An Abolitionist Defends the South

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In the ongoing debate and discourse over the War to Prevent Southern Independence quite a few libertarians will admit that Lincoln was a consummate liar and conniver, a dictator, tyrant, protectionist, corporate tool, murderer of civilians, and a white supremacist to boot. But they refuse to take a stand on the war because, you see, the Confederate government was not a libertarian Nirvana; it was not perfect. Therefore, they say, one cannot conclude that the war was just or unjust: A pox on both their houses! Or worse yet, they condemn the Lincoln dictatorship but praise his "leadership" in a just cause.

Such muddle-headed confusion is not characteristic of all libertarians, of course; Murray Rothbard (in his LRC article, "Two Just Wars") argued forcefully that, imperfect as they were, the Confederates were justified in seceding from the union, and in defending themselves against Lincoln’s invading army. The great historian of liberty, Lord Acton, wrote to Robert E. Lee in 1866 that he saw in the South’s struggle for states’ rights nothing less than the defense of "our civilization," and the last bulwark against centralized state tyranny.

These great scholars did not fall into the trap of allowing the perfect (i.e., libertarian Nirvana) to be the enemy of the good. If the war was over the central government’s "right" to destroy the right of secession, which both Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Congress insisted, then the South was in the right, according to both Rothbard and Acton. One need not defend or glorify the Confederacy in order to arrive at such a conclusion.

The same can be said of another libertarian icon, the nineteenth-century Massachusetts abolitionist and legal theorist, Lysander Spooner (1808—1887). In the introduction to The Lysander Spooner Reader, George H. Smith describes Spooner as "one of the greatest libertarian theorists of the nineteenth (or any other) century . . ." (p. vii). He argued for the unconstitutionality of slavery, central banking, the postal monopoly, legal tender laws, and myriad other offenses against liberty. And his "contempt for government was rivaled only by his contempt for fellow libertarians who compromised their principles" (p. viii).

Spooner and his entire family were abolitionists for decades prior to the war. He authored The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1845, which made him a great hero to the entire abolitionist movement; advocated the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by juries (a purely Jeffersonian, states’ rights position); called for slave insurrections aided by abolitionists like himself; and even hatched a plot to kidnap Virginia Governor Henry Wise and hold him as a hostage in exchange for John Brown.

Spooner also saw through the phoniness of the Lincoln regime and its diabolical quest for empire at the expense of hundreds of thousands of American lives. As George H. Smith writes, "Spooner stood nearly alone among radical abolitionists in his defense of the right of the South to secede from the Union" (p. xvii). To Spooner, the right of secession was "a right that was embodied in the American Revolution." Moreover, Lincoln’s war "erupted for a purely pecuniary consideration," not any moral reason.

Spooner’s views on the war are laid out in his famous 1870 essay, "No Treason," published as part of the above-mentioned Lysander Spooner Reader. He understood that the Northern business interests who were the backbone of the Republican Party of his time (also Lincoln’s time), whom he labeled "lenders of blood money," had "for a long series of years previous to the war, been the willing accomplices of the slave-holders in perverting the government from the purpose of liberty and justice . . ." (p. 117). It was such interests, after all, that monopolized (and profited immensely from) the transatlantic slave trade, which was always centered in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts.

The Northern financiers of the war who lent millions to the Lincoln government did not do so for "any love of liberty or justice," wrote Spooner, but for "the control of [Southern] markets" through tariff extortion (p. 118). Mocking the argument of the "lenders of blood money" as they addressed the South he wrote: "If you [the South] will not pay us our price [i.e., a high tariff] . . . we will secure the same price (and keep control of your markets) by helping your slaves against you, and using them as our tools for maintaining dominion over you; for the control of your markets . . ." (p. 118).

In return for financing a large part of Lincoln’s war machine, Spooner noted, "these holders of the debt are to be paid still further — and perhaps doubly, triply, or quadruply paid — by such tariffs on imports as will enable our home manufacturers to realize enormous prices for their commodities; also by such monopolies in banking as will enable them to keep control of, and thus enslave and plunder, the industry and trade of the great body of the Northern people themselves" (p. 118). The war had led to "the industrial and commercial slavery" of all Americans, North and South.

