The Roadway to Civil War

[This article is excerpted from a 30,000-word memo to the Volker Fund, 1961. The complete memo is offered in Strictly Confidential: The Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard edited by David Gordon.]

The Road to Civil War

The road to Civil War should be divided into 2 parts:

  1. the causes of the controversy over slavery leading to secession, and
  2. the instant reasons for the war itself.

The factor for such split is that secession need not have actually resulted in Civil War, in spite of the assumption to the contrary by the majority of historians.

The basic root of the debate over slavery to secession, in my viewpoint, was the aggressive, expansionist goals of the Southern “slavocracy.” Really few Northerners proposed to abolish slavery in the Southern states by aggressive war; the objection– and definitely a proper one– was to the effort of the Southern slavocracy to extend the slave system to the Western territories. The apologia that the Southerners feared that ultimately they may be surpassed which federal abolition may occur is no reason; it is the age-old alibi for “preventive war.” Not just did the expansionist goal of the slavocracy to secure slavery by federal fiat in the territories as “home” aim to pass off the unethical system of slavery on Western territories; it even violated the principles of states’ rights to which the South was allegedly devoted– and which would rationally have caused a “popular sovereignty” doctrine.

In fact, with Texas in the Union, there was no hope of gaining considerable support for slavery in any of the territories other than Kansas, and this had apparently been settled by the Missouri Compromise. “Free-Soil” concepts for the Western areas could for that reason have been easily developed without disruption of existing affairs, if not for the consistent aggressive push and trouble making of the South.

If Van Buren had been president, he may have been able to drive through Congress the free-soil principles of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have been that. As it was, President Taylor’s expense would have settled the Western territory problem by just embracing “popular sovereignty” concepts in New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, and California areas– admitting them all ultimately as complimentary states. Rather, the regrettable death of President Taylor, and the accession of Fillmore, ended this simple and straightforward option, and produced the pernicious so-called “Compromise” of 1850, which intensified rather than minimized interstate tensions by adding to the necessary Taylor program provisions for stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Given That the Fugitive Servant Law not just forced the Northern people to collaborate in what they thought about– properly– to be moral crime, but likewise breached Northern state rights, the stringent Fugitive Slave Law was a consistent irritant to the North.

The shift from free-soil concepts in the Democratic Party and toward the Compromise of 1850 trashed the old Jacksonian Democracy. The open break became apparent in Van Buren and the Free Soil candidateship of 1848; the failure of the Democratic Celebration to take an antislavery stand pushed the old libertarians into Free Soil or other alliances, even into the brand-new Republican Celebration ultimately: this terrible split in the Democratic Celebration lost it its libertarian conscience and drive.

Pro-southern dominance of the Democratic Celebration in the 1850s, with Pierce and Buchanan, the opening of the Kansas territory to slave growth (or prospective slave growth) in 1854, resulted in the production of the antislavery Republican Celebration. One tragedy here is that the surrender of the Democrat and Whig celebrations to the spirit of the Compromise of 1850 required the free-soilers into a new celebration that was not just totally free soil, but showed dangerous indications (in Seward and others) of ultimately getting ready for an abolitionist war versus the South. Therefore, Southern problem making shifted Northern sentiment into potentially hazardous channels. Not only that: it also bonded in the Republican Party a lorry dedicated, multifold, to old Federalist-Whig principles: to high tariffs, to internal improvements and federal government aids, to paper money and government banking, and so on. Libertarian principles were now divided in between the 2 celebrations.

The fantastic Dred Scott choice altered the political scene totally: for in it the Supreme Court had apparently banned free-soil concepts, even consisting of the Missouri Compromise. There was now just one course left to the fans of flexibility short of open disobedience against the Court, or Garrison’s secession by the North from a Constitution that had indeed become a “compact with Hell”; and that escape hatch was Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty teaching, in its “Freeport” corollary: i.e., in quiet, regional nullification of the Dred Scott decision.

At this critical juncture, the South advanced its self-destructive course by braking with Douglas, insistent on the complete Dred Scott principle, and leading to the triumph of their opponent Lincoln. Here once again, secession was just “preventive,” as Lincoln had actually provided no sign of relocating to repress slavery in the South.

