Was Nathaniel Hawthorne a Paleolibertarian?
H. Arthur Scott Trask
H. Arthur Scott Trask
The following essay is adapted from Dr. Trask’s forthcoming book
on the northern opposition to the civil war: Copperheads
quite, but Hawthorne was certainly a classical liberal, a Jeffersonian,
and a cultural conservative. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his friend
Herman Melville were Democrats when it was the party of both liberty
and conservatism, standing for leaving things alone and keeping
the government in its cage. The degree of liberty Americans then
enjoyed was almost unimaginable by today’s standards. Americans
paid no direct taxes to the federal government, only the tariff,
and their only contact with that government was likely to be the
post office. The phrases laissez-nous faire and ne trop
governeur (do not govern too much) were considered by many to
be expressions of the highest political wisdom. The Constitution
limited the federal government to a handful of clearly specified
powers. After the Jacksonian revolution, the Democratic Party embraced
the Jeffersonian philosophy (strict construction of the Constitution,
state rights, small government, freedom of trade, hard money) with
a purity and consistency that exceeded the Republican Party of Jefferson.
From 18461860, tariffs were low, banking was private, money
was hard, the economy was unregulated, society was free, and both
were allowed to develop according to their own laws; it was indeed
a "golden age."
for two exceptions, both of which will be discussed below, Hawthorne
never wrote on political or economic subjects. However, he revealed
in many of his sketches that he had a deep and principled aversion
to war. I shall discuss his critical attitude toward four wars:
two colonial conflicts; the Revolutionary War; and the War Between
the States, all of which he more or less opposed. We must keep in
mind that he was not a systematic thinker, but a writer of fiction,
essays, and historical sketches; so must not expect from him the
level of consistency and logical precision of a Sumner or Rothbard.
George’s War, 174048
was the proudest and most triumphant moment in New England history
before the Revolution. A provincial army of New England militia,
under the command of Colonel William Pepperell, a Massachusetts
landowner, with some belated help from the Royal Navy, had stormed
and taken the reputedly impregnable French fortress of Louisbourg
on Cape Breton Island. The French were stunned, as were the British.
It was 1745. In Europe, England and Austria were at war with France,
Spain, and Prussia; it was known as the War of the Austrian Succession.
In North America, it was known as King George’s War. It lasted for
nine years (174048). Despite its length, it settled little
and had no effect on the balance of power in North America. In fact,
as part of the peace settlement, England agreed to give Louisbourg
back to the French. Hawthorne thought the chief consequence of the
war was to prepare the ground for the next one.
Hawthorne wrote a brilliant historical sketch about the famed expedition,
titled "Sir William Pepperell" (1833). He noted that the
victors of Louisbourg believed their improbable victory was due
to the intercession of Heaven. Possibly so, he mused; but he wondered
if that victory "was granted to our fathers as a blessing,
or as a judgment." New Englanders embarked on the expedition
with great "enthusiasm," but mixed motives. They included
a desire to impress England with the courage of her colonials, "the
hope of private advantage," "the old Puritan detestation
of Papist idolatry," hatred of the French, who for fifty years
"had shed the blood of the English settlers in concert with
the savages," and the gratification of that "instinctive
appetite for war" that Americans share with all other peoples.
Despite its glorious consummation, this war sowed some evil fruit.
Most of the young men who embarked on the expedition returned home
either with "ruined health" or with "minds so broken
up by the interval of riot, that they never after could resume the
habits of good citizenship." Second, it awakened "a lust
for military glory" in the country, which "France and
England gratified … with enough of slaughter; the former seeking
to recover what she had lost, the latter to complete the conquest
which the colonists had begun." The peace treaty was followed
by "a brief season of repose, and then a fiercer contest, raging
almost from end to end of North America."
French and Indian War, 175662
fiercer contest was the French and Indian War (175662), which
the Europeans knew as the Seven Years’ War, pitting Protestant England
and Prussia against Catholic France and Austria. For seven years,
the Anglo-Americans fought savage Indians deep in the wilderness
and the dastardly French in Canada. The costs of the war were dear
in blood and treasure. Hawthorne recorded that "the flower
of the youth were cut down by the sword, or died of physical diseases,
or became unprofitable citizens by moral ones, contracted in the
camp and field. Dr. Douglass, a shrewd Scotch physician of the last
century, who died before the war had gathered in half its harvest,
computes that many thousands of blooming damsels, capable and well
inclined to serve the state as wives and mothers, were compelled
to lead lives of barren celibacy." All were lamentable "consequences
of the successful siege of Louisbourg." Often the "fruit"
of victory is simply more war.
