Slavery and the Origins of the American Civil War: A Rebuttle to Libertarian Revisionism

April 13, 2015
November 1, 2016

I have written a lot on contemporary politics, but it is not only the present, or in some cases the future, which interests me. Marx, writing in the context of Napoleon III’s 1852 coup in France, claimed that all History repeats, the second time as farce, and while I reject his degree of parallelism, I think history is vital to understanding the present. This is for two reasons; first, countries, parties, and social groups learn from History, even if the History they learn from is what they think happened rather than what did happen, and even if all they learn from past mistakes is how to make different ones in the future. The second is that History does to some extent repeat; not because of any historically deterministic law, but because individuals in similar circumstances will tend to have a similar set of options available, and face similar considerations. In these cases they often, though not always, make the same decisions, and it is those who don’t, and the reasons they don’t, that really stand out.One of the areas I have been interested in since I was young was the American Civil War. Early on this manifested itself in a fascination with its battles and strategy, in my experience a common prelude to a career as a right-wing commentator. I went in a different direction, becoming interested in why it happened. 

The origins of the Civil War stand out not because they are hard to ascertain; everyone was quite clear about what they were doing and why they were doing it, and there were few irrational actors screwing things up for the historian. Almost all the actors, major and minor, behaved in ways that made sense. Nonetheless, the origins of the Civil War remain controversial not because the truth is not fairly obvious, but because political parties, and in parts of the country, the racial and social groups which are indistinguishable from them, are heavily invested in its mythic qualities. Nowhere is this more true than in the role of slavery, which for many American public schools, has turned into an opportunity for national catharsis, by building up Abraham Lincoln as the martyr who died for America’s sins.

 Such a blatantly romantic narrative would be almost guaranteed to produce a reaction from historians even if it wasn’t for the politically charged nature of the dispute. Hence there has long been a counter-narrative that the War was over “Constitutional” issues or principles, which are often quite vague for good reason. More recently, the fringes of the Libertarian movement have embraced the conflict in almost as manichaean Good and Evil terms as the schools, seeing it as a struggle between an all-powerful government, and a more decentralized, individualistic view of the state. The South’s fight is noble and principled, even if the specific instance of that principle in the form of human bondage is regrettable. 

This is as much claptrap as most stuff uttered from such quarters. The Civil War was about slavery and its role in the Constitutional system.That is not to say this wasn’t a controversial statement at the time. Not only was Lincoln at pains to say that he fought against secession, not slavery, but long before the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the dramatization of which was the basis for the film Lincoln, the Republican-dominated congress passed a very different 13th Amendment. This Amendment, passed in 1861, would have forbidden forever any federal intervention with the status of slavery in territories where it already existed. Such a proffered concession makes a mockery of the idea that the Lincoln or anyone else on the Northern side was set on an ideological confrontation in 1860. 

Yet the contrary argument, that the act of secession was insane, and that slavery was under no short-term threat, also holds a misunderstanding of the actual situation facing the Southern states in 1861. While they almost certainly did not face a legal threat to slavery’s existence, the institution was in a far weaker position than it seemed. It required not just the neutrality of the Federal authorities but their active support to remain viable. Without Federal enforcement of Fugitive Slave Laws, the economic costs of escaped slaves rendered the institution for nonviable for any but the largest plantation owners, while the political consensus within the South was only maintained through a regime of strict censorship and intimidation that could only last as long as local Federal officials were complicit. Southern actions during the 1850s, ranging from the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Fugitive Slave Law and Dred Scott decision illustrated their understanding of this, as well as their (well-justified)fears of the ultimate futility of the effort.Hence it is plausible to question whether if the South had not seceded, Slavery would have ever been endangered. The answer here is revealing. Lincoln and the Republicans were almost certainly more than honest when they stated that their intention was to halt the spread of slavery, but not to eliminate it. Had the Southern states remained in the Union, they likely would have faced no legislative assault on their “peculiar institution.” That is not to say however that they would not have faced an assault of a different sort. Lincoln’s election would have marked the first time since Zachary Taylor’s brief Presidency when federal power would have been in the hands of an anti-Slavery administration, and Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder, was hostile Southern defiance of federal authority, not to slavery per se. Nonetheless, Taylor’s efforts to force the South to accept the majoritarian decision to admit California and New Mexico as free states almost produced a Civil War which was only narrowly averted by his surprise death.Southern fears regarding slavery hinged not on its legal status, but on its economic and social viability, both of which were deteriorating rapidly in the 1840s and 50s. Increased literacy was bringing a double-pronged assault on the institution, helping to inform slaves of the prospects of freedom that lay beyond state borders, and creating the potential for a “fifth column” of native anti-slavery radicals among the white population. The latter had already proven highly dangerous in the Border States. Debates over gradual abolition in Kentucky and Missouri had driven a substantial number of slaveholders to migrate southward in order to protect their property which in turn had denuded their political power within that border zone. 