It is here that we must divide our analysis of the “causes of the Civil War”; for, while this analysis leads, in my view, to a “pro-Northern” position in the slavery-in-the-territories battles of the 1850s, it leads, paradoxically, to a “pro-Southern” position in the Civil War itself. For secession need not, and ought to not, have actually been combated by the North; and so we should pin the blame on the North for aggressive war against the seceding South. The war was released in the shift from the initial Northern position (by Garrison consisted of) to “let our erring sisters depart in peace” to the decision to squash the South to conserve that mythical abstraction referred to as the “Union”– and in this shift, we need to put a large part of the blame upon the maneuvering of Lincoln to cause the Southerners to fire the first shot on Fort Sumter– after which point, flag-waving could and did take control of.

The War Versus the South and Its Effects

The Civil War was among the most special events in American history, not only for its inherent drama and destruction, however due to the fact that of the fateful consequences for America that flowed from it.

We have said above that the War of 1812 had destructive consequences for the libertarian motion; undoubtedly, it might be said that it took twenty years of commitment and hard work for the Jacksonian motion to reverse the ├ętatist effects of that utter failure of a war. It is the measure of the statist consequences of the Civil War that America never ever recuperated from it: never once again was the libertarian movement to have a party of its own, or as close an opportunity at success. Hamiltonian neo-Federalism beyond the wildest dreams of even a J.Q. Adams had actually either been passed off permanently on America, or had been inaugurated, to be later satisfied.

Let us trace the leading effects of the War Against the South: there is, initially, the enormous toll of death, injury, and damage. There is the total setting aside of the civilized “rules of war” that Western civilization had actually laboriously been putting up for centuries: rather, an overall war against the civilian population was introduced against the South. The symbol of this barbaric and savage oppression was, naturally, Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the South, the burning of Atlanta, and so on (For the military significance of this reversion to barbarism, see F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism). Another consequence, of course, was the ending of efficient states’ rights, and of the completely sensible and sensible right of secession– or, for that matter, nullification. From now on, the Union was a strictly mandatory entity.

Even more, the Civil War passed off upon the nation the removal of Jacksonian difficult cash: the greenbacks established federal government fiat paper, which it took 14 long years to tame; and the National Bank Act ended the separation of government from banking, successfully quasi-nationalizing and controling the banking system, and producing an engine of governmentally sponsored inflation.

So ruthlessly did the Lincoln administration overturn the old banking system (consisting of the reliable forbiding of state bank notes) that it became practically difficult to accomplish a return– difficult that is, without a radical and almost revolutionary will for hard cash, which did not exist. On the tariff, the virtual damage of the Democratic Celebration led to the foisting of a high, protective tariff to stay for a generation– certainly, completely, for the old prewar low tariff was never ever to return. It was behind this wall of tariff-subsidy that the “trusts” were able to form. Further, the administration embarked on a huge program of subsidies to favored companies: land grants to railways, and so on. The Post Workplace was later monopolized and private postal services forbidden. The national financial obligation escalated, the budget increased considerably and completely, and taxes increased considerably– consisting of the very first irreversible passing off on America of excise tax, particularly on whiskey and tobacco.

Therefore, on every point of the old Federalist-Whig vs. Democrat-Republican debate, the Civil War and the Lincoln administration achieved a neo-Federalist triumph that was total right down the line. And the squashing of the South, the military Restoration duration, and so on guaranteed that the Democratic Party would not increase once again to challenge this settlement for at least a generation. And when it did rise, it would have a much harder row to hoe than did Van Buren and Co. in an age far more disposed to laissez-faire.

But this was not all: for the Civil War saw also the inauguration of despotic and dictatorial approaches beyond the dreams of the so-called “despots of ’98.” Militarism ran widespread, with the arrogant suspension of habeas corpus, the crushing and mass arrests in Maryland, Kentucky, and so on; the suppression of civil liberties and opposition against the war, among the propeace “Copperheads”– the persecution of Vallandigham, etc; and the institution of conscription. Also presented on the American scene at this time was the earnings tax, hesitantly deserted later, however to come back. Federal aid to education started in earnest and permanently with federal land grants for state farming colleges. There was no longer any talk, of course, about abolition of the standing army or the navy. Nearly whatever, in other words, that is presently evil on the American political scene, had its roots and its starts in the Civil War.

Because of the slavery debate of the 1850s, there was no longer a single libertarian party in America, as the Democratic had actually been. Now the free-soilers had left the Democrat ranks. However, specifically after Dred Scott had actually pushed the Douglas “Freeport Teaching” to the fore as libertarian policy, there was wish for a reunited Democracy, especially given that the Democrat party was still excellent on all questions except slavery. However the Civil War damaged all that, and monolithic Republican guideline could impress its neo-Federalist program on America to such a degree regarding make it extremely hard to root out.

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