The anti-modernists coalesce. Kirkpatrick Sale, proud lunatic luddite, has posted a remarkable commentary in defense of the Confederacy, arguing that secession in the defense of chattel slavery was “in the grand old American tradition,” and that the south was not the aggressor, but the victim, in 1861. Let’s look at his three arguments, in ascending order of outlandishness.
“The American ‘Revolution,” Sale writes, “was, in fact, a war of secession – 13 colonies breaking away from the British Empire – not a war of conquest, and most of the Founding Fathers understood that to be a given right when they created the Articles and then the Constitution.” This is false. The American Revolution was not an act of secession, but of revolution—hence the name. The distinction between revolution and secession is crucial. Revolution is the natural right to break the law and overthrow a government whenever a long train of abuses evinces a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism. Secession is the idea that a state has the legal authority unilaterally to leave the union. The leaders of 1776 never claimed their acts were legal; they said that they were choosing to break the law, and that their doing so was justified by a higher principle—namely, by the defense of the inalienable rights that belong to all individuals. It was the right to throw off a government which becomes destructive to the individual rights it is created to protect that they articulated in the Declaration. They did not say that a group of people who wish to continue violating individual rights with impunity may disregard the constitutional order so as to perpetuate their oppressive institutions. It was their grandchildren in the Confederacy who made that assertion, all the while denouncing the Declaration of Independence as an untruth. The American Revolution is poor evidence for Sale’s contention that the slave power rebellion was somehow in keeping with the American tradition.
“[J]ust 25 years after the new nation was born, representatives from all New England…met at a convention in Hartford to consider secession…. [I]n the event, they did not vote for secession, but its spirit was in the air.” Yes, that’s right—the Hartford Convention did not vote for secession, but repulsed that idea. Yet the fact that they rejected it is somehow proof that secession is in the grand old American tradition?
Second, Sale argues that the North, not the South, “really began” the war, because it refused “to give up Federal forts and bases in states that had declared their independence, or even to negotiate some kind of settlement.” Of course, since the states had no lawful power to declare their independence, or to demand any kind of settlement, the union was under no obligation to settle or to give up its property, any more than I am obliged to yield my property to a robber who demands it. Sale’s upside-down logic would mean that any defense of property rights is an aggressive act against a thief!
I’m not saying that the Lincoln Administration didn’t reinforce Fort Sumter (with “bread, not guns”) knowing the south would shoot. Lincoln was well aware of what would happen. But that doesn’t make it an aggressive act for the federal government to send a flotilla to reprovision its own army on its own property. The Lincoln Administration was well within its rights.
Sale goes on to argue that Lincoln fought for union and not emancipation; as I’ve dealt with this argument in my previous post, I’ll move on to his argument that the Emancipation Proclamation was “a military ploy” with “no particular moral implications.” This is, typically, only a half-truth. The president had no constitutional authority simply to free slaves, let alone by mere decree. But as commander-in-chief, the president had authority to confiscate enemy property or take other measures that he might not have during peacetime. The Emancipation Proclamation was, indeed, a military tactic, meant to weaken the south and accelerate victory. Does it, in consequence, have “no particular moral implications”? Sale can’t believe that military tactics never have moral implications, as the rest of his argument makes clear. So if military tactics do have moral implications, why not this one? And if it were a mere ploy, why did the Proclamation declare that the slaves would be “forever free”? That part was hardly necessary; indeed, if it were only a military ploy, it would have been more effective if it had promised re-enslavement in exchange for surrender (something like that happened in Santo Domingo a generation earlier). The fact is, Lincoln would have very much liked to free the slaves unilaterally, but his constitutional scruples allowed him to do so only in one very limited circumstance—that is, as a military leader during wartime. He took the opportunity to do so. That hardly makes the Emancipation Proclamation a fraud.
But third, and finally losing all contact with reality, Sale tries to argue that secession wasn’t really about slavery; it was about southerners defending their way of life against northern interlopers.
“The South did not want to protect slavery from a Northern attempt to abolish it,” he writes, “because no such attempt was ever intended or expressed.” That much is true; Congress had no authority or capacity for abolishing slavery where it already existed, and Lincoln, mindful of the limits of his legal authority, did not attempt to do so. Instead, Lincoln proposed to restrict the spread of slavery, knowing this would eventually mean that slave states would be outvoted in Congress, and put slavery in the course of ultimate extinction. This is what the south would not stand for. Yet Sale argues:
Nor did the South want to extend slavery into the Western territories, because it was clear it was neither a useful nor a welcome practice there, and besides when it formed the Confederacy it no longer had any constitutional claim to influence in those sections.
