Saturday, April 9, 2011

wood type poster


  1. The war was not about slavery.

  2. For Lincoln, it was to bring the states back into the Union. If slavery was the main cause for war, three requirements necessarily needed to be true: 1) Lincoln was about to abolish slavery with the stroke of a pen as soon as he took the oath of office; 2) Southerners understood this; therefore, Southern secession amounted to kidnapping of the slaves; and 3) Lincoln launched an invasion of the South to free the kidnapped slaves. This is the only way in which Southern secession could have necessitated war.

    More importantly, secession in no way necessitates war, regardless of what the reasons for secession are. The reasons for secession, and the reasons why there was a war, are two entirely separate issues. When New Englanders openly and publicly plotted to secede for fourteen years after Thomas Jefferson’s election, culminating in the 1814 secession convention in Hartford, Connecticut, neither President Jefferson nor President Madison (or anyone else) said one word about the appropriate response to a Northern-state secession being "invasion," "force," and "bloodshed." These are the words Lincoln used in his first inaugural address to describe what would happen in any Southern state that seceded.

    It is unlikely that anyone even dreamed of invading Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and bombing and burning Boston, Hartford and Providence into a smoldering ruin while murdering thousands of New Englanders, women and children included, if New England were to secede. Indeed, when Jefferson was asked what would happen if New England seceded, he said in a letter that New Englanders, like all other Americans "would all be our children" and he would wish them all well. More recently, all of the Soviet republics, and all of Eastern and Central Europe peacefully seceded from the Soviet Union. Secession does not necessitate war.

    No American president had the power in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery "with the stroke of a pen." The slaves were slaves before Southern secession, and they were slaves after secession. Indeed, as Alexander Stephens once correctly remarked, slavery was more secure in the union than out of it because of the Fugitive Slave Clause, which Lincoln strongly supported, and because of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.

    Even his Emancipation Proclamation was only a "war measure" that would have become defunct if the war ended the next day – and it was written so as to avoid freeing any slaves since it only applied to "rebel territory." Both Lincoln and Congress announced publicly that their purpose was not to disturb slavery but to "save the union," a union that they actually destroyed philosophically by destroying its voluntary nature, as established by the founders. All states, North and South, became wards or appendages of the central government in the post-1865 era.

  3. The notion that the North was unified against slavery is silly mythology but the idea that the Civil War was not about slavery is equally so. The "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union" argued broadly about a right to secede but every cause it listed was directly about slavery, the right to retain slaves, the right to have escaped slaves returned, and objection to citizenship being granted to former slaves, and the Republicans' position "that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States." How is that "not about slavery"?

  4. Some Southern politicians did indeed defend slavery, but not as strongly as Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural address, where he supported the enshrinement of Southern slavery explicitly in the U.S. Constitution (the "Corwin Amendment") for the first time ever. Coming from the president of the United States, this was the strongest defense of slavery ever made by an American politician.

    Some Southern politicians did say that their society was based on white supremacy, but so did Abraham Lincoln and most other Northern politicians. "I as much as any man want the superior position to belong to the white race," Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. When Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories (but not Southern slavery), he gave the standard Northern white supremacist reason: We want the territories to be reserved "for free white labor," he said. The Lincoln cultists can quote Alexander Stephens’ "cornerstone" speech all they want, but the truth is that Abraham Lincoln, and most of the leaders of the Republican Party, were in total agreement with Stephens. White supremacy was as much (if not more of) a "cornerstone" of Northern society as it was of Southern society in the 1860s.

    I see your point about the ambiguities of history and the black and whiteness of historical events. To question the legitimacy of celebrating the sesquicentennial of "crimes against humanity" are equally suspect.

  5. Scotty,

    Funny that we're holding a public, worldwide conversation when we both live in the same not-very-large town.

    Your point about mythologizing Lincoln and Northern slavery/racial politics is important. One reason I wrote the web essay at is that I didn't want my poster to contribute to that sort of smug stupidity that you warn about any more than was inevitable.

    I have no objection to remembrance and honoring the past in all its complexity but reflexive denial of slavery and race as a central moral issue of the 19C (and continuing to today) and central to the Civil War is enormously destructive. It is, unfortunately, prevalent in current politics. (When Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was challenged about his lengthy Confederate History Month proclamation that failed to mention of slavery, he responded "There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states" and later said "Obviously it involved slavery, it involved other issues, but I focused on the ones that I thought were most significant for Virginia." Slavery not significant for Virginia? Huh?)

