Libertarianism and the Civil War

Over at Libertarianism.Org, Jonathan Blanks has an interesting series of posts criticizing libertarians who defend the secession of the Southern states that precipitated the civil war (see here and here). Like Blanks, I believe that any possible justification that the Confederates may have had was negated by the fact that they seceded for the purpose of perpetuating slavery – a far greater violation of libertarian rights than anything white southerners could complain of in 1861.

There are, generally speaking, three types of libertarian perspectives on the Civil War. Many libertarians actually support the war, some condemn it without defending the Confederacy, and some are actually pro-Confederate.

I. Libertarian Unionism.

Many libertarians actually agree with the conventional wisdom on the conflict: that, although it caused great harm, it was ultimately beneficial because it led to the abolition of slavery. Although I haven’t seen any survey data, informal discussions with libertarian intellectuals and activists lead me to believe that this view actually very common in the movement, perhaps more so than either of the others. However, few libertarian Unionists have actually written about the conflict, perhaps because libertarian scholars tend to focus on issues where we diverge from the conventional wisdom of non-libertarians rather than endorse it (Tim Sandefur’s article on the subject is an interesting exception). Pro-Union libertarians do, however, differ from many other defenders of the Union cause in so far as most believe that the preservation of the Union was not by itself a sufficient justification for the war, independent of slavery.

II. Condemning the War Without Endorsing the Confederacy.

A second libertarian approach to the Civil War recognizes that the Confederates seceded for the purpose of protecting slavery, and does not defend their actions. But it still holds that the war actually did more harm than good, because slavery might have been abolished soon anyway and the war did not result in anything resembling full equality for blacks. Libertarian historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is perhaps the leading modern defender of this view. I disagree with his perspective. But it is not unreasonable. The Civil War resulted in the loss of over 600,000 lives, extensive violations of civil liberties, and enormous destruction. And it is indeed true that blacks had to wait another century before they got full legal equality.

Nonetheless, I believe the war was worth the cost because the abolition of slavery was a tremendous advance even if it fell short of full equality. I am skeptical of claims that slavery would have disappeared quickly even without the war. As Blanks points out, slavery was not on its way out, either economically or politically, and the price of slaves was actually rising – indicating that the market expected the “Peculiar Institution” to last for a long time to come.

III. Pro-Confederate Libertarians.

We now come to those libertarians who actually defend the Confederacy and its “right” to secession, the targets of Blanks’ posts. These libertarians argue either that the secession wasn’t really about slavery or that the southern states had a right to secede regardless of their reason for doing so.

On the first point, as Blanks emphasizes, the Confederate leaders themselves repeatedly stated that protecting slavery was their principal motivation. This was forcefully articulated at the time by Jefferson Davis, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (who famously called slavery the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy), and the southern state governments’ official statements giving their reasons for secession. Modern defenders of the Confederacy cannot get around the fact that the most damning evidence against it comes from the statements of its own leaders.

As for claims that the southern states had a right to secede independent of their motives for doing so, Blanks effectively dismantles this one. Slavery was a far greater violation of libertarian rights than anything that white southerners were suffering at the hands of the federal government in 1861. Even if a majority of the population in some jurisdiction supports secession, libertarians should still oppose if the purpose of secession is to perpetuate and extend a massive violation of libertarian rights. And few institutions violate such rights more blatantly than slavery. I don’t agree with all of Blanks’ arguments. Unlike him, I think it’s far from clear that secession was unconstitutional. But whether constitutional or not, Confederate secession was a great evil. Indeed, if the Constitution did permit secession for the purpose perpetuating slavery, that’s more an indictment of the Constitution than a justification of Confederate secession.

IV. Remembering that Blacks Count Too.

I would also add an important point that is overlooked by both Blanks and most modern defenders of the Confederacy: Even if you do endorse any secession that is supported by a majority of the population in a given state, you should still condemn the Confederacy. Southern secession can only be defended on majoritarian grounds if you discount the views of southern blacks. As of 1860, African-Americans constituted about 40% of the population of the states that formed the Confederacy. It’s a safe bet that they were overwhelmingly opposed to secession. When you combine this overwhelming black opposition with that of the substantial minority of southern whites who also wanted to stay in the Union, it is highly likely that a majority of southerners in 1861 opposed secession. Once you recognize that blacks count too, it becomes clear that Confederate secession was anti-majoritarian as well as proslavery.

I don’t believe that most of today’s libertarian defenders of the Confederacy ignore the views of blacks out of racism. They probably do so because they unthinkingly take for granted the laws of the time, which in the South excluded even free blacks from the franchise (as was also true in many northern states). But there is no reason to accept the validity of that exclusion. Indeed, libertarians should be the first to recognize that southern state governments had no right to rule over African-Americans without even the slightest pretense of gaining their consent.