Slavery and War

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from a 30,000-word memo to the Volker Fund, 1961.

The Road
to Civil War

The road to
Civil War must be divided into two parts:

  1. the causes
    of the controversy over slavery leading to secession, and
  2. the immediate
    causes of the war itself.

The reason
for such split is that secession need not have led to Civil War,
despite the assumption to the contrary by most historians.

The basic root
of the controversy over slavery to secession, in my opinion, was
the aggressive, expansionist aims of the Southern "slavocracy."
Very few Northerners proposed to abolish slavery in the Southern
states by aggressive war; the objection – and certainly a proper
one – was to the attempt of the Southern slavocracy to extend
the slave system to the Western territories. The apologia that the
Southerners feared that eventually they might be outnumbered and
that federal abolition might ensue is no excuse; it is the age-old
alibi for "preventive war." Not only did the expansionist
aim of the slavocracy to protect slavery by federal fiat in the
territories as "property" aim to foist the immoral system
of slavery on Western territories; it even violated the principles
of states’ rights to which the South was supposedly devoted –
and which would logically have led to a "popular sovereignty"

Actually, with
Texas in the Union, there was no hope of gaining substantial support
for slavery in any of the territories except Kansas, and this had
supposedly been settled by the Missouri Compromise. "Free-Soil"
principles for the Western territories could therefore have been
easily established without disruption of existing affairs, if not
for the continual aggressive push and trouble making of the South.

Van Buren had been president, he might have been able to drive through
Congress the free-soil principles of the Wilmot Proviso, and that
would have been that. As it was, President Taylor’s bill would have
settled the Western territory problem by simply adopting "popular
sovereignty" principles in New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, and California
territories – admitting them all eventually as free states.
Instead, the unfortunate death of President Taylor, and the accession
of Fillmore, ended this simple and straightforward solution, and
brought forth the pernicious so-called "Compromise" of
1850, which exacerbated rather than reduced interstate tensions
by adding to the essential Taylor program provisions for stricter
enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Since the Fugitive Slave
Law not only forced the Northern people to collaborate in what they
considered – correctly – to be moral crime, but also violated
Northern state rights, the strict Fugitive Slave Law was a constant
irritant to the North.

The shift from
free-soil principles in the Democratic Party and toward the Compromise
of 1850 wrecked the old Jacksonian Democracy. The open break became
apparent in Van Buren and the Free Soil candidacy of 1848; the failure
of the Democratic Party to take an antislavery stand pushed the
old libertarians into Free Soil or other alliances, even into the
new Republican Party eventually: this tragic split in the Democratic
Party lost it its libertarian conscience and drive.

domination of the Democratic Party in the 1850s, with Pierce and
Buchanan, the opening up of the Kansas territory to slave expansion
(or potential slave expansion) in 1854, led to the creation of the
antislavery Republican Party. One tragedy here is that the surrender
of the Democrat and Whig parties to the spirit of the Compromise
of 1850 forced the free-soilers into a new party that was not only
free soil, but showed dangerous signs (in Seward and others) of
ultimately preparing for an abolitionist war against the South.
Thus, Southern trouble making shifted Northern sentiment into potentially
dangerous channels. Not only that: it also welded in the Republican
Party a vehicle dedicated, multifold, to old Federalist-Whig principles:
to high tariffs, to internal improvements and government subsidies,
to paper money and government banking, etc. Libertarian principles
were now split between the two parties.

fantastic Dred Scott decision changed the political scene completely:
for in it the Supreme Court had apparently outlawed free-soil principles,
even including the Missouri Compromise. There was now only one course
left to the lovers of freedom short of open rebellion against the
Court, or Garrison’s secession by the North from a Constitution
that had indeed become a "compact with Hell"; and that
escape hatch was Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty doctrine,
in its "Freeport" corollary: i.e., in quiet, local nullification
of the Dred Scott decision.

At this critical
juncture, the South continued on its suicidal course by breaking
with Douglas, insistent on the full Dred Scott principle, and leading
to the victory of their enemy Lincoln. Here again, secession was
only "preventive," as Lincoln had given no indication
of moving to repress slavery in the South.

It is here
that we must split our analysis of the "causes of the Civil
War"; for, while this analysis leads, in my view, to a "pro-Northern"
position in the slavery-in-the-territories struggles of the 1850s,
it leads, paradoxically, to a "pro-Southern" position
in the Civil War itself. For secession need not, and should not,
have been combated by the North; and so we must pin the blame on
the North for aggressive war against the seceding South. The war
was launched in the shift from the original Northern position (by
Garrison included) to "let our erring sisters depart in peace"
to the determination to crush the South to save that mythical abstraction
known as the "Union" – and in this shift, we must
put a large portion of the blame upon the maneuvering of Lincoln
to induce the Southerners to fire the first shot on Fort Sumter
– after which point, flag-waving could and did take over.

War Against the South and Its Consequences

The Civil War
was one of the most momentous events in American history, not only
for its inherent drama and destruction, but because of the fateful
consequences for America that flowed from it.

We have said
above that the War of 1812 had devastating consequences for the
libertarian movement; indeed, it might be said that it took twenty
years of devotion and hard work for the Jacksonian movement to undo
the étatist consequences of that utter failure of a war.
It is the measure of the statist consequences of the Civil War that
America never recovered from it: never again was the libertarian
movement to have a party of its own, or as close a chance at success.
Hamiltonian neo-Federalism beyond the wildest dreams of even a J.Q.
Adams had either been foisted permanently on America, or had been
inaugurated, to be later fulfilled.

Let us trace
the leading consequences of the War Against the South: there is,
first, the enormous toll of death, injury, and destruction. There
is the complete setting aside of the civilized "rules of war"
that Western civilization had laboriously been erecting for centuries:
instead, a total war against the civilian population was launched
against the South. The symbol of this barbaric and savage oppression
was, of course, Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of
the South, the burning of Atlanta, etc. (For the military significance
of this reversion to barbarism, see F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism).
Another consequence, of course, was the ending of effective states’
rights, and of the perfectly logical and reasonable right of secession – or,
for that matter, nullification. From now on, the Union was a strictly
compulsory entity.

the Civil War foisted upon the country the elimination of Jacksonian
hard money: the greenbacks established government fiat paper, which
it took 14 long years to tame; and the National Bank Act ended the
separation of government from banking, effectively quasi-nationalizing
and regulating the banking system, and creating an engine of governmentally
sponsored inflation.

So ruthlessly
did the Lincoln administration overturn the old banking system (including
the effective outlawing of state bank notes) that it became almost
impossible to achieve a return – impossible that is, without
a radical and almost revolutionary will for hard money, which did
not exist. On the tariff, the virtual destruction of the Democratic
Party led to the foisting of a high, protective tariff to remain
for a generation – indeed, permanently, for the old prewar low
tariff was never to return. It was behind this wall of tariff-subsidy
that the "trusts" were able to form. Further, the administration
embarked on a vast program of subsidies to favored businesses: land
grants to railroads, etc. The Post Office was later monopolized
and private postal services outlawed. The national debt skyrocketed,
the budget increased greatly and permanently, and taxes increased
greatly – including the first permanent foisting on America of
excise taxation, especially on whiskey and tobacco.

Thus, on every
point of the old Federalist-Whig vs. Democrat-Republican controversy,
the Civil War and the Lincoln administration achieved a neo-Federalist
triumph that was complete right down the line. And the crushing
of the South, the military Reconstruction period, etc. assured that
the Democratic Party would not rise again to challenge this settlement
for at least a generation. And when it did rise, it would have a
much tougher row to hoe than did Van Buren and Co. in an era much
more disposed to laissez-faire.

this was not all: for the Civil War saw also the inauguration of
despotic and dictatorial methods beyond the dreams of the so-called
"despots of ’98." Militarism ran rampant, with the arrogant
suspension of habeas corpus, the crushing and mass arrests in Maryland,
Kentucky, etc.; the suppression of civil liberties and opposition
against the war, among the propeace "Copperheads" –
the persecution of Vallandigham, etc.; and the institution of conscription.
Also introduced on the American scene at this time was the income
tax, reluctantly abandoned later, but to reappear. Federal aid to
education began in earnest and permanently with federal land grants
for state agricultural colleges. There was no longer any talk, of
course, about abolition of the standing army or the navy. Almost
everything, in short, that is currently evil on the American political
scene, had its roots and its beginnings in the Civil War.

of the slavery controversy of the 1850s, there was no longer a single
libertarian party in America, as the Democratic had been. Now the
free-soilers had left the Democrat ranks. But, especially after
Dred Scott had pushed the Douglas "Freeport Doctrine"
to the fore as libertarian policy, there was hope for a reunited
Democracy, especially since the Democrat party was still very good
on all questions except slavery. But the Civil War wrecked all that,
and monolithic Republican rule could impress its neo-Federalist
program on America to such an extent as to make it extremely difficult
to uproot.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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