The Real Significance of the 'Civil War'

Abraham Lincoln and the war he waged against the seceding Southern states continue to divide libertarian opinion. Some libertarians point to Lincoln as the harbinger of big government in America, while others cannot bring themselves to support the cause of the Southern states, so intimately bound up with chattel slavery as they believe it to have been. Although the latter position is often poorly or even dishonestly argued, the objection it raises is not in and of itself foolish or contemptible, and those who advance it in all sincerity are entitled to a fair-minded and non-polemical reply.

Lincoln’s personal opinions about race, the legality (or otherwise) of his actions as president, and the degree to which the war really was a conflict over slavery, are subjects for another time, and indeed are taken up in my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Here we confine ourselves to the more modest task of introducing a useful moral framework for evaluating the significance as well as the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

Many of Lincoln’s admirers have the honesty to admit that when he called up those first 75,000 militiamen in 1861 to put down the "rebellion" in the South, he had no intention of waging a war to abolish slavery. What they argue instead is that as the war progressed the meaning of the Northern war effort evolved in Lincoln’s mind, becoming a war not only for the Union but also for human liberation. The more mystical among them suggest that this had in some sense been the war’s purpose all along, but that it was only gradually that Lincoln himself became aware of the significance of the historical moment into which he had been placed.

But there is no reason that this kind of argument should be raised only on behalf of the Northern cause and not for the Southern. In other words, isn’t it possible that the South’s own self-understanding also evolved over the course of the war? Thus even if some people did believe they had seceded over slavery, is it not possible that they, too, may eventually have begun to appreciate larger issues at stake in the conflict just as Lincoln is said to have done?

Donald Livingston, professor of philosophy at Emory University, has identified one of these larger issues, and it was one that Southerners did indeed appreciate. In the modern age, Livingston observes, we have seen federative polities giving way to modern states. A federative polity is one in which a variety of smaller jurisdictions exist — like families, voluntary organizations, towns and states, and in medieval Europe institutions like guilds, universities, and the Church. Each of these social authorities has powers and rights of its own that the central government cannot overturn. Each of them is also a potential source of corporate resistance to the central government. Prior to the rise of the modern state, political leaders who desired centralization therefore found themselves up against the historic liberties of towns, guilds, universities, the Church, and similar corporate bodies.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, set out parameters for the modern state in Leviathan (1651) that developed into unexamined premises that later thinkers (even putative opponents like John Locke) all but took for granted. The modern state about which Hobbes theorized is one in which the central government is absolutely supreme, and in which society is thought of as being composed not of independent social authorities, as in a federative polity, but of a simple aggregate of individuals. There are no truly independent social authorities in the modern state because nothing is thought to be independent of or prior to the central government. All potential for corporate resistance is gone; mere individuals, by contrast, are typically helpless against a strong central government.

It is true that the modern state could protect individuals from the oppressions of these smaller authorities. Thus the modern state could end slavery in one fell swoop. But as Livingston points out, it could also carry out great atrocities, of a kind the world had never before seen. State slavery now re-emerged, not only in the form of the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camps, but also in the form of military conscription, a uniquely modern idea. In just four years, nearly three times as many men were killed in World War I as there were slaves in the South. (Its sequel, World War II, took 50 million lives.) Tens of millions would perish in slave labor camps, dwarfing the 11 million slaves brought to the New World (five percent of whom went to North America) in 400 years of the slave trade.

What must be emphasized here, according to Livingston,

is that this enormous destruction was due primarily not to advanced technology, nor to the wickedness and madness of certain leaders (as important as both of these were) but to the structure of the modern state itself: the destruction of independent social authorities and the massive concentration of power at the center. Had Hitler and Stalin been absolute monarchs in the eighteenth century, they could not have carried out the destruction they did, simply because they would not have had the authority to do so. They would have been hedged in by powerful independent social authorities whose titles were as good as their own and who could be expected to resist.

Livingston’s conclusion is that we must give the moral benefit of the doubt to people who were fighting to prevent the transformation of the United States into such a state, and who would instead have given the world the moral example of a federal republic that acknowledged the sovereignty of its constituent parts. "Europeans at the time of the War for Southern Independence," he writes,

recognized that the Union was engaged in a Jacobin revolution to create a unitary state. Marx and Mill rejoiced in the project of destroying the federative order, as did the British liberal journal The Spectator, which declared in December 1866: "The American Revolution marches fast towards its goal — the change of a Federal Commonwealth into a Democratic Republic, one and indivisible." The so-called "Civil War" was in fact America’s French Revolution.

But Lord Acton (famous for his maxim that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely) viewed what he too called "the American Revolution" with alarm. He had admired the federative character of the original American polity as the best example of how an ethic of individual liberty could be reconciled with the independence of substantial moral communities, and he admired the Confederacy as the most advanced expression of such a polity. He thought the triumph of the Union was a disaster because it would encourage the trend toward consolidationism and nationalism that was transforming Europe into an order of French revolutionary-style republics.

The best Southern thinkers, though of course they could not have known just how strongly vindicated they would be after the atrocities of the twentieth century, understood this principle. Consider the lament of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America:

If centralism is ultimately to prevail; if our entire system of free Institutions as established by our common ancestors is to be subverted, and an Empire is to be established in their stead; if that is to be the last scene of the great tragic drama now being enacted: then, be assured, that we of the South will be acquitted, not only in our own consciences, but in the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all guilt of so great a crime against humanity.

Likewise, Robert E. Lee wrote:

I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only are essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas 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.

"Had the Confederate States of America survived," Livingston argues, "the world would have had the model of a vast-scale federative polity with a strong central authority explicitly checked by the ultimate right of a state to secede." It would have shown the world that an alternative existed to the modern state. Instead, movements for national unification (as in Germany and Italy) were and are portrayed as indisputably progressive and as fully in line with the forward march of history, when in fact the world would have been spared a good deal of grief had a decentralized political order remained the rule in central and southern Europe.

That is why the South’s failure so saddened the great British libertarian Lord Acton. In a November 1866 letter to Robert E. Lee, Acton wrote:

I saw in States’ rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy…. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization, and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

There can be no minimizing the abolition of slavery, and that it was an enormously significant result of the war. But one may certainly ask whether the abolition of slavery had to be brought about in a manner that resulted in 1.5 million people dead, wounded, or missing; overwhelming material devastation; the undermining of the concept of civilized warfare; and the destruction of the American constitutional order in a way that forever strengthened the federal government at the expense of the self-governing rights of the states. Every other country in the Western hemisphere that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century did so peacefully. It is rather unflattering to assume that Americans were so savage that they were the only people for whom a negotiated settlement of the slave issue was simply impossible.

It is not plausible to suggest that slavery could have lasted much longer, even in an independent South. With slavery being abolished everywhere, the Confederacy would have been an international pariah, and it is unreasonable to suppose that it could have long withstood the inevitable and overwhelming international moral pressure to which their isolated position would have exposed them. And according to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, whose study of the war has been hailed by mainstream historians, "The fact that emancipation overwhelmed such entrenched plantation economies as Cuba and Brazil suggests that slavery was politically moribund anyway."

Slavery was doomed politically even if Lincoln had permitted the small Gulf Coast Confederacy to depart in peace. The Republican-controlled Congress would have been able to work toward emancipation within the border states, where slavery was already declining. In due course the Radicals could have repealed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. With chattels fleeing across the border and raising slavery’s enforcement costs, the peculiar institution’s destruction within an independent cotton South was inevitable.

This latter point recalls the earlier suggestion of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: a division of the Union would have hastened the end of slavery. It so happens that, as Hummel observes, this is precisely how slavery was destroyed in Brazil. The institution essentially collapsed there after being abolished in the Brazilian state of Ceará in 1884. A hastily passed fugitive slave law was largely ignored, the value of slaves fell dramatically, and within four years the Brazilian government had acknowledged the reality of the situation by enacting immediate and uncompensated emancipation.

What happened in the U.S. instead was a war that has been called the greatest atrocity of the nineteenth century. No one mourns the passing of the slave system. But those who can see nothing more than slavery at stake in this contest miss the insight of men like Lord Acton, who saw in this victory for centralization a defeat for the values of civilized life in the West. With the destruction of state sovereignty went both the main institutional restraint on the power of the federal government as well as the important moral example of a polity organized along different lines from those of the centralized states that would come to dominate the political landscape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There are still a good many libertarians and conservatives who, denigrating state sovereignty and political decentralization, seek to secure liberty by means of a strong central government, kept in check by periodic elections, that protects people’s individual rights. That this model has not exactly been a smashing success ought to make such thinkers reconsider their enthusiasm for the superficially plausible but dramatically failed project of liberty through centralization whose American founding father was Abraham Lincoln.