When Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley answered a question last week in which she stated that the American Civil War was fought over “government,” “rights” and “freedoms,” she was correct. Yet, like most politicians, when she realized that the popular answer should have been “slavery,” she modified her answer. She should have stood her ground.
Hear me out. This column is hardly indifferent to slavery. Slavery is the most morally reprehensible institution in history. Far from being indifferent to the history of slavery, I embrace the two pillars of modern libertarian thought, both of which are antithetical to slavery. They are natural rights and the non-aggression principle.
The former teaches that our rights come from our humanity, no matter where our mothers were when we were born, no matter what our skin color is, no matter our intellect or income, no matter what the government says.
The latter teaches that all initiated aggression, whether by force or threat or deception, whether by individuals or groups or government, is morally illicit.
Slavery profoundly violates both of these principles. It was and is America’s Holocaust.
Yet, when it comes to the interrelationship between slavery and the American Civil War, most Americans have their history backward. Because it is nearly always written by the winners, history nearly always makes the winners look good. The American Civil War is no exception.
Starting with its very inaccurate name, the war fought on American soil between Americans from 1861 to 1865 was not a civil war. A civil war is a violent contest for control of a central government. The War Between the States was not fought for control of the federal government. It was fought, like all wars, over power and wealth.
No less an authority on the reasons for the war than Abraham Lincoln acknowledged many times during his presidency that the war was fought to preserve the union, not to eradicate slavery.
This should come as no surprise to students of the era who have objectively studied it. That would exclude most of us whose grade-school education was in government schools.
In government schools, we all learned that Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn’t. They were freed by the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in December 1865, eight months after the war ended and Lincoln’s death.
What about the Emancipation Proclamation? In government schools, we all learned that by that document, the slaves were set free. They weren’t. The Proclamation did not have the force of law on civilians, as it was a military order issued to troops by Lincoln in his capacity as commander in chief so as to enable the Union Army to conscript slaves into the Army against their will — from one form of slavery to another.
Moreover, the Proclamation expressly prohibited the Army from interfering with slavery — and thus preserving it — in the five border states; fully one-third of the Confederacy.
In government schools, we learned that Lincoln was anti-slavery. He wasn’t. In the earliest days of his presidency, he championed the Corwin Amendment — the Republican Congress’s original 13th Amendment — which Congress passed and sent on to the states. Had its ratification not been interrupted by the war, it would have enshrined slavery in the Constitution. The same Congress that moved to abolish slavery as soon as the war ended had moved to protect it before the war started; this is history bent and rewritten by the victors.
In war, power means control of someone else’s land and wealth means seizing someone else’s assets. The initial verbal and military salvos in the war were over whether the states — covetous of tariff revenues seized by the feds — could voluntarily leave the union and resume collecting tariffs; hardly a novel concept at the time, but in a government school, you probably never heard this.
Both Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, argued that the states can leave the union. And the ratifiers of the Constitution believed the threat of five of the initial 13 states to secede if a bill of rights were not quickly added to the Constitution.
Jefferson’s and Madison’s arguments were twofold. First, they argued that the states never consented to congressional legislation that was unconstitutional and so the sword of Damocles threat of secession was baked into the Constitution so as to hang over Congress and thereby keep Congress within the confines of the Constitution, lest it lose states and their tax bases.
Second, they argued that the decision to join the union was the voluntary choice of folks in the several states, and what they did voluntarily, they can undo voluntarily.
Lincoln argued that when the states joined the union, something miraculous happened; and that miracle bound them to each other irrevocably and to the union “forever.” This is sophistry. If the people cannot freely enact legislation that negates legislation previously freely enacted, then they are slaves to democracy by the dead.
Slavery was the most radically immoral use of government power in the history of the world. But its history was long and deep, and its overwhelming evils were not fully acknowledged until well after the war was concluded. If you read the letters Union soldiers sent home during the war, they rarely mention slavery. They were preoccupied with killing fellow Americans in order to end the war and come home.
Now, back to Nikki Haley. A wise answer would have stated that historians rarely agree on the causes of war, and wars look very different 150 years after they have ended than they do when facing the barrel of gun. But historically, she was correct — all wars implicate freedom.
History is made by its participants, but it is written by historians generations afterward. Not all of them are intellectually honest, and many want to shape the perception of the past in order to influence events in the future.
No less a tyrannical war lover than Napoleon recognized this when he quipped that history is not a record of the events before us. History is what people think took place before us.
Thinking people recognize that the causes of war are often many and ill-defined. But reasonable people should be able to disagree reasonably. And intellectually honest people should stand by their principles, though the heavens fall.
To learn more about Judge Andrew Napolitano, visit https://JudgeNap.com.
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