Behind the Jeffersonian Veneer

The author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is no libertarian.


Thomas Woods' best-selling Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is primarily pitched to conservative readers, but it's also crafted for libertarian appeal. Its rhetoric is strongly anti-statist, pro-market, and opposed to centralization; in interviews, Woods has called himself a "Jeffersonian" championing liberty. Scratch that ostensibly libertarian veneer, though, and you'll find…something else.

Much of the book's first half is an apologia for the antebellum South and its cause in the War Between the States (Woods' preferred term). Taking the familiar view that the war was fought not over slavery but over competing economic interests, Woods consistently casts the motives of slavery's opponents in the worst possible light: Those who wanted to keep slavery out of the new territories, he claims, mainly wanted to keep those territories all-white. The abolitionist movement is faulted for "belligerent and vitriolic anti-Southern rhetoric," while Lincoln is skewered as a power-hungry, racist hypocrite with little interest in freeing the slaves.

Like most propaganda, this has some kernels of truth. It is hardly a secret that Lincoln was a pragmatist who favored a gradual emancipation and made the preservation of the Union his top priority, or that he shared his era's racist beliefs and toyed with the idea of repatriating blacks to Africa. Yet he also held strong antislavery convictions, publicly and privately voicing the view that excluding blacks from the principles of liberty and equality subverted freedom for all.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, challenged on whether he considered a black woman his equal, Lincoln replied, "In some respects she is certainly not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others." That's a Lincoln you won't find in The Politically Incorrect Guide.

Nor will you find, for instance, this statement by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens: "Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery–subordination to the superior race–is his natural and normal condition." Woods' narrative dances around a basic fact: Whatever other issues were involved, the Confederacy was dedicated to the preservation of slavery. (Mississippi's declaration of secession stated, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," and other states struck similar notes.) Woods notes that the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee once called slavery "a moral and political evil"; he does not add that Lee simultaneously said it was temporarily necessary for the moral betterment of blacks.

It may well be true that, as Woods argues, the Founders regarded secession as an inherent right possessed by the states; and it is indisputable that the Civil War led to a vast increase in the powers of the federal government. But just as clearly, the historical effect of the Confederacy was to discredit the idea of secession.

Woods includes the disclaimer that "no one, of course, mourns the passing of the slave system." Maybe not, but readers will search The Politically Incorrect Guide in vain for any moral outrage at a brutal system that allowed some human beings to own others. The best Woods can do is suggest that without the war, slavery could have been phased out peacefully, a stance that is speculative at best.

His account of the war's aftermath is equally tendentious. He portrays the South's postwar Black Codes, which harshly curtailed the rights of freed blacks, as comparable to Northern vagrancy laws–an assertion dismissed as "truly absurd" by David Bernstein, a legal scholar at George Mason University and the author of Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts From Reconstruction to the New Deal (2001). Woods' charge of Northern hypocrisy isn't entirely baseless: Several Northern states had overtly racist laws. But he evades the fact that most of these Northern codes were repealed by the end of the Civil War–and that the ones still on the books were nullified by the 14th Amendment, his b?te noire.

If you're wondering whether there's a larger context for Woods' pleading, there is. Born and raised in the North, Woods is a co-founder of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group, and has written frequently for its magazine The Southern Patriot.

In a 1997 article titled "Christendom's Last Stand," Woods proclaims the Confederacy's defeat "the real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today."

Woods is talking not merely about the expansion of federal power but about the triumph of Northern "radical individualism," religious liberalism, and other cultural evils. He favorably quotes a 19th-century Southern theologian who described the defenders of slavery as "friends of order and regulated freedom," and portrays the Civil War as "a struggle against an atheistic individualism and an unrelenting rationalism in politics and religion, in favor of a Christian understanding of authority, social order and theology itself." The Southern cause, he concludes, is "the cause of us all."

Woods complains when critics quote his older essays. But when I contacted him to ask if he now rejected any part of those writings, he replied, "I don't so much object to their use of old quotations, much of which I'm sure I still stand by; I was simply taken aback at the lengths to which some have gone to avoid discussing my book." Woods claimed his views had evolved in a more libertarian direction. But he still spoke sympathetically of the defenders of the Southern order, telling me that "certain strains of abolitionist argument, Southerners feared, could corrode all kinds of human relations" since they challenged the principles of authority and subordination.

As for the League of the South, Woods said he would not offer a "ritual apology" for his "membership in what is largely a cultural Southern organization." Never mind that a senior board member of this "cultural organization," the Rev. Steve Wilkins, recently co-wrote a booklet titled Southern Slavery: As It Was, a grotesque portrait of the antebellum South as a model "multi-racial society" filled with "mutual intimacy and harmony" between happy slaves and kindly masters; or that the group has officially denounced the idea that Christian white Southerners "should give control over their civilization and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants."

In the second half of the Guide, the main theme is the evil of American intervention abroad, including World War II. Woods manages to be both anti-communist and anti?Cold War: He rightly assails Franklin Roosevelt for throwing Eastern Europe to the Soviets, then slams the Truman Doctrine of assisting countries threatened by communism as big-government liberalism. (Oddly for a foe of overreaching government, he likes Joe McCarthy.) He is right on some issues, such as the outrageous decision at the end of World War II to send Russian prisoners of war back to Stalin's USSR; and he offers, at the very least, solid arguments on others.

But his valuable points can only be tainted by their poisoned source. This book provides quick ammunition to those for whom "the abolitionists were the bad guys" and "FDR didn't save the country from the Great Depression" are equally outlandish ideas.

Woods is a bad ally for libertarians, though his message may appeal to those who can't distinguish the flaws of America from those of outright despotisms. Decentralization is an important libertarian value, but surely our first principle is individual liberty; and nothing is more inimical to liberty than slavery or totalitarianism. The Civil War may not have begun as a war for abolition, but it nonetheless led to the end of slavery and to fuller enfranchisement of blacks in the North. And U.S. intervention in World War II and the Cold War may have been vital to defeating totalitarianism. On those two crucial battles, Woods is wrong.?