Setting the Record Straight on Libertarians and the Southern Confederacy

As the saying goes, if I got a dime every time libertarians got accused of supporting Southern slavery, I’d have to pay the highest income tax bracket in the country.

The statement taken by itself is baffling; how can libertarians, people who believe in the concept of self-ownership and reject the legitimacy of the state, possibly support the Confederacy? It was, after all, a centralized government. Centralized governments are, unless I missed something, states.

Libertarian Fragging

The truth is they really don’t. But what’s odd is when other libertarians feel they have to argue against the Confederacy – while avoiding the actual matter libertarians want to discuss.

Since the recent controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, I thought this issue might be worth revising, and finally decided to cover it again when I came across this article by Jonathan Blanks at written several years ago on why libertarians have no moral grounds on which to support the failed attempt of Southern states to secede.

He begins his article with this (emphasis added).

There is a strain of libertarian contrarianism that holds that the Confederate States of America were within their “rights” to secede from the Union. Such contrarianism on this particular topic is detrimental to the larger cause of liberty because the logic of this argument relies upon relinquishing individual rights to the whim of the state. Indeed, as there is no legal or moral justification for supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War, it is impossible that there could be a libertarian one.

It is clear from the start that he is reframing the argument. If the Confederacy didn’t have “the right” to secede, then what about the people who fought the North and did not consent to its rule as Union troops marched through their land?

In other words, was there a moral justification for supporting the right of Southerners as individuals to violently resist Northern troops?

This question is neither raised nor examined, because the discussion was reframed from individual rights to the rights of governments.

Libertariansism Doesn’t Justify Southern Secession – It Condemns Northern Aggression

Libertarians aren’t defending what the South did. No one defends the institution of slavery nor the direct calls for its preservation in their declarations of independence. What they do is point out are the unconstitutional, illegal, and immoral actions of the Union during the Civil War because while slavery gets its deserved condemnation, the North’s actions are glossed over, legitimized, glorified, and praised.

Even calling it a Civil War  is an ideological statement.

Civil wars are when two factions fight for control of the same government and country. Think the English Civil War, Spanish Civil War, and Russian Civil War. The American Civil War, by comparison, was an attempt by a section of the country to break away and form its own country. Think Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The reason that the discussion has to be kept on the South’s intent to protect slavery is critical, because in reality the North had no intention of abolishing slavery when it initially waged war against the South. The war was started over the question of secession. The Emancipation Proclamation was deliberately introduced as a war measure to either A) entice the Southern states back into the Union or B) make the war about freeing the slaves, making it practically impossible for countries like England to support the Confederacy.

Blanks concedes this, though he again tries to reframe the argument.

While it would be disingenuous to say that the North began the war with the intent to end slavery, it would be nothing short of delusion to say the South did not fight to preserve both slavery and the white supremacy upon which it relied.

Blanks problem is he confuses Southern secession with the Civil War. They are not the same. The South could have seceded without being invaded. The North chose to do so. This makes them related, but separate topics. The confusion is made by inferring or projecting the idea that the South declared war on the North when it left the Union.

The Civil War did not start because the South seceded from the Union. The war started because the North decided it would not allow the South to secede peacefully, for reasons unrelated to slavery.

Stating that the South was determined to defend slavery when it seceded is as relevant to the issue at hand as saying Stalin intended to preserve communism while his country was fending off an invasion by the Nazis during World War II. It would be inane to say that anyone who protests the atrocities and ethnic-cleansing of the Third Reich in the Soviet Union is de facto defending communism and all its horrors.

Yet this is exactly what is going on with the question of the “Civil War” whenever libertarians attempt to chip away at the messianic image of Lincoln as told in a typical history book and the “righteousness” of the Northern cause.

Yet if the North did not invade the South to abolish an evil institution, then on what moral grounds did it do so? Blanks tries to get around this by saying not all secession is justified – though who gets to decide this is not decided.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that all secession is justified. In the Declaration, Jefferson writes, “Prudence…will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes,” necessarily implying that some separations are indeed imprudent and any such separation should be judged on its individual merits. A predictable and stable adherence to the Rule of Law is the indispensable tenet of any form of just government, and so the dissolution of that government must be preceded by systemic injustice or other reason that appeals to higher or natural law. Without this ordered liberty and deference to individual rights, laws cease to mean anything other than the imposition of will by man upon man.

He also tries to claim that the mention of “insurrections” in the Constitution justified military invasion, but according to federal law, the governor or state legislator had to request such troops – obviously no Southern state requested Lincoln send troops into their states.

Indeed, the second wave of secession occurred precisely because Lincoln called for 75,000 men for a planned invasion of South Carolina and other states that had seceded already.

As Tom Woods wrote on the matter (emphasis mine).

Did the southern secession have something to do with slavery? Obviously. I see no reason not to take the secessionists at their word, and we are being dishonest if we do not acknowledge the references to slavery in the secession documents. But the war? The war was fought to prevent the secession, not to free the slaves. People who took up arms in the South did so because they were being invaded.

This is a comment left a while back on one of Woods’ (many) posts on the Civil War.

