Archive | Civil War

Former “Southern Avenger” Jack Hunter Resigns from Rand Paul’s Staff

Jack Hunter, the Rand Paul aide once known as the “Southern Avenger” has resigned from the senator’s staff in order to avoid being a “distraction.” Hunter has a history of pro-Confederate and borderline racist statements, though he has repudiated them in more recent years. In addition to creating a political problem for Rand Paul, the controversy over Hunter has also led to extensive discussion of libertarian attitudes towards the Civil War, including VC posts by Randy Barnett, David Bernstein, Jonathan Adler, and myself (here and here). I discussed the three major types of libertarian views on the War in this post last year.

Although only a relatively small minority of libertarians either sympathize with the Confederacy or believe that the world would have been better off with a Confederate victory in the war, it is important to properly address this dirty laundry within the movement, for reasons well expressed by Jacob Levy. A person who sympathizes with the Confederacy despite knowing its true record cannot be a libertarian in any meaningful sense, or a minimally decent human being. Libertarians and others who support it out of ignorance should take the time to study the relevant history, at least if they intend to make public statements on the subject.

It’s worth noting, however, that Hunter describes his neo-Confederate views as arising from conservatism rather than libertarianism, and says that he has become more racially and ethnically tolerant as he became “far more libertarian” in recent years:

“I’ve long been a conservative, and years ago, a much more politically incorrect (and campy) one,” Hunter said in an email. “But there’s a significant difference between being politically incorrect and racist. I’ve also become far more libertarian over the years, a philosophy that encourages a more tolerant worldview,

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John Stuart Mill on Slavery, the Confederacy, and the American Civil War

A reader reminded me that many of the same defenses of the Confederacy advanced by its modern apologists (including some of the libertarian ones discussed in my last post) were also advocated by wartime British sympathizers with the Confederates, and effectively rebutted by John Stuart Mill in his 1862 essay, “The Contest in America.” I read Mill’s article many years ago, but had partly forgotten how relevant it still is.

Here is Mill on the argument that slavery was not the real cause of the war:

There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of Slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to Slavery than the South have….

If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery….

It is true enough that the North are not carrying on war to abolish slavery in the States where it legally exists [note by IS: Mill was writing before the Emancipation Proclamation, though elsewhere in the essay he correctly predicted that the Union will eventually seek to abolish slavery]….

The present Government of the United States is not an abolitionist government…. But though not an Abolitionist party, they are a Free-soil party. If they have not taken arms against slavery, they have against its extension. And

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Libertarianism, the Confederacy, and the Civil War Revisited

Revelations that Rand Paul aide Jack Hunter has a history of racist and pro-Confederate statements during his days as a radio shock jock have rekindled the longstanding debate over libertarian attitudes towards the Civil War. Hunter has repudiated many of his former statements and attitudes. But that hasn’t stopped the controversy from continuing.

This uproar raises two important issues: First, is there any possible justification for libertarian sympathy for the Confederacy? Second, how should the libertarian movement react to people with views like Hunter’s?

I. The Case Against the Confederacy.

I have written about the first point at length in the past. To briefly summarize, the Confederacy is indefensible because it was created for the purpose of perpetuating and extending the evil – and manifestly unlibertarian – institution of slavery. Don’t take my word for it. Take that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, and the southern states’ official statements outlining their reasons for seceding.

It’s also worth remembering that the Confederacy was a brutal and oppressive regime even aside from slavery. I am by no means hostile to all secession movements. But even if you endorse secession in any situation where a majority of the people in a state support it, you should still denounce Confederate secession. I explained why here:

As of 1860, African-Americans constituted about 40% of the population of the states that formed the Confederacy. It’s a safe bet that they were overwhelmingly opposed to secession. When you combine this overwhelming black opposition with that of the substantial minority of southern whites who also wanted to stay in the Union, it is highly likely that a majority of southerners in 1861 opposed secession. Once you recognize that blacks count too, it becomes clear

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Frederick Douglass on How We Should Remember the Civil War

On Civil War anniversaries, like today’s 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, it has become traditional to commemorate both sides equally. There is some logic to this practice. We do not want to unnecessarily perpetuate sectional grievances, or be seen as somehow blaming today’s white southerners for the wrongs of earlier eras. And it is also true that the federal government committed significant wrongs of its own during the conflict, such as persecuting some of those who spoke out against its war policies. But, as Frederick Douglass pointed out in this 1871 speech in honor of the Union war dead, we should not commemorate the war in a way that obscures the moral chasm between the two sides:

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict….

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration….

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion

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The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Today is the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge and the last day of the Battle Gettysburg. Many modern historians take issue with the traditional view that this Union victory was the decisive battle of the Civil War. They point out that the Confederacy still had a chance to win by demoralizing northern public opinion during the 1864 campaign. But there is little doubt that Gettysburg was an extremely important victory, even if not absolutely decisive. It broke the aura of invincibility that had gathered around Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and inflicted enormous losses on the Confederates that the South could not replace. Gettysburg should be remembered for its crucial role in putting an end to an odious regime established for the purpose of perpetuating the evil institution of slavery.

For most of the last 150 years, military historians and other commentators have debated the issue of which Confederate general deserves the blame for the defeat at Gettysburg. Various writers have argued that such generals as James Longstreet, Dick Ewell, A.P. Hill, and Jeb Stuart were responsible. The effort to blame Longstreet (the second-highest ranking officer in Lee’s army) gathered steam after the war, when he committed what many white southerners viewed as the unforgivable sin of joining the Republican Party. I am just an amateur reader of this literature. But, for what it is worth, I tend to agree with modern revisionist scholars such as Alan Nolan and Gary Gallagher, who argue that the main culprit was Robert E. Lee. It was Lee who ordered the disastrous Pickett’s Charge, overruling Longstreet’s opposition. To the extent that other generals made mistakes, it was in part because Lee didn’t give them proper supervision, even though he knew that several key subordinates were new to their [...]

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Debating the Moral and Legal Status of Secession

Jason Kuznicki and Timothy Sandefur have written responses to my post critiquing Kuznicki’s earlier statement that the idea of legal secession is a “category error.”

Kuznicki writes:

Of course, it’s indisputably true that some secessions are authorized by some countries’ constitutions. Others, however, are not. Within these two types of cases, authorized and unauthorized, we can also imagine specific acts of secession that we find ethically justified or ethically unjustified.

That a given constitution forbids secession does not in my view mean that all secessions from it are necessarily unjustified. It means only that we have to justify them through extraconstitutional means, and these means must in themselves be weighty enough to also justify overthrowing the existing legal order.

Similarly, that a given constitution allows secession does not in my view automatically justify all secessions carried out under it. We may still find some of them ill-advised or even unjustified. There’s nothing about constitutional law that says that where the law permits a thing, the conscience has to be silent.

I agree with all of the above. But I think it is in some tension with Kuznicki’s previous comment on the subject, which claimed that “[s]ecession is the decision to step out of an existing political order, so it’s a category error to try to justify it legally.” Kuznicki’s most recent post, by contrast, suggests that such justifications are not category errors at all, though sometimes they may be wrong for other reasons. However, we all sometimes make off-the-cuff statements (or, in this, case twitter posts) that don’t fully reflect our considered views. I know I have done it, so I can hardly blame Kuznicki for doing so.

I have more disagreements with Sandefur’s post:

Jason Kuznicki and Ilya Somin make the critical error of mistaking “secession” for “revolution.” Revolution

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Is Legal Secession a “Category Error”?

As part of the ongoing discussion of libertarian views on the Civil War and secession, Jason Kuznicki of Cato and David Drumm of the Jonathan Turley blog have argued, in Kuznicki’s words, that “[s]ecession is the decision to step out of an existing political order, so it’s a category error to try to justify it legally.”

I generally agree with Drumm’s and Kuznicki’s condemnation of libertarian defenses of Confederate secession. But I don’t think that legal secession is necessarily a “category error.” Like many other legal relationships – partnerships, clubs, corporations – a federal system of government can incorporate rules that provide for its own dissolution. For example, the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that Canada’s Constitution allows Quebec to secede so long as the secessionists prevail in a referendum and negotiate certain issues with the rest of Canada. If Quebec does secede in the aftermath of a secessionist referendum victory, the resulting secession will be perfectly legal under Canadian law. There are other federal constitutions that explicitly provide for a right of secession. The most famous recent example is Article 72 of the Soviet Constitution, which numerous constituent republics seceded under in 1990-91.

The US Constitution, of course, is one of many where secession is neither explicitly banned or explicitly permitted. As a result, both critics and defenders of a constitutional right of secession have good arguments for their respective positions. Unlike the preceding Articles of Confederation, the Constitution does not include a Clause stating that the federal union is “perpetual.” While the Articles clearly banned secession, the Constitution is ambiguous on the subject.

Even if state secession is constitutionally permissible, the Confederate secession of 1861 was deeply reprehensible because it was undertaken for the profoundly evil purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery. [...]

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Libertarianism and the Civil War

Over at Libertarianism.Org, Jonathan Blanks has an interesting series of posts criticizing libertarians who defend the secession of the Southern states that precipitated the civil war (see here and here). Like Blanks, I believe that any possible justification that the Confederates may have had was negated by the fact that they seceded for the purpose of perpetuating slavery – a far greater violation of libertarian rights than anything white southerners could complain of in 1861.

There are, generally speaking, three types of libertarian perspectives on the Civil War. Many libertarians actually support the war, some condemn it without defending the Confederacy, and some are actually pro-Confederate.

I. Libertarian Unionism.

Many libertarians actually agree with the conventional wisdom on the conflict: that, although it caused great harm, it was ultimately beneficial because it led to the abolition of slavery. Although I haven’t seen any survey data, informal discussions with libertarian intellectuals and activists lead me to believe that this view actually very common in the movement, perhaps more so than either of the others. However, few libertarian Unionists have actually written about the conflict, perhaps because libertarian scholars tend to focus on issues where we diverge from the conventional wisdom of non-libertarians rather than endorse it (Tim Sandefur’s article on the subject is an interesting exception). Pro-Union libertarians do, however, differ from many other defenders of the Union cause in so far as most believe that the preservation of the Union was not by itself a sufficient justification for the war, independent of slavery.

II. Condemning the War Without Endorsing the Confederacy.

A second libertarian approach to the Civil War recognizes that the Confederates seceded for the purpose of protecting slavery, and does not defend their actions. But it still holds that the war actually did more harm than [...]

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Whitewashing Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy

The New York Times has an article on yesterday’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy:

Before a cheering crowd of several hundred men and women, some in period costume and others in crisp suits, an amateur actor playing Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama Capitol on Saturday, an event framed by the firing of artillery, the delivery of defiant speeches and the singing of “Dixie.”

The participants far outnumbered the spectators, but it was to be the largest event of the year organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one in a series of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the War for Southern Independence. (Referring to the Civil War as anything other than an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a sovereign republic was rather frowned upon.)

The Sons’ principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that had been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The Times article reports that the SCV sought to downplay as much as possible the fact that Davis’ motive for secession was to protect and extend the institution of slavery. Unfortunately for them and other apologists for the Confederacy, the real Jefferson Davis unequivocally stated in 1861 that the cause of his state’s secession was that “she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of [...]

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