The title of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s jam-packed one-volume history of the Civil War is Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. Hummel’s title is connected to an ongoing debate between those who profess to love liberty, namely, between conservatives and libertarians.
In particular, those libertarians who advocate not only the separation of powers into three branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — but the additional decentralization of power in such competing levels as municipal (city, township, and county), state, and federal, known as “states’ rights” advocates for short (and, perhaps, these days, for scorn), are routinely lampooned, rather than debated, by conservatives.
Well, at least lampooned by so-called “neo”-conservatives…who are so neo, they don’t very much resemble the conservatives of not so long ago. This is an oddity in itself. From the very nature of the term, one might think that self-described “conservatives” would tend to remain ideologically consistent — indeed, conserved, or unchanged — over time, at least with regard to the eternal questions, such as the best way to divide governmental powers so as to protect individual liberty.
Perhaps it is because there is a war involved. The neo-cons appear entirely too much in favor of war as a tool of social policy. They appear to ignore the terrible evils — the genuine and unavoidable human suffering which comes with war. Bombing Belgrade, Sudan, and other places — and shooting down planes over Peru — kills men, women, and children. Killing should never be treated lightly. In other words, those who advocate militarism must do so only on the most serious grounds.
The above paragraph, of course, is at best a surmise, an exercise in psychologism. Whatever the reason, those who otherwise understand the separation of powers recoil from a robust concept of federalism. Worse, they label those who defend the American constitutional system of federal power as “utopians.”
Hardly. Back to Hummel.
Although the title of Hummel’s history of the Civil War may be perplexing to some, the title comes from a speech by Abraham Lincoln to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838. As Hummel writes, “The young Lincoln was warning about the potential danger of a future Napoleon subverting the United States Constitution.” (p. 366, n. 1). Napoleon’s armies tore up Europe from 1799 until he was poisoned in 1821 (by French monarchists), so when Lincoln spoke, he was speaking about recent history. This is like those of us today speaking about the 1984 Olympics. Yes, that’s 17 years ago.
Here is what Lincoln said:
Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. (Hummel, 366)
Disturbingly, the man who warned of an American Napoleon became the American Napoleon.
Which brings me to a personal confession: Joe Sobran has softened my thinking on Lincoln. When I came to study the Civil War, and study it in-depth, over eight years, it occurred to me that, truly, the conflict is more properly named the War for Southern Independence. The Northern view of the war which I had been spoon-fed in school parrots the earlier English view of the colonial (American) War of Independence — right down to laughing at the notion that the relevant rebels could possibly claim to be fighting for freedom, merely because of the issue of slavery. By the way, the English figured things out the second time around — and rooted for the Confederacy. In that regard, see Sheldon Vanauken’s The Glittering Illusion.
This Anglo-Northern myth is exactly that — a myth. Because it is false at worst, biased and incomplete at best, the telling and perpetuation of this counterfeit tale merits correction. In short, this descendent of a Federal army soldier was enraged to find injustice hiding behind a veil of justice. Sobran, however, has a point in arguing that, rather than see Lincoln merely as a villain, it may be appropriate to view Lincoln as a tragic, Oxfordian (you might say Shakespearean) figure.
But back to Hummel’s essential point: the war against the Confederacy fundamentally changed the USA. The prosecution of the war turned the USA from an unobtrusive, small government into an intrusive, bloated monstrosity. When the USA forcibly re-absorbed the CSA, this “wonderful” system — now beyond reproach to “neo”-conservatives (maybe “conservatives” should be in quotation marks, rather than the neo) — became not only mandatory, but, according to the Northern theory still dominant today — inescapable.
No part of the USA can ever leave.
Hence the “pledge of allegiance” written by a Massachusetts minister — a self-proclaimed socialist, who was so far to the Left with his social gospel, he was kicked out by his own congregation. Welcome to the United States. You are now here forever, no matter what.
Say, what is the neo-conservative view of federal taxation with respect to those who renounce their US citizenship? More than a few wealthy Americans — many of them from prominent families — have renounced their citizenship in the last decade to escape punitive levels of taxation. Should Uncle Sam confiscate everything owned by such “disloyal” people?
A further question: if an individual citizen may freely renounce his US citizenship, is there a logical reason why an entire state of individual citizens cannot renounce its citizenship? The standard Northern line is that, hey, self-determination is fine in Nicaragua, Vietnam and the Balkans, but absolutely out of the question on the American continent.
The Canadians had better keep their rifles handy — oh, wait, their government is in the process of melting them down for worthless scrap metal. The Fenians, it seems, were a tad early.
And what to make of Texas. The USA backed Texas in its drive for independence from Mexico. The Republic of Texas, which won its independence from Mexico in 1836 — remember the Alamo? — spent perhaps 10 years as an independent nation. It was then annexed by the USA on December 29, 1845.
The annexation, by the way, led to a war — the Mexican War. California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming were taken from Mexico by the USA.
Sixteen years after the independent nation of Texas had been annexed by the USA — in 1861 — the USA refused to let Texas leave the USA. Sorry. There is a piece of paper, known as the Constitution, which means that although areas like Texas may declare their independence of nations such as Mexico — with the backing of the USA — an area like Texas may never declare its independence from the USA. We have different rules, and we don’t allow that.
