Was Nathaniel Hawthorne a Paleolibertarian?

Note: The following essay is adapted from Dr. Trask's forthcoming book on the northern opposition to the civil war: Copperheads and Conservatives.

Not 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 1846–1860, 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."

Except 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.

King George's War, 1740–48

It 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 (1740–48). 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.

Nathaniel 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."

The French and Indian War, 1756–62

That fiercer contest was the French and Indian War (1756–62), 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.

The War of Independence, 1775–1782

Surely 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).

Some 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.

"My 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.

Hawthorne's 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."

James 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Can We Abolish War?

Hawthorne 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.

The War Between the States, 1861–65

In 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."

Hawthorne 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.

When 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."

Once 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, u2018We 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."

The 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."

The 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.

Hawthorne 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.

Hawthorne 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."

It 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!"

Although 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."

Hawthorne 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.

By 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.

  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Life of Franklin Pierce (Boston, 1852).

April 12, 2004