Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

On libertarian stupidity and the Civil War

Ideologically-driven history begets bad historical interpretation, typically of the type that selectively casts about for bits and pieces of a story to confirm a fixed bias. Or that which carelessly passes over complications to the same. In either case a desired narrative leads the evidence, sometimes unwittingly. Yet ideological constructs are also informed by history, taking perceptions of the past as cues for the execution of political decisions in the present. Hence a mutual attraction that is both irritating and paradoxically unavoidable.

The American Civil War exhibits atypically strong proclivities toward politicization as well, invoking at its core the charged and still-sensitive topics of race and slavery but also conceptualizations of government power, constitutional design, political consent, and the boundaries of just warfare. It also supplies the American political landscape with many of its iconic “heroes.” Lincoln alone is a recurring invocation for all manner of modern causes left and right, though in evidence the asserted connection far more often exhibits the characteristics of a bizarre and self-indulgent act of political necromancy than any traceable intellectual kinship.

American libertarianism exhibits similar political proclivities in its treatment of the war, though its primary quest – perhaps owing to an intrinsic aversion to state power – is more often one of finding villainy than hero worship. Yet the results are often similar wherein specific political narratives supplant a more rigorous and open form of evidentiary investigation and interpretation. The product of these ideologically infused arguments erupts on the blogosphere from time to time. Coming from the perspective of someone who works professionally as both a historian of the war and as an educator who crosses paths with a number of libertarian and liberal intellectual traditions, the observed results are often disheartening. Think persons shouting past one another, repeating only partially informed or even factually incorrect banalities as truisms, and a maddening reduction of exceedingly complex events into simplistic Manichaean proclamations of “good” and “evil,” “abuser” and “abused,” “just” and “unjust,” “right” and “wrong,” and all of it with the insistence that the opposing view has forfeited its claim to “true” libertarianism.

Two mutually irreconcilable and largely problematic “camps” will dependably emerge in most web discussions of this type. Perhaps expectedly they are both an attempt at political philosophy and an indulgence in projection of the same, all with loose historical underpinnings that tend to be asserted with far greater certainty than their intrinsic merit permits.  The first takes overt sympathy in the Confederate cause, or at least retreats into it in professed outrage against a Union that is said to have conquered by force, trampled upon the states and/or the individual, unleashed a military invasion or conquest, suspended civil liberties, denied government by consent, and elevated through Lincoln a “dictator” or “tyrant” to affect a lasting centralization of federal power – the foundation work for the modern state and all that is anathema to political libertarianism. The second route indentifies the inherent and fundamental contradiction between slavery and human liberty, embraces the Union victory on a consequentialist acceptance of the resultant emancipation of the slaves, and disavows any conceivable association between libertarian thought and a brutish southern slaveocracy, born of no other motive or purpose but to entrench and expand that pernicious institution and deserving of nothing short of a violent and warring elimination by any pretext or justification. Predictably both views leave no room for a common understanding of the war and, more often than not, denounce the other for any number of grievances that void its claim to the libertarian label.

As noted, these are views that enlist fundamentally ideological considerations of the sort that tends to exert a distortive effect upon the processes of historical inquiry. Finding neither particularly adequate, and both prone to one-dimensional and hyperbolic editorializing at the expense of historical complexity, I’ll offer the following two concurrent ground rules for any libertarian wishing to enter a Civil War discussion:

  1. One needn’t be for the Union to be against slavery.
  2. One needn’t be for the Confederacy to object to the North’s prosecution of the war.

As a further general observation, let it be noted that when libertarians say something stupid about the Civil War it usually stems from accepting only one of these ground rules and neglecting the other.

Their mutually applied caricatures of one another notwithstanding, the respective positions usually diverge not on the matter of whether slavery is wrong – a debate fortunately long settled to the betterment of human liberty, though also one for which it is more than a tad patronizing to both state the uncomplicated moral case against slavery as if it were some great and unique personal reckoning to separate oneself from an uncivilized adversary or to relegate it to the far periphery of a discussion in which it held central historical relevance, as if that silence or denial will somehow allow oneself to escape a confrontation with that which is uncomfortable to acknowledge on top of being morally wrong. Still, the libertarian who embraces the Confederacy is more often than not reasonably cognizant of both the evils of slavery and the distinction between the abolitionist cause and the Union. But he neglects the second rule and stakes his claim to a Confederate cause that thoroughly attached itself to the moral abomination of slavery on account of his distaste for the Union’s warmaking. And the libertarian who embraces the Union is similarly more often than not aware of the objections one might lodge against its destructive indulgences in mass warfare, the wartime suspension of civil liberties, federal centralization, or any of the other charges often made against the wartime cause or its outcome. But he neglects the first rule and so thoroughly subordinates these objections to the greater purpose of emancipation that it obscures all but the most simplistic reading of the war’s other political and constitutional consequences. In each case the argument’s fault is not its primary emphasis, but the complexities it obscures or leaves out.

It might be added as a corollary observation that libertarian political philosophy, at least in its core precepts as seem to be generally agreed upon by those who use that descriptor, permits no room for those who see nothing objectionable to be said about Confederate slavery. Or for those who find no fault of justice in the manner and motives for which the war was fought, or only exculpation in its victory. Both preclude the devolution of the discussion into the reactionary realm of “neo-confederate” revisionism and the uncritical belligerency of a patriotic war victory chest-pounding.

It might be similarly noted that the motives of southern secession are a distinct question from the motives that led the north to answer as it did. That the states of the upper south may have seceded for different reasons than those of the lower, and that a New England abolitionist likely saw a different moral calling to battle than a career soldier from the Midwest. That a southerner who wielded arms against an invader, and that a freed slave who took them up against his former captor and to the benefit of those still held captive may have also diverged in their own motives from the respective governments under whose banners they fought. Or that the stated priorities and causes of the moment for either side were anything but static and fixed to their articulations of early 1861 over the course of a bloody and unpredictable 4 year war.

Evaluated in state actions, there may well be little to commend either government on libertarian grounds though also a number of individual actors who advanced particulars of liberty during the course of that destructive grind of war, and for reasons entirely different from their state and national affiliations or residencies. What we need in this discussion is less rhetorical bludgeoning through repetitive talking points and a greater attentiveness to the reality that historical events are often irreducibly complex, making simplistic and ideological readings of them into not only poor and partial histories but also counterproductive disseminators of bad information, all operating at the expense of a more substantive and deeper discussion of the very same events.


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