preciousness of liberty -- people like Walter Williams, Lew Rockwell, Joseph Farah, Paul Craig Roberts, Joseph Sobran, and Charley Reese. The bandwagon that these normally liberty-friendly writers have jumped upon is that of the Southern Confederacy, and the recent disputes about the propriety of flying Confederate battle flags from state capitals have given them ample opportunity to tune up their Rebel yells in support of a political movement that was arguably more hostile to individual liberty than any other in Americas history.
To be fair to these Confederate sympathizers, they are not seeking to glorify slavery, but to make a point about federalism and big government. Their messages vary somewhat, but the essence of their claims is that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, but rather over high tariffs and states rights (i.e. federalism). Here is a sample of their contentions:
History books have misled todays Americans to believe the war was fought to free the slaves. Walter Williams, Jewish World Review, December 2, 1998.
Through no fault of their own, most Americans study American history in school. This is why they have so many misconceptions about American history. One of these misconceptions is that the Civil War was a noble struggle against slavery... Joseph Sobran, Lew Rockwell.com, January 6, 2000.
The trouble is that most people today really think the Civil War was fought over slavery. It was not. Joseph Farah, World Net Daily, January 19, 2000.
The South did not secede to preserve slavery... Charlie Reese, Orlando Sentinel, January 23, 2000.
...the Confederates had no desire to go to war...They merely wanted to secede, which means to be left alone, and went to war only to defend their homeland against brutal invasion. Lew Rockwell, World Net Daily, January 19, 2000.
The War Between the States was not fought over slavery. Paul Craig Roberts, Townhall.com, May 10, 2000.
When I was first exposed to this line of reasoning, I did what most libertarians without an intense desire to dig into history may have: I assumed that these writers had thoroughly researched the issues and had ferreted out yet another instance in which the leftist educational elite had shaded history to make their big government heroes look like knights in shining armor riding out of the District of Columbia to make the world safe for democracy.
But then a funny thing happened to me on the way to my assumptions: I discovered that my great great grandfather and two of his brothers had fought for the Union in the Civil War, and that one of my great great great uncles (with whom I happen to share a first and last name), had died in a battle occurring shortly after Gettysburg and was buried at Antietam. Now that I knew that there was a battlefield grave with my name on it where lay the body of a young Union soldier cut down by Rebel bullets in the prime of his youth, the issues of the Civil War suddenly became much more interesting to me. What was it, I wondered, that would compel young men born in Canada to English parents to leave the relative comfort and safety of their familys Northern Illinois farm to join Mr. Lincolns Cavalry.
And so suddenly I became something of a Civil War buff, rummaging through websites and generally seeking out historical records with considerable diligence. In the course of my research I found some fascinating materials, including the history of my ancestors unit (History of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, During the Great Rebellion, by Abner Hard, M.D., Morningside Books 1996) . It turns out that this unit was organized at the outset of the war by a Radical Republican Congressman named John Farnsworth with the help of Joseph Medill, the renowned abolitionist owner/editor of the Chicago Tribune. In fact, this cavalry unit was given the name Farnsworths Big Abolition Regiment by President Lincoln himself.
And as I read their regimental history and another book on the cavalrymen involved in the War of the Potomac (Longacre, The Cavalry at Gettysburg), I learned of the important role that the Eighth Illinois had played in many key battles, including Gettysburg, where they fired the first shots and helped hold off the advancing hordes of Rebel infantryman until Union infantries and other cavalry units could arrive and turn the battle into what many military historians consider the turning point of the war. And I learned that it was while chasing General Lees retreating troops back across the Potomac that my great great great uncle had suffered his mortal wounds (along with Medills brother William and several other cavalrymen).
But of course that was the personal side of my inquiry and not at all dispositive as to what precipitated the War of the Great Rebellion. For these more general issues I turned to more general resources, the most intriguing and enlightening of which were (a) the declarations of secession of each of the Southern states and (b) their new constitution. What could be more directly indicative of the motivations of the Southern Rebels, I thought, that their own statements of purpose and organizing principles.
Somewhat surprisingly, what I found in these lengthy documents was precious little discussion of taxes, tariffs, and federalism, but some shockingly explicative statements regarding the institution of slavery and the value placed upon maintaining the most wicked Southern tradition.
For example, the first of the declarations of secession issued, that of South Carolina ( December 24, 1860) asserted the following:
We maintain that in every compact...the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely release the obligations of the other...
We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations...
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: `No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due. ... The same article...stipulates also for rendition by the several stated of fugitives from justice from the other States.
...an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. [Thirteen Northern States] have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them... Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.
Thus, by their own admission, rather than being standard bearers for states rights (as the Confederate sympathizers have asserted), the South Carolinians seceded because they felt that the Federal government had been too reticent to crack the whip on Northern abolitionists and Northern States to maintain the bonds of the Southern slaves. Rather than seeking to be left alone, the Rebels had expressed a desire for a stronger Federal government to help them perpetuate slavery. The Southern slaveholders seem to have been of the opinion that their prized institution of slavery could not continue without a massive mobilization of the Federal police state, and with the Radical Abolitionist Republicans having managed to elect a President, the Confederates seemed to have realized that their influence over Federal policy was permanently waning, as the following passages from South Carolinas declaration of secession suggest:
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared ... to be `to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government...
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding states. ...they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures to servile insurrection.
...[the Northern States] have united in the election of a man to high office of the President of the United States, whose opinions and purpose are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that the `Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free, and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. ... On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has been announced that the South [i.e. slavery] shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The statements of secession of some of the other Confederate States were even more shockingly frank in their revealed dependence on and reverence for slavery. For example, in Mississippis Declaration, they stated as follows:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
The Texas Rebels even asserted in their declaration that God and the best interests of the slaves were on their side:
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.
The Rebels of Georgia used a more economically framed approach in their declaration:
For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. ... Because by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere...
Although it may seem hideously barbaric to put a value on slavery (here roughly $750 per slave), by doing so the Georgians made it all too clear why hundreds of thousands of Southerners would risk their lives for the institution of slavery, and by their declaration the representatives of Georgia demonstrated the absolutely absurdity of the claims of the present day Confederate sympathizers that the Confederates were fighting not for $3 billion worth of property but instead over a few million dollars worth of tariffs.
Another glaring weakness of the states rights theory of the Civil War is revealed by the Confederate Constitution that was adopted. Essentially the U.S. Constitution with a few minor revisions (including some mealy-mouthed language forbidding taxes on importations...to promote or foster any branch of industry), its most interesting provisions are those that dictate total conformity among the States and subsequently acquired territory with regard to the Confederacys most cherished institution:
No bill...or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed. ... In all [newly acquired] territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government.
When I offered this evidence to some of the Confederate glorifiers, most of them just ignored me. To his credit, Lew Rockwell, one of the most ardent of their number, took time out of his (no doubt hectic) schedule to review the materials I presented and respond. But rather than accept these official documents of the Confederacy as dispositive, Rockwell seems to have simply written them off as irrelevant public relations tools, as his most recent writings on the issue suggest:
[The Civil War] transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order.
...if you listen to the media on the subject, you might think that the entire issue of the Civil War comes down to race and slavery...
And yet this take on the event is wildly ahistorical. It takes Northern war propaganda at face value without considering that the South had solid legal, moral, and economic reasons for secession which had nothing to do with slavery...
But one issue loomed larger than any other in  as in the previous three decades: the Northern tariff...
Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery, but he did pledge to `collect the duties and imposts: he was the leading advocate of the tariff and public works policy, which is why his election prompted the South to secede. In pro-Lincoln newspapers, the phrase `free trade was invoked as the equivalent of industrial suicide. Why fire on Ft. Sumter? It was a customs house...
