Mises Review

When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams

The Mises Review

Adams’s Stunning Achievement

Mises Review 6, No. 3 (Fall 2000)

Charles Adams
Rowman and Littlefield, 2000; xiv + 257 pgs.


Charles Adams manifests in this excellent book a rare talent-he asks intelligent historical questions. Many today portray the Civil War as a struggle to end slavery. Given the manifest injustice of Negro slavery, was not Lincoln justified in opposing Southern secession by all_out war? Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in a once-famous essay, went so far as to compare Lincoln’s crusade with the struggle against the Axis Powers in World War II.

Our author poses a simple question. How can one maintain this interpretation in the face of some obvious facts? First, if the Southern states seceded in order to preserve their “peculiar institution,” did they not follow a self_evidently foolish course? Mr. Adams points out that secession, even if peacefully accepted by the North, made slavery more precarious: “Under the protection of the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the entire nation was one gigantic prison from which the fugitive slave could not escape, which explains why the so_called underground railroad ended up in Canada. . . . To protect their slave property, staying in the Union was the wiser course to take” (p. 75).

But, it may be countered; did not Southerners fear that Lincoln intended, if he could, to end slavery? No doubt the South mistrusted Lincoln, but given Southern power in Congress, the president could do little. Further, “Lincoln said in his inaugural address that he would enforce the fugitive slave laws, hardly the philosophy of an abolitionist” (p. 75).

Mr. Adams also rejects a more sophisticated version of the “rebellion to defend slavery” approach. Even if Lincoln intended no immediate strike at slavery, the South faced danger. If slavery were excluded from the territories, as the Republicans wished, eventually enough free states might have been admitted into the Union to abolish slavery outright.

Our author finds this argument no more convincing than the “immediate danger” view. Few of the territories offered fertile ground for slavery; and in any event, the Dred Scott decision was still the law of the land. Chief Justice Taney’s decision denied Congress the power to prevent slaveowners from taking their slaves into free territory. How then could the Republicans exclude slavery from the territories, even if they wished to do so? Mr. Adams tersely remarks: “Even the territorial issue was a nonissue” (p. 4).

Here I am not altogether sure that Mr. Adams is right. Could not a defender of the sophisticated slavery view say that Mr. Adams’s contention that little room existed in the territories for slavery supports his case? If the new territories entered the Union as free states, did this not pose a danger? And, as J.G. Hamilton argued some seventy years ago in the American Historical Review, did not this prospect in fact disturb many in the South?

Our author has a strong response to this objection. Any prospect of a new majority of free states swamping the South was very far in the future. How could so speculative a threat suffice to explain the drastic step of secession? Mr. Adams’s argument becomes even stronger when one examines his alternative analysis of the reasons for secession.

It comes as no surprise that the author of Those Dirty Rotten Taxes finds the key to the mystery in financial affairs. The Southern states favored a regime of free trade: this would enable them to benefit to the greatest extent possible from their cotton exports. By contrast, many in the North favored high tariffs to help local industries.

Because of high tariffs, the South was burdened to benefit the North, a situation hardly likely to promote amicable relations. And, by contrast with slavery, here was an issue on which Lincoln would not compromise. Mr. Adams shows, by a careful analysis of Lincoln’s First Inaugural, that behind the conciliatory rhetoric lay a design of adamantine strength.

Lincoln was determined, come what may, to collect tariffs from the ports of the seceding states. “Lincoln’s inaugural address on 4 March 1861, certainly set the stage for war, and most of the South saw it that way. It sounded conciliatory . . . [but] he would, however, use federal power to hold federal property (the forts) and `to collect the duties and impost; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion.’ Southerners immediately saw the meaning behind Lincoln’s words” (p. 22, emphasis added).

In support of his thesis, Mr. Adams makes effective use of numerous contemporary newspapers, both Northern and Southern. He also draws from the important 1941 study of Philip Foner, The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict. Of this book, which he terms “remarkable,” Mr. Adams writes: “If money makes the world go around (private sector) and is the heart of war and the blood of governments (public sector), then the Foner book explains more about the Civil War than any other study” (p. 242).

The arguments in favor of the “tariff war” thesis were well_known to contemporaries, both in America and abroad. The British press was not deceived by Lincolnian rhetoric, and Mr. Adams reprints a number of British cartoons that amply showed “the follies and falsehoods of the war” (p. 97).

But the very obviousness of Mr. Adams’s interpretation raises a problem. If the true causes of the war were that apparent to contemporaries, how did the competing “war for slavery” thesis ever secure a following? Mr. Adams traces the popularity of this mistaken hypothesis to a vigorous but sophistical article by John Stuart Mill.

Mill met head_on the main argument against the slavery thesis, precisely the point our author emphasizes so forcefully. How can the desire to preserve slavery have led to secession, if slavery was not at risk in 1861? Mill answered with a fanciful conspiracy. “He thought he saw that the Southerners wanted to turn the whole world, especially the continents of North and South America and the Caribbean, into one vast `slavocracy’” (p. 92).

Mr. Adams, as usual displaying his ability to confront a theory with an embarrassing fact, notes that the Confederate constitution expressly prohibited the slave trade. Mill’s thesis, he contends, is “utter nonsense” (p. 94). Our author prefers the analysis of Charles Dickens, who maintained that “the quarrel between North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel” (p. 95).

But even if the war did not begin over slavery, did it not quickly become a battle for liberty? Once more, Mr. Adams stands ready to puncture illusion with inconvenient fact. Lincoln, far from being a paladin of freedom, arrogated to himself dictatorial powers and suppressed those who dared to dissent.

Lincoln on his own authority suspended the writ of habeas corpus; at his direction, civilians suspected of lèse_majesté were arrested by the military. When Chief Justice Taney held in Ex parte Merryman that Lincoln had acted unconstitutionally in suspending the writ, Lincoln responded as Nero or Caligula might have done. Not only did he ignore Taney’s ruling, he determined to have the Chief Justice himself arrested and imprisoned. (Fortunately, the arrest order was never served.)

Our author’s forthright condemnation of Lincoln in this matter may be usefully contrasted with the comments of Allen Guelzo in his recent exercise in hagiography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Eerdmans, 1999). Professor Guelzo finds Taney’s resolute defense of liberty “ridiculous”; it expressed “tedious Jacksonian constitutionalism” (Guelzo, pp. 281, 283). (Fittingly, Mr. Guelzo’s tome is dedicated to Jack Kemp.)

Can we not, though, credit Lincoln for at least one highly beneficial outcome? As a result of the war, slavery came to an end. Even if Lincoln would have maintained the status quo to keep the Union together, does he not deserve credit for his later role as the Great Emancipator?

As always, Mr. Adams has at hand an observation of devastating effect. Much Northern opposition to slavery stemmed from what he terms “Negrophobia.” Lincoln, like most people from his region, did not like slavery and did not like blacks. “Like Jefferson, Lincoln did not believe in racial mixing, not in the ability of the races to live with one another in harmony. The solution? Expulsion” (p. 132).

I have had to leave out much of interest in Mr. Adams’s outstanding work, e.g., his account of Fort Sumter and his discussion of Reconstruction. Suffice it to say that Mr. Adams touches nothing that he does not illuminate.


Gordon, David. “Adams’s Stunning Achievement.” Review of When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams. The Mises Review 6, No. 3 (Fall 2000).

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