The historical event that looms largest in American public consciousness is the Civil War. One-hundred thirty-nine years after the first shot was fired, its genesis is still fiercely debated and its symbols heralded and protested. And no wonder: the event transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order. The cataclysmic event massacred a generation of young men, burned and looted the Southern states, set a precedent for executive dictatorship, and transformed the American military from a citizen-based defense corps into a global military power that can’t resist intervention.
And yet, if you listen to the media on the subject, you might think that the entire issue of the Civil War comes down to race and slavery. If you favor Confederate symbols, it means you are a white person unsympathetic to the plight of blacks in America. If you favor abolishing Confederate History Month and taking down the flag, you are an enlightened thinker willing to bury the past so we can look forward to a bright future under progressive leadership. The debate rarely goes beyond these simplistic slogans.
And yet this take on the event is wildly ahistorical. It takes Northern war propaganda at face value without considering that the South had solid legal, moral, and economic reasons for secession which had nothing to do with slavery. Even the name "Civil War" is misleading, since the war wasn’t about two sides fighting to run the central government as in the English or Roman civil wars. The South attempted a peaceful secession from federal control, an ambition no different from the original American plea for independence from Britain.
But why would the South want to secede? If the original American ideal of federalism and constitutionalism had survived to 1860, the South would not have needed to. But one issue loomed larger than any other in that year as in the previous three decades: the Northern tariff. It was imposed to benefit Northern industrial interests by subsidizing their production through public works. But it had the effect of forcing the South to pay more for manufactured goods and disproportionately taxing it to support the central government. It also injured the South’s trading relations with other parts of the world.
In effect, the South was being looted to pay for the North’s early version of industrial policy. The battle over the tariff began in 1828, with the "tariff of abomination." Thirty year later, with the South paying 87 percent of federal tariff revenue while having their livelihoods threatened by protectionist legislation, it became impossible for the two regions to be governed under the same regime. The South as a region was being reduced to a slave status, with the federal government as its master.
But why 1860? Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery, but he did pledge to "collect the duties and imposts": he was the leading advocate of the tariff and public works policy, which is why his election prompted the South to secede. In pro-Lincoln newspapers, the phrase "free trade" was invoked as the equivalent of industrial suicide. Why fire on Ft. Sumter? It was a customs house, and when the North attempted to strengthen it, the South knew that its purpose was to collect taxes, as newspapers and politicians said at the time.
To gain an understanding of the Southern mission, look no further than the Confederate Constitution. It is a duplicate of the original Constitution, with several improvements. It guarantees free trade, restricts legislative power in crucial ways, abolishes public works, and attempts to rein in the executive. No, it didn’t abolish slavery but neither did the original Constitution (in fact, the original protected property rights in slaves).
Before the war, Lincoln himself had pledged to leave slavery intact, to enforce the fugitive slaves laws, and to support an amendment that would forever guarantee slavery where it then existed. Neither did he lift a finger to repeal the anti-Negro laws that besotted all Northern states, Illinois in particular. Recall that the underground railroad ended, not in New York or Boston-since dropping off blacks in those states would have been restricted-but in Canada! The Confederate Constitution did, however, make possible the gradual elimination of slavery, a process that would have been made easier had the North not so severely restricted the movements of former slaves.
Now, you won’t read this version of events in any conventional history text, particularly not those approved for use in public high schools. You are not likely to hear about it in the college classroom either, where the single issue of slavery overwhelms any critical thinking. Again and again we are told what Polybius called "an idle, unprofitable tale" instead of the truth, and we are expected to swallow it uncritically. So where can you go to discover that the conventional story is sheer nonsense?
The last ten years have brought us a flurry of great books that look beneath the surface. There is John Denson’s The Costs of War (1998), Jeffrey Rodgers Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (1996), David Gordon’s Secession, State, and Liberty (1998), Marshall de Rosa’s The Confederate Constitution (1991), or, from a more popular standpoint, James and Walter Kennedy’s Was Jefferson Davis Right? (1998).
But if we were to recommend one work-based on originality, brevity, depth, and sheer rhetorical power-it would be Charles Adams’s time bomb of a book, When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). In a mere 242 pages, he shows that almost everything we thought we knew about the war between the states is wrong.
Adams believes that both Northern and Southern leaders were lying when they invoked slavery as a reason for secession and for the war. Northerners were seeking a moral pretext for an aggressive war, while Southern leaders were seeking a threat more concrete than the Northern tariff to justify a drive to political independence. This was rhetoric designed for mass consumption . Adams amasses an amazing amount of evidence-including remarkable editorial cartoons and political speeches-to support his thesis that the war was really about government revenue.
Consider this little tidbit from the pro-Lincoln New York Evening Post, March 2, 1861 edition:
"That either the revenue from duties must be collected in the ports of the rebel states, or the port must be closed to importations from abroad, is generally admitted. If neither of these things be done, our revenue laws are substantially repealed; the sources which supply our treasury will be dried up; we shall have no money to carry on the government; the nation will become bankrupt before the next crop of corn is ripe. There will be nothing to furnish means of subsistence to the army; nothing to keep our navy afloat; nothing to pay the salaries of public officers; the present order of things must come to a dead stop.
"What, then, is left for our government? Shall we let the seceding states repeal the revenue laws for the whole Union in this manner? Or will the government choose to consider all foreign commerce destined for those ports where we have no custom-houses and no collectors as contraband, and stop it, when offering to enter the collection districts from which our authorities have been expelled?"
This is not an isolated case. British newspapers, whether favoring the North or South, said the same thing: the feds invaded the South to collect revenue. Indeed, when Karl Marx said the following, he was merely stating what everyone who followed events closely knew: "The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for sovereignty."
Marx was only wrong on one point: the war was about principle at one level. It was about the principle of self-determination and the right not to be taxed to support an alien regime. Another way of putting this is that the war was about freedom, and the South was on the same side as the original American revolutionaries.
Interesting, isn’t it, that today, those who favor banning Confederate symbols and continue to demonize an entire people’s history also tend to be partisans of the federal government in all its present political struggles? Not much has changed in 139 years. Adams’s book goes a long way toward telling the truth about this event, for anyone who cares to look at the facts.