10 Libertarian Thoughts on the Civil War

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Let’s talk about libertarianism and the Civil War this weekend. Libertarians are the interesting gadflies in American politics. Almost all of their proposals are intelligent, passionate, and sensible. And then, out of nowhere, as if some irresistible force of nature draws them to controversy, these libertarians will start talking about the Civil War. 

Here’s the issue: libertarians believe that the individual should be the point of focus in any discussion of history and, by extension, public policy. They place the individual above the community, the nation, the globe, the environment, the proletariat, etc., because they think that’s the best way to go about self-government and protecting freedom. This is an abstract argument to begin with, and when you throw electoral politics into the mix you’re going to get a lot of confusion and a lot bad faith.

So, your correspondent is here to explain to you why libertarians and libertarian-leaning politicians tend to stutter whenever the topic of the Civil War is brought up, and when your libertarian buddies on Facebook always end up screaming about Lincoln being a tyrant.

10. Exit. Libertarians are big fans of exit. If an organization has become too stifling, or too oppressive, individuals have a right to leave. The constitution of the United States is a great covenant between states (perhaps the best) and does a good job of checking and balancing nodes of power between various branches and functions of governance. But it’s not perfect. Indeed, it’s not supposed to be. One of the more glaring problems with constitutions in general is the lack of an exit strategy for polities that no longer what to be a part of a covenant. There would have to be rules for an exit in place, such as a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote from, say, both legislative houses and the people, but without any clear option for exit civil wars are bound to happen. This is exactly what went wrong with the Southern states when they tried to leave the union. Without an exit strategy embedded into the constitutional blueprint of the country, the Southern states had no option but to try and secede illegally.

9. War. Libertarians don’t generally like war (it would be unfair to state that they vehemently oppose it, though). Wars curb liberties and drain treasuries. Therefore, according to the logic of many libertarians, the Civil War was an evil that led to the death of 700,000 souls and never should have happened. Worse yet, according to these same libertarians, Abraham Lincoln was the republic’s first “dictator-tyrant” and hellbent on bringing big government to the South. There is a kernel of truth to this sentiment, as Lincoln did curb liberties (think of the draft riots, for example) and the eventual military occupation of the South did bring “big government” of a sort to the region, but libertarians who take this path are only fooling themselves. The union had every right to invade the confederacy and abolish chattel slavery. Libertarians get so worked up about centralized power that they sometimes forget to see the bigger picture, and end up supporting tyrants abroad in the name of abolishing war. This is embarrassing for libertarians like your correspondent, of course, and it’s still an issue that we have to work out between ourselves, but the weird libertarian penchant for labeling Lincoln a “tyrant” or supporting the confederacy has nothing to do with slavery or racism; rather, the pro-Confederacy argument from libertarians is about the long-standing tension (in libertarian circles) between political decentralization and universal rights.

8. Tariffs. You will sometimes come across libertarians who argue that slavery was not the issue that the North and South fought over. Instead, tariffs are to blame for the War Between the States. The Republican Party, nestled in the industrializing areas of the north, had long been the party of protectionism, and the Democrats had long been the party of free trade. Tariffs are taxes placed on foreign goods entering a domestic market. This has the effect of making goods produced at home cheaper for domestic markets (these goods also have less quality than goods on the more-competitive world market). The 19th-century United States was known abroad for its agricultural products - cotton, tobacco, indigo, etc. - and high tariffs would be bad for southern business interests (but good for northern ones). It was also believed (erroneously or otherwise) that tariff revenues would benefit northern interests more than southern ones due to the former’s larger population and greater need for infrastructure. In the case of the 19th-century U.S., then, the GOP had every reason to want tariffs because the industrial goods produced in the north were non-competitive in the world market and “Buy American” would lead to better outcomes for domestic manufacturing firms. The Democrats had every reason to oppose tariffs because their agricultural products would be targeted abroad and their revenues would shrink precipitously. So for many libertarians (and others) looking for an excuse to oppose war and decry a lack of exits, the tariff dispute between the north and the south becomes a rallying cry. The Civil War was about the slavery question, though. The question was not should the U.S. abolish slavery in the south (which Lincoln and nearly everybody else thought was out of the question), it was should slavery be allowed to extend into recently acquired territories clamoring for statehood.

