Libertarians for Secession: Answering Michael Lind

It seemed every libertarian was up in arms this week over the rather silly piece attacking those of our persuasion penned by Michael Lind in Salon. Unsurprisingly, the old chestnut about Hayek and Freidman’s tenuous connections to Pinochet cropped up, along with fairly standard misrepresentations of the words of Ludwig von Mises on fascism, something very common nowadays among left-leaning hacks. The main focus seemed to be criticisms of democracy and majoritarian tyranny laid down by the brilliant libertarian scholar Han Hermann Hoppe and others. Over at the Adam Smith Institute blog, Sam Bowman addressed all this quite extensively.

I want to focus on Lind’s discomfort with libertarians who sympathise with the cause and struggle for Southern independence from 1861-65, as I happen to be such a person and associate with many others. Lind, let us not forget, was the man who warned us in Salon that “neo-Confederate” Tea Party “fanatics” are apparently attempting to “destroy America’s credit rating unless the federal government agrees to enact Dixie’s economic agenda”. It’s fairly clear Lind’s picture of his Southern countrymen is not an enlightened one. One can almost imagine Michael Lind gleefully day-dreaming of murdering thousands of Dixie’s residents while burning its crops and cities in the anti-Semitic General Sherman’s genocidal march through Georgia. All for human rights, of course.

Now Lind writes:

When it comes to American history, libertarians tend retrospectively to side with the Confederacy against the Union. Yes, yes, the South had slavery — but it also had low tariffs, while Abraham Lincoln’s free labor North was protectionist. Surely the tariff was a greater evil than slavery.

This is one of the most ignorant insults I have ever seen directed against libertarians who claim the War Between the States was a war that should never have been waged. I know absolutely zero libertarians that side with the Confederacy because of its tariff policies. Instead, it is the issue of secession that overwhelmingly dominates libertarian debate on the topic. Now, libertarians often point out the differences in the Confederate Constitution to the original document that still existed in the Union (despite Lincoln’s subsequent complete disregard for it by suspending habeas corpus, closing down hundreds of anti-war newspapers and locking up the Mayor of Baltimore and much of the Maryland legislature). Those differences being the Confederacy’s ban on protectionist tariffs, government subsidies to private enterprises and the requirement of a two-thirds legislative majority for any tax increase. Libertarians do this to demonstrate the strongholds of Jeffersonian limited-government that many Southern states were, compared with the Hamiltonian big-government North. When first running for office in Illinois in 1832, Lincoln, already a famous lawyer, proclaimed:

I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by my friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favour of a national bank… in favour of internal improvements and a high protective tariff.

‘Internal improvements’ was the term at the time for large-scale spending programs on infrastructure, something I have written about here previously. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln carried no Southern state in the election of 1860, and very often did not even appear on the ballot. Lincoln was the most divisive electoral candidate in American history, even after guaranteeing the rights of slave-owners to keep their slaves throughout his campaign and First Inaugural Address.

Returning to Lind’s argument, it’s very difficult to see what libertarians he is talking about. That is, libertarians who would accept slavery for lower tariffs, as well those who induct “Jefferson Davis into the libertarian hall of fame”. The original and most well-known study of the War Between the States from a modern libertarian viewpoint is undoubtedly Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War’ by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. In this book Hummel happens to be fiercely critical of Jefferson Davis as well as Lincoln, and sees no inconsistency in supporting the right of secession while uncompromisingly opposing slavery. In fact, one of Hummel’s most interesting arguments is that secession would have helped defeat slavery, as it would have allowed the Union to repeal the fugitive slave laws, and thus have legally made the North a haven for escaped slaves. Other chattel slavery-based economies such as Brazil could not sustain the vile institution due to the problem of runaways. Conscious men, even in bondage, do not act like cattle or furniture. If you believe this is a radical original proposition, it is interesting to note that the abolitionist movement itself was fiercely split before the war due to this very point. In fact, the most famous abolitionist, the editor of The Liberator and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison, actually advocated long before as well as during the war that the Northern states should have seceded from the slave states for this to happen. Hummel estimates slavery would have collapsed in the Confederacy before the end of the century, possibly even in under five years.

All sane libertarians can agree that the death of slavery was a positive result of the war. The fierce Lincoln critic Tom DiLorenzo, of the Mises Institute, calls the end of slavery the “one unequivocal good” that came of it. However, libertarians also lament the loss of the right of secession, which is most relevant considering secession, not slavery, was the reason Lincoln launched his destructive war in the first place. Several states in the Union actually had slavery, and they were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation (which only applied to “rebel-held territory”). Even the head of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant, was an overseer of slaves on his family’s Missouri plantation. Lincoln actually demanded in the early stages of the war that captured slaves be returned to their owners, until many figures in the Union Army persuaded him this was aiding the Confederate war effort, and that these slaves could be used for menial tasks around Federal army encampments.

Libertarians always prefer peaceful alternatives to war, even when it comes to ending the evil of slavery. Why not peaceful Emancipation, as occurred in every country except Haiti, over a war where more Americans would fall during one battle at Gettysburg than in all previous American wars combined? Buying the freedom of every slave, along with forty acres and a mule for each freed man would have cost a fraction of what the brutality of 1861-65 did. Libertarian critics of Lincoln simply argue non-violent options and less bellicose forms of persuasion should have been tried.

Lind seems shocked that Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee to express support for his lost cause after the war. I find that as unsurprising as Karl Marx’s letters of congratulations to Lincoln and his ardent support for the Union war effort. I don’t know about you, but the letters of Acton and the gentleness in the response of Lee bring joy to the heart of this proud Neo-Confederate.

Acton to Lee, Nov. 1866:

I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

Lee’s response, Dec. 1866:

While I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.

The full correspondence can be found here.


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Reactionary. That fella from the Norris scandal.

10 Responses to Libertarians for Secession: Answering Michael Lind

  1. Indeed. Great article.

    I would say that because slavery per se was not the motivation for the war, therefore, one cannot determine the justice of the war based on slavery. Had the North fought the Civil War for the sake of ending slavery – as a national imitation of John Brown – then there would be something to talk about. I am not saying I would necessarily agree with the North’s (hypothetical) staging of war for the express purpose of ending slavery (your discussion of fugitive slave laws is fascinating), but at least there would be something to talk about; there is at least a kernel of legitimacy there. But Lincoln explicitly said, in his letter to Horace Greeley that slavery had nothing to do with the war.

    So the war comes down to secession alone. Whether the South was a better place to live than the North is irrelevant. The question is only, whether secession is a right or not. The South had on its side the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and the opinion of many ratifiers of the Constitution (Edmund Randolph of Virginia wrote the Virginia ratifying document, which explicitly said that Virginia retained the right of secession as soon as the Federalists’ promises of limited, delegated powers were violated). The North thus eviscerated the Constitution, robbing it of the most crucial aspect of social contract theory: consent of the governed. The fact is that Lincoln killed the Constitution. It is as simple as that. See Lysander Spooner’s No Treason; Spooner was certainly opposed to slavery (in Heller vs. DC, regarding the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia approvingly cited Spooner’s The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, which said that the right to bear arms enables opposition to slavery), but he recognized that it was the South, not the North, that was standing for the political philosophy of the Constitution. (However, Spooner did say that the South was standing more for states’ rights than for individual rights, and so the South was not perfect either, on the matter of political philosophy.)

    Slavery is irrelevant. The South could have wanted to secede over chocolate ice cream or over panda bears, and the war would have been the same war. Lincoln was opposed to secession per se, and the South was standing for secession per se. What the secession was motivated by, is irrelevant.

    • I agree that the discussion of slavery is a moot point given that it had precious little to do with the cause of the war. Taxation, particularly after the terrible Morill Tariff, was a grievance far higher on the list. Besides, I believe nine out of the original thirteen states of the Union preserved the right of secession in their legal codes, and the legal arguments used by Webster and Lincoln are far less convincing than those wielded by Spooner and Jeff Davis himself (which is probably why they didn’t put him on trial). Of course, after the war the United States ceased to even be called a ‘Union’ and the term ‘Nation’ largely took its place.

      I wanted to discuss slavery here given I was arguing against the points of a typical American establishment liberal. Talking about how secession could have seriously damaged the ogre of slavery seemed good policy. Its also quite cool to consider such unplanned results of a southern secession. Henry Hazlitt would no doubt have agreed, given he said: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups”.

      It was a great coincidence to come across laws surrounding runaway slaves in the week’s Torah portion so shortly after, also!

  2. Typo alert:

    “When first running for office in Illinois in 1932”


  3. To see the CSA as “Libertarian” is historical revisionism in the worst sense. First, of course, is that the South enshrined slavery and white supremacy in its constitution. Second, slaves were sometimes tried for treason – curious considering that slaves were considered just property (can a dog commit treason?) and were barred from ever taking part in the life of the nation as free men and women. Thus, the State exercised unencumbered authority over human beings. The Confederate Government expropriated property without compensation, dealt with their own white rebels (of significant numbers) with brute force, and imposed price controls and forced farmers and merchants to sell below market prices.

    As for secession – in America, and by its Constitution, the People, not the States are Sovereign. It was a compact of the People and clearly different from the former Articles of Confederation. The States did not have carte blanche to leave the partnership that was the United States of America at any time and for any reason which they may have fancied at the moment. It was and is not at all analogous to the American Declaration of Independence. Then, Parliament gave no voice to the colonists, they were not represented in the Commons or among the King’s ministers, and the British Parliament was infringing on the colonists’ rights as British Subjects. Thus, the right of the People to change their form of government; and this was only done after years of protest and loyal addresses to His Majesty the King (unfairly maligned by the Americans since 1776 by the way) to rectify the situation. Please don’t sully the American Revolution by comparing it favourably to the Southern cause to keep men in bondage.

    • “Like Our Ancestors – We Will Be Free”.

      These words were on the battle flag of the Fifth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A., of Kings Mountain, South Carolina.

      In October of 1780, Southern militia defeated Loyalists led by the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

      80 years later, the grandsons of those men wanted to tell the world what they were fighting for. They were just like the grandsons of Virginians Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, who fought and died in Confederate uniform. But apparently, they needed to be thought through force how to be good Americans.

      I do not compare this alleged Southern cause “to keep men in bondage” to the First American Revolution. Millions of men and women on the American continent in 1860 saw their struggle to cast off their government and found another to suit them better in the same light as the struggle of their recent ancestors.

      The Confederate Constitution did not enshrine white supremacy or dub slavery a good thing. In fact, it followed the existing United States Constitution on the slavery issue and most other matters. Nowhere in the Confederate Constitution was there a prohibition on ending slavery within a state. What it did stipulate was that the central government did not have the right to interfere with the ownership of slaves. That matter was left to “the people of the sovereign states”. Even old Abe Lincoln affirmed that the United States Constitution recognized the right of ownership of slaves and runaway slaves, even expressing the desire to enforce such laws. Lincoln actually had the opportunity to free thousands of slaves in Union-held territory during the Civil War, but chose not to, and blocked by efforts by General Fremont and General David Hunter to do so. In fact, several states in the Union actually had slavery, and they were not affected by the farcical Emancipation Proclamation, which only applied to rebel-held territory.

      Many states also had the right to secede enshrined in their state constitutions and legislation, including some of the original thirteen. Its interesting that Lincoln and the Unionists never had a problem with West Virginia seceding from the rest of Virginia, if you will permit me a somewhat sly observation. The right of secession had a long pedigree in America prior to Lincoln’s war. Probably the most prominent constitutional theorist in the antebellum period was William Rawle, with his 1825 book ‘A View of the Constitution’. Rawle, an abolitionist and close friend of George Washington, affirmed their was a right for individual states to secede from the Union and discusses it extensively in his text. His book was considered the authoritative guide to the Constitution, and was the only one used used for the course on the Constitution given to all cadets at West Point and many other institutes of higher learning at the time. There were movements for secession from the Union among New England Federalists during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison as well as New Yorkers unhappy with tariff policy in the early 1800s (unfair tax policy was also a major grievance of Southerners in the 1800s, and a causus belli almost totally and unjustly ignored today) . There is copious material one can find from the likes of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Roger Griswold, Timothy Pickering and countless others, affirming the idea of secession as a constitutional as well as natural right. Hell, even many abolitionists considered secession as a way for free states to let go of the slave states they hated so much. William Lloyd Garrison was among them.

