A Copperhead Abolitionist

"…[T]he New Model Army and the war effort rested on a vast and unprecedented amount of federal coercion against Northerners as well as the South; a huge army was conscripted, dissenters and advocates of a negotiated peace with the South were jailed, and the precious Anglo-Saxon right of habeas corpus was abolished for the duration."

"…I am sure that one day, aided and abetted by Northerners like myself in the glorious u2018copperhead' tradition, the South shall rise again."

~ "America's Two Just Wars: 1775 and 1861," in The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories

"…[T]he essence of slavery is that human beings, with their inherent freedom of will, with individual desires and convictions and purposes, are used as capital, as tools for the benefit of their master. The slave is therefore habitually forced into types and degrees of work that he would not have freely undertaken; by necessity, therefore, the bit and the lash become the motor of the slave system. The myth of the kindly master camouflages the inherent brutality and savagery of the slave system."

~ "The Social Structure of Virginia: Bondservants and Slaves," in Conceived in Liberty, Volume 1

Readers familiar with these sources will know they share a common author: Murray Rothbard. From them, one learns that Rothbard opposed the Confederacy's conquest and opposed slavery. Are not these contradictory positions?

In an era of sclerotic historiography, repudiating both slavery and Abraham Lincoln's unitary jihad is sure to receive incredulous reactions. The conventional polarity made between the slavocratic Confederacy and emancipatory Union cannot comprehend (much less countenance) an alternative orientation. To propound one is to commit a secular heresy.

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.

Viewed in this context, could have even the most ardent unionists prescribed conquest had Massachusetts seceded over Lincoln's election on December 20, 1860 instead of South Carolina? (The answer, terribly, appears to be yes.)

Rothbard appreciated America's secessionist tradition, and it manifests in his contribution to The Costs of War. He writes after a discussion of colonial and Southern secession:

"The separate Southern states then exercised their contractual right as sovereign republics to come together in another confederation, the Confederate States of America. If the American Revolutionary War was just, then it follows as the night the day that the Southern cause, the War for Southern Independence, was just, and for the same reason: casting off the u2018political bonds' that connected the two people."

It cannot be overemphasized that the Union's invasion of the Confederacy had territorial covetousness at its root, not emancipatory fervor. Lincoln's very clear position in the First Inaugural would have required troops to occupy Massachusetts had it withdrawn to nullify the fugitive slave provisions.

However, as Rothbard also shows in the aforementioned passage from Conceived in Liberty, respecting the Confederacy's struggle for autonomy does not entail respecting slavery. The Union's imperial campaign of suppression does not exculpate the systematic expropriation part and parcel of slavery and vice versa. (Lest the expropriation be thought endemic to the Confederacy, recall the slave-holding border states that remained in the Union – so much for the Noble North-Serpentine South dualism.)

If we seek to practice the ethics of liberty Rothbard delineated so passionately and prolifically, we would do well to ponder his Copperhead abolitionism. When we do so, we discover that uncritical loyalties clash with advancing freedom. We may value Alexander Stephens's constitutional integrity and Frederick Douglass's abolitionist zeal, but neither individual demands comprehensive endorsement. Rather, in the Rothbardian manner, let us forge an eclectic fusion of their truths.

April 26, 2001

Myles Kantor Archives

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts