Who Cares about the Civil War?
by Harry Browne
July 31, 2002
I believe an understanding of the Civil War has great relevance to the future of liberty in America.
It may be the most misunderstood of all American wars. And so much of what we lament today — government intrusions on civil liberties, unlimited taxation, corporate welfare, disregarding of the Constitution, funny money — date back to programs started during the Civil War.
Although slavery was an ever-present political issue in the early 1800s, it wasn't the immediate cause of the war. In fact, Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address vowed that he wouldn't interfere with slavery.
He also said the North wouldn't invade the South unless necessary to collect taxes.
Before the war, the main concern about slavery was whether new states and territories would come into the Union as free states or slave states. This affected the balance of power in Congress, and both Northerners and Southerners worried that the other region might dominate Congress.
Why then was the Civil War fought?
As with most wars, there's no single answer. But the predominant cause was taxation.
Before his election, Lincoln had promoted very high tariffs (federal taxes on foreign imports), using the receipts to build railroads, canals, roads, and other federal pork-barrel projects.
The tariffs protected Northern manufacturers from foreign competition, and were paid mostly by the non-manufacturing South, while most of the proposed boondoggles were to be built in the North. Thus the South was being forced to subsidize Northern corporate welfare.
Certainly the Southerners were concerned about the future of slavery. But there was no threat in 1861 that the federal government would be able to outlaw it.
When Lincoln was elected, South Carolina saw a grim future ahead and seceded. Other Southern states quickly followed suit.
Lincoln asserted that no state had a right to secede from the Union — even though several geographical regions had considered secession before. Few people thought the Union couldn't survive if some states decided to leave.
Upon seceding, the Confederates took over all federal forts and other facilities in the South, with no opposition from Lincoln. The last remaining federal facilities were Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Lincoln at first promised to let the South have Fort Sumter, but then tried to reinforce it. The South moved to confiscate it — shelling the Fort for many hours. (No one was killed or even seriously injured.)
Why was Fort Sumter important? Because it guarded a major tariff-collecting facility in the harbor at Charleston. So long as the Union controlled it, the South would still have to pay Lincoln's oppressive tariffs.
Although there had been only scattered Northern opposition to the secessions, the shelling of Fort Sumter (like the bombing of Pearl Harbor almost a century later) incited many Northerners to call for war against the South. The South's seizure of Fort Sumter caused many Northerners to notice that the South would no longer be subsidizing Northern manufacturing.
As the war began, the sole issue was restoration of the Union — not ending slavery. Only in 1863 did the Emancipation Proclamation go into effect, and it didn't actually free a single slave — just like so many laws today that don't perform the purpose for which they were promoted. .
The Lincoln Presidency imposed a police state upon America — North and South. He shut down newspapers that disagreed with him, suspended habeas corpus, imprisoned civilians without trials, and went to war — all without Congressional authority.
Just as future Presidents would do, he used the war as an excuse to increase government dramatically. He rewarded his political friends with pork-barrel projects, flooded the country with paper money, established a national banking system to finance a large federal debt, and imposed the first income tax. He also destroyed the balance between the executive and Congressional branches, and between the federal government and the states.
He set in motion many precedents we suffer from today. That's why it's important to understand the Civil War for what it was, not what the mythmakers want it to be.
Was slavery an evil? Of course.
Is it a blessing that it ended? Of course.
Was it necessary for 140,414 people to die in order to end slavery? Definitely not. The U.S. was the only western country that ended slavery through violence — outside of Haiti (where it ended through a slave revolt). During the 19th century dozens of nations ended slavery peaceably.
What Was Lincoln?
Was Lincoln opposed to slavery? Yes, he became an abolitionist in the mid-1850s, although he said he didn't know how slavery could be ended.
Lincoln's fans have portrayed him as the Great Emancipator, Honest Abe, who with great courage and single-minded determination fought a Civil War to free the slaves. Many of his detractors have tried to show that he was actually a racist.
I think it's important to understand that, more than anything else, he was a politician. Throughout his career he shaded the truth for political advantage, he played both sides against the middle, he lied about his opponents, and he used government force to get what he wanted. Like so many politicians, he continually uttered platitudes about liberty while doing everything in his power to curtail it.
His idolaters applaud him for being a dictatorial politician, saying this was precisely what America needed in 1861. No historian believes he acted within the Constitution.
Importance of Studying the Civil War
I believe the study of the origins and conduct of the Civil War is an important part of a libertarian education.
Although the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society each caused government growth to accelerate, only the Civil War caused a complete break with the past. It transformed a federation of states into a national government. It introduced the elements of big government that later movements would build on. And it set in motion the disregard for the Constitution that's taken for granted today.
You'll also find parallels between the Civil War and today's War on Terrorism.
Lincoln and the Civil War are fascinating subjects. I've read numerous books about them, and I can highly recommend two recent books that provide an excellent introduction.
Jeffrey Hummel's book "Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men" (published in 1996) and Thomas DiLorenzo's "The Real Lincoln" (2002) are both well-documented and very well-written. You'll find reading either of them (or both) to be an adventure, rather than a task.
Hummel's book is longer, more complete, and perhaps more balanced. DiLorenzo's is faster reading. Both are well worth their inexpensive prices.
We're fortunate that Amazon carries an enormous assortment of pro-liberty titles, and makes it easy to order books online.