      As for the some of the unfortunate policies of the Confederacy during war time, I cannot defend them. Except, perhaps, to say that the Union engaged in these and other atrocities to a worse extent. Then there was the fact that the South was fighting for its life at the time against an enemy that significantly outnumbered and outgunned them. I will defend their right to secede, not to enact wage and price controls (hardly unusual in wartime) which I don’t support anywhere (like under Richard Nixon, for example). Sherman’s troops, among many others, destroyed whole towns, expelled their populations, and looted everything not fixed to the ground. They even looted corpses in graveyards. They burned down towns and tried to pin the blame Confederates. They even shot dogs in the belief Southerners could use them to hunt down escaped Union prisoners and such. If Stonewall Jackson had committed half the crimes some Union men did, he would likely be remembered as one of the worst war criminals in American history.

      Aside from defending secession, my primary reason for saying the war was simply not worth waging, even in order to abolish slavery, is the staggering cost of the thing. During the entire Crimean War, fought shortly before the War Between the States among several empires, the British had about 2,700 men killed in action. The two days of the battle at Shiloh killed 23,000 Americans. More fell in a day at Gettysburg than in all previous American wars combined. The scale of the destruction, followed by the disaster of Reconstruction – anything should have been done to avoid that.

      • “Millions of men and women on the American continent in 1860 saw their struggle to cast off their government and found another to suit them better in the same light as the struggle of their recent ancestors.”

        Of course they saw it like that — but that doesn’t mean they were right. Jefferson himself wrote that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Ultimately, they sought to secede to latch on to slavery.

        “The Confederate Constitution did not enshrine white supremacy or dub slavery a good thing. In fact, it followed the existing United States Constitution on the slavery issue and most other matters. Nowhere in the Confederate Constitution was there a prohibition on ending slavery within a state.”

        Not true, see Article I Section 9(4) of the CSA Constitution: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed”

        Article IV Section 2(1): “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired”

        Seems pretty clear that the individual states had to let the institution of slavery exist. This was a key southern demand before the civil war; that the right to hold humans as property could not be infringed in any jurisdiction.

        “There is copious material one can find from the likes of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Roger Griswold, Timothy Pickering and countless others, affirming the idea of secession as a constitutional as well as natural right. Hell, even many abolitionists considered secession as a way for free states to let go of the slave states they hated so much. William Lloyd Garrison was among them.”

        Indeed there is. There is a good argument to be made for the right of secession, partly because the U.S. Constitution is itself silent to the issue (although its preamble asserts the People, not the States, as Sovereign, and seeks to foster a “more perfect Union” — which doesn’t seem compatible with “I can leave you whenever I fancy”). James Madison observed that the new system of government America created was “partly federal, partly national”. The Declaration followed by the Constitution created a Nation, it was not a league of nations, but a Federal Republic. The difference is critical.

        People retain a moral right to revolution, and if you wish to defend the Southern States’ rebellion on moral grounds, by all means do so (though I don’t envy you having to defend that position), but don’t call it legal or constitutional.

  4. Article I Section 9(4) of the CSA Constitution applied to the Government in Richmond, not the individual states.

    The CSA constitutional provisions you describe already existed in the US Constitution and US law. Article IV Section 2 of the United States Constitution dealt with runaway slaves, while Article 1, Section 2 enshrined the infamous three-fifths clause.

    • If Art 1 Section 9(4) applied only to the Government in Richmond, then read with Article IV Section 2(1) make it pretty clear that the right to negro slaves was a personal property right which no government of any part of the confederacy could limit negro slavery. Art IV Section 2 of the US Constitution did indeed apply to fugitive slaves, it did not, as CSA Art IV Section 2 does, give a right to transport slaves anywhere the master wished regardless of the laws of another state regarding slavery.

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