War of Independence, 17751782
Hawthorne regarded the American Revolution as a grand and heroic
struggle for liberty, independence, and the rights of man waged
against a tyrannical and oppressive colonial power. Not really.
He portrayed eighteenth century Boston as a prosperous and genteel
British provincial town, adorned with warm coffeehouses, cheery
taverns, beautiful Anglican churches, thriving merchants, upright
British officers, red-cheeked lasses in white dresses, and a just
administration of civil affairs. See his sketches "Old News"
(1835) and "Legends of the Province House" (1838).
critics have speculated that Hawthorne was a closet Tory. While
such an interpretation goes too far, Hawthorne was no hagiographer
of the Revolution. He has not one story or sketch in which
the rebels figure heroically, and he presents a very sympathetic
portrait of an American loyal to the Crown in his sketch "The
Old Tory," the fourth part of "Old News." One thing
is clear. Hawthorne thought it would have been better if the Americans
had become independent without war.
Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832) is considered by many Hawthorne
scholars to be his masterpiece. The story is about a young lad from
the countryside traveling to Boston to stay with his uncle, a provincial
official of some standing who will place young Robin in a mercantile
house, or find him a position in the government. However, once in
Boston, Robin cannot find his uncle’s residence, and no one seems
to know of him or offers to help him in any way. He finds this strange
and disconcerting, and increasingly frightening, especially as darkness
is falling. It turns out that the townspeople are playing a cruel
trick on Robin, for they know perfectly well who his uncle is. They
also know that later that night he is going to be tarred and feathered
and carried through town at the rear of a torch-light parade. Hawthorne’s
vivid description of the event is one of cruelty, barbarism, and
hysteria. As Robin watches his humiliated and disgraced uncle go
by, he has to bear the added indignity of being mocked and laughed
at by the townspeople who clearly relish his surprise and mortification
at his kinsman’s suffering. Then, after displaying their cringing
victim to the hapless youth, "On they went, like fiends that
throng in mockery round some dead potentate, mighty no more, but
majestic still in his agony. On they went, in counterfeited pomp,
in senseless uproar, in frenzied merriment, trampling all on an
old man’s heart. On swept the tumult, and left a silent street behind."
Critics suspect that Hawthorne intended his story to be a political
allegory of the American Revolution. If so, he is damning,
not celebrating, that event, especially its excesses, such as the
persecution of the Tories.
sketch "The Grey Champion" (1835) recounts how Bostonians
overthrew the tyranny of Governor Sir Edmond Andros in 1689. "There
was once a time," he explains, "when New-England groaned
under the actual pressure of heavier wrongs than those threatened
ones which brought on the Revolution."
II, the bigoted successor of Charles the Voluptuous had annulled
the charters of all the colonies, and sent a harsh and unprincipled
soldier to take away our liberties and endanger our religion.
The administration of Sir Edmond Andros lacked scarcely a single
characteristic of tyranny: a Governor and Council, holding office
from the King, and wholly independent of the country; laws made
and taxes levied without concurrency of the people, immediate
or by their representatives; the rights of private citizens violated,
and the titles of all landed property declared void [the payment
of a quitrent was required for a new title]; the voice of complaint
stifled by restrictions on the press; and, finally, disaffection
overawed by the first band of mercenary troops that ever marched
on our free soil.
addition, Andros had issued an order limiting town meetings to one
a year, and another placing the militia directly under his control.
This was too much for a people long accustomed to self-rule and
chartered liberties. Boston rose up and overthrew the Andros regime,
imprisoning Sir Edmond and his counselors. Hawthorne thought his
ancestors had set a worthy example of heroism and devotion to liberty.
"Should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step
pollute our soil … New-England’s sons will vindicate their ancestry."
Hawthorne’s unequivocal affirmation of this popular uprising is
in marked contrast to his misgivings about the later Revolution.
1842, Hawthorne and his family took up residence in an old parsonage,
the ancestral property of the Emerson family, in Concord, Massachusetts.
The "Old Manse," as it was called, was only a stone’s
throw from the famous North Bridge over the Concord River, the site
of one part of the epic 1775 battle that inaugurated the Revolutionary
War. In "The Old Manse," the preface to his masterful
collection of short stories, Mosses
from an Old Manse (1846), Hawthorne relates a gory and heartrending
incident that took place right after the battle. A local youth,
in the service of the minister, was chopping wood at the Manse when
the rattle of musketry from the nearby battle interrupted his work.
After the firing slowed, he hastened to the scene of the carnage,
axe still in hand. When he reached the battle field, he came across
a wounded British soldier who was just then raising himself to his
hands and knees. In obvious pain and need of help, he looked up
at the boy, who responded by raising his axe and "dealing the
wounded soldier a fierce and fatal blow upon the head." Hawthorne
muses: "Oftentimes, as an intellectual and moral exercise,
I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career,
and observe how his soul was tortured by the bloodstain, contracted,
as it had been, before the long custom of war had robbed human life
of its sanctity, and while it still seemed murderous to slay a brother
man. This one circumstance has borne more fruit for me, than all
that history tells us of the fight." Hawthorne was moved by
the story which brought home what war always means: brutal killing,
guilt, and hardened hearts.
We Abolish War?
was too much the realist, the student of history and human nature,
to believe that mankind would ever be free of the scourge of war
prior to Judgment Day. His story "The Earth’s Holocaust"
tells how a band of zealous reformers sought to purge all evil from
the world by burning it in an enormous bonfire on the Great Plains.
As they throw the weapons and munitions of war upon the fire, trumpets
blare and the leaders proclaim the advent of a blissful reign of
"universal and eternal peace." Hawthorne’s conservatives
were not fooled. One, a stately old commander remarked, "Let
them proclaim what they please; but, in the end, we shall find that
all this foolery has only made more work for the armorers and cannon-founderies."
Another expressed skepticism that banning weapons would prevent
bloodshed. "When Cain wished to slay his brother, he was at
no loss for a weapon." War is here to stay, but we have a duty
to limit the evil and frequency of it.
War Between the States, 186165
1852, Hawthorne’s close friend Franklin Pierce was nominated by
the Democratic Party for president. Hawthorne offered to write the
customary campaign biography.1 The compromise
measures of 1850 were not yet two years old and the slavery issue,
although temporarily in abeyance, remained an 800 pound guerrilla
lurking in the basement ready at any time to burst upstairs and
tear the house apart and its inhabitants limb from limb. Hawthorne
assured southern voters that Pierce was neither prejudiced nor hostile
toward their section, for he had imbued from his father, who had
served as an officer in the revolutionary war, a love for the whole
country, and this lesson had been reinforced by Pierce’s own service
during the Mexican War during which he had commanded a regiment
of New England infantry. At the same time, Hawthorne had to assure
northerners that Pierce’s policy of non-interference by the federal
government would not help perpetuate slavery. Although only five
percent or so of northerners were abolitionists, a majority wanted
to see slavery on a course of ultimate extinction. Hawthorne assured
them that Pierce’s calm conservative statesmanship was the best
policy to achieve that end. If the northern people would not interfere
with slavery, nor agitate the question, and the federal government
would confine itself to its constitutional duties, slavery would
come to a gradual and peaceful end. Slavery was "one of those
evils which Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances,
but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be
anticipated … when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it causes
to vanish like a dream." It was a plea for forbearance and
time; social evolution, not political revolution. "There is
no instance, in all history, of the human will and intellect having
perfected any great moral reform by methods which it adapted to
that end; but the progress of the world, at every step, leaves some
evil or wrong on the path behind it, which the wisest of mankind,
of their own set purpose, could never have found the way to rectify."
defended Pierce’s longstanding opposition to federal funding for
infrastructure development (i.e., internal improvements) on the
grounds that such programs would lead to others, concentrating more
power in the federal government, and eventually placing "the
capital of our federative Union in a position resembling that of
imperial Rome, where each once independent state was a subject province."
