reviewers have had a hard time with the present
book. They imagine that there is a single historical thesis
therein, one subject to definitive proof or refutation. In this,
I believe they are mistaken. Instead, what we have here is a multifaceted
critique of what must be the most central event in American history.
is not Mr. Adams's first book. His For
Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization
(1999) lives up to its title and underscores the importance of a
matter frequently ignored by conventional historians. Taxation and
other fiscal matters certainly play a major role in Adams's reconstruction
of the War for Southern Independence.
who long for the simple morality play in which Father Abraham saved
the Union (always capitalized) and emancipated the slaves out of
his vision and kindness have complained that Adams has ignored slavery
as a cause of the war. That is incorrect. Slavery and the racial
issue connected with it are present; they do not, however, have
the causal stage all to themselves.
chapter one, Adams sets the American war over secession in a global
context by instancing other conflicts of similar type. He plants
here the first seeds of doubt that political separation is inherently
immoral. Chapter two deals with Fort Sumter and Lincoln's successful
gamble to have the Confederacy u201Cstartu201D the war. Here one learns
that the Fort was primarily a customs house — a nice bit
of symbolism, especially since the South paid roughly four times
as much in tariffs as the North did.
that, Lincoln was very concerned about his tariff revenues in the
absence of the Southern states. After Fort Sumter, the (Northern)
President unconstitutionally established a blockade of Southern
ports on his own motion. Soon, Lincoln had robbed Maryland of self-government
and was making other inroads on civil liberty — his idea of preserving
the Constitution via his self-invented presidential u201Cwar powersu201D
(of which there is not a word in the actual document).
chapter four, Adams unfolds his revenue-based theory of the war.
The shift from a pro-peace to a pro-war position by the New York
press and key business interests coincided exactly with their realization
that the Confederacy's low tariffs would draw trade away from the
North, especially in view of the far higher Northern tariff just
instituted. There is an important point here. It did not automatically
follow that secession as such had to mean war. But peace
foretold the end of continental mercantilism, tariffs, internal
improvements, and railroad subsidies — a program that meant more
than life to a powerful Northern political coalition. That coalition,
of which Lincoln was the head, wanted war for a complex of material,
political, and ideological reasons.
also looks at what might well be called Northern war crimes. Here
he can cite any number of pro-Lincoln historians, who file such
things under grim necessity. Along the way, the author has time
to make justified fun of Lincoln's official theory that he was dealing
with a mere u201Crebellionu201D rather than with the decision of political
majorities in eleven states.
chapters treat the so-called Copperheads, the u201Ctreason trialu201D of
Jefferson Davis (which never took place, quite possibly because
the unionist case could not have survived a fair trial), a comparative
view of emancipation, and the problems of Reconstruction. The author's
deconstruction of the Gettysburg Address will shock Lincoln idolators.
Adams underlines the gloomy pseudo-religious fatalism with which
Lincoln salved his conscience in his later speeches. This supports
M. E. Bradford's division of Lincoln's career into Whig, u201Cartificial
Puritan,u201D and practical u201CCromwellianu201D phases — the last item pertaining
to total war.
address seriously the issues presented by Adams requires a serious
imaginative effort, especially for those who never before heard
such claims about the Constitution, about the war, or about Lincoln.
Ernest Renan famously wrote that for Frenchmen to constitute a nation,
they must remember certain things and were u201Cobliged already to have
forgottenu201D certain others. Adams focuses on those things which
Northerners, at least, have long since forgotten.
book — with or without a single, central thesis — does, is to
reveal that in 1860 and early 1861 many Americans, north and south,
doubted the existence of any federal power to coerce a state and
considered peaceful separation a real possibility. In the late 1790s,
Federalist Papers, for example, laughed down the notion
that the federal government could coerce states in their corporate,
political capacity. For much of the nineteenth century Americans
saw the union as a practical arrangement instrumental to
other values. That vision vanished in the killing and destruction
of Mr. Lincoln's war. Americans paid a rather high price for making
a means into an end.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send
him mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
This review first appeared in Ideas
Vol. 51, No. 12, December 2001, pp. 48-49.