Spooner was right about this: The Morrill Tariff, which initially doubled the average tariff rate from approximately 15% to 32%, first passed the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1859-60 congressional session, long before Lincoln’s election and any secession. Lincoln then signed no fewer than ten tariff-increasing bills so that the average tariff rate was escalated to 50—60 percent. These were not war tariffs; the average tariff rate remained in that historically high range until the income tax was finally adopted in 1913.

Lincoln’s National Currency Acts ushered in the era of central banking and Northern protectionists were ecstatic; they fully understood that dollar depreciation caused by inflation was a kind of backdoor protectionism since it made foreign goods sold in the U.S. more expensive. Spooner understood all of this perfectly well, even if too many contemporary libertarians do not.

Referring to President Ulysses S. Grant, Spooner also noted that the Northern business interests who controlled the Republican Party had "put their sword into the hands of the chief murderer of the war," who at the time was hypocritically saying, "Let us have peace" (p. 118). Spooner interpreted the crushing of the Southern secessionists at the hands of "murderers" like Grant as essentially saying: "Submit quietly to all the robbery and slavery [i.e., via tariffs and inflation] we have arranged for you, and you can have peace" (p. 118).

The Republican Party rhetoric of "saving the union" and "abolishing slavery" was all a sham, said Spooner. "The pretense that the u2018abolition of slavery’ was either a motive or justification for the war, is a fraud of the same character with that of u2018maintaining the national honor,’" the famous abolitionist wrote (p. 119). It was the U.S. government that established and enforced slavery, he noted. The U.S. flag flew over an American slave society almost twenty times longer than the Confederate flag did.

Spooner believed Abraham Lincoln was speaking the truth when he said that whatever he did with regard to slavery was not because of any sympathy for the slaves, but to secure his goal of crushing the secessionists. And, Spooner would add, to then use the apparatus of the U.S. state to politically dominate and financially plunder the South. They did not abolish slavery "as an act of justice to the black man himself, but only as u2018a war measure,’ and because they wanted his assistance . . . in carrying on the war they had undertaken for maintaining and intensifying that political, commercial, and industrial slavery . . ."(p. 119).

If the Northern regime really wanted only to abolish slavery, Spooner argued, then they could have followed the road to emancipation taken by all other nations on earth in the nineteenth century and ended it peacefully through compensated emancipation and by declaring slavery to be unconstitutional. The war was unnecessary to end slavery, said Spooner.

Spooner also ridiculed Lincoln’s ridiculous and absurd statement in the Gettysburg Address that he was waging war for the principle of "a government of consent," or government of the people, by the people, for the people, as his flowery rhetoric put it. In reality, the type of "consent" created by Lincoln’s war was: "everybody must consent, or be shot" (p. 120). This idea "was the dominant one on which the war was carried on." (Another libertarian icon, H.L. Mencken, was of the same opinion).

"All of 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," the great abolitionist declared (p. 121).

Lysander Spooner vigorously attacked the Lincoln regime and defended the Confederacy’s right to secede with the libertarian language of natural rights, consent, and social contract. He recognized that this was also the language of Jefferson Davis’s First Inaugural Address, and that the war was not initiated to "free the slaves," something that neither Lincoln nor the U.S. Congress ever said or thought, even if grossly uneducated Americans do today. After the war, writes George Smith, Spooner’s (and Davis’s) natural rights rhetoric "was no longer popular among Northern intellectuals, for this had been the language of treason and secession" (p. xix). The voluntary confederacy of states that was established by the founding fathers gave way to "the nation," by which was meant the consolidated, monopolistic, and tyrannical government in Washington.

Abraham Lincoln was deified after the war, with New England ministers comparing him to Moses, Abraham, or Jesus Christ himself (just as Jesus died for the sins of the world, they said, Lincoln supposedly died for America’s sins). The presidency itself and ultimately, the American state, also became deified. Smith quotes the Unitarian minister Henry Bellows as announcing after the war, "The state is indeed divine, as being the great incarnation of a nation’s rights, privileges, honor, and life" (p. xix). Essayist Walt Whitman expressed his own version of Spooner’s "consent or be shot" by writing, "the war taught America that a nation cannot be trifled with" (p. xix).

With the death of states’ rights, the creation of a consolidated, monopolistic state, and the disposal of the natural rights philosophy of the founders, Smith writes (p. xx) that Spooner could not have been at all surprised in the postwar years as he "watched the power of government accelerate at an astonishing rate" (see Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capabilities, 1877—1920; and Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill, The Birth of a Transfer Society).

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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