Part II: The War of the Rebellion

This is the third installment of a series of long-form essays on race, history and politics. Previous installments can be found here: Prologue Part I


No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

                                                                        Matthew 6:24

Perhaps no event was more central to the creation of modern America as the Civil War. The battle waged between North and South, occasioned by the outright rebellion of the slaveholding Southern aristocracy, was fought to preserve the integrity of the Union and, later, to abolish slavery. The scale of the conflict – 250,000 soldiers dead over four years – was matched only by the intensity of its execution.

The war pitted one elemental force of America against another. On one side, the fervent certainty of religious zeal that pushed The Mayflower across the ocean, stirred the murmurs of the Great Awakening, and fueled the abolitionist movement. On the other, what George Packer has called “the default force in American life, organized money”: the elite clique of millionaires that controlled the slave economy of the south, aided and abetted by Northern industrialists and their European counterparts. The two were ground into oblivion by a third, more destructive instinct – our people’s ineffable competence for violence.

Yet for a juncture pivotal to understanding ourselves, the true story of the Civil War has been obscured by the endless recriminations between North and South – the national myth of emancipation against the romanticism of the Lost Cause. The former is the textbook version of the Civil War, where the Union is preserved and slavery vanquished. The latter recasts the Confederacy as gallant gentlemen fighting and dying for abstract constitutional principles, under the umbrella of “state’s rights.”

The affinity of Lost Cause apologists for small government, rural traditions and hatred of the federal state made them natural libertarians (strange, given that Jeff Davis’ administration practiced a form of war socialism). Periodically, as seen with the controversy over Ron and Rand Paul’s more colorful associations, the coziness between neo-Confederates and libertarians becomes embarrassing. Yet a number of libertarians have made arguments against the Civil War that are just as unconvincing as those advanced by unreconstructed secessionists.

One example (also trotted out in opposition to 1960s civil rights legislation) is the notion that the war was unnecessary because slavery would have died of natural causes. Some of this is a byproduct of the harm caused by the “constant progress” narrative of American history; some of it is blind faith in markets as institutions. This position ignores the ten years before the conflict where southern senators and congressmen fought mightily to expand slavery into the territories. The election of Lincoln, who opposed expansion, is what led to secession in the first place. Furthermore, to assert that market forces would bring about the demise of slavery ignores the fact that slaves were the largest single financial asset in the US economy in 1860. The British government abolished slavery in 1833 but considered formally recognizing the Confederate government in 1862, so powerful was cotton’s hold on British textile manufacturers.

Overall, libertarian analysis of the Civil War has been sloppy, and more than a little naïve – more concerned with abstract principles and rhetorical arguments than truly understanding what the war was really about.

The war, of course, was about slavery, which makes the absence of black Americans from the record revealing. War of 1812 boosters notwithstanding, the Civil War was the nation’s true second revolution, the culmination of the enduring struggle waged by slaves and their sympathizers since the country’s birth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, grounds this absence in the need for reconciliation after the war. “The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us,” he contends,

was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

The years that followed the war were far from a profile in courage for those Americans who had fought battles for emancipation. Faced with the prospect of an extended military occupation of the South to protect minority rights against a bubbling white insurgency, the North simply gave up. Tired of fighting, Northerners returned instead to accommodating southern racists. The result was the “nadir of race relations,” the long twilight period of Jim Crow, lynchings, dispossession and larceny visited upon black Americans by their fellow citizens.

A generation before the nadir, Americans brought about emancipation through immense sacrifice. A generation later, their children would look the other way as black rights and bodies were violated. They erected a de jure system of segregation as onerous as its legal counterpart; Plessy v. Ferguson was decided by a Court made up almost entirely of northerners.

The truly libertarian argument against the Civil War is its aftermath. With the slavery question settled, the vast Western landscape was open to white settlement, and the heroes of the Union Army – Custer and Sheridan, among others – went on to complete the genocide of native peoples begun over two centuries earlier. Businesses that grew fat on war contracts used their wealth to buy influence, and patronage and graft were the order of the day. The return of the southern white elite to dominance (with the tacit acquiescence of northern interests) meant the end of state-sanctioned slavery and the beginning of state-sponsored terrorism for black Americans in the Jim Crow South. Far from being liberatory, the legacy of the Civil War is one of state expansion, corrupt bargaining between capitalists and racists, suppression and betrayal of Native Americans, and a government bought by wealthy industrialists. Sheldon Richman, writing for The American Conservative, notes that left-libertarians

see post-Civil War America not as a golden era of laissez faire but rather as a largely corrupt business-ruled outgrowth of the war, which featured the usual military contracting and speculation in government-securities. As in all wars, government gained power and well-connected businessmen gained taxpayer-financed fortunes and hence unfair advantage in the allegedly free market of the Gilded Age. “War is the health of the state,” leftist intellectual Randolph Bourne wrote. Civil war too.

Perhaps we will never reach the point where we can have an open and honest accounting of the history behind our nation’s most traumatic event. Even World War II, widely considered a “good war,” has come down to Earth in our collective consciousness – no one would bat an eye if you questioned the morality of Hiroshima or the wisdom of America’s postwar hegemony. But we avoid the truth of the Civil War at our own peril; no other epoch in our history so clearly dispels the myth of perpetual progress. We would be wise to remind ourselves of the generation that won the war against slavery, but lost the peace.