Before the war, Lincoln himself had pledged to leave slavery intact, to enforce the fugitive slaves laws, and to support an amendment that would forever guarantee slavery where it then existed. Neither did he lift a finger to repeal the anti-Negro laws that besotted all Northern states, Illinois in particular. Recall that the underground railroad ended, not in New York or Boston-since dropping off blacks in those states would have been restricted-but in Canada! The Confederate Constitution did, however, make possible the gradual elimination of slavery, a process that would have been made easier had the North not so severely restricted the movements of former slaves.
... if we were to recommend one work-based on originality, brevity, depth, and sheer rhetorical power-it would be Charles Adamss time bomb of a book, When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). In a mere 242 pages, he shows that almost everything we thought we knew about the war between the states is wrong.
Adams believes that both Northern and Southern leaders were lying when they invoked slavery as a reason for secession and for the war. Northerners were seeking a moral pretext for an aggressive war, while Southern leaders were seeking a threat more concrete than the Northern tariff to justify a drive to political independence. This was rhetoric designed for mass consumption . Adams amasses an amazing amount of evidence-including remarkable editorial cartoons and political speeches-to support his thesis that the war was really about government revenue. Lew Rockwell, Lew Rockwell.com, May 11, 2000.
So there it is. All that the declarations of secession and the Confederate Constitutions slavery guarantee amounted to were a vast conspiratorial hoax upon the citizens of the Confederacy. In Rockwells reality, the Confederates had a secret plan to end slavery that involved convincing their citizens to fight a war to preserve it. In Rockwells reality, the Rebel leaders had solid legal, moral, and economic reasons for secession, but instead of relying on those reasons for their rebellion, they perpetuated the biggest lie in political history so they could get their racist, ignorant constituents to go along with their war. The real truth about their secession was not being portrayed in the Confederates official documents, but rather in editorial cartoons and political speeches. And if you believe that, youd probably believe that the Declaration of Independence was not about breaking away from English rule, but rather a secret plan to make America safe for the invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones some 200 years later.
So when Jefferson Davis delivered his address to the Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861, according to Rockwell and Adams he must not have really believed his slavery-justifying rhetoric. To wit:
...under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented form about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man.
And what are the primary sources for Adams secret Confederate motivation theory? As it turns out, they consist of a few newspaper editorials in Charleston and New Orleans papers and the theory of an English writer who thought money was the root of all evil -- Charles Dickens, who had debated John Stuart Mill, a bastion of liberty, on the issue. In one of these articles, Rockwell tells us, a New Orleans paper referred to import duties costing Southerners $60-70 million per year. Thats a lot of money, but when you compare it to $3 billion worth of breeding stock (i.e. slaves), it is reduced to relative peanuts. And if the duties were the real cause of secession and the war, why didnt the Confederates approach Lincoln and/or the abolitionists with a deal to free the slaves in exchange for the abolition of all tariffs? The reason of course, is that the slaves were valued at $3 billion because they were generating hundreds of millions of dollars (and perhaps billions) per year in income for the Southern plantation owners. So in a sense, Dickens may have been right about the war being all about money, though it seems likely that there was also a we just dont like those damned Yankees telling us what to do sentiment in the mix.
In addition to ignoring the declarations of secession, another mistake the Confederate sympathizers make in addressing the question of why the Civil War was fought is their overreliance on some carefully chosen quotations from Abraham Lincoln. Drawing conclusions about the war based on Lincolns words about preserving the Union even if that meant perpetuating slavery ignores the fact that the Southern secession movement began before he was even in office and seems to have resulted more from the beliefs and actions of the abolitionists who had propelled Lincoln into office than Honest Abe himself. Thus, when the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, Lincoln was left with few options to preserve both the Union and his popularity among abolitionists but to fight.
