[Update 5/16/11: Welcome Freeman readers. You will find my response to Stromberg here.]
This month being the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the paleo-conservatives are coming out with their rosy retrospectives on southern independence and their vitriol against Lincoln, who, you know, is responsible for the Welfare State and Obamacare and the war in Libya. In all their writings, we witness the pathetic spectacle of professed defenders of liberty arguing in favor of the illegal “right” of a racist despotism to perpetuate its institutions without criticism; of the “right,” that is, to enslave. Even where the arguments are not just shockingly ignorant, they are distorted, illogical, and ahistorical.
First things first: secession was and remains totally illegal; Lincoln was in the right to put it down by force; the southern states can lay no claim to the right of revolution articulated in the Declaration of Independence, because they acted not in self-defense, but to defend and perpetuate slavery. The Confederacy initiated force, against a lawful government, for no justifiable reason, and in support of an institution of systematic rights-violation. Lincoln adopted unsavory tactics to win that war (although fewer of them were unjustified than is often claimed), just as the south did. But in the end, as Frederick Douglass said, there was a right side and a wrong side in this “war of ideas,” this “battle of principles and ideas...between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold, and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”
The Confederate rebellion was an attempt by states to assert sovereignty that they lacked. The Constitution is not a treaty among basically independent states, which somehow retain authority to break up that treaty; on the contrary, it is a constitution of the whole people of the United States. States basically have no individual relationship to that union and cannot unilaterally declare themselves independent of it. The attempt to do so was therefore illegal, and as president, Abraham Lincoln had the duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed—including using force if necessary, to ensure that the supreme law of the land was enforced. Of course Lincoln correctly asserted that he had no legal authority to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed, but the federal government did have authority—Dred Scott to the contrary notwithstanding—to bar slavery from the territories in the west. It was because he promised to do so that Lincoln’s election led the slave states to secede.
Nevertheless, paleo-conservative defenders of the CSA, generally bivouacked at the Mises Institute, like to claim that the war wasn’t really about slavery; the south was fighting for free markets, you see.
For Joseph Stromberg, antislavery was only “the stalking horse for more practical causes.” This is always a convenient thesis, often a plausible one, frequently a trick devised to put us out of the right way. Seeking the “real” materialistic, cui bono cause of any historical phenomenon enables us to ignore the professed purposes of the actors themselves, and thus perpetuates a sort of conspiracy theory or pareidolia method of history. It’s a favorite of such as Howard Zinn, who seek to ignore or hide the ideological factor in historical events in the service of a broader propaganda campaign. That’s not to say that materialistic self-interest is never the right answer on the history test; it’s certainly a common human motivation. But we should always beware anyone who tells us that an historical figure who said he believed X, acted to promote X, fought the enemies of X, sacrificed other interests to X—didn’t really believe X, but only said it to disguise his real interest in Z. It’s always equally likely that the person who says this is seeking not the truth but the denigration of X in his own time.
Stromberg claims that 19th Century Americans “shirked the job of finding a reasonable solution” to slavery. This is absurd. Everything reasonable and unreasonable was tried, from outright abolition to colonization in the Midwest, to colonization in Africa, to cordoning off part of the country, to diffusing it across the country, to allowing locals to decide, to censoring Abolitionist literature and banning petitions. Slavery was the constant preoccupation of the country from at least 1820 until 1865. What ended the constant dickering—dickering in which southern politicians constantly threatened violent war to get their way—was when Lincoln finally refused to allow the institution to be perpetual; to compromise on the principle of slavery’s wrongness. He promised not abolition, not even gradual abolition, but only that slavery not be allowed to become a national and permanent institution. That principle could not be compromised, and it was what the slave states demanded be compromised. His refusal was what they could not accept.
But for Stromberg, antislavery, which wrecked the chances of compromise, was really the work of northern agitators—where have we heard this before?—because capitalists wanted rid of slavery so they could get subsidies and tariffs: “railroads represented the biggest new business opportunity, provided large-scale government subsidies (state and federal) were available. Northern railroad promoters and land speculators, many based in New England, worked both to get subsidies and remove obstacles. On the removal side, some of them, like John Murray Forbes, donated money to John Brown’s good works in Kansas apparently to put pressure on southern opponents of internal improvements.”
Of course, there were wealthy businessmen who supported antislavery work—the Tappans, most obviously, and Gerrit Smith. But there were far more business interests who opposed any change in slavery. Cotton Whiggery was all about appeasing the slave power because agitation was bad for business. It was to forestall the economically deleterious consequences of justice that the nation compromised and prostituted itself for seventy years after the Miracle at Philadelphia. But we are to just ignore the massive moneyed interests that supported and perpetuated slavery; no, it was greedy corporate welfareists who made compromise impossible and are thus at fault for the war.
It is of course true that the Republican party of the 1860s was not a libertarian laissez-faire party. It called for subsidies and tariffs and central banking. From this we are expected to fallaciously conclude that southern Democrats opposed these ideas out of a commitment to free markets—which is as false as the idea that Iran’s allowing the sale of bodily organs makes it Galt’s Gulch. In fact, the Democratic platform of 1860 also called for railroad subsidies. And while southern Democrats often opposed central banks and subsidized industry, they did so only out of an opposition to the libertarian tint of the industrial revolution. George Fitzhugh was not arguing for a separation of economy and state, but for a hierarchical agrarian society modeled on the Middle Ages. When Gov. James Hammond of South Carolina engaged English Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in some famous open letters, he made clear that his defense of slavery was rooted in a fundamental hostility to industrial capitalism: wage workers were, he said, worse off with freedom than slaves were without it. Republicans may have embraced certain mercantilist elements in their platform, but Democrats called for the perpetual subordination of the black race to the status of human property, precisely because anything else threatened to replace their Society of Status with a Society of Contract.
