Libertarians and the American Civil War

Lately the media has been buzzing with articles trying to tie libertarians with neo-Confederates and racists. Most prominently, Jack Hunter, a pundit who until recently served as Sen. Rand Paul’s social media director, was attacked by neo-conservatives at the Washington Free Beacon.

This is nothing new. Libertarians have often debated the morality of the American Civil War on the basis of support for the right to secession and opposition to aggressive war. Unfortunately, this debate is too often interpreted thusly: “The Confederacy permitted slavery. The Union’s war effort brought about the end of slavery. Therefore, opposition to the Union’s war effort is implicit support of slavery.” This type of argument is a logical fallacy called a non sequitur, meaning “it does not follow.”

Libertarians fully support the abolition of slavery, but many would also argue that even the most noble and just end can never justify immoral means. Libertarians do not criticize the Lincoln and the Northern government for ending slavery. We criticize them for employing immoral means to do so. This is a very important distinction.

Mr. Hunter and others, including historian Tom Woods and our own delightful editor have already responded to the direct attacks against Mr. Hunter, and I’m not really interested in defending him specifically, so let’s talk about slavery, the proper way to abolish it, and the Union’s employment of injustice during the war.

Slaveholders claim ownership of the bodies and wills of other persons, implying that they believe that a person does not necessarily own his or her own body and will. This is an affront to the most fundamental property right, since the ability to own external property extends from the ability to own oneself. If slaveholders deny that self-ownership is a right, then they implicitly deny all property rights, including their own. It is, therefore, perfectly moral to invade the property of a slaveholder in order to free slaves. It is also perfectly moral to fight through anyone who attempts to forcefully defend a slaveholder’s claim to slaves, since they also implicitly deny self-ownership.

What then, did the Union do wrong? First, they attacked the South to prevent secession. Lincoln did not make the emancipation of slaves an issue until around early 1863. During 1862, in fact, Lincoln offered to allow Southern slavery to continue until 1900 in exchange for the South agreeing to rejoin the Union. While the South’s motivation for secession was entwined in a fear that Lincoln would attack the institution of slavery, and while this may make it more difficult for anyone to sympathize with the South, it is immaterial to the issue of whether the people of the Southern states had the right to secede.

Several of the Union’s policies during the war were indefensible as well. One is military conscription. The fact that emancipating the slaves might not have been possible without a draft does not justify the draft, because what is a draft besides another form of slavery? Sure, they might be paid for it (if they survive), and it may make the world better off in the end, but they did not volunteer for it, so it is still slavery. As the “political views” section of my Facebook profile currently says, “Fiat justitia ruat caelum.” (Let justice be done though the heavens fall.)

Another well-known violation of justice by the Union government was the suspension of habeas corpus, the protection against unjust imprisonment. Yes, I know the Constitution permits the suspension of habeas corpus “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it” — but that doesn’t make it right.

There was also the assault on freedom of the press. During the war, many Northern journalists were prosecuted for criticizing the Union government or for expressing sympathy for the Confederacy.

The last major abuse by the Union that I wish to discuss is the willful destruction of property by the Northern military. Of course, the Southern military surely did this as well, just as they also conscripted soldiers, but only individuals can ultimately be responsible for immorality and crime. The individual, non-slaveholding Southerners still had defensible property rights during the war, but many of them faced violations of their property by the Union military. Indeed, it may have been more difficult, even impossible, for the Union to emancipate the slaves without destroying rightfully owned Southern property, but again, fiat justitia ruat caelum.

I hope I have demonstrated that opposition to the Union war effort is not a defense of slavery. If you need more convincing, look at Dr. Woods’ article I linked to above. He mentions in that article, and in many others, that every other Western nation managed to abolish slavery without war, so did it really need to cost 1.5 million dead, wounded, or missing to abolish it here?

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL.

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