Rothbard the Abolitionist Copperhead, and Northern Secession

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imagesMyles Kantor -alas- no longer writes on American political matters, but among his many insightful writings on American historical matters were his observations on the phenomenon of abolitionists who favored disunion. In his discussion of Murray Rothbard simultaneous support of both abolition and secession (as “abolitionist copperhead”), Kantor notes

Although secession is reflexively associated with slavery, it is often forgotten (or never known) that the abolitionist movement contained a strong disunionist segment. In the antebellum period, federal marshals hunted down formerly enslaved individuals in free states pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Law and its basis in the Constitution. (See Stanley W. Campbell’s The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860.) This incensed many residents of those states, and William Lloyd Garrison was far from alone when he asseverated in the wake of the Dred Scott decision:

Massachusetts must not tolerate a slave-hunter on her soil – nor a Slave                 Commissioner – nor allow a human being to put on trial to decide whether he has a right to himself, or is the property of another – but she must transform every slave into a free man as soon as he comes within her borders.

We shall be told that this is equivalent to a dissolution of the Union. Be it so! Give us Disunion with liberty and a good conscience, rather than Union with slavery and moral degradation.

Then as now, Southern politicians supported widespread meddling by the federal government when it suited them, and the support of the fugitive slave laws were an ongoing source of dis-unionist sentiment among abolitionists after 1850. As Tom Woods has demonstrated, some northern states attempted to nullifiy the Fugitive Slave laws in some cases, but the slavers fought local and state control of slave law in the courts and legislatures. Southern influence over national politics and Southern success in making all the US into a pro-slavery union further fed Garrison’s secessionist tendencies. Kantor goes on: 

William Lloyd Garrison was the Northern disunionist par excellence.  The editor of The Liberator placed “No Union with Slaveholders!” on the publication’s masthead since he considered Northern withdrawal not only permissive but imperative…

As Garrison highlighted elsewhere, the Constitution safeguarded slavery through the Fugitive Slave Clause and the federal government’s pledge to put down insurrections (including those by enslaved individuals).  Thus, he wrote in 1845 that the American Union was “a stupendous republican imposture” and “the most subtle and atrocious compromise ever made to gratify power and selfishness!”

From Garrison’s perspective, the continuation of union meant the perversion of Northern integrity by submission to Southern despotism.  Abolitionist advocacy would be imbrued so long as this unholy alliance endured.

Although Garrison later erred greatly in his limited support of Lincoln, Northern secession was of course the correct position in limiting the scope and success of slavery. Apologists for slavery often claim that slavery would have for some magical reason withered away if it had not been for those awful abolitionists, but this is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. As Kantor shows, the Southern decision to secede was in fact a huge miscalculation on the part of the South because the political structure of the US was very much in favor of sustaining slavery into the long term, regardless of the abolitionists:

Although the Southern states thought that Lincoln’s election heralded slavery’s extinction—its exclusion from the territories being the first step—the peculiar institution enjoyed great security in the South.

True, the admission of free states would have undercut the South’s balance of power in the Union, but nothing short of a constitutional amendment could have engendered emancipation.  (Of the thirty-four states in the Union prior to secession, fifteen were slave states.  To obtain the three-quarters approval necessary for ratification of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, twenty-six more states would need to be admitted, all of their legislatures voting as a bloc with the nineteen non-slave states.  Suffice it to say, this was not a foreseeable occurrence.)

Thus, for any abolitionist who could do arithmetic, the best prospects for immediate change to the status quo in the slavery situation was northern secession. Certainly for Garrison, this was no problem since he regarded the US Constitution as a pro-slavery document and as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.”

There were many other benefits to be reaped from separation as well. Certainly, the economy of the North, which was dynamic, industrial, entrepreneurial, and based on the right of free contract, was the mirror image of the Southern economy which was  authoritarian, based on coercion, and hierarchical. Alexis de Tocqueville certainly saw as much when he visited the Ohio-Kentucky border:

For the first time we have had the chance to examine there the effect that slavery produces on society. On the right bank of the Ohio everything is activity, industry; labour is honoured; there are no slaves. Pass to the left bank and the scene changes so suddenly that you think yourself on the other side of the world; the enterprising spirit is gone. There, work is not only painful: it’s shameful, and you degrade yourself in submitting yourself to it. To ride, to hunt, to smoke like a Turk in the sunshine: there is the destiny of the white. To do any other kind of manual labour is to act like a slave.

And even decades before the Civil War, Tocqueville identified that the industrious North was destined to surpass the agrarian and work-averse South:

They say, and I am very much inclined to believe, that in the matter of honour these men practice delicacies and refinements unknown in the North. They are frank, hospitable, and put many things before money. They will end, nevertheless, by being dominated by the North. Every day the latter grows more wealthy and densely populated while the South is stationary or growing poor.

To be totally correct, Tocqueville would have had to qualify his statement. While lower-class whites did quite poorly in that environment, the slave-drivers themselves did quite well and grew richer every year on the immense loads of cash crops exported every year from Southern States. Northern politicians were of course happy to use the tax code to exploit the Southern economic success for their own gain. In turn, the Southern aristocrats complained mightily about taxes supported by Northerners that disproportionately affected the South. But of course, the whole Southern economy was based on draconian taxes at the local level, namely the 100% tax on the labor of black slaves, protected by state and local governments, and which assured the continuation of one of the greatest wealth transfer schemes in history from the laborers who produced those cash crops, to their idle oppressors. (The fact that many Southern planters labored themselves is irrelevant, just as it was irrelevant that the homesteaders, who had to work too, benefited from free handouts stolen from Indians and taxpayers. The surplus enjoyed by the slaveholders was largely obtained from the slaves.)

Indeed, one might accurately describe Southern slaveholders as America’s first and most aggressive welfare queens in their relentless pursuit of wealth distribution by force. The aristocratic pretensions toward refinement, culture, literature, and education were all just so much lipstick on a pig that endlessly suckled at the teat of wealth stolen from the labors of others.

In spite of the great wealth and leisure secured for some by the cudgel wielded daily by the slaveholder’s peculiar institutions of socialism for the rich, the North was nonetheless poised to surpass the South’s wealth with its vast and budding industrial power.

So while D.C. no doubt coveted the South as a source of taxation, and many Americans, poisoned by nationalism insisted on the nonsense of an indivisible nation, the South offered very little to the North that could not be obtained at least as easily through international trade, and certainly the economic culture of the South had nothing to offer. For the abolitionists, Northern secession would have brought with it an end of the fugitive slave laws, and at least the hope for the loosening of restrictions on black liberties in Northern states.

The South would have found itself surrounded on all sides by large non-slave nations Mexico and the US, plus a vast open and unclosable frontier to the West. In the days of Bleeding Kansas, slavers in Missouri recognized that the existence of a free state on its western border, posed a grave threat, and all the more so if Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mexico all free, sparsely populated areas immune to the machinations on Southern agitators for fugitive slave laws.

How long would slavery have endured under such circumstances? There’s no doubt that the slavers would have fought tooth and nail to keep it, but it’s also likely that border states, less  dependent on slavery, would have, by the late 19th century, found themselves aligning more and more with the richer North, isolating the deep South even more and shrinking the world of slavery more and more. There remains no easy answer, of course, but the other options must be weighed against the 700,000 deaths of the American Civil War. Just as it would have been madness to invade Eastern Europe to free it from the yoke of Soviet slavery, and patience turned out to be the least bloody and most successful option, so should it have been considered madness to invade the South. From the libertarian perspective only one option could remain: Rothbard’s secessionist abolitionism.


12:57 am on January 18, 2014