Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?

A couple of days ago, I found a mass mailing from the libertarian Independent Institute in my inbox.  It included these paragraphs:

The 150th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the U.S. Civil War

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, when Confederates fired on U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Although people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor (e.g., to the slavery issue or to “states’ rights”), the cause was more complex. Independent Institute Research Fellow Joseph R. Stromberg discusses one causal factor that often gets short shrift in public discourse (although he cites many historians who support his analysis): interest groups with material, rather than ideological, stakes in promoting the war.

Antislavery, Stromberg writes, “was one of many themes generally serving as the stalking horse for more practical causes.” The Republican Party Platform of 1860, for example, focused less on antislavery grievances than on proposals designed to benefit northeastern financial and manufacturing interests and Midwestern and western farmers–policies that would have become harder to implement if southern states were allowed to secede. Lest he overgeneralize, Stromberg hastens to add that northern trading and manufacturing interests that bought from the suppliers of southern cotton–“the petroleum of the mid-nineteenth century,” as he puts it–were aware that they would face severe disruptions if war broke out.

In a post on The Beacon, Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory argues that April 12, 1861, also marks the date of the federal government’s repudiation of the Founders’ vision of the American republic and the birth of Big Government. “The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians…. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war–throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern ‘masters.'”

“Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg (The Freeman, April 2011)

“The Regime’s 150th Birthday,” by Anthony Gregory (The Beacon, 4/12/11)

“The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (5/7/02)

“The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Henry E. Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (11/14/99)

“The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs (Liberty, May 1997)

It’s true enough that “people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor… the cause was more complex.”  Though I would not disagree with this statement, I would go on to say something subtly different as well.  Much public discussion of the US Civil War turns on a rather odd question.  This question is, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?”

As the press release above suggests, libertarians tend to say that the war was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”  Anthony Gregory’s description of the powers which the federal government first exercised during the war, and never renounced, gives an idea of the structure of this narrative.  Right-wing libertarians like Gregory focus on the conflict between the growing power of the nation-state and the unregulated operations of the free market, while left-wing libertarians like Joseph Stromberg point out that no unregulated free market has ever existed and focus instead on the role of the nation-state in forming the economic elites that actually have wielded power throughout history.

Most other Americans tend to say that the US Civil War was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery.”  In this narrative, the United States figures as the champion of Emancipation and the Confederate States figure as the champions of Enslavement.  This story elides the facts that Gregory and others point out, that six slave states remained in the Union, that federal forces enforced slavery in the South throughout 1862, and that President Lincoln took office vowing to leave slavery alone.  However, it is undoubtedly true that all the Confederate states were slave states and that its leaders bound themselves time and again to defend and promote slavery, while the United States did eventually move to abolish the institution.

It should be obvious that the question, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?,” is a meaningless one.  Of course the Civil War is a chapter of “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” of course it is a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery,” of course it is a chapter of any number of other narratives.  Why, then, is this nonsensical question agitated so intensely?

I blame the schools.  More precisely, I blame the tradition of presenting history to students as a grand narrative.  It’s natural for people who have spent a decade or so of their early life hearing history presented as a single grand narrative to go on assuming that every story is part of one, and only one, larger story.  Perhaps schools must present history this way; if so, I would say that it is a point in favor of a proposal left-libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock made early in the last century.  Nock recommended that schools should teach mathematics “up to the quadratic equation,” Greek and Latin, and a course in formal logic.  Equipped with this training, students would be able to educate themselves in everything else, with some here and there finding it possible to benefit from association with some advanced scholar.

Be that as it may, in US schools, the grand narrative of history is usually packaged under some label like “The Story of Freedom.”  The word “freedom” in these labels raises the question “freedom from what”?  For libertarians, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from state bureaucracy.  In the story of that freedom, the US Civil War cannot but figure as a vast reverse.  For others, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from white supremacy.  In the story of that freedom, the war may appear as an advance, albeit a rather problematic one.  For still others, the freedom most urgently needed today is the individual’s freedom from domination by irresponsible private interests, whether employers, families, or other groups in civil society.  In the story of that freedom, the war stands as a moment of triumph, perhaps the supreme moment in American history.

Few would say that the freedom most urgently needed by the United States today is freedom from foreign domination, but I would point out that if the war had ended differently this need might very well be felt very keenly indeed.  When the war broke out, Southern leaders claimed that their cause was the defense of slavery, while Lincoln disavowed any plan to interfere with slavery.  By the end of the war, Southern leaders were discoursing earnestly about the theory of state sovereignty, while Lincoln declared that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  What remained constant through all this flip-flopping was the Northern intention to protect the domestic US market with a high tariff, while the South wanted to trade on equal terms with the industrial centers of the North and those of Britain.  The world economy being what it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a nominally independent Confederate States of America would likely have been drawn into Britain’s economic sphere, and thus into the orbit of the British Empire.  We should therefore add “US Resistance to the British Empire” to the list of narratives in which the US Civil War figures as a chapter.

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