7. Imperialism. Imperialism has always been more of a burden than a boon, and the American experience in the 19th century was no different. Imperialism is admired for this very reason by its proponents, since an empire’s burdens are to borne by superior people. This romantic view of empire is vulgar to the libertarian, whose preferred abstract unit of society is the individual. The empire of liberty that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the time of the Civil War tore the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic to shreds. The republic of Madison and Hamilton had grave sins committed in its name, from seizing a large swath of territory from a weaker neighbor to the ethnic cleansing campaigns that removed the indigenous populations from their homelands and confined them to reservations, both processes are viewed as abominations by libertarians. The moral aspects of imperialism are only complicated when the practical considerations of an empire are confronted. What was a republic to do about the newly acquired territories in its realm? These territories were opened up and migration to them from the seaboard was heavily encouraged. It was only a matter of time before these migrants began to clamor for representation. The major problem that arose from imperial expansion was slavery. Were these new states to become slave-friendly or abolitionist? Blood was spilled on numerous occasions (remember “Bleeding Kansas?") but the issue continually stalled in the Senate.

6. The Senate problem. The senate is one federal institution that libertarians should be, but are not, more amiable toward. It is a body of elected representatives that balances out the democratic recklessness of the House of Representatives with the monarchical ambitions of the presidency. Prior to 1913, when the 17th Amendment was ratified, senators were elected by state legislatures so as to give the commonwealths that gave up some sovereignty for federation a voice in federal politics. This is a tough pill for many libertarians to swallow because it removed an impediment between the American people and the federal government, and reckless democracy is just as bad for liberty as monarchical ambition. Nevertheless, the senate is still a useful political body when it comes to taming power. James Bryce, an eminent English legal scholar famed for his work on the United States, pointed out that the senators from the south, in the 30 years leading up to the Civil War, were adamant about adding new pro-slavery states to the union so that they would not lose equality of representation in the senate. The act of forcing slavery upon populations in the newly opened west bred deep social resentments and led to a stalemate about the future status of these territories that was only, finally settled four months before the advent of the Civil War.

5. Shout-outs to Alexis de Tocqueville and Joseph Smith. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the best book on America, ever. Joseph Smith founded the “American religion” (to quote Leo Tolstoy). Both men also saw that the north-south divide in the United States was bound to lead to future calamity. It wouldn’t be accurate to call their thoughts on the American divide “predictions,” but both men were outsiders in one form or another, and both men have etched their names into history. The French, who had lost Tocqueville just two years prior to the beginning of the Civil War, approach to the American bloodbath was to remain neutral (after consulting with the United Kingdom), and instead invade Mexico. Napoleon III invaded Mexico, in the name of free trade, late in 1861 and established a puppet monarchy, which angered the United States as it violated the Monroe Doctrine. However, there was not much the U.S. could do and Napoleon III did not abandon his puppet until early 1866, when it became apparent which side was victorious in the American Civil War. The French preferred normalized relations with the American republic to a puppet monarch in the Mexican one. The Mormons, for their part, largely sat out the Civil War. Volunteers from Utah helped guard the mail routes from Indian attacks, but other than that, the Mormons, who had not yet been assimilated into American society (indeed, they had only fled from violence in Missouri to Utah a few decades prior to the Civil War), were content to let both sides bleed.

4. The slave trade. Libertarians are, because of their individualist ethos, internationalists by definition (this is one of the reasons neither Democrats nor Republicans can find too much common ground with them). The transatlantic African slave trade officially ended in 1853 when Brazil finally ended the importation of slaves. Slavery itself continued unabated well into the late 19th century, and its continued existence served as a prime excuse for European powers to expand their territorial influence across the globe. The U.K.’s crusade against slavery, for example, brought an end to one evil but the beginning of another, as London conquered one African polity after another under the guise of anti-slavery intervention and incorporated them into the British Empire. France did the same, and between them the two countries laid the foundations for a doctrine that continues to plague the world with strife, misery, and unequal relations: humanitarian intervention. When the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed, its lucrative market in the New World essentially disappeared as slave owners focused on continuity and order rather than supply and demand. In the Old World, though, especially in Africa, intracontinental slave trading flourished as numerous empires sought to find new markets for the products (“slaves”) that had made them rich and powerful in the first place. This led to harsh violence and despotism throughout the continent and laid the foundations for the despotism and xenophobia that continue to plague the continent of Africa today.

