An Unnecessary Horror

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Midge Decter writes of Abraham Lincoln in the November
issue of Commentary, "Union came first, and he was prepared
to preside over what would become the bloodiest war in the country’s
history to preserve that union…Lincoln’s war was a horror, but
it kept us together, and in the long run made possible a full national
life in common." By these lights, the Confederacy's conquest
was a sanguinary necessity.

In fact, there was nothing necessary about smashing
the consensual cornerstone of American government and sacrificing
over 620,000 American on the altar of unitary dogma. Lincoln's course
of action was a colossal atrocity.

An all-purpose source of exculpation for Lincoln's
apologists is slavery in the Confederacy. Given the denial of self-ownership
to four million blacks, goes this claim, Lincoln's denial of secession's
legitimacy was just. (Don't be insolent and mention to them the
perpetration of slavery and disenfranchisement in Union states or
the irrelevance of slavery to Lincoln's conquistador motivation.
Definitely do not mention the sentiments of abolitionists such as
George Bassett in May 1861: "It is not a war for Negro Liberty,
but for national despotism. It is a tariff war, an aristocratic
war, a pro-slavery war.")

To most starkly illustrate the odious premise of
the anti-secessionists, I will present a counterfactual scenario
where secession was asserted not by the South but against

During the 1850s – a period that would be more aptly
described as the Civil War than 1861-1865 – the Fugitive Slave Act
incensed many Northerners. It was one thing for Southern states
to perpetrate slavery in their territory; it was another to have
the federal government send marshals into non-slave states, arrest
runaways, and return them to bondage. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote
in 1855:

…when the poor people who are the victims of
this crime [slavery], disliking the stripping and peeling process,
run away into states where this practice is not permitted – a
law has been passed requiring us who sit here to seize these
poor people, tell them they have not been plundered enough,
and must go back to be stripped and peeled again, and as long
as they live.

(The federal welfare for slaveholders evident in
the Fugitive Slave Act mirrored slaveholding states' welfare. Professor
William Marina notes in A History of Florida: "Slave
patrols, required by law, were in a very real sense a tax on the
non-slaveholder in favor of the slaveholder. Absent such governmentally
mandated subsidies, the labor costs in a market-oriented society
would tend toward manumission. The best evidence that such economic
tendencies were operative is that laws were increasingly passed
over the years to make manumission of slaves more difficult. Why
would such laws have been necessary unless manumission was an option
that undercut the slave system imposed by government? In any event,
such massive governmental political-economic interventionism on
behalf of the slave owning interest group is hardly descriptive
of a laissez faire, small government, market-oriented society."
Professor Mark Thornton similarly observes in the Summer 2001 Austrian
Economics Newsletter: "The political institutions of the
American South were set up to socialize the costs of the system
while privatizing its fruits. This was a huge public subsidy and
a way of keeping the system going. Everyone was drafted into the
slave patrols, and you couldn't free your slaves; it was against
the law. All of this reduces the private costs of owning slaves
but increases the overall social costs.")

Abraham Lincoln consistently pledged to enforce
the Fugitive Slave Law, i.e., to make northern states complicit
in the perpetuation of the peculiar institution. He moreover opposed
efforts in the Republican Party to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law.
(See his letters to Salmon P. Chase and Samuel Galloway on June
20, 1859 and July 28, 1859, respectively.)

Now begins the counterfactual scenario.

On December 20, 1860, a Massachusetts convention
passes the following ordinance:

Whereas, Abraham Lincoln has been elected
President of the United States, and

Whereas, President-elect Lincoln has affirmed
support of the Fugitive Slave Act, and

Whereas, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
and all non-slaveholding states shall be bound to aid in the rendition
of fugitive slaves under this administration, and

Whereas, Such complicity with the iniquitous
institution of slavery is repugnant to the consciences of this commonwealth's
citizens, and

Whereas, Seeking to throw off this wretched
yoke and be a beacon of freedom for the enchained masses of this

Therefore Be It Resolved, That the Commonwealth
of Massachusetts hereby dissolves its political bands with the United
States of America and shall hereafter exist as a free and independent

Other states enact similar ordinances soon after

According to Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address,
secession is "the essence of anarchy"; he made no exemption
for secession by non-slaveholding states. Thus, these withdrawals
would be illegitimate.

To restore the union, troops would have to invade
Massachusetts and the other seceded states. The abolitionists' attempt
to be a safe haven for runaways would be subdued, and free states
would then have to tolerate by threat of occupation the periodic
presence of slave-hunters. (Efforts to repeal the Fugitive Slave
Act – never mind slavery – in this coercive union would be fruitless
due to the congressional and judicial power of the master class.)

It requires a despotic temperament to endorse this.
Only someone who believed in Union über Alles instead
of federal republicanism and self-determination could say, "The
invasion of Massachusetts was righteous." (It was all too appropriate
when Chinese premier Zhu Rongii told President Clinton in 1999 regarding
Taiwan, "Abraham Lincoln, in order to maintain the unity of
the United States…resorted to the use of force…so, I think Abraham
Lincoln, president, is a model, is an example." No doubt the
mainland regime considers secession the essence of anarchy as well.)

Decter's romanticism of Abraham Lincoln's monstrous error is common
among her peers. To restate a conclusion
on one of these peers
that applies equally to Ms. Decter: Examined
from the perspective of Southern secession, this orientation can
claim a fig leaf of justice. Examined from the perspective of abolitionist
disunion, we see its unvarnished tyranny.

3, 2001

Kantor [send him mail]
Myles Kantor is editor of
and co-hosts “On Liberty” on WWFE-AM 670 in Miami, Florida Sundays
from 9pm-10pm. Learn more
about “On Liberty” here.

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