This is an undiluted falsehood. The south tried desperately to extend slavery into the western territories. That was the motive force behind all of the slavery debates of half a century. It was the slave power that demanded slavery be extended west into Missouri and Kansas; that masterminded the repeal of the Compromise of 1820, and the repeal of that portion of the 1850 compromises that barred slavery from spreading west; and that howled at the Wilmot Proviso. It was the south that demanded Texas, and initiated a war against Mexico to seize still more land for slavery. It was Jeff Davis himself who planned a southern transcontinental railroad to the Pacific. It was the slave power that pushed the Lecompton Constitution and demanded the seizure of Cuba (okay, not “the west”). And it was the slave power that demanded and got the Dred Scott decision, which declared absurdly that Congress could not bar slavery from the western territories (and, by implication, free states). If the south had no designs on the west, why in the world did they care about Dred Scott? Why the long, drawn out debates between Lincoln and Douglas, that focused only on the question of expanding slavery into the west? Why did Lincoln bother to go to Cooper Union?
Nor was there anything “clear” about the idea that slavery was unprofitable or unwelcome in the west; True, Stephen Douglas and others used flimsy pseudoscientific arguments to the effect that the climate wasn’t suitable to slavery, but slavery has been a common feature in mining operations throughout history, and California gold fields would easily have adapted to slavery. In the 1850s, William Walker, whose “astonishing activities” are recounted in depth by H.W. Brands, tried to make California a slave republic. The legislature even passed a bill allowing the southern counties to leave the state, which some copperheads in L.A. took as the cue for secession. Certainly Indian peonage and the oppression of the Chinese were evidence that something very like slavery could exist in California. Even after the war began, the south wanted the west; the Confederacy sent troops and agents into Arizona, New Mexico, and California, and planned further invasions. Sale’s mere evidence-free assertion that the south had no designs on the west flies in the face of the southerners’ own demands for expansion, and their secession from the union upon the election of Abraham Lincoln who (as Sale admits) sought not to prohibit slavery where it existed—but only to halt its spread westward.
And yet it gets crazier—as it always somehow does, with Sale:
What the South wanted was to continue an economic system that it had inherited for 200 years, that had been fostered and maintained by Northern interests (particularly New England shippers and textile barons) that entire time, that had been the foundation of the United States economy both North and South from the beginning of the nation, and that was a way of life now so entrenched no one knew how to alter or ameliorate it even if, like quite a few, they wished to do so.
Okay, that is certainly true. Does this somehow justify their actions? This “economic system” consisted of the lifetime involuntary unremunerated servitude of an entire race of people. It consisted of stripping them of all human rights, subjecting them to the worst forms of despotic subservience, casting them as beasts of burden. That system was, indeed, fostered and maintained by Northern interests. It was indeed the foundation of the American economy long before. It was indeed entrenched, and nobody knew how to ameliorate it. But when Abraham Lincoln—who wanted to see that slavery be ameliorated; be put in the course of ultimate extinction—was elected president, the south chose to leave the union rather than see it altered or ameliorated. The southern states chose to initiate force rather than to change an unjust “economic system.”
And the South wanted to be free of Northern interference: the continued attempts by abolitionists (as John Brown in 1859) to foster slave rebellions and terrorism in the South, the refusal of Northern states to return illegal runaway slaves (or to return Brown’s companions who had fled North), the threat of increased tariffs on Southern goods, the stated purpose of the new Republican party to expand federal power in the interest of Northern industrialists, and the clear perception that Lincoln had come into office with a hidden agenda of limiting if not eliminating Southern influence on the national scene (he was elected with not a single Southern electoral vote).
How is this sentence anything less than a defense of slavery itself? Much as I differ with the Mises Institute and other paleo-conservative defenders of the C.S.A., they at least usually at least recite that slavery was an evil institution. Not so with Sale. For him, the southern states were justified in seeking to free themselves of “interference” with slavery—interference that took the form of abolitionist agitation and “terrorism,” and the refusal to return runaway slaves! Those poor southerners, victims of terrorism and interference and agitation and the encouraging of runaways; why they sought only to run things their own way. Why couldn’t the north have just got off their backs?
Give Kirkpatrick Sale credit for his candor. Here he makes clear that his regrets over union victory in the Civil War are rooted in a frank acceptance of the peculiar institution. If only the north had stopped “interfering” with it, why, we might have had peace. This alone is enough to prove Lincoln right:
[W]hat will satisfy [the south]...? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly—done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.