by Harry Browne
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 http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm
He also said the North wouldn't invade the South unless necessary
to collect taxes.
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 taxation.
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 reason.
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 leave.
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
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 http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/emancipate.htm
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 course.
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
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
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 Civil War
I believe the study of the origins and conduct of the Civil War
is an important part of a libertarian education.
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
You'll also find parallels between the Civil War and today's War
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
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 http://www.lfb.org/index.cfm?aid=10432
(you may want to bookmark it for easy reference).
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:
Harry Browne is Director of Public Policy at American Liberty Foundation.
His usual Liberty & Peace Commentary appears on LibertyWire
ADDRESS: American Liberty Foundation
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