Stromberg tells us that Yankee businessmen were determined to preserve the union for economic gain (evidently southerners never considered such ignoble motives), and that this “calculation” was “made easier” after they examined the different tariffs offered by the U.S. And C.S.A. governments. He offers no evidence for this; gives us no reason the believe that tariffs were more important to the northern war effort than were antislavery, defense of the union, patriotism, tradition, racism, or any of the countless other motives, noble and otherwise, that motivated defense of the union. No, these last things merely “played their parts” in what was really a war over international trade restrictions.
A moment’s acquaintance with the history of the Civil War dispels such nonsense. The declarations for secession say hardly a word about tariffs. Lincoln’s July 4, 1861, message to Congress is virtually silent on the subject. It is not in Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, or the Lincoln Douglas debates. It was not prominent in the diaries of Mary Chesnut or George Templeton Strong. (Strong, in fact, complained that northern tariffs were weakening the northern war effort). I do not deny that it was an issue; but the idea that northern elites were motivated by a desire for greater restrictions on imports, while nationalism or constitutional or moral issues only played a part is absurd. And the south as much as the north sought subsidies and favorable treatment from government. What, after all, was the Fugitive Slave Law, but a government subsidy to protect slavery? What was censorship of abolitionist literature if not a subsidy? What were the Mexican-American War, the annexation of Texas, the Gadsden Purchase, and the proposed annexation of Cuba, if not enormous subsidies intended to aid further growth of slavery?
It is true, of course, that as Stromberg writes, Congress supported the war effort through taxes, inflated currency, and a military draft. Evidently, the Confederate government funded its war effort through voluntary subscriptions, used only gold, and handed out flowered leis to its enemies.... In fact, it was Jeff Davis’ government that first resorted to a draft—an institution as old as war, and used in the Revolution, also. This is not to defend the draft, which I consider profoundly immoral, but as it appears on both sides of the equation, it tells us nothing about the morality of the Civil War. Yes, “the costs of the war” are often heaviest on the poor; this is a lamentable fact about war—not about the Lincoln Administration.
From his distorted mass of secondary source quotations, Stromberg concludes that the Republican Party’s “definition of laissez faire...would run as follows: open-ended, active federal assistance for connected businesses through tax money, favorable statutes and legal rulings, and other institutional favors, with no corresponding obligation of these businesses toward society or even the State itself. So assisted, businessmen would make big bucks and accumulate capital, thereby greasing the wheels of progress and development.” (Interesting, that last bit. Does Stromberg think industry does owe an “obligation” toward “society or even the State itself”? Does he oppose “favorable statutes and legal rulings,” by which, the context makes clear, Stromberg means lawful enforcement of contract and property rights? Is Stromberg a believer in free markets in the first place?)
But aside from this, the Republican Party was not a laissez-faire party. It was a coalition of groups, from radical abolitionists to racists, who for whatever reason advocated the restriction and ultimate extinction of slavery—which is only the precondition of laissez-faire capitalism. And what was the definition of freedom to the secession party? The power to impose perpetual unremunerated servitude of all blacks; the absolute rule of the master over his slaves and concubines; the power to buy, and sell, and whip, and kill, and torture, any black person at virtually any time for virtually any reason. The absolute eradication of all human rights to an entire race of people, transformed by law into beasts of burden. The censorship of criticism of slavery. The death of abolitionist editors by mob violence. The persecution of religious opposition to slavery. The seizure without trial of suspected runaways.... Do we need to make this comparison? Thanks, I’ll take the tariffs!
But what about the Gilded Age and after? Stromberg is anxious to make the case that the union’s victory somehow caused the welfare state and 19th century corporatism. I agree that there’s some minute element of truth in this; the generation that came of age during the war was accustomed to the idea of giant national crusades, and thinking in such terms led them to favor state intervention in the market. But they were just as much motivated by doctrines like “muscular Christianity” and “The Social Gospel,” which were themselves descendants of Victorian religious revivalism—not of Lincoln era political reforms. One might just as well argue that Allied victory in World War II is morally tainted by the subsequent erection of LBJ’s “Great Society.” Yes, there’s some influence there. But only a child would conclude that this tells us anything about the justice of the cause in which the nation was engaged.
Even so, what was the post-war era in the south like? With all its awful tariffs and subsidies, northern post-war states were still vastly preferable to the post-war south, where the milieu of slavery remained unchanged, and where the Knights of the White Camelia weren’t exactly riding around handing out copies of Bastiat’s The Law. If northern business interests emerged from the war determined to use government power for their private interests, no less is this true of the south, where, notwithstanding the feeble and halfhearted efforts of Johnson Administration Reconstruction, southerners were every bit as effective at grabbing hold of the new order for their own. The north may have had the Sugar Trust and imperialism in Central America, but the south had peonage, sharecropping, the Colfax Massacre, and Jim Crow.
The tactic of smearing the north with whatever bad things came with war or after it, is worse than mere post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Leaving out any reference to the slave power’s perfidy serves the intentional design to distort and mischaracterize the war as if it was an act of aggression by the north against a freedom-loving south, when in reality, the south was the closest thing to a totalitarian dictatorship America has ever seen, and its eradication was worth the enormous, tragic costs it brought.
To be continued…