Civil (Libertarian) War?

The Cato Institute has published an article by its adjunct scholar Tibor R. Machan: "Lincoln, Secession and Slavery." Machan is a distinguished philosopher and a pioneer of the modern libertarian revival. I assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that his views mirror Cato’s on the subject of his essay.

Machan argues, in essence, that, while secession is a right consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, that right does not extend to cases in which the seceding parties takes slaves with them when they leave. Thus, against the grain of much recent libertarian thought, he defends Lincoln and his Civil War.

Machan writes:

"More important is whether one group may leave a larger group that it had been part of — and in the process take along unwilling third parties. The seceding group definitely does not have that right. Putting it in straightforward terms, yes, a divorce (or, more broadly, the right of peaceful exit from a partnership) may not be denied to anyone unless — and this is a very big “unless” — those wanting to leave intend to take along hostages. . . . So, when one considers that the citizens of the union who intended to go their own way were, in effect, kidnapping millions of people — most of whom would rather have stayed with the union that held out some hope for their eventual liberation — the idea of secession no longer seems so innocent. And regardless of Lincoln’s motives — however tyrannical his aspirations or ambitious — when slavery is factored in, it is doubtful that one can justify secession by the southern states. . . . secession cannot be justified if it is combined with the evil of imposing the act on unwilling third parties, no matter what its ultimate motivation. Thus, however flawed Lincoln was, he was a good American."

The Cato Institute recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Interviewed for the occasion by the Washington Times, Cato President Edward Crane described Cato as "the embodiment of the philosophy of the founders of this country.” The Washington Times wrote that Cato "is named after u2018Cato’s Letters,’ a series of libertarian pamphlets that helped lay the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution, says its Web site."

It is therefore surprising that the Cato Institute would publish an article that implicitly repudiates the American Revolution as an immoral kidnapping of 500,000 slaves! Great Britain sought support from slaves if they opposed the rebellion. The first emancipation proclamation was Lord Dunmore’s, the Royal Governor of Virginia, in 1775. That his proclamation applied only to slaves "appertaining to Rebels" has a familiar ring. Professor Thomas DiLorenzo in his new book The Real Lincoln, informs us that there was an abolition movement in England as early as 1774. Do Machan/Cato wish to make King George III and Lord Cornwallis our new national heroes, replacing Washington, Jefferson, and Adams?

Not only did the Founding Fathers "kidnap" slaves from Great Britain’s more anti-slavery auspices, but they seceded against the wishes of numerous Loyalists, many of whom fled or were forced to flee, or stayed and were subjected to harsh treatment. (Women were not consulted at all.) In fact, any secession done pursuant to a vote by the majority, will involve a "kidnapping" of sorts of those who voted against secession. This is akin to the coercion of minorities that is a necessary feature of democracy per se. Lincoln and his admirers can hardly complain about such coercion since he was one of modernity’s foremost proponents of majority rule. In fact, he started a war over it, so he said. Of course, it is better to allow a majority in a region to secede than to allow a minority to force them to stay. At least in that event the unhappy minority can have further resort to the principle and precedent of secession and so on until political boundaries are in accord with community sentiment to the fullest extent possible in this world.

It could be argued that the American Revolution did not involve the "kidnapping" of slaves since slavery was not banned in Colonial America. That point does nothing to advance the Machan/Cato position as neither was slavery nationally banned in the United States in 1861. Yes, but the vibes were bad for slavery at that time. Likewise for Colonial slavery. Great Britain banned the slave trade in 1807. The similarities between the Revolution and the War for Southern Independence vis–vis slavery outweigh the differences, which is a problem for those who favor the first and oppose the second. This is no problem, however, for Rothbardians who view them as America’s two just wars. See, Murray Rothbard’s sublime essay, "America’s Two Just Wars: 1775 and 1861," in The Costs of War, John V. Denson, ed.

Merely because Cato’s implied repudiation of the American Revolution is monumentally shocking does not of course prove that it is wrong, so let us deal more directly with the argument on the merits. First, as Lincoln critic extraordinaire DiLorenzo has observed, Lincoln did not profess to fight the war to end slavery. This is a gloss that has been retroactively superimposed on the four-year long bloodbath. At most, then, Machan/Cato lend Lincoln a moral cover that Lincoln himself eschewed. The moral cover Lincoln himself cited was majoritarianism, which endorses coercion and the "kidnapping" of the minority. The Union itself kidnapped men to fight in its army. They labored in fields under the hot sun like slaves but endured an additional burden: a breeze of bullets.

It is counter-productive and ahistorical to provide a moral justification for a war, after the fact, that is different from that which animated the combatants. Isn’t it obvious that the victors would pursue, not Machan/Cato values and virtues, but the means and ends the actual historical combatants preferred. This is why Professor DiLorenzo’s book, which carefully delineates the philosophy and values of Lincoln, is so valuable. History shows that DiLorenzo is right. Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in big government — the American System: national bank (inflation); high tariffs (protectionism) and internal improvement (corporate welfare). They believed in the majority imposing its will on the minority. They believed in martial force to achieve their goals.

What did we get from 1861—2002? Exactly what Lincoln wanted, and Machan opposes, and in huge quantities. Historian Arthur Ekirch observed that the Civil War led to "a decline in [classical] liberalism on all questions save that of slavery. . . " Robert E. Lee, with all his intelligence and insight, could not in 1866 have accurately predicted the long-range consequences of the Civil War unless those consequences were inherent in the philosophy of the victorious party from the beginning: "the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it."

Machan uses metaphors in describing the Confederacy’s actions regarding slavery, metaphors which are not entirely apt. He variously describes them as being "kidnapped" or held "hostage" by the process of secession. This implies a change in status or change of location that simply did not occur with secession. They were slaves before and after. Perhaps slavery would have withered away under subtle Union pressures. However, the North was making money from slavery and Lincoln promised not "to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." Perhaps slavery would have withered away under the Confederacy as it did in numerous other countries. The metaphors are inapt for another reason. We need not worry about using force against a kidnapper since the victim doesn’t have to live with him afterwards. The slaves, however, unless they were sent back to Africa as Lincoln wanted, or deported to the North as no one apparently suggested, did have to live with white Southerners afterwards the vast majority of whom did not own slaves. That is why in those circumstances there was a real value to pursuing a peaceful (albeit rapid) solution to the problem of slavery.

Machan/Cato argue that the existence of slavery in the Confederacy justified a war to stop secession. It will be interesting to see how far, spacially and temporally, we can extend that principle. I take it that, in 1859, Machan/Cato would have favored a war of revolution to overthrow the slave federation known as the United States, whose constitution institutionalized slavery (three-fifths clause; importing slaves allowed until 1808, return of slaves required) and authorized its central government to protect slave states against "insurrection." Slavery existed in fifteen states and the District of Columbia and non-slave states indirectly benefited from slavery by means of a tariff which disproportionately funded the federal government out of taxes collected in the South. I take it that during the first years of the Civil War, while slavery persisted in several Union states, was undisturbed by Union troops in conquered Southern territory, and was not yet constitutionally banned, Machan/Cato would have supported an uprising against the Union to free the slaves. That is a real mind-blower as they used to say in the Sixties.

Even if there is a moral right to use force to free slaves, that right must be exercised carefully and proportionately to the goal that is sought. Force should be threatened prior to being used. Anyone who is aware of an ultimatum to the South of the following form — "You may leave but you must free your slaves and allow them to leave or stay in freedom." — please let me know. Anyone who can demonstrate that after Union troops seized control of slave-holding areas of the South, they thereafter molested former slaveholders not at all, is a better historian than I am.

What ultimately can a natural rights libertarian say about Lincoln, secession and slavery? The South had the right to leave in peace; slavery is and was morally wrong; though force may be rightly used to end slavery — after all other means for ending slavery have failed — such force must be strictly limited to accomplishing that end and must not violate the rights of third parties by means of taxation, conscription or mass murder; the Union’s invasion of the South, involving as it did taxation, inflation, conscription, confiscation, destruction and the mass killing of non-slave holders, and not having been initiated for any libertarian purpose widely understood at the time, must be condemned as a moral outrage; had an effort been made at the time to free slaves throughout the United States (including the District of Columbia, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland) that did not purport to violate the rights of innocent third parties, or accomplish any evil goals such as expanding the power of the central state, libertarians at the time should have supported it; alas, no such movement existed; thus, any attempt to pretend that the Union’s invasion of the South was a moral cause to end slavery and did not have numerous other and evil goals, the accomplishment of which plagues us today, is an absurd exercise involving the libertarian endorsement of illibertarian means and ends then and continuing.

June 8, 2002

James Ostrowski is an attorney practicing at 984 Ellicott Square, Buffalo, New York 14203; (716) 854-1440; FAX 853-1303. See his website at

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