Libertarians and the Confederate Battle Flag

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The Cato Institute recently joined with the NAACP and the financial scandal-ridden left-wing hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, in denouncing the Confederate battle flag and calling for its eradication from public spaces. In an April 16 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal Cato’s executive vice president David Boaz argued that the last state to include the battle flag in its state emblem, Mississippi, should scrap it. Comparing the flag to posters of the communist terrorist Che Guevara or "vulgar bumper stickers," Boaz makes the untenable (and insulting) argument that the hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who favor keeping the emblem do so because they want to commemorate slavery. Anyone who disagrees with this theory, says Boaz, is a "spin doctor of the South," in other words, a liar.

That would have to include nearly every serious historian. In The Causes of the Civil War, edited by the noted "Civil War" historian Kenneth Stampp, the issues of states rights versus centralized governmental power, the political plundering of the southern states with protectionist tariffs, tyranny of the majority, a conflict of cultures, and political blundering are all cited as contributing causes of the war. Only a small band of Marxist historians claims that the war was caused by slavery alone. And David Boaz too, apparently.

Boaz buttresses his hypothesis with a quotation by University of Chicago philosophy professor Jacob Levy, who believes that "when the state speaks . . . it claims to speak on behalf of all its members." So, since not everyone approves of the Confederate battle flag, it should be taken down. That’s right, Cato’s executive vice president apparently believes that when Bill Clinton, the former chief spokesman of the American state, said that our taxes were too low, that criticizing government policy was tantamount to instigating terrorism, that he did not have sex with "that woman," and thousands of other lies and deceptions, he was speaking for all of us.

Rubbish. Only in totalitarian societies does the state purport to express the views of every last citizen. Indeed, the history of totalitarianism is a history of snuffing out all dissenting views with tactics ranging from censorship to mass murder. To this list should be added the rewriting of history, which is really what the battle flag opponents are up to.

In his book What They Fought For, 1861-1865, historian James McPherson reported on his reading of more than 25,000 letters and more than 100 diaries of soldiers who fought on both sides of the War for Southern Independence and concluded that Confederate soldiers (very few of whom owned slaves) "fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government."

The letters and diaries of many Confederate soldiers "bristled with the rhetoric of liberty and self government," writes McPherson, and spoke of a fear of being "subjugated" and "enslaved" by a tyrannical federal government. Sound familiar?

Many Confederate soldiers thought of the war as "the Second war for American Independence." A Texas cavalryman told his sister in a letter that just as earlier Americans had "rebelled against King George to establish Liberty and freedom in this western world . . . so we dissolved our alliance with this oppressive foe and are now enlisted in The Holy Cause of Liberty and Independence again."

An Alabama infantryman wrote his mother, "If the mere imposition of a tax [in 1776] could raise such tumult what should be the result of the terrible system of oppression instituted by the Yankees?"

Another theme in these letters was that many Confederates believed (and rightly so) that they were fighting to defend their property and families from a hostile invading army. "We are fighting for matters real and tangible . . . our property and our homes," wrote a Texas private in 1864.

Union soldiers did not believe they were fighting to end slavery but to "preserve the union." "We are fighting for the Union . . . a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment," wrote an Illinois officer, "They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders."

Other Confederate soldiers sought revenge for the burning of southern cities and the murder of civilians, including women and children, while others voiced a desire to "protect the fair daughters of [the South] . . . from Yankee outrage and atrocity."

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, which freed no slaves because it exempted all territories under Union control, there was a massive desertion crisis in the Union army. Union soldiers u2018were willing to risk their lives for Union," McPherson writes, "but not for black freedom."

Boaz belittles the fact that tariffs and states’ rights were also motivations from the war, but the fact is, as soon as Lincoln took office the Republican Party, which virtually monopolized the federal government for the next seventy years, enacted tariff rates of nearly 50 percent, which remained at those levels for decades, and set in motion the great centralizing forces of federal power by adopting an internal revenue bureaucracy, central banking, corporate welfare, income and excise taxation, and the demolition of the system of decentralized government that was established by the founding fathers. Perhaps Boaz believes this was all just a coincidence.

By calling for the eradication of the Confederate battle flag from public places the Cato Institute, the NAACP, and the Southern Poverty Law Center are saying that we should destroy the most enduring symbol of opposition to centralized governmental power and tyranny, a symbol that to this day is a part of secession movements around the world, from Quebec to Northern Italy.

No one was a more articulate and outspoken abolitionist than the great libertarian legal philosopher Lysander Spooner of Massachusetts. But in 1870 Spooner wrote that "all these cries of having u2018abolished slavery,’ of having u2018saved the country,’ of having u2018preserved the union,’ of establishing a u2018government of consent,’ and of u2018maintaining the national honor’ are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats — so transparent that they ought to deceive no one."

The great historian of liberty, Lord Acton, wrote to Robert E. Lee on November 4, 1866, that "I saw in States Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of he sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. . . . I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo."

Disavowing the views of these great libertarian scholars, Boaz apparently prefers the interpretations of history given by Kwesi Mfume, Al Sharpton, and Morris Dees.

Some 620,000 Americans died in Lincoln’s war, at a time when the population of the U.S. was about 30 million. Standardized for today’s population, that would be roughly the equivalent of 5 million American deaths in a four-year war — 100 times the number of Americans who died in the ten-year Vietnam conflict.

On the other hand, dozens of other countries during the nineteenth century ended slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation. The death of some 300,000 Southerners, most of whom believed they were giving their lives for the causes of liberty, independence, and self government, is apparently of no concern to Boaz. He is only concerned about the purported sensitivities of American blacks, but shows no concern whatsoever for the descendants of hundreds of thousands of brave men who had nothing to do with slavery and who gave their lives for what Professor McPherson characterized as "deeply felt convictions."

In war, the victors always get to write the history. A century of federal government propaganda about the causes and effects of the War for Southern Independence has been so effective that even the Cato Institute has apparently fallen victim to it.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo is Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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