Recent historians are bringing back into the critical lens the picture of the Union under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. It is noble to be critical of the Union and Lincoln as history rarely plays out in the “good v. evil” paradigm. As “Star Wars: Episode III” points out in its opening crawl “heroes on both sides, evil is everywhere”. This is fine and true to libertarians, and if they are like me, will stop at nothing to acknowledge evil on both sides.
However, this is not always the case. Some libertarians and some in the wholly non-libertarian anarcho-capitalist movement (although common threads are shared, libertarians would prefer less and more efficient government as opposed to none at all) who are frustrated with Lincoln and Union behavior during the War will throw their support behind the Confederacy. This is primitive thinking that the world believes in clear “black and white” terms. If you support the Union and decry the Confederacy you are only on a slightly higher moral footing than the contrary and boils down to one thing: slavery over non-slavery.
In a recent article published on Liberty Hangout, an anarcho-capitalist website (which this author was invited to contribute to, then after the publishing of Confederate sympathizing material, recanted before publishing anything on that site) one contributor airs his grievances at President Lincoln and glamorizes the CSA with cherry picked information gathered from incredibly biased sources (that is, the unacademic presentation of information by authors who clearly have “an axe to grind”) which to my lament and full admission, I have not read nor have any interest in reading.
One of the first paragraphs reads:
In the early part of our nation’s history, the South was unanimously the richest region in the United States. Sticking to Christian morals and our founding principles, the South thrived on free global trade. Buying goods from Europe was significantly cheaper than buying Northern goods. But the crony capitalists of the North weren’t about to tolerate this, and began progressively jacking up tariffs on the South. Roughly 95% of the federal government’s revenues in 1860 came from tariffs, with the South accounting for 87% of that. Later that year, Congress passed the Morrill Tariff Bill, increasing tariff rates to an unprecedented 47%!! This egregious taxation forced the South to purchase Northern made products, propping up the Northern economy while choking the South.
The author is correct that the federal government obtained most of its revenue via ad valorem taxes (aka tariffs) but historically that was always the case. Also, tariff rates preceding the Civil War were at the lowest they had ever been historically and were written largely by Southerners.
The Morrill Tariff Act is also a curious point for evidence. It was passed in March 1861, after many Southern states had declared secession thus recalling (in large) their representation in the US Congress. As Dr. Marc-William Palen points out “1. The tariff issue, on those rare occasions in which it was even mentioned at all, was utterly overwhelmed by the issue of slavery within the South’s own secession conventions. 2. Precisely because southern states began seceding from December 1860 onwards, a number of southern senators had resigned that could otherwise have voted against the tariff bill. Had they not resigned, they would have had enough votes in the Senate to successfully block the tariff’s congressional passage.” Furthermore, in the opinion of the Southern states, the tariff should have had no impact as they were sovereign states (confederated later when the CSA came into existence).
So, the focus of the Confederacy turn to what “Christian morals” (a scathing indictment of Christianity if you ask me) found noble – slavery, which makes me laugh, as the author pins a scathing indictment on “Northern Crony Capitalists”, but isn’t the use of government force by a minority of rich men to maintain the flawed notion of a certain race of people as property and not employees to excuse compensation, and dominate their lives not the ultimate crony capitalist state?
The author quotes the Declaration of Independence to justify, like that of the United States, Confederate secession on the basis of natural rights. In theory, I agree with him. Government’s should have the right to leave a federation if the current federal government does not represent the values of that state – be it the American colonies and Great Britain, the former Soviet Union, or West Virginia from Virginia – in theory. But that is not reason alone to support the Confederacy in its actions. If they were separating to form a freer nation than the United States that would be so, but that is not the case. They author has posited that the US was an “oppressive” nation which is apparently true as it also maintained institutional slavery but I content the Confederate model is worse.
In 1861, Confederate Vice President Stephens gave the infamous Cornerstone speech, which detailed the motivations and ambitions of the young Confederacy. In it he states:
The [US] constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
The inaugural holder of the CS Vice Presidency states it, slavery and white supremacism is the goal of the Confederate States, not the United States. It is one thing to have a population united in bigotry, it is far another to institutionalize that bigotry so outright, which the CSA did in its constitution, which although restricting international slave trading states in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Similar sentiment regarding slavery is expressed in several ordinances of secession as well as declarations further explaining same. So much for states’ rights, the new CSA banned banning slavery.
It is worth noting that other economic and political considerations of that Constitution are worth review by libertarians as improvements over the current US constitution, or even the Constitution as it existed in its day. However, that is all undermined by this belief in racial hierarchy and servitude which makes all corresponding “liberties” guaranteed by that document, illegitimate.
Also worth mentioning is the clear argument which can be made against the US constitution for permitting slavery. That is reprehensible and should very well be a criticism for pre-13th amendment America, and even the nation which emerged after. However, as VPOTCS Stephens mentions, at least the US constitution guaranteed equal rights for all free men regardless of race, the CS Constitution prohibited that in letter and spirit. Also please note, this is not a commentary on the superiority of the Union and Northern States during the Civil War as superior to the CSA in motivation or action, I am merely weighing criticism on supporters of the Confederate States.
The author comments on actions which current morality would consider “war crimes” on behalf of the Union Lincoln’s orders. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except that he portrays the Confederacy as being immune from such actions. Whereas he cites Union activities such as the Rape of Athens, Alabama, the sack of Atlanta, and the Palmyra Massacre, he ignores such Confederate activities such as Camp Sumter, the Shelton Laurel Massacre, and the Saltville Slayings.
Near the end of his article, the author posits this paragraph:
It is worth mentioning that slavery in the South was rather benevolent. At the time of the Southern War of Independence, only about 10% of Southern whites still owned slaves, and of that block, only about 10% of owners were cruel to their slaves. It should be noted that slavery was not yet looked upon with the type of moral disdain we see it with today. I am not advocating for its return, but simply speaking the truth as it was. The vast majority of African slaves in the South were treated as family, and in fact had better standards of living than Northern whites. They also received better healthcare and had more nutritious diets. Should the North have allowed the Confederacy to exist, slavery would have soon been dead. Slavery was uneconomical and on a natural decline, so President Jefferson Davis wished to slowly emancipate slaves so as to prepare them for a life of freedom. Southern abolitionists acknowledged that an immediate abolition would be harmful for the slaves and for the economy, and Northern conquest and the ratification of the second 13th amendment proved just that.
He Is correct that most Southerners did not own slaves. However, his calculation that only “10% of owners were cruel to their slaves” is hard to believe, difficult to verify and meaningless – is owning another person involuntarily not cruel to the slave just by nature? He may not advocate a return to an era of slavery, but he certainly glamorizes the lives of slaves as family and friends. Absolutely absurd.
Logically speaking, his claims of “better healthcare” and nutritious diets could easily be explained as plantation owners “maintaining” their assets rather than general care – it almost appears the author is saying slavery is good for the poor in his comparison of southern slaves to poor northern whites, despite his assertion that he is not calling for its return.
He also maintains that slavery was in decline, which is a good thought per se, impossible to disprove but at the same time, near impossible to prove. As James W. Loewen writes for the Washington Post:
“Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to abandon slavery?
To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.”
Although this author does not agree with all the information he includes in the preceding paragraphs, in terms of “necessary war”, his points are important considering.
In short, libertarians can be anti-Lincoln, but that does not demand you be pro-Confederacy. Present day sympathizers of the CSA do research to confirm their own bias, not to say Unionists aren’t guilty of that as well. Historical revisionism can be useful to get new perspectives on things, but that does not necessitate the full rejection of the existing narrative. If anything we must realize that governments with power and weapons are capable of many things not in the interest of their fellow man, all governments the CSA included.