    My sister sent me a link to David von Drehle's piece "The Way We Weren't" in Time magazine:,8599,2063679-1,00.html

    The last part of it takes down Northern arrogance about mythological moral purity on the subjects of slavery and racism. It's worth reading.

  6. It is my hope that our conversation is worldwide.

    And, the northern moral purity argument is a result of the victors writing history. Unfortunately, I didn't come to realize this until I came to the south.

  7. And, I feel regret as having come off as denying the relevance of slavery and race, but in response to the initial argument of the celebration of treason, I think the day represents a rejection of the myth that the federal government owns the states instead of the other way around. Of course, celebration of an anniversary is a subjective emotion. And, being from the north I would hope that Southerners would see it my way instead of celebration of the institution of slavery.

  8. Scotty,

    It is always interesting to me to see what part of any philosophy people are willing to throw overboard when the seas get rough. For a certain brand of liberalism, free speech rights get dumped in a New York minute. No small amount of irony there. For liberals in general, economic freedom is first over the gunwales. That's not necessarily inconsistent although you and I would both disagree with that position generally. For libertarians, personal liberties never seemed to get tied down to the deck in the first place. Libertarian politicians almost inevitably jump at the chance to trade personal freedom for a tax cut.

    Okay. I know this is starting to sound like an off-topic rave. Here's the point: The American Civil War and the Confederacy are really bad objects of veneration for libertarians. Choosing examples tainted by slavery to celebrate freedom is well beyond "no small amount of irony." It makes it hard for me to believe in the honesty of libertarian arguments.

    "States' rights" is generally a problematic argument for me. I've never run into anyone who seems to be consistent with the abstraction. The people who argued for states' rights to restrict the freedom of the states' black citizens somehow objected to other states being allowed to restrict automotive emissions. 150 years ago, the only states' rights that the confederacy found worthy of major focus was the right of white people to own black people. 50 years ago, just about the only states' rights mentioned was the right of states to restrict the rights of their black citizens.

    If libertarians align themselves with a cause based on the use of government power to restrict individual freedom, why should anyone accept libertarian rhetoric as anything but self-serving mythologizing?

    Speaking of inconsistencies, my use of the word "treason" was deliberately inflammatory. It is based on my objection to a sleight of hand in current politics where jingoism and celebration of an actual attack on the country are somehow compatible.


  9. The concept that the Civil War was not about slavery is such a steaming pile of bullhockey that it would make G.W. Bush blush and apologize if such a thing were possible.

    The treasonous southern states deliberately FIRED WITHOUT PROVOCATION on Federal troops simply because the popular majority in America elected a President who said he would endeavor to prevent new slave states from being introduced to the Union, and who expressly said that he would not interfere with slavery in the South.

    The South's plan at the time, increasingly outnumbered at the time by the rapidly expanding North, was to actively and militarily "filibuster" to create new slave states that could be added to the nation -- creating at least a source of Senate-based nullification of any future anti-slavery legislation. Toward this end, they contrived to create a parliamentary trick to admit Texas as a slave state in 1845, in spit of the fact that they couldn't get approval through the Senate (and triggering a costly war with Mexico as a result). Their next target was Kansas, which led to the Bleeding Kansas wars of the 1850's -- with U.S. citizens fighting U.S. citizens over SLAVERY long before the civil war.

    To say that the Civil War was about anything LESS than slavery is a direct lie, and is a slander and disservice to the hundreds of thousands of loyal U.S citizens who died fighting to end slavery.

  10. Randal,

    I largely agree but have to argue that the word "simply" probably doesn't belong in history (or the analysis of anything big.) There's an interesting piece in the NY Times blogs at where Wm Freehling concludes that Virginia's decision to secede wasn't about slavery per se after he puts together an argument that was all about slavery. His argument still convinces me that it's reasonable to say that the Civil War was about slavery. It's just not as simple as Northern good guys against it and Southern bad guys for it.

    Scotty's second post above tries to draw a narrow description--it's only about slavery if that was the only question and the casus belli is slavery. Life ain't that simple (now or in retrospect.)

  11. Scotty said, "Some Southern politicians did indeed defend slavery, but not as strongly as Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural address..."

    This is, of course, complete drivel. Just a minor example was the famous speech by the pre-eminent southern Senator of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun, who said in response to another Senator who called slavery a "necessary evil":

    "I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good... I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other."

    The Corwin amendment, as any schoolchild can tell you, was just the last gasp of the Republicans trying to appease the old, belligerent South to try to keep Virginia (in particular) from seceding. It was their 11th hour and poorly thought-out attempt to prevent the South from starting the Civil War.

