John Stuart Mill on Slavery, the Confederacy, and the American Civil War

A reader reminded me that many of the same defenses of the Confederacy advanced by its modern apologists (including some of the libertarian ones discussed in my last post) were also advocated by wartime British sympathizers with the Confederates, and effectively rebutted by John Stuart Mill in his 1862 essay, “The Contest in America.” I read Mill’s article many years ago, but had partly forgotten how relevant it still is.

Here is Mill on the argument that slavery was not the real cause of the war:

There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of Slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to Slavery than the South have….

If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery….

It is true enough that the North are not carrying on war to abolish slavery in the States where it legally exists [note by IS: Mill was writing before the Emancipation Proclamation, though elsewhere in the essay he correctly predicted that the Union will eventually seek to abolish slavery]….

The present Government of the United States is not an abolitionist government…. But though not an Abolitionist party, they are a Free-soil party. If they have not taken arms against slavery, they have against its extension. And they know, as we may know if we please, that this amounts to the same thing. The day when slavery can no longer extend itself, is the day of its doom. The slave-owners know this, and it is the cause of their fury….

If, however, the purposes of the North may be doubted or misunderstood, there is at least no question as to those of the South. They make no concealment of their principles. As long as they were allowed to direct all the policy of the Union; to break through compromise after compromise, encroach step after step, until they reached the pitch of claiming a right to carry slave property into the Free States, and, in opposition to the laws of those States, hold it as property there, so long, they were willing to remain in the Union. The moment a President was elected of whom it was inferred from his opinions, not that he would take any measures against slavery where it exists, but that he would oppose its establishment where it exists not,—that moment they broke loose from what was, at least, a very solemn contract, and formed themselves into a Confederation professing as its fundamental principle not merely the perpetuation, but the indefinite extension of slavery.

Here is Mill’s response to the argument that the southern states had an inherent right to secede regardless of their reason for doing so:

But we are told, by a strange misapplication of a true principle, that the South had a right to separate; that their separation ought to have been consented to, the moment they showed themselves ready to fight for it; and that the North, in resisting it, are committing the same error and wrong which England committed in opposing the original separation of the thirteen colonies….

I am not frightened at the word rebellion…. But I certainly never conceived that there was a sufficient title to my sympathy in the mere fact of being a rebel; that the act of taking arms against one’s fellow citizens was so meritorious in itself, was so completely its own justification, that no question need be asked concerning the motive. It seems to me a strange doctrine that the most serious and responsible of all human acts imposes no obligation on those who do it, of showing that they have a real grievance; that those who rebel for the power of oppressing others, exercise as sacred a right as those who do the same thing to resist oppression practised upon themselves…. Secession may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection; but it may also be an enormous crime. It is the one or the other, according to the object and the provocation. And if there ever was an object which, by its bare announcement, stamped rebels against a particular community as enemies of mankind, it is the one professed by the South.

Finally, Mill reminded his readers that the Confederacy did not actually represent the will of the people of the South:

Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that the mere will to separate were in this case, or in any case, a sufficient ground for separation, I beg to be informed whose will? The will of any knot of men who, by fair means or foul, by usurpation, terrorism, or fraud, have got the reins of government into their hands?… Before admitting the authority of any persons, as organs of the will of the people, to dispose of the whole political existence of a country, I ask to see whether their credentials are from the whole, or only from a part. And first, it is necessary to ask, Have the slaves been consulted? Has their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They are a part of the population. However natural in the country itself [meaning the United States], it is rather cool in English writers who talk so glibly of the ten millions [of southerners]…., to pass over the very existence of four millions who must abhor the idea of separation. Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.

Mill goes on to point out that a large number of white southerners also opposed secession, thereby ensuring that it did not have the support of the majority of the people in any of the states, unless we simply discount blacks. As Mill hinted, many 1860s whites did not consider blacks to be “human beings, entitled to human rights.” But anyone who rejects such racist assumptions must recognize that Confederate secession cannot be justified on the basis that it somehow represented the will of the people.

What Mill understood in 1862 should also be obvious to us today. As I have said before, understanding it does not require us to approve of all the motives and actions of the Union side, some of which were themselves deplorable. But it does require recognizing the true nature of the Confederacy, its commitment to slavery, and its lack of any defensible justification for secession.