3. The Ottoman Empire and Egypt. The southern states got very good at exporting cotton. When the Civil War began, there were several places throughout the world that sought to replace American cotton with their own. Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico was done partly due to the fact that the French emperor thought that Mexico would make a great place to produce exportable cotton. However, cotton was Ottoman Egypt’s main cash crop during the Civil War and several factions sought to capitalize on American misfortune. Egypt was a semi-autonomous province (“eyalet”) of the Ottoman Empire during the American Civil War and was in the midst of building the Suez Canal with French help. Egypt’s cotton industry boomed, and its leaders strove to modernize the eyalet as quickly as possible. Egypt was the first country outside of Europe or the U.S. to have a railroad. Telegraph lines were installed and put to use throughout the country. Enterprising foreigners brought an influx of valuable knowledge, beliefs, and customs that deeply enriched the Ottoman (semi-autonomous) province. The cotton boom also contributed to financial mismanagement of Egypt, and the British established a long-term military presence in the country in 1882 to ensure that all debts to foreign investors be paid in full (the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, probably had something to do with the permanent British military presence, too).

2. Brazil and Dom Pedro II. Brazil shares many similarities with the United States, including a long history of slavery. In fact, Brazil was last country to abolish the slave trade (1853) and abolish slavery (1888), and while the country remained neutral during the Civil War, its impact could be felt. Most notably, after the confederacy surrendered to the north, 20,000 slave owners fled the United States and moved to Brazil, where they established new plantations and became known as “Confederados.” Brazil was a monarchy at the time, and its emperor, Dom Pedro II, had sent recruiters to the American south in order to bring skilled tradesmen and farmers to his country. While the emperor himself worked to abolish slavery in his country, he could not pass up the opportunity to invite tens of thousands of skilled migrants into his realm to help spur economic, political, and cultural development. The last monarch of Brazil, Pedro II’s Brazil fought two wars during the American Civil War, one against Paraguay and one in Uruguay as an intervening neighbor. The Paraguayan War, which lasted from 1864-70, was the deadliest interstate war in Latin American history and was fought between Paraguay and an alliance of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Brazil’s role in the Uruguayan War (1864-65) was to bolster the support of the governing party (“Blanco party”) and help it fight a rebellious party (“Colorado party”) that was supported financially and ideologically (but not militarily) by Argentina, Brazil’s ally in the Paraguayan War. Brazil emerged from these series of wars as a regional hegemon and Pedro II is admired domestically for his statesmanship involving these wars.

1. China and its own civil war. The American Civil War led to the loss of 700,000 lives and devastated the southern economy for at least a generation, but it was small potatoes compared another civil war that was raging at the time: the Dungan, Miao, Nian, Taiping, and Panthay Revolts in China. The Dungan Revolt led to hundreds of millions of people being displaced or slaughtered in what were a series of rebellions against the Qing dynasty, and lasted from 1850-77. Some of the violence occurred due to price-fixing schemes designed to favor one ethnic group (the Han) over others, while the Taiping Rebellion was a legitimate challenge by Christian millenarians to Qing hegemony. The violence and destruction bled into neighboring countries, as places like Burma, Vietnam, and Russia were flooded with refugees, and places as far away as Indonesia and the United States were inundated with refugees from the rebellions. The Qing dynasty survived all of the challenges to its supremacy, but weakened it so much that the Europeans and Americans began to carve out spheres of influence in what was once an impossible place to colonize. The favoritism given to the Han at the expense of other ethnic groups is still an issue in China today.

Further thoughts

Have a good weekend, and don’t forget about this article when you get into your next argument with that libertarian friend of yours.


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