Libertarianism, the Confederacy, and Historical Memory: In the last few days libertarians have been debating the neo-Confederate sympathies of some in their movement. I don’t to wade into the discussion. Several voices in that tribe—including Jacob Levy, Jonathan Adler, and Ilya Somin—have been doing an excellent job. (This John Stuart Mill essay, which Somin cites, was an especially welcome reminder to me.) But this post by Randy Barnett caught my eye.
I should preface this by saying that I think Barnett is one of the most interesting and thoughtful libertarians around. I’d happily read him on just about anything…. What’s fascinating about his post is this:
I wish to add a few additional considerations that I have become aware of over the past several years as I have researched and written about “abolitionist constitutionalism” and the career of Salmon P. Chase.
What follows is a series of observations about the centrality of slavery and abolition to the origins of the Republican Party and the Confederacy and to the Civil War…. What’s striking… is that… it has been pretty much the historiographical consensus for decades. Indeed, I learned much of it in high school…. Yet Barnett, by his own admission, has only discovered it in recent years.
Let me be clear: I have no desire to impugn Barnett’s intelligence or learning, or to do that annoying academic thing of mocking someone for coming so late to the party. To the contrary: it’s because I have respect for Barnett that I am surprised. We’re not talking here about libertarianism’s Praetorian Guard. Barnett is a major scholar, who’s actually been thinking and writing about abolitionism and its constitutional vision for some time.
That a libertarian of such acuity and learning, of such range and appetite, would have come to these truths only recently and after intensive personal research tells you something about the sauce in which he and his brethren have been marinating all these years. In which the most delectable ingredient (don’t even try the rancid stuff) tastes something like this: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Civil War was an unjust war on both sides.”
Never mind the formal and informal declarations of sympathy for the Confederacy that libertarians are currently debating. Barnett is grappling with a deeper kind of knowledge, or anti-knowledge, on the free-market right: the kind that Renan spoke of when he said that every nation is founded upon a forgetting. That forgetting—that deep historical error which held that the Civil War was a fight over tariffs or some other nonsense—lay for many years at the core of not only southern but also northern identity. It was not just the furniture of Jim Crow; it was the archive of American nationalism…. It was that forgetting that revisionist historians like Kenneth Stampp and C. Vann Woodward, with the Civil Rights Movement at their back, felt it necessary to take aim at. More than a half-century ago.
That Barnett—who’s been prodding libertarians on this issue for some time—has only recently gotten the news tells you much about his movement’s morning prayer, the sense of reality it brings to the table. The problem here isn’t merely that some, perhaps many, libertarians are overt fans of the Confederacy; it’s what the movement’s been reading in its afterglow, long after the light went out.
From Randy Barnett's post:
The Volokh Conspiracy » More on Slavery , the Civil War, and Libertarians: I wish to add a few additional considerations that I have become aware of over the past several years as I have researched and written about “abolitionist constitutionalism” and the career of Salmon P. Chase.
- The Republican party was formed as the anti-slavery successor to the Liberty and Free Soil Parties. It was the election of the presidential candidate of this party with its anti-slavery platform that precipitated the South’s initiation of force against federal troops and facilities — not a dispute over tariffs….
- The Republican party platform insisted that the federal government had no legal power to end slavery in any of the original 13 states in which it still existed… the Republican platform respected states rights… the South had no cause to secede on that basis.
- But the Republican party also believed that it was within the power of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, in the territories, and in other federal enclaves as well as on federal construction projects, a view having nothing to do with “states rights”….
- As others have correctly noted, the Slave Power was enthusiastic about using federal postal power to suppress the distribution of abolitionist literature in the South, and the Necessary & Proper Clause to enact the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850….
- It was “constitutional abolitionists” like Chase who argued the rights of Northern state to protect the rights of their freeman from wrongful kidnapping by slave catchers, a right that was overridden by federal the Fugitive Slave At of 1850 that Southern states demanded….
- The political appeal of the Republican party among Northerners, many of whom shared the racism of their day, was based in part and for some on the recognized injustice of slavery, and in part and for many on a quite justified fear of Northerners that slavery would eventually be imposed on them by the South….
- It is true that Lincoln loudly protested that his aim was to protect the Union not to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed…. Neo-Confederates who stress this seem not to realize that, if believed, like the Republican party platform, this pledge undermines the “states rights” justification for secession….
For all these reasons, there is little question that the Civil War was “about slavery” and more relevantly was decidedly not about states rights…
As Corey said, all these are things you know if you have read the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, and Lincoln's inaugural address.