The Confederate glorifiers also make much of the fact that most Southerners did not own slaves and many openly opposed slavery (including General Robert E. Lee). But that only proves the obvious point that there was an element of regional loyalty and peer pressure at work in the Civil War at the level of the individual soldier. Significantly, what the Confederate sympathizers ignore in this regard is (a) the large numbers of Southerners who opposed the war or moved north to fight for the Union, and (b) that the Rebel cause was so shaky even in the South that they had to quickly resort to a draft to raise even the paltry number of troops they managed to assemble, while the Union draft occurred much later in the war (and was avoidable even when it was enacted by the payment of what essentially amounted to a defense tax).
To obtain a more balanced approach to analyzing the Civil War than that of Charles Adams and the other Confederate glorifiers, I recommend the work of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. Although he shares the thesis of the Confederate glorifiers that the Civil War marked the beginning of the era of big government (which in fact was an era that Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted some twenty years prior to the Civil War based on the majoritarian tyranny permitted by our Constitution), Hummel does not glorify the Confederates and vividly exposes their deep affection for big government as well.
So in the final analysis if it is reasonable to conclude that if the Civil War marked the beginning of the era of big government (as the Confederate glorifiers and Hummel argue), then that turn of events seems to have been largely attributable to the immense evil that the institution of slavery posed to the citizenry -- an evil so great that most were willing to acquiesce in the expansion of centralized Federal government power in order to protect them against such things. And even if we strain credulity (to the point at which it may snap back in our faces) and accept the view of the Confederate sympathizers that the Civil War was a tax revolt, the lesson is clear: If you are going to launch a tax revolt, dont pretend that it is really a crusade to preserve an even more heinous form of involuntary servitude.
Richard Allen Vinson Center for Responsible Freedom May 22, 2000
Freud is so unappreciated.
This may be true of contemporary Confederate sympathizers, but it wasn't true of the Confederacy. Why did the southern states choose that precise point in history -- after the election of Abraham Lincoln -- to leave the Union? It had nothing to do with an abhorance of "big government" (it was result of the Civil War that the federal government grew; a big, centralized federal government was not an issue when Lincoln became President). It had everything to do with the shrinking political base of the slave states, the momentum of free soil sentiment in Congress, the tip in the balance of power in Congress away from slave states, and the election of a Republican President.
It is true that Lincoln's initial justification for the war was to perserve the Union, but in the end, after the Emancipation Proclamation, it became a war to save the Union, AND to end slavery. And both those who fought for the north, and for the south, knew it. Lincoln and his supporters were ridiculed by anti-abolitionists (all Democrats, BTW) as a "Black Republicans" for their support for the end of slavery.
Contemporary libertarians who might find heroes in the Confederacy to promote their views of federalism and states rights undercut their arguments by adopting icons that were less interested in the cause of liberty, and more interested in preserving their "peculiar institution" of slavery. I've always been of the opinion that had the Confederacy been about preservation of the Constitution, states rights, and liberty against a growing national government, they might have had a point. But since these things were used, primarily, as justifications for protecting slavery, their position is untenable.
Hey, wait a minute. Only days ago I was assured in quite unsoothing tones that Lincoln's election wasn't an issue in the secession. Heck, he wasn't even a real abolitionist!
Now you mean to tell me that it was, and he was?
Gasp! I've been lied to by those wily scholars of Southern history!
LOL! Gird your loins for yet another round of confederate non-scholarship....
People who made much less provocative statements were actually subjected to worse.
The states right argument ignores the entire history leading up to the Civil War. The balance Senate, slave as a 2/3 vote, Ohio Valley Territories, Texas Lone Star, were all about preserving an alliance that formed to defeat the British in 1776.
Ah, that's just because those folks can't win arguments on the merits of their cause.
You can take da Aggie outta da "hood"...but ya can't take da "hood" outta da Aggie....
Thanks for causing me to laugh out loud....it's been a long paperwork filled afternoon:>)
As for those who wish to engage in a spirited defense of the Confederacy, I'm pleased to let them put down in writing, in public, their support for that dastardly conspiracy against human rights and the nation. History has proven them wrong.
Few authors and commentators on the war have dared present one basic fact that overthrows the myth of Yankee beneficence toward the slaves. On 2 March 1861, the 36th U. S. Congress (minus, of course, the seven seceded states of the Deep South) passed by a two-thirds majority a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Had it been ratified by the requisite number of states before the war intervened and signed by President Lincoln (who looked favourably on it as a way to lure the Southern states back into the Union), the proposed 13th Amendment would have prohibited the U. S. government from ever abolishing or interfering with slavery in any state.
The proposed 13th Amendment reads: "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State."
Note well that this amendment was designed to be unrepealable (i.e. "No amendment shall be made . . . .") This gives the lie to claims that a righteous North went to war in 1861 to free the slaves. Moreover, it undermines the claim that the South seceded to preserve the institution of slavery. If that had been the South's goal, then what better guarantee did it need than an unrepealable amendment to the Constitution to protect slavery as it then existed?
It's clear that Lincoln did not make the abolition of slavery the objective of the war, but preservation of the Union. What many do not realize is that the Emancipation Proclamation only "freed" slaves in those states that remained in rebellion to the Union -- slave states still aligned with the Union did not come under the Proclamation. By its very design, the Proclamation was unenforceable in those states to which it applied because they were still in rebellion. But it helped to undermine slavery in those states.
But, there is ample evidence that Lincoln thought that slavery was a doomed institution. I think it was his theory that had the south rejoined the Union peacefully, with slavery unmolested, slavery would have died its own death.
Certainly, by the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had changed the terms of the war, making abolition of slavery to be a primary objective. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation because he believed that denied the institution of slavery, the South's rebellion would collapse. He believed that the Emancipation Proclamation was the "right thing to do," and strongly resisted suggestions that he rescind it once the south capitulated. He believed that "Providence" (or God) would not give the Union victory unless the terms of the war changed to include the end of slavery. He was also instrumental in getting the eventual 13th Amendment approved by Congress prior to his assassination.
It cannot be denied that one of the significant motivating factors on the part of the capital owning establishment in the South was preserving the investment value of their slave property. They clearly and properly felt threatened by the slave/non-slave division and since this group put up much of the wealth in support of defense of the war, their participation was essential and was motivated in large part by the slave ownership capital position.
The language your post lifts from the secession documents and from the constitution of the confederation is addressed to the slave owning class to solicit their support for these reasons and these are, as you well recognize, political documents.
Had the war not ensued, would the north have abolished slavery in 1862? I think not. Did the south need to defend the war (or for that matter to secede) to avoid termination of slavery? I think not also. Had the south folded on the immediate political issue, there would have been no war and no abolition in the 1862 time frame either.
There were certainly a number of reasons why the south was prepared to fight at that instant in time; and as to part of the political coalition that funded and organized the south's defense, the implications of the long term threat to slavery were certainly an important factor.
However a careful look from a historical perspective leaves us with some other thoughts. For one thing, it is indisputable that slavery was a doomed institution by 1860, whether or not the war was fought. The defense offered above of the economics of the most important export is not well founded--the cotton gin would make slave labor uneconomic. It is also indisputable that the immediate direct result of the war was a substantial decline in the standard of living of the slaves. Not in any way intended as a defense of slavery, even for the short period between Emancipation and the probable end of slavery without the war.
Under the circumstances, the most significant modern consequence of the war is the decline in legal significance of the constitutional relationship among the states and the federal government. The compact of individual freedom that was the foundation of the War of Independence was effectively abrogated.
It is also beyond any argument that the significant motivating factor that led to initiation of armed conflict in the war was collection of tarriffs which were devastating to the economy of the southern states; benefited the aggressors directly; in exactly the kind of abuse of the collective power of the majority to exact benefits from the minority that the state power provisions of the constitution were designed to give the minority the power to defeat--by the threat to withdraw from the union in the ultimate extreme.
So when you sum up Lincoln and the defining event of his life, there is no doubt that he was a brillent man and one of the great lawyers of American history; probably the smartest president. But the war was a great waste in American history and the argument that the country is worse off today because it was fought has great merit.