“If the general government should persist in the measures now threatened, there must be war. It is painful to discover with what unconcern they speak of war, and threaten it. They seem not to know what its horrors are.”
—Stonewall Jackson

On balance, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has written a provocative and much-needed book on what Southerners prefer to call the War for Southern Independence or simply Mr. Lincoln’s War. Hummel, a libertarian history professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, postulates that “ultimate responsibility for the enormous bloodshed [from 1861-65] rests squarely on the President’s shoulders.” And of course he is correct, for Abraham Lincoln, acting as an agent for Northeastern plutocrats, made war on the South in order to force the seceded states back into the Union so they could be exploited by what John Taylor of Caroline called “the Aristocracy of Paper and Patronage.”

It goes without saying that in regard to the war the victors, especially New Englanders, have written its history, and the South has quite naturally been blamed for starting the whole affair because of its insistence on preserving its “peculiar institution.” While Hummel denounces slavery and the entire nation’s role in its perpetuation, he is quick to point out that the institution could probably have been ended by means short of war, had Lincoln and the Republicans desired it. After all, in the Western Hemisphere only Haiti (1803-04) and the United States (1861-65) resorted to widespread armed conflict to destroy slavery. But a more salient point is raised by historian Eugene Genovese, who notes that Southern slaveholders “mounted the first and only serious critique of the totalitarian tendencies that have run wild in our century.” Such a historical inconvenience as this, largely ignored by scholars, must be addressed if we are ever to get close to the truth about the complex issue of slavery in American history. In not tackling this problem. Hummel commits one of his few errors.

But slavery was not the paramount issue that led the North to invade the Confederacy; rather, it was the restoration of a perpetual and indivisible Union. Lincoln had absorbed the cockeyed theory of a consolidated nation offered up in the 1830’s by Daniel Webster and Justice Joseph Story, and his extreme nationalism put him at odds with the Southern states’ rights school of thought. The latter theory of the Constitution holds that sovereign states acceded to a voluntary union by the will of the citizens of the separate states. Nowhere can it be found that the people in the aggregate (as claimed by Webster and Story) were the locus of sovereignty in the American system. John C. Calhoun, America’s greatest statesman, understood that “The general Government emanated from the people of the several States, forming distinct political communities, and acting in their separate and sovereign capacity, and not from all of the people forming one aggregate political community.”

That the association of states under both the Articles of Confederation and the subsequent Constitution was voluntary was well understood by the Founding Fathers. The several states agreed to enter the union on the understanding, sometimes explicitly enunciated, that they would be able to depart on their own volition if conditions became detrimental to their specific interests; in other words, that to which they acceded they could at any time secede from. By virtue of their position as principals in the federal compact, the states held a superior position over their agent, Calhoun’s “general Government,” thus compelling the latter to be the servant of the former. However, almost from the beginning of this bargain, men of both factions—Federalists and Republicans—realized that in a federal system it was likely that either the states would drain all power from the general government or vice versa. Most of them feared the latter scenario much more than they did the former, and good men from Thomas Jefferson to Jefferson Davis understood the perils of consolidated government.

In its attempt to preserve the idea and practice of local self-government, the South in the 1850’s moved closer to secession as a last remedy against an increasingly hostile North. The new Republican Party, a refuge for fanatical Abolitionists bent on undermining a Constitution that protected slavery and for grasping plutocrats intent upon government subsidies for a transcontinental railroad, picked the sores of Bleeding Kansas and provoked a savage confrontation in Kansas and Missouri that prefigured the general conflict to come. But it was Lincoln’s election in November 1860 that resolved South Carolina and six other Deep South states to leave the Union and form the Confederate States of America. And contrary to historical orthodoxy, it was secession—and not slavery—that led to open warfare the following April.

Though Lincoln had in the 1840’s defended the idea of states’ rights and secession on the floor of the House of Representatives, he now stood firmly against those founding principles. He was prepared to use violence to pervert a once voluntary Union into one in which the states would be held against their will. Lincoln’s primary concern turned on the economic issue: he well understood that the North’s fledgling industrial economy was dependent on revenue generated from Southern agricultural exports (three-quarters of all American exports in 1860 were made from Southern ports). Indeed, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor became the initial flashpoint exactly because of Lincoln’s insistence on the continued collection of the tariff, even after South Carolina’s secession. He is said to have asked Colonel William Baldwin, a representative to the White House from the Virginia state government, “What will become of my tariff?”

Since the inception of Henry Clay’s “American System,” which advocated the central government’s promotion of economic growth through internal improvements, increasingly high tariffs, and a national bank, the economic lines between an industrial North and an agrarian South had become more distinct. The North favored protectionism and the South free trade, and the two systems could not coexist. The tariff became the central issue in the debate simply because it was a tax on imported goods that aided fledgling Northern industry while making manufactured goods more expensive for Southern consumers. The transfer of wealth from South to North after this fashion was too tempting for special interests to ignore, and they saw in the Republican Rarty a vehicle that could facilitate this transference. Even before he was elected President in 1860, Lincoln was already firmly in the pocket of Northern businessmen who sought to use the general government as a means of circumventing the Constitution in favor of a policy of protectionism. Three decades earlier, John C. Calhoun had wisely proposed a modest and reasonable tariff of 20 percent as a means of raising revenue; however, as early as 1816 there were those who saw that the tariff might be used not only to raise revenue but to protect industry against foreign competition. Indeed, South Carolina was forced to nullify the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” that raised rates to a harmful 61 percent. The Compromise of 1833 saw the tariff lowered to pre-1828 levels, and on the eve of Lincoln’s election the American economy had enjoyed a lengthy period of declining tariff rates and a corresponding rise in manufacturing productivity.

In the late 1850’s, the Republican Party platform included the most significant tariff increase since 1828. Elected over the complete opposition of the anti-tariff South, Lincoln in 1861 pushed through Congress (minus the votes of the seceded Southern states) the infamous Morrill Tariff Act, more than doubling the rate to 47 percent. But after the Confederate government fired on Fort Sumter in April as a means of showing Lincoln that he was not going to collect any taxes in South Carolina, the idea of a high tariff lost its appeal. Simply put, because the North no longer had the Southern states from which to expropriate wealth, the tariff meant in effect that the North would be reduced to plundering itself. To make up the projected revenue shortfall, Lincoln and the Republicans introduced the first income tax and a host of other constitutionally questionable financial measures (Legal tender Act, National Banking Acts, etc.) and thus began looting those citizens unfortunate enough to come under federal jurisdiction.

Not only does Hummel go to great lengths to point out Lincoln’s financial and economic shenanigans, but he catalogues the Old Railsplitter’s other violations of the Constitution as well. In opposition to Secretary of State Seward and General Winfield Scott, Lincoln determined to hold the Union together by force if necessary, a position that clearly violated both the letter and spirit of the original compact. “The Union of these states,” he wrongly proclaimed in his first Inaugural Address, “is perpetual . . . and . . . I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the states.” In Lincoln’s mind the South had fomented an unconstitutional “rebellion.” Concluding his address, he gave the new Southern Confederacy an ominous warning: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors.” But no sooner had Lincoln finished speaking than he ordered a relief expedition to resupply Fort Sumter. He had instructed Seward to reassure Jefferson Davis that federal troops would soon be evacuated; thus the Confederate President had been able to persuade the impatient South Carolinians to desist from firing on the fort. But once Lincoln’s duplicity became clear and the Yankee commander at Sumter refused one last call to surrender, the Confederate cannon opened fire. And we are all taught that the Confederacy was responsible for starting the war.

Had Lincoln determined to uphold his oath of office in regard to the Constitution, then he would have had no choice but to bid the seceded states farewell. Unfortunately, he was not a constitutionalist, but a politician who placed the interest of his party above that of the Republic. The quest to save the Union and free the slaves was used to mask the aggrandizement of the Republican Party and to create the centralized state that still burdens us today. That the North’s choice of war over disunion destroyed the American people’s right to self-government and created on the ruins of our ancient liberties an imperial state did not escape the notice of historian William Appleman Williams. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination—the touchstone of the American Revolution.”

Mr. Lincoln’s revolution of 1861 was of the Jacobin variety and thus in no way reflected the “revolutionary” spirit of our own Founders. M.E. Bradford points out in his essay “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View” (1980) that the Yankee President misappropriated the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence in order to substitute a Jacobin doctrine of universal rights for the hard lessons of experience learned over many generations. By championing an American version of the universal rights of man (particularly egalitarianism, Shakespeare’s “universal wolf”), Lincoln, claims Bradford, changed the nature of American political discourse forever. “In this universe of discourse,” Bradford informs us, “this closed linguistic system, all questions are questions of ends, and means are beside the point. And every ‘good cause’ is a reason for increasing the scope of government. All that counts is the telos, the general objective, and bullying is not merely allowed, but required.” In our own day, we see the ultimate result of ends over means in a judiciary and bureaucracy that has become quite adept at “bullying” the American people to achieve whatever telos our Jacobin ruling class decides is meet.

As long as we pay homage to the destroyers rather than to the benefactors of civilization, we shall continue to celebrate the Lincoln legacy. But once the myth of Northern benevolence—and in contradistinction. Southern wickedness —from 1861-65 is exposed for the lie that it is, it will be much easier to explain to the descendants of both why we have suffered the demise of liberty and prosperity in direct proportion to the steady increase in an imperial government’s control of our lives and property. We might well remember that the sacred eagle worshiped by the legions of imperial Rome as the bellorum deus is also the totem of the current American Empire. But the imperial Roman legions at least behaved according to the precept that a military commander dare not be too successful in conquering neighboring provinces lest he show up the Emperor. Such restraint convinced men that the eagle’s talons would not be bared to further conquest and destruction but to preserve the existing order of civilization.

Unlike Imperial Rome, the American eagle’s talons have been made bloody for the past 130 years in tearing to shreds all that dare oppose its rule, and the carnage began with Lincoln’s destruction of the South. Subsequent American imperial ventures all have followed the same course, more or less, in that they have sought conquest and influence and not peace and humane order. Perhaps it is for this reason that Professor Hummel concludes that after the North’s triumph in 1865 “there would be no more victories of Liberty over Power. In contrast to the whittling away of government that had preceded Fort Sumter, the United States had commenced its halting but inexorable march toward the welfare-warfare State of today.” And, as his title suggests, men once free have become slaves under the Pax Americana.


[Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Chicago: Open Court Press) 421 pp., $39.95]