You signed away your independence permanently, and if you care to disagree, we will kill you. Forget the Supreme Court. As President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed, the highest tribunal available to mankind is the force of arms. And so Texas — which, the Northern myth proclaims, had never left the union via the heresy of “secession” — was forced to ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments in order to be “re-admitted” to a Union that it supposedly had never really left.
Notice how the Northern view of the Civil War mirrors the typical Department of Motor Vehicles view of your attempts to renew your drivers’ license. It is the nature of behemoth governmental bureaucracies.
By the way, following the Northern approach to the question of secession, should we outlaw divorce?
Of course, the Northern view is merely an incoherent attempt to justify a war, and to defend the morally indefensible — the idea of a compulsory, involuntary, permanent “union” held together by force of arms, against the will of the citizens. On the Northern view, is it possible to ever dump the Constitution of 1789 for a new Constitution — even by way of Amendments or Constitutional Convention? Or are we stuck with it?
And, of course, the Northern view is wrong. The Constitution of 1789 — a document of delegated powers — does not prohibit secession, and the 9th and 10th Amendments must be interpreted to allow for a constitutional right of secession — to say nothing of the natural right of secession so eloquently described in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (a belated Happy Fourth of July to you).
But back again to Hummel, whose Chapters Nine through Thirteen (and Epilogue) make his case rather strongly that the war — allegedly fought for “freedom” — significantly reduced American freedom.
As Hummel notes, “The national government at the time [of the war] had only two sources of revenue: a very low tariff and the sale of public lands.” (p 221)
Utopia! But I digress.
“Adjusting for population, the government in Washington was spending approximately $2.50 per person in 1858, or the equivalent of $44 per person today [Hummel was originally published in 1996]. This was less than 2 percent of the economy’s total output.” (p 221)
How did people survive from the founding of the first European colonies in the New World until 1858, some 200 years (roughly)? By private initiative — also known as work and good works.
Those, such as myself, who advocate genuinely limited government, the separation of powers, and federalism (i.e., “states’ rights”) recognize that on questions of social policy, there are two questions which must always be answered
1. Is the suggested policy a good idea?
2. Should the government enact the policy?
The answer to the first question will depend on the facts. The answer to the second question is never “yes.”
Although I agree with conservatives such as Charley Reese that genuine freedom does not include the abandonment of commitments to family, faith and country, the historical record of mankind’s experiments with limited government is not encouraging. By and large, the State — logically distinct from the social order, society, and populace — whenever it has been limited by human design, whether in Venice, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, in England under Magna Carta, in America under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, or in ancient Athens and Rome, has managed to usurp and destroy such limits over time, all the while cooing that such usurpations were “for the better” or “for the common good.”
In the USA, this mistake has been repeated. After the Declaration of Independence and the war of secession from England, those men who crafted the Declaration of Independence and fought the War of Independence crafted the Articles of Confederation — which were detested by those who longed for a powerful, centralized state, namely, the nationalists, the misnamed “Federalists,” i.e., statists such as Alexander Hamilton, and also by those, like Robert Morris, who financed the War of Independence and who wanted to be repaid — by a Confederate government (as in “Articles of Confederation;” Confederate, then, is the proper term) that could not compel its member states to pay up.
The US, then, voluntarily abandoned the — utopian! — really limited government of the Articles of Confederation for the less limited government of the Constitution. Of course, to the neo-cons, the Constitution as written is, you guessed it, utopian. And so men like Lincoln, Wilson and FDR had to come along to show everyone what had been so misunderstood since 1789, and by men like Jefferson — who advocated the right of secession.
As Hummel writes of pre-Civil War America,
Most Americans paid no taxes whatsoever to any federal officials directly, and their only regular contact with any representatives of central authority was probably through the United States Post Office — if they had any contact at all. Indeed, in New York City, the government delivered only one million letters in 1856 as compared with the ten million carried by private companies. (p 222)
A government post office that isn’t a monopoly? Utopia! How dare libertarians suggest a private postal service — you must be against delivering letters at all! Neanderthals! Racists! Homophobes!
Ah, almost forgot to mention that Hummel also notes that the Civil War introduced paper money, which led to counterfeiting (and the Secret Service)(p 226). The private minting of coins was outlawed. And Abraham Lincoln used federal troops to break union strikes — in the North (p 234).
And yet, and yet…these are historical facts.
The USA enjoyed 90 years of independence without government control of every aspect of human existence. And yet if you dare to question such government control today, you are branded as a utopian, a fool on an ivory tower, unwilling to confront the “practical realities” of politics. Here’s a practical reality: Americans today are not very free by historical standards, and certainly not by the standards of the Sons of Liberty, who staged the Boston Tea Party.
Utopian my eye.
Roll back the state. It is bloated beyond any reasonable view of the Constitution, and is an affront to the principles of the American founding. Here’s a challenge to the neo-cons: dare to imagine a different world than the status quo. There is no reason to conserve the usurpations of the Constitution which were perpetrated by Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR — to name but a few. Americans today face a moral imperative: the state must be contained within the limits of justice.
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman