home > archive > 2002 > this article
Rights, libertarianism and the Confederacy
By W. James Antle III
The Civil War ended in 1865, but it continues to arouse passions even today. Dr. Thomas J. DiLorenzo of Loyola College has stoked such passions anew by provoking a heated debate among conservatives and libertarians over that war and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln with his book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda and An Unnecessary War.
DiLorenzo's scathing reappraisal of both the Civil War and Lincoln - a president deified across the political spectrum and placed by the American psyche in the same pantheon as the Founding Fathers - does not make for politically correct reading. But it does make some valid points. Lincoln's reputation as a great racial egalitarian is largely a myth and, while some may justify this on the grounds that it was a time of war, his administration did not represent a particularly bright period for civil liberties in the United States. Wars are rarely a simple morality tale, a battle in which one side is completely good and the other completely evil. DiLorenzo's book is an important contribution, as it forcefully demonstrates the flaws of the Northern position and President Lincoln.
Nevertheless, too many libertarian and conservative Lincoln critics have jumped to the conclusion that these flaws necessarily imply that there were no corresponding flaws in the Southern position. Many even go so far as to portray the South's struggle as an unambiguous battle for limited government. If it is misguided to portray the Union side as an impassioned crusade for racial equality, it is equally misguided to portray the Confederacy as a bastion of libertarianism.
Southern leaders were espousing a political philosophy that was no more libertarian than the mercantilism that was gaining traction in the Republican Party in the North. The Southern political thought that underlined the Confederacy was hostile to classical liberalism, capitalism, industrialism and the notion of innate individual rights. Southern leaders dating back to John Calhoun assailed the Declaration of Independence and many adherents of the Confederacy saw themselves fighting a counterrevolution opposed to the very ideals of the American Revolution.
Thus, Confederate apologist (though reluctant secessionist) George Fitzhugh fervently opposed capitalism and argued that the "Southern Revolution of 1861" was a "solemn protest against the doctrines of natural liberty, human equality and the social contracts as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776, and an equally solemn protest against the doctrines of Adam Smith, Franklin, Say and Tom Paine and the rest of the infidel, political economists, who maintain that the world is too much governed." "Nothing can be more unfounded and false," said Calhoun of natural rights. Thomas Cooper asserted, ""No human being ever was, now is, or ever will be born free." Rights were not inherent, but given by society and to be carefully restricted.
In attacking the Declaration ideal that "all men are created equal," Calhoun argued that only two people had ever been created, the second (Eve) subordinate to the first (Adam). Blacks were not equal to whites and whites unequal on the basis of class. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens argued that while the United States had been founded upon the Declaration's claims of human equality, the Confederacy was "founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition."
Libertarian essayist Tibor Machan has argued that a seceding group does not have the right to take unwilling third parties along with it. He was referring to slaves, but he could have made his case broader than that. The Confederacy had among its unlibertarian goals the preservation of the slave owning class' political power within highly centralized state governments and a hierarchical class structure. In her book The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, University of Massachusetts at Amherst historian Manisha Sinha argued that some Southern nationalists even wanted to create a hereditary aristocracy, dominated by the "slave power." Plantation owners were not only depriving blacks of liberty, but also the great majority of non-slave-holding whites with considerably less economic and political power. And there were many pockets of resistance to the Confederacy within the states that left the Union: east Tennessee, western parts of Virginia and North Carolina, sections of northern Georgia and elsewhere contained few slaves but many Union sympathizers.
This slave-owning class wielded power in every state held by the Confederacy and considerable power within the federal government prior to the 1860 presidential election. This class also was perfectly willing to use the power of the federal government when necessary to suit its needs. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 used federal soldiers and marshals to return slaves that had escaped to places where slavery had been abolished in the North back to the Southern plantation owners. The Dred Scott decision of 1857, denying all blacks constitutional rights, was an amazing example of federal judicial activism. If Lincoln at various points in his career accepted both, it is nevertheless the case that it was Southern leaders who bare primary responsibility for those federal policies. Southern leaders were selectively willing to use unprecedented federal power as well as states' rights and secession when necessary to accomplish their goals.
While it is true that Lincoln's method of creating the state of West Virginia was constitutionally problematic, it is equally true that the western counties of Virginia did not want to leave the Union. It is true that the Union suspended habeas corpus, but so did the Confederacy. It is true that there were crimes committed by Union forces against Confederate civilians, most infamously Gen. William Sherman. But there were equally immoral activities undertaken by Confederate forces, including killing captured black soldiers from the North and sending free blacks captured in Pennsylvania to the South to be slaves.
This doesn't mean that Southerners should be ashamed of their heritage or that the Confederate battle flag should be torn from public places, as some suggest. Most Confederate soldiers - perhaps 90 percent - never owned slaves and fought in the belief their homeland was in danger. Both sides of the Civil War are a part of United States history. DiLorenzo and others are correct to point out facts unfavorable to the North and more favorable to the South that are often ignored or even suppressed in discussions of the Civil War. But we must also be careful to avoid replacing one overly simplified morality tale of Southern villains being vanquished by the enlightened North with an equally oversimplified morality tale of an unsuccessful revolution for small government by Southern libertarians that was mercilessly crushed by Northern despots.
As usual, the truth is much more complicated.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.