    I don't know who this Scotty is, or whether he is a friend of yours, but he is either a complete racist, or an idiot who has been spoon-fed a bunch of pablum by racists trying to excuse the civil war as "just a bunch of peaceful southerners trying to eke along and being beset by nasty, aggressive, racist northerners".

  12. Randal,

    I didn't know of Scotty until his April 12 post. The little I know of him comes from reading his old blog on Austrian economics. It's my view that he overstated his case but I am generally conservative when it comes to leveling charges of racism. I believe that it is a very serious charge so I have ethical problems leveling it without strong evidence; I also believe that loose use of any such serious charge tends to devalue the enormity of the accusation.

    This isn't the best forum for my opinions on Austrian economics but my second April 13 post above states my position on libertarians' tendency to tie themselves to positions based largely on racism and on state exercise of social control.

    I'm about to get close to ad hominem here, so bear with me and don't read this too broadly: In many cases, libertarians have aligned themselves with overt racists and with racist positions. While this doesn't make them racist (and not all libertarians are guilty of this), it does make one wonder whether their notions of the rights of individuals is of a set of rights that are evenly distributed and whether they view racism as being as destructive and indecent as I do.

  13. Back on April 13, Scotty wrote that "the northern moral purity argument is a result of the victors writing history." A few days ago, a friend said "Why is it that all of the movies show the South as the victims--Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind. . .? If the victors wrote history, they did a lousy job of it.

  14. I'm told that there have been some errors when people tried to post. I'll try to sort it out or move the blog but email me at if you have something to say and blogspot won't cooperate.



  15. Gunnar, you wrote, "blog on Austrian economics" -- this explains everything. Why didn't you just say "He's a fool and a crashing bore."

    As I said in my post above, he is not necessarily a racist but has apparently bought in to the seriously demented ravings of apologists for the South's violent and racist history -- which in my experience are always at root motivated by at least very serious latent racist resentments. Similarly, I do not believe that all Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites, but I do know that they are all idiots. And they all snuggle in bed with real and vicious anti-Semites. It really doesn't matter how many magical black friends Scotty might have, to try to whitewash the history of the South is to distort truth and give ammunition to those who would like to perpetuate racial division, hatred and inequity in our country.

    As to the real causes of the Civil War, it is instructive to look at what the people of the time thought they were fighting about, and in general it boils down to a fight between the latent, but relatively passive racism of the North of that time versus the really serious and viciously violent racist hatred of the South -- all backed up by political retoric that would make a Fox commentator blush.

    Just one small example, from historian James McPherson (Princeton University and president of the American Historical Association):

    "The secession of seven southern states in 1860–61 was a preemptive act to forestall the anticipated threat to slavery and white supremacy presented by the incoming Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln. The election of Lincoln, declared an Alabama newspaper, "shows that the North [intends] to free the negroes and force amalgamation between them and the children of the poor men of the South." If Georgia remained in a Union "ruled by Lincoln and his crew," warned a secessionist from that state, "in TEN years or less our CHILDREN will be the slaves of negroes." Jefferson Davis insisted that Confederate states had seceded "to save ourselves from a revolution" that threatened to make "property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless.""

    Of course I KNOW the REAL cause behind the Civil War -- Abraham Lincoln was a Socialist Nazi from Kenya who wanted to fluoridate our water and create a universal caliphate... or something like that. Let me just tune back in to Fox for a few minutes and I'll get you the whole story.

  16. A lot of the apologist-for-the-Confederacy stance seems to be bound up in a suspicion of central power but I don't follow the logic. I get the reasons people want to limit the Federal government. What I don't get is how that translates into a philosophical stance for "states' rights." I don't want to be pushed around by megalomaniacs in D.C. Why would it then follow that I want to be pushed around by megalomaniacs in Raleigh or Sacramento or St Paul? I suppose that could take us to all of that posse comitatus silliness but why give all that power to counties when cities could be fully independent or neighborhood or blocks or just let the power reside at my house?

  17. Interesting quote from Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond president and Civil War historian:

    "The records of the Virginian secession debate demonstrate how the vocabularies of slavery and rights, entangled and intertwined from the very beginning of the United States, became one and the same in the secession crisis," he wrote. "The North did not fight at first to end slavery, but the South did fight to protect slavery."

  18. Figured you'd appreciate this

    It helps to remember that students in the South are taught in school that the war was fought over taxation, rather than slavery. It's not always willful ignorance that shapes their ideas on the subject.