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The Road to Civil War

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03/19/2008

[This article by Murray N. Rothbard is excerpted from a 30,000-word report to the Volker Fund, written in September 1961, giving a very detailed description of everything wrong with A History of the American Republic by George B. DeHuszar. The full memo will be included in the forthcoming collection Renaissance Man, edited by David Gordon.]

The road to Civil War must be divided into two parts:

  1. the causes of the controversy over slavery leading to secession, and
  2. the immediate causes of the war itself.

The reason for such split is that secession need not have led to Civil War, despite the assumption to the contrary by most historians.

The basic root of the controversy over slavery to secession, in my opinion, was the aggressive, expansionist aims of the Southern 'slavocracy.' Very few Northerners proposed to abolish slavery in the Southern states by aggressive war; the objection — and certainly a proper one — was to the attempt of the Southern slavocracy to extend the slave system to the Western territories. The apologia that the Southerners feared that eventually they might be outnumbered and that federal abolition might ensue is no excuse; it is the age-old alibi for 'preventive war.' Not only did the expansionist aim of the slavocracy to protect slavery by federal fiat in the territories as 'property' aim to foist the immoral system of slavery on Western territories; it even violated the principles of states' rights to which the South was supposedly devoted — and which would logically have led to a 'popular sovereignty' doctrine.

Actually, with Texas in the Union, there was no hope of gaining substantial support for slavery in any of the territories except Kansas, and this had supposedly been settled by the Missouri Compromise. 'Free-Soil' principles for the Western territories could therefore have been easily established without disruption of existing affairs, if not for the continual aggressive push and trouble making of the South.

If Van Buren had been president, he might have been able to drive through Congress the free-soil principles of the Wilmot Proviso, and that would have been that. As it was, President Taylor's bill would have settled the Western territory problem by simply adopting 'popular sovereignty' principles in New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, and California territories — admitting them all eventually as free states. Instead, the unfortunate death of President Taylor, and the accession of Fillmore, ended this simple and straightforward solution, and brought forth the pernicious so-called 'Compromise' of 1850, which exacerbated rather than reduced interstate tensions by adding to the essential Taylor program provisions for stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Since the Fugitive Slave Law not only forced the Northern people to collaborate in what they considered — correctly — to be moral crime, but also violated Northern state rights, the strict Fugitive Slave Law was a constant irritant to the North.

The shift from free-soil principles in the Democratic Party and toward the Compromise of 1850 wrecked the old Jacksonian Democracy. The open break became apparent in Van Buren and the Free Soil candidacy of 1848; the failure of the Democratic Party to take an antislavery stand pushed the old libertarians into Free Soil or other alliances, even into the new Republican Party eventually: this tragic split in the Democratic Party lost it its libertarian conscience and drive.

Pro-southern domination of the Democratic Party in the 1850s, with Pierce and Buchanan, the opening up of the Kansas territory to slave expansion (or potential slave expansion) in 1854, led to the creation of the antislavery Republican Party. One tragedy here is that the surrender of the Democrat and Whig parties to the spirit of the Compromise of 1850 forced the free-soilers into a new party that was not only free soil, but showed dangerous signs (in Seward and others) of ultimately preparing for an abolitionist war against the South. Thus, Southern trouble making shifted Northern sentiment into potentially dangerous channels. Not only that: it also welded in the Republican Party a vehicle dedicated, multifold, to old Federalist-Whig principles: to high tariffs, to internal improvements and government subsidies, to paper money and government banking, etc. Libertarian principles were now split between the two parties.

'We must put a large portion of the blame upon the maneuvering of Lincoln….'

The fantastic Dred Scott decision changed the political scene completely: for in it the Supreme Court had apparently outlawed free-soil principles, even including the Missouri Compromise. There was now only one course left to the lovers of freedom short of open rebellion against the Court, or Garrison's secession by the North from a Constitution that had indeed become a 'compact with Hell'; and that escape hatch was Stephen Douglas's popular sovereignty doctrine, in its 'Freeport' corollary: i.e., in quiet, local nullification of the Dred Scott decision.

At this critical juncture, the South continued on its suicidal course by breaking with Douglas, insistent on the full Dred Scott principle, and leading to the victory of their enemy Lincoln. Here again, secession was only 'preventive,' as Lincoln had given no indication of moving to repress slavery in the South.

It is here that we must split our analysis of the 'causes of the Civil War'; for, while this analysis leads, in my view, to a 'pro-Northern' position in the slavery-in-the-territories struggles of the 1850s, it leads, paradoxically, to a 'pro-Southern' position in the Civil War itself. For secession need not, and should not, have been combated by the North; and so we must pin the blame on the North for aggressive war against the seceding South. The war was launched in the shift from the original Northern position (by Garrison included) to 'let our erring sisters depart in peace' to the determination to crush the South to save that mythical abstraction known as the 'Union' — and in this shift, we must put a large portion of the blame upon the maneuvering of Lincoln to induce the Southerners to fire the first shot on Fort Sumter — after which point, flag-waving could and did take over.


Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School. See his archive.

This article by Murray N. Rothbard is excerpted from a 30,000-word report to the Volker Fund, written in September 1961, giving a very detailed description of everything wrong with A History of the American Republic by George B. DeHuszar. The full memo will be included in the forthcoming collection Renaissance Man, edited by David Gordon.

 

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