While Southerners maintained total political control in the Deep South, helped by extensive systems of censorship, criminal fines and the threat of imprisonment for the possession of abolitionist literature among white citizens, these methods were of doubtful constitutionality and depended on control of the patronage of federal postmasterships and judicial offices. The loss of these, or their occupation by more moderate southerners who even while being pro-Slavery, thought that these undemocratic means were preventing the natural evolution of the South, could cause the whole house of cards to collapse. If the Federal Government ceased enforcing the fugitive slave laws in the North, the trickle of escaped slaves would become a torrent; if federal postmasters ceased enforcing the censorship of abolitionist literature, it would become infinitely more difficult to keep such information from the slaves. In such an environment, with the prospect of freedom sucking slaves by their thousands off of plantations, slave prices would collapse.  With this collapse likely to be the most serious in the Border States where access to both freedom and information would be the easiest, slavery would be all but extinguished there, with the few remaining slaveholders fleeing southward, further crashing the market with a glut of supply at the very moment the limited long-term prospects and increased security costs were already rendering slavery economically non-viable.  In such circumstances, the southern elite would be desperate to salvage what they could, and would likely be highly receptive to any sort of compensation plans which would assuredly be floated by concerned Republicans in Washington.

In the context of these fears, legal and constitutional guarantees from the congressional Republican party were worthless; the minimum even moderate southerners needed was a promise of control over executive patronage in the South. It is revealing that of the communications Lincoln engaged in with senior Southern political figures after his election, most prominently with future Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and North Carolina Congressman, the Southerners increasingly stressed that the one act by which Lincoln could arrest the political momentum towards secession in the South would be by pledging to defer to Southern congressional representatives on patronage. This Lincoln could not easily do, since the Republican Party lacked a Southern wing. It would have meant in effect agreeing to allow the Democratic Party and not just the Democratic Party, but the Southern Democratic party chose his appointees. And in the absence of such guarantees, or the intention to carry them out, the actual immediate threat that hard-line southerners feared would nevertheless be realized.

Would that guarantee have been enough? Secession was close in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, where it passed by 53-47, 54-46, and 51-49 respectively. But Unionism in the South was conditional, hence the term “Conditional Unionist” under which most of the anti-Secession slates ran in 1861. Those conditions varied; some were less conditions at all, than a feeling that the timing was not right, that it was better to wait until Lincoln had clearly alienated the entire South through some offense or other that could be used as a rallying cry. Stephens was definitely of the opinion that an agreement on patronage would have been sufficient to see off the secessionists in Georgia, which likely would have left South Carolina isolated.But even that achievement would have come at too high a cost. The agreement on patronage the South sought was a ticking time-bomb. Much less a compromise than a mutilation of the President’s executive authority under the Constitution, it would have established a dangerous precedent for any later President. It also was a precedent and principle that even the South could not stand behind. While upholding their own right to veto Federal appointments, Southern Democrats could never concede the same to the North. Administered by Southern partisans, the Fugitive Slave Act had proven ineffective in halting the drain of slaves northward during the 1850s; its status, even ir it remained on the books, once Republicans took over its enforcement could easily be guessed at. As such, even a resolution of the immediate dispute over Southern patronage would have resulted in a new crisis six months or a year later when the issue of Northern enforcement or non-enforcement of federal laws arose, and within a year or two the conditions being put upon Lincoln even by moderate Southerners would have been to in effect adopt the policies of the Buchanan Administration.

Many historians have been quick to write that Southern attitudes were irrational; in the sense of understanding what they could reasonably get out of a Washington where the North held a majority there may be something to that claim. But Southerners were deeply aware, perhaps even more so than abolitionists of what a regressive institution like slavery needed to survive in the modernizing world of the 19th century. Governmental indifference, even deference was not enough; what was needed was a government that saw its purpose in the protection of “property”(slavery) was willing to subordinate every other interest, political, economic, constitutional, towards that end. Even in regards to their demands of Washington, it was the moderates, not the “Fire-Eaters” who displayed an irrational attitude towards what was and was not achievable politically from the United States. The moderates, either refusing to believe, or not wanting to confront the truth of what sort of sacrifices would be needed to build a society that would be safe for slavery, hung onto the idea that they could remain in the United States and use Washington as a check on the corrosive political effects slavery was having on Southern society, and yet nevertheless get enough concessions to safeguard it. The “Fire-Eaters” understood that only a government fully committed to protection of slavery could enable it to survive, and that the North could never concede that; hence secession was the logical solution. They faced head-on the costs that this would demand of their new state – censorship, hostility to education, xenophobia, economic underdevelopment – and embraced them wholeheartedly as worth it.

Southern apologists today parrot the words of the old-Southern “Conditional Unionists”; they insist that the conflict that provoked the crisis of 1861 was over Constitutional issues, the right of secession, or in truly absurd cases, point to innovations in the Confederate Constitution(limits on Amendments, providing Cabinet Secretaries with seats in Congress, bans on internal improvements) and see it as a road-map to a small government paradise. They are dishonest or willfully blind. Every one of those issues related directly to slavery, from the restrictions on Amendments and Representation, designed to gut the political power of a future urban population, to the single-term Presidency, engineered to prevent the rise of a figure strong enough to push for any sort of institutional reform. The regime would have been small government only in the sense that it would provide few social services and rapidly run into bankruptcy, the fate of states with similar constitutions in Latin America. As for “libertarianism” or personal freedom, the state of the South in the 1850s; near universal censorship, violence against opposing candidates, every piece of mail opened, does not inspire much confidence. The choice was not about the identity of America, which had already been determined, but about that of the South; in 1861 the South had to chose between two separate legacies of the Revolution, Slavery, or every other institution and principle that mattered. A bare majority chose the former, and once they did a War was inevitable if not in 1861, then in 1862, or 1865, or 1869. But it would have come and it would have come because of slavery. Every other issue existed because of it, and none of them would have mattered without it.

Similar articles

No items found.