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. You can read his speech at
He also said the North wouldn't invade the South unless necessary to
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
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.
When Lincoln was elected,
South Carolina saw a grim future ahead and seceded. Other Southern states
quickly followed suit. No declaration of secession gave slavery as the
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
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 was 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 actually perform
the purpose for which they were promoted. (The Proclamation is at
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.
Using war as an excuse, he
increased government dramatically -- just as future Presidents would do.
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
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
I believe the study of the
origins and conduct of the Civil War is an important part of a libertarian
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
Laissez Faire Books carries an enormous assortment of pro-liberty titles,
and makes it easy to order books online. You can view the site at
www.lfb.org/index.cfm?aid=10432 (you may want to bookmark it for easy
Hummel's book is only
$14.95, and you can get more information about it at
DiLorenzo's book is only
$17.50, and is at