History

What Should Libertarians Think About the Civil War?

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Herbert Spencer

On November 9, 1882, a distinguished group of scholars, politicians, businessmen, and journalists gathered in the celebrated New York restaurant Delmonico's to honor the English libertarian philosopher and evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, who was concluding his first grand tour of the United States. The attendees included Spencer himself, New York Mayor Abraham Hewitt, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and Yale University paleontologist and Tyrannosaurus discoverer O.C. Marsh. Among the featured speakers was former interior secretary and U.S. senator from Missouri Carl Schurz, who began by recalling "some pleasant memories" from his service as a Union general during the Civil War.

"Nineteen years ago, after the battle of Missionary Ridge," Schurz told the audience, he was camped out with his command near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with only a handful of supplies to protect him from the winter cold. "But I had Herbert Spencer's 'Social Statics' with me," Schurz declared, which "I read by the light of a tallow-candle."

Published in 1851, Social Statics was Spencer's second book and first big hit. In it, he laid out what he called his Law of Equal Freedom, a sweepingly libertarian credo which held, "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man." As Schurz told the assembled worthies at Delmonico's that night, "If the people of the South had well studied and thoroughly digested that book, there would never have been any war for the preservation of slavery."

Indeed, it's hard to imagine a less libertarian form of government than that of the Confederate South, which was explicitly organized around the collectivist notion that man may hold property in man, that one group of people is lawfully entitled to seize the fruits of another group's labor.

And yet many libertarians today continue to debate the Civil War and its impact on the country. Some hold that the war destroyed more liberty than it preserved by centralizing so much power in the hands of the federal government. Others argue that by abolishing slavery, the Civil War advanced the cause of true liberalism.

The latest entry in this debate comes courtesy of Cato Institute researcher Jonathan Blanks, who argues that it's "incoherent" for self-described libertarians to defend the Confederacy's secession from the Union. Here's the introduction to the essay he recently wrote for Libertarianism.org:

There is a strain of libertarian contrarianism that holds that the Confederate States of America were within their "rights" to secede from the Union. Such contrarianism on this particular topic is detrimental to the larger cause of liberty because the logic of this argument relies upon relinquishing individual rights to the whim of the state. Indeed, as there is no legal or moral justification for supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War, it is impossible that there could be a libertarian one.

Read the whole thing here.

For a sampling of Reason's writing on the Civil War and its legacy—none of which sides with the Confederate cause, incidentally—click here and here.