Academic journal article Civil War History

"EMANCIPATING SLAVES, ENSLAVING FREE MEN": MODERN LIBERTARIANS INTERPRET THE UNITED STATES CIVIL WAR, 1960s-1990s

Academic journal article Civil War History

"EMANCIPATING SLAVES, ENSLAVING FREE MEN": MODERN LIBERTARIANS INTERPRET THE UNITED STATES CIVIL WAR, 1960s-1990s

Article excerpt

A REVIEW ESSAY

IN 1979, JOSEPH R. Stromberg published an article with the title, "The War for Southern Independence: A Radical Libertarian Perspective"; Stromberg's interpretation was praised and expanded in 1996 with the appearance of a volume by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a second libertarian: Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.(1) Both Stromberg and Hummel are trained historians, born in the late 1940s, and they set forth a distinctive interpretation of the United States Civil War that differs from traditional pro-Union or pro-Confederate accounts.

Before describing their interpretation, it is useful to note that its underlying cluster of ideas, modern libertarianism, took shape in the United States in the quarter-century after World War II as part of a movement sharply and fundamentally opposed to the legacy of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. One strand in the movement hostile to the Roosevelt-New Deal legacy was modern "conservatism"; by the late 1960s, a second strand, "libertarianism," was splitting from the "conservative" segment. Many of the "founders" or "enunciators" of modern libertarianism in the 1950s and 1960s were male academicians in economics, philosophy, and political science. (Ayn Rand called her philosophy "objectivism" and libertarians have disagreed over whether she can accurately be described as a libertarian.) None of the academicians were trained historians, but at least two of them briefly mentioned the Civil War, which foreshadowed the interpretations advanced later by libertarian historians Stromberg and Hummel.

One of these mentions of the Civil War focused on Abraham Lincoln, and was published by Frank S. Meyer in two, one-page articles in the National Review in 1965 and 1966.(2) Meyer (1909-1972) was one of the original group of senior editors of the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. Born in New Jersey, Meyer attended Princeton and Oxford, was a member of the Communist Party in England and in the United States from 1931 to 1945. By the early 1960s, he had become an advocate of the fusion of "conservatism" and "libertarianism" and a few hours before his death in 1972, he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

In his 1965-66 articles, Meyer held Abraham Lincoln responsible for the coming of the Civil War--had Lincoln been "less the ideologue, he could have let the seven states which seceded before Sumter go," and thus held the other Southern states in the Union. Instead, Lincoln waged war to achieve "the permanent destruction of the autonomy of the states."(3) While Meyer wrote that the "moral objections to slavery are manifold," and that the "historical existence [of slavery] in the United States" was cause for sorrow, he objected strongly to praise of Lincoln's role in the elimination of slavery. He objected, in part, because Lincoln's primary intent was preservation of the Union, rather than the abolition of slavery. In addition, Meyer protested that praise of Lincoln as "the champion of equality" (with its assumption that equality was the central theme of the U.S. constitutional system) showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. constitutional system: "The freedom of the individual person from government, not the equality of individual persons, is the central theme of our constitutional arrangements."(4)

Meyer noted "Lincoln's magnificent language and his personal acts of individual kindness," but he maintained that Lincoln's "pivotal role in our history was essentially negative to the genius and freedom of our country." In support of that hostile evaluation, Meyer summarized his indictment of Lincoln in libertarian, anti-government phrases which were keyed to the twentieth century. "Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today. …

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