|The historical event that
looms largest in American public consciousness is the Civil War.
One-hundred thirty-nine years after the first shot was fired, its
genesis is still fiercely debated and its symbols heralded and
protested. And no wonder: the event transformed the American regime
from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that
circumscribed liberty in the name of public order. The cataclysmic
event massacred a generation of young men, burned and looted the
Southern states, set a precedent for executive dictatorship, and
transformed the American military from a citizen-based defense corps
into a global military power that can’t resist intervention.
And yet, if you listen to the media on
the subject, you might think that the entire issue of the Civil War
comes down to race and slavery. If you favor Confederate symbols, it
means you are a white person unsympathetic to the plight of blacks in
America. If you favor abolishing Confederate History Month and taking
down the flag, you are an enlightened thinker willing to bury the past
so we can look forward to a bright future under progressive
leadership. The debate rarely goes beyond these simplistic slogans.
And yet this take on the event is
wildly ahistorical. It takes Northern war propaganda at face value
without considering that the South had solid legal, moral, and
economic reasons for secession which had nothing to do with slavery.
Even the name "Civil War" is misleading, since the war
wasn’t about two sides fighting to run the central government as in
the English or Roman civil wars. The South attempted a peaceful
secession from federal control, an ambition no different from the
original American plea for independence from Britain.
But why would the South want to secede?
If the original American ideal of federalism and constitutionalism had
survived to 1860, the South would not have needed to. But one issue
loomed larger than any other in that year as in the previous three
decades: the Northern tariff. It was imposed to benefit Northern
industrial interests by subsidizing their production through public
works. But it had the effect of forcing the South to pay more for
manufactured goods and disproportionately taxing it to support the
central government. It also injured the South’s trading relations
with other parts of the world.
In effect, the South was being looted
to pay for the North’s early version of industrial policy. The
battle over the tariff began in 1828, with the "tariff of
abomination." Thirty year later, with the South paying 87 percent
of federal tariff revenue while having their livelihoods threatened by
protectionist legislation, it become impossible for the two regions to
be governed under the same regime. The South as a region was being
reduced to a slave status, with the federal government as its master.
But why 1860? Lincoln promised not to
interfere with slavery, but he did pledge to "collect the duties
and imposts": he was the leading advocate of the tariff and
public works policy, which is why his election prompted the South to
secede. In pro-Lincoln newspapers, the phrase "free trade"
was invoked as the equivalent of industrial suicide. Why fire on Ft.
Sumter? It was a customs house, and when the North attempted to
strengthen it, the South knew that its purpose was to collect taxes,
as newspapers and politicians said at the time.
To gain an understanding of the
Southern mission, look no further than the Confederate Constitution.
It is a duplicate of the original Constitution, with several
improvements. It guarantees free trade, restricts legislative power in
crucial ways, abolishes public works, and attempts to rein in the
executive. No, it didn’t abolish slavery but neither did the
original Constitution (in fact, the original protected property rights
Before the war, Lincoln himself had
pledged to leave slavery intact, to enforce the fugitive slaves laws,
and to support an amendment that would forever guarantee slavery where
it then existed. Neither did he lift a finger to repeal the anti-Negro
laws that besotted all Northern states, Illinois in particular. Recall
that the underground railroad ended, not in New York or Boston-since
dropping off blacks in those states would have been restricted-but in
Canada! The Confederate Constitution did, however, make possible the
gradual elimination of slavery, a process that would have been made
easier had the North not so severely restricted the movements of
Now, you won’t read this version of
events in any conventional history text, particularly not those
approved for use in public high schools. You are not likely to hear
about it in the college classroom either, where the single issue of
slavery overwhelms any critical thinking. Again and again we are told
what Polybius called "an idle, unprofitable tale" instead of
the truth, and we are expected to swallow it uncritically. So where
can you go to discover that the conventional story is sheer nonsense?
The last ten years have brought us a
flurry of great books that look beneath the surface. There is John
Denson’s (1998), Jeffrey Rodgers Hummel’s (1996), David Gordon’s Secession,
State, and Liberty (1998), Marshall de Rosa’s The
Confederate Constitution (1991), or, from a more popular
standpoint, James and Walter Kennedy’s Was
Jefferson Davis Right? (1998).
But if we were to recommend one
work-based on originality, brevity, depth, and sheer rhetorical
power-it would be Charles Adams’s time bomb of a book, When
in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). In a mere 242 pages, he shows that
almost everything we thought we knew about the war between the states
Adams believes that both Northern and
Southern leaders were lying when they invoked slavery as a reason for
secession and for the war. Northerners were seeking a moral pretext
for an aggressive war, while Southern leaders were seeking a threat
more concrete than the Northern tariff to justify a drive to political
independence. This was rhetoric designed for mass consumption . Adams
amasses an amazing amount of evidence-including remarkable editorial
cartoons and political speeches-to support his thesis that the war was
really about government revenue.
Consider this little tidbit from the
pro-Lincoln New York Evening Post, March 2, 1861 edition:
"That either the revenue from
duties must be collected in the ports of the rebel states, or the port
must be closed to importations from abroad, is generally admitted. If
neither of these things be done, our revenue laws are substantially
repealed; the sources which supply our treasury will be dried up; we
shall have no money to carry on the government; the nation will become
bankrupt before the next crop of corn is ripe. There will be nothing
to furnish means of subsistence to the army; nothing to keep our navy
afloat; nothing to pay the salaries of public officers; the present
order of things must come to a dead stop.
"What, then, is left for our
government? Shall we let the seceding states repeal the revenue laws
for the whole Union in this manner? Or will the government choose to
consider all foreign commerce destined for those ports where we have
no custom-houses and no collectors as contraband, and stop it, when
offering to enter the collection districts from which our authorities
have been expelled?"
This is not an isolated case. British
newspapers, whether favoring the North or South, said the same thing:
the feds invaded the South to collect revenue. Indeed, when Karl Marx
said the following, he was merely stating what everyone who followed
events closely knew: "The war between the North and the South is
a tariff war. The war is further, not for any principle, does not
touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust
Marx was only wrong on one point: the
war was about principle at one level. It was about the principle of
self-determination and the right not to be taxed to support an alien
regime. Another way of putting this is that the war was about freedom,
and the South was on the same side as the original American
Interesting, isn’t it, that today,
those who favor banning Confederate symbols and continue to demonize
an entire people’s history also tend to be partisans of the federal
government in all its present political struggles? Not much has
changed in 139 years. Adams’s book goes a long way toward telling
the truth about this event, for anyone who cares to look at the facts.