This entire “controversy” is a great example of the lack of critical thinking that goes into formulating conventional beliefs. Only on a grossly superficial, facile level can one come to the conclusion that if you think the president shouldn’t be able to blockade states with the navy, conscript men into the army, cause damage to private property, suspend habeas corpus, shut down newspapers, and jail individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights by extension you must support the enslavement of other human beings.

Rather, if one believes the president has this kind of power over other human beings, then on what basis does one oppose slavery?

Physicians heal thy-selves.

Really, those who adhere to the typical Civil War propaganda should be the ones to have their beliefs scrutinized and who need to explain their hypocritical and inconsistent stances: If they think slavery – the concept of one person owning another and having total control over them – is immoral and should be illegal, how can they support the notion of the president having essentially the same powers over private citizens? What power did a slave owner have over his slaves in the antebellum period that the federal government doesn’t have over us in the present?

What libertarians are getting at is that actions taken during the Civil War by the North has had severe repercussions on the civil liberties of Americans, the concept of the Constitution as a compact between states, and set a poor precedent for other presidents to emulate. From a libertarian point of view, while the South’s chattel slavery is universally condemned – as it should be, the actions of the North, as comparably immoral, are completely ignored, or worse, justified. There have been long-term consequences for this that are evident to anyone with a shred of a moral conscience left and so much as one functioning eye.

Blanks article is puzzling because nowhere is the NAP mentioned at all. He frames the argument as one being around the rights of states, which libertarianism outright rejects, and cites the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While this is pertinent if one were a Constitutionalist, from a libertarian perspective the constitutionality of something is a moot point.

As Lysander Spooner pointed out, the Constitution is not binding on anyone. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was constitutional and therefore legal. Was it wrong to defy it?

The libertarian stance on the whole matter is this. Southern Slavery was an atrocious violation of the right of self-ownership of millions of people who were coerced under threats of violence and actual violence into performing services, labor, and providing goods against their will an without compensation. Much of the South’s justification for secession, though not all, was highly hypocritical. The analogy of the kettle and the pot comes to mind.

At the same time, as an illegitimate, criminal entity, the Union had no moral justification for invading the South to coerce them back into the same central government. Only if the South had invaded the North, or if volunteers with their own funds had come to the aid of slaves attempting to free themselves of their enslavement and not coerce the South back into the Union, could a war have been justified.

While the war brought about some good by removing slavery, the manner in which it was done had far-reaching repercussions not just for the slaves who along with their descendents were denied their civil rights long afterwards, but for all Americans who are subject to violations of their rights to this day that are justified based on the actions taken during that war.

The entire affair from beginning to end was due to the belief in the state. It was only through the use of a centralized government slavery could be maintained. It was only through the state such a horrible war could be waged in order to preserve one state over another. It is because of that war we see many of the tyrannies and oppressions today, which is why libertarianism is anti-war.

Why any libertarian would want to defend the Confederacy, which instituted conscription first before the Union, is baffling. But what’s even more baffling are those who continue to deliberately avoid the culpability of the North in the making of the Great American Tragedy.

The problem with our country today isn’t that too many people have an incorrect understanding of Southern slavery. It’s that they have a profoundly incorrect comprehension of Lincoln, the Civil War, the Constitution, and how this war that “freed the slaves” brought out radical changes that have impacted their liberties for the worse centuries later, and will continue to do so until this nation, like all nations, perishes from the Earth.

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11 Responses to Setting the Record Straight on Libertarians and the Southern Confederacy

  1. Great article.

    At the same time, as an illegitimate, criminal entity, the Union had no moral justification for invading the South to coerce them back into the same central government. Only if the South had invaded the North, or if the North had invaded to remove the institution of slavery, could a war have been justified.

    When you said that a war would be justified to remove slavery, one could say that the Northern side, over time, was going to become a more thoroughly anti-slavery force. That’s the argument of many pro-Lincoln people, that while he wasn’t necessarily abolitionist for the beginning of the Civil War, he became so over time nearing the end of the war.

    As to whether a war would have been justified, I think it would have — with one caveat: that the war would be a revolutionary insurrection against the Confederate government, led voluntarily by the oppressed people, with perhaps the aid of Northern abolitionists who would aid the slaves in their quest for liberty. The “war” I am talking of is not the typical state-based war, which depends on involuntary servitude and taxation. No, the “war” I am mentioning is revolutionary, libertarian warfare.

    Just wanted to clarify.

    Liked by 2 people

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  8. philebersole says:

    Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were opposed to allowing slavery to spread into new territories. That was the reason for secession, as stated in the secession manifestos of the various Southern states. Slavery was explicitly a part of the Constitution of the Confederacy.

    The Civil War not was (initially) a war by the Northern states to abolish slavery, but it most definitely was a war by the Southern states to preserve and extend slavery.


    • The Question says:

      The Civil War not was (initially) a war by the Northern states to abolish slavery, but it most definitely was a war by the Southern states to preserve and extend slavery.

      The nuance of the situation (as you just described it) gets lost in too many discussions. When people ask about the Civil War they might actually be talking about the first wave of Southern secession, which was definitely about slavery.


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