As a New England patriot, Hawthorne no more wanted to see "the
individuality of the states" destroyed by a consolidated union
than did a southern particularist.
the Southern states began to secede after Lincoln’s election in
1860, Hawthorne wanted to let them go. Just days before South Carolina
voted to withdraw from the confederation (December 20), Hawthorne,
anticipating that event, and others, wrote to an English friend:
"I am ashamed to say how little I care about the matter. New
England will still have her rocks and ice, and I should not wonder
if we become a better and nobler than ever heretofore. As to the
South, I never loved it. We do not belong together; the Union is
unnatural, a scheme of man, not an ordinance of God; and as long
as it continues, no American of either section will ever feel a
genuine thrill of patriotism, such as you Englishmen feel at every
breath you draw." He went on to confess that he "should
be very glad to exchange the South for Canada." He thought
that New England had more in common with Nova Scotia and the eastern
provinces of Canada and should the southern states leave the union,
New England should form a northeastern confederacy. These were not
new sentiments for Hawthorne. From 1853 to 1857, Hawthorne had served
as American consul in Liverpool, England. After receiving a letter
from a friend in the last month of 1856 predicting the dissolution
of the union as the inevitable result of the worsening sectional
crisis, Hawthorne wrote back confessing that while he would regret
such an event he did not think it would be a catastrophe. "At
present, we have no country at least, none, in the sense
in which an Englishman has a country. I never conceived, in reality,
what a true and warm love of country is, till I witnessed it in
the breasts of Englishmen. The States are too various and too extended
to form really one country. New England is quite as large a lump
of earth as my heart can really take in." Over ten years before,
Hawthorne expressed the same sentiments to his wife. During the
national controversy over the annexation of Texas in 1845, Sophia
wrote to her mother that Nathaniel did not oppose the addition of
Texas to the union, even if it should lead to its dissolution. "He
says he should be glad of the separation of the South from the North,
for then he should feel as if he had a country, which he can never
do while that weight of slavery hangs on our skirts."
the war was underway, Hawthorne was divided. On the one hand, he
gave the war a grudging, half-hearted support; on the other, he
detested it and doubted if anything good would result. A May letter
is typical. "Though I approve the war as much as any man, I
don’t quite understand what we are fighting for, or what definite
result can be expected." In July, he expanded on that idea.
"We seem to have little, or, at least, a very misty idea of
what we are fighting for. It depends upon the speaker, and that,
again, depends upon the section of the country in which his sympathies
are enlisted. The Southern man will say, ‘We fight for state rights,
liberty, and independence.’ The middle and Western states-man will
avow that he fights for the Union; whilst our Northern and Eastern
man will swear that, from the beginning, his only idea was liberty
to the Blacks, and the annihilation of slavery." By the fall
of 1861, his doubts of the wisdom of the war had increased, as had
his fears for the future. "No nation ever came safe and sound
through such a confounded difficulty as this of ours." He argued
for limiting the objects of the war so as to bring it to an end
as soon as possible. "I don’t hope (nor, indeed, wish) to see
the Union restored as it was; amputation seems to me much the better
plan, and all we ought to fight for is, the liberty of selecting
the point where our diseased members shall be lopt off. I would
fight to the death for the Northern slave-states [i.e., Maryland,
Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri] and let the rest go."
next month Hawthorne had succumbed to the growing heresy that the
war would have a purifying effect upon northern culture. "Emerson
is breathing slaughter, like the rest of us; and it is really wonderful
how all sorts of theoretical nonsense, to which we New Englanders
are addicted in peaceful times, vanish in the strong atmosphere
which we now inhale. … The whole world, on this side of the Atlantic,
appears to have grown more natural and sensible, walks more erect,
and cares less about childish things. If the war only lasts long
enough (and not too long) it will have done us infinite good."
July 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly carried his
essay "Chiefly About War Matters, by a Peaceable Man."
Hawthorne had to be careful. Despite his considerable literary reputation
and his friendship with the editor, James T. Fields, he could not
have gotten an overtly antiwar essay accepted for publication. So
he had to draw on all his literary skill to craft an essay that
would seem to be loyal yet prick the conscience of his readers.
To deflect the righteous outrage that would be sure to greet some
of his ideas he attached his own critical editorial footnotes. These
had the additional use of satirizing the censorious spirit and totalitarian
mindset of much of the North.
began his essay by expressing regret over the militarization of
American life and the physical and natural destruction wrought by
the war. He proceeded with a rather unflattering, if hilarious,
sketch of the president, whom he referred to as "Uncle Abe,"
and described as a gangly, uncouth, exaggerated type of Yankee,
who reminded him of a country schoolmaster. Fields excised this
passage as too disrespectful.
went on to suggest that northerners should try to understand the
southern point of view, for "there never existed any other
Government against which treason was so easy, and could defend itself
by such plausible arguments." He reminded them that their prewar
confederation included "the anomaly of two allegiances"
(federal and state) which was reinforced by "the vast extent
of our country," so that the noble sentiment of patriotism
naturally rested with one’s "own State, or, at farthest, to
our own section." The southerner, then, simply fights for his
own soil with the same resolution and clean conscience, as an Englishman,
say, would do, were his country invaded. Hawthorne’s editorial
doppelganger interjected: "We do not thoroughly comprehend
the author’s drift in the foregoing paragraph, but are inclined
to think its tone reprehensible, and its tendency impolitic in the
present state of our national difficulties."
is deplorable but true that many northern regiments went into battle
singing "the Ballad of John Brown," by John Greenleaf
Whittier, to celebrate the man who had raided Harper’s Ferry, Virginia
before the war and hoped to excite a slave insurrection across the
South. By singing that ballad, the troops were saying that they
were fighting an antislavery crusade. Hawthorne referred to Brown
as that "blood-stained fanatic," about whom he had "felt
a certain intellectual satisfaction in seeing him hanged, if it
were only in requital of his preposterous miscalculation of possibilities."
Such sentiments were sure to receive an editorial rebuke from Hawthorne’s
fantasy editor, and they did. "Can it be a son of old Massachusetts
who utters this abominable sentiment? For shame!"
the emancipation proclamation had yet to be penned or promulgated,
many northerners were already justifying the war as a humanitarian
intervention. Hawthorne warned them that grand moral projects rarely
end as their projectors intended. "No human effort, on a grand
scale, has ever yet resulted according to the purpose of its projectors.
The advantages are always incidental. Man’s accidents are God’s
purposes. We miss the good we sought, and do the good we little
cared for." Hawthorne’s doppelganger was quick to dispute such
conservative cynicism: "We disagree with him. The counsels
of wise and good men are often coincident with the purposes of Providence;
and the present war promises to illustrate our remark."
saved his best thought for last the North should consider
a compromise peace. "Since the matter has gone so far, there
seems to be no way but to go on winning victories, and establishing
peace and truer union in another generation." Or, "if
we stop short of that blessed consummation, heaven was heaven still,
as Milton sings, after Lucifer and a third part of the angels had
seceded from its golden palaces." Hawthorne’s doppelganger
could not abide such defeatism: "We regret the innuendo in
the concluding sentence. The war can never be allowed to terminate,
except in the complete triumph of Northern principles." It
was unconditional surrender, or nothing.
March 1863, he had turned fully against the war. He confessed to
his English friend Henry Bright that he "never did really approve
of the war," and his greatest wish was that "New England
might be a nation by itself." In July, he defended his decision
to dedicate his collection of sketches about England, Our
Old Home (1863), to Franklin Pierce, who was then "exceedingly
unpopular" for having given an antiwar speech in Concord, New
Hampshire, on the Fourth of July of 1863. He explained that the
dedication was "altogether proper" since Pierce was his
life-long friend and without the Liverpool appointment Hawthorne
could never have written the book. He described those who were censoring
him for the dedication as "a herd of dolts and mean-spirited
scoundrels." In the same month, he wrote to a friend that the
abolition of slavery could in no way redeem the war because it "could
and would have been brought about by a gradual and peaceful change."
He continued to call for a negotiated peace on the basis of a territorial
division satisfactory to both sides. "The best thing possible
… would be to effect a separation of the Union, giving us the West
bank of the Mississippi, and a boundary line affording as much Southern
soil as we can hope to digest into freedom." He concluded this,
his last letter on the war, with this statement: "I despise
the present administration with all my heart." He meant the
Lincoln administration. He died in 1864. Sadly his northern countrymen
never did learn from this wise man.
Life of Franklin Pierce (Boston, 1852).
Trask [send him mail]
is an historian.
© 2004 LewRockwell.com