Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Conservative Case for the Confederacy

It's the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War (actually earlier this month, but it is being celebrated the whole year), and with it comes a whole new debate about the Confederacy, the right of secession, and the use of the Confederate flag today.  While most people probably associate Southern apologists with conservatives, I have been seeing many attacks on the Confederacy and the flag from conservative sources, one of which goes so far as to nominate Jefferson Davis as the worst person in American history.  It probably is true that most Southern apologists are conservative, but it is apparently far from true that most conservatives are Southern apologists. This is unfortunate, because the case for secession is at the core a case for liberty.  This is, of course, a controversial statement, but I think a defensible one -- in fact, the only logical one.  Here, then, is a brief but long-considered defense of the Confederate States of America.

The CSA starts with two strikes against it, because it was created in defense of the institution of slavery, which is universally (and rightly) condemned today.  It's hard to overcome that, and I'm not going to pretend that South Carolina or the other Deep South states seceded for any reason other than the desire to preserve slavery.  But that's not the end of the issue.

Slavery is bad, and it was as bad in the 1860's as it is today.  It was not, however, as clear to everyone at that time that it was bad.  As hard as that may be to accept, we have to take it into consideration.  Remember that few people in the 17th or 18th centuries condemned slavery.  Remember that all colonies and states permitted slavery at some point.  Remember, too, that many slave traders came from the North prior to independence, and that no Northern state actually freed any slaves owned by its citizens -- they all allowed the institution to die out by declaring anyone subsequently born to be free.  I'm not trying to set up a moral equivalency between the North and the South on this issue, but it is important to establish that the country was not always divided.  The North was not born in innocence; it developed a conscience regarding slavery over time, and it did so without a large slave population to create economic and social problems with emancipation.  Slavery was not an issue that Northern states proposed to abolish in their own borders by any sudden measures, and indeed their were still slaves in the free state of New Jersey as the Civil War began, not to mention those in the slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.  This is significant for two reasons:  one, the Civil War was not a crusade to end slavery, even though it ended up with that result; two, even though many (probably most) Northerners opposed slavery, they were unwilling to take drastic action where their own property was at stake.

I think it is a good idea to think about slavery from the perspective of a modern issue about which people are divided.  One obvious case is abortion, because, like slavery, it involves the question of whether certain beings qualify as human.  A good portion of the country thinks abortion is nothing less than killing a baby; another portion thinks it is the equivalent of removing bodily tissue.  There is not much room for compromise between these views.  Opinion is not sharply divided geographically, as it was with slavery, but let's suppose it was.  Suppose the New England states, along with New York and New Jersey, were strongly pro-abortion, and the rest of the country was pro-life.  Suppose the national government passed, or threatened to pass, legislation outlawing abortion.  Would it be permissible for the pro-choice states to secede to preserve what they viewed as a human right?  If they did, would the rest of the country be justified in invading to take away that right?  Would we applaud the country if, after the deaths of millions of people, they finally managed to win and preserve the rights of fetuses?

The trick about this case is, of course, that there is no consensus on the morality of abortion as there is on slavery.  There may never be.  That's what makes it a good analogy, because there was also not a consensus over slavery in 1861.  You have to think about your answer to the abortion question as though we could look back on it 100 years later and all agree that abortion is bad.  (Or, if it would make the analogy resonate with you, imagine it the other way around:  pro-abortion states invade and conquer pro-life states to preserve the woman's right to an abortion.)  If anything, the case for enforcing abortion rights is even weaker than that for enforcing slavery, because slavery was endorsed in the Constitution.  That doesn't make it morally right, of course, but it does make it a part of the legal foundation for the union of the states; removing it would, therefore, remove part of the basis by which the states had agreed to form a nation in the first place.

At what point does a moral issue become so clear that it overrides all legal concerns?  I don't know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure that it stops short of changing the fundamental nature of a society to which you agreed to be a part.  The North, in other words, had no right to end slavery because they had agreed to join with slave states in the first place.  They would have had a right to secede -- to divorce themselves from what they viewed as an iniquitous society -- but not to forcibly remove slavery.  They would also have had the right to work for the ending of slavery, via constitutional amendment or via some sort of compromise proposal that would have led to, say, the federal government buying slaves.  There were plenty of Southerners who were uncomfortable with slavery and who would have been happy to find some way to get rid of it if they could do so without creating massive social and economic disruption.  It may have been that, over time, something could have been worked out.  But thundering invective and cheering on John Brown's attempt to lead a slave revolt were hardly the sort of thing that were likely to build bridges to the moderates in the South.

There is also the matter that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.  Yes, I conceded above that the South seceded in order to defend the institution of slavery; there is no question about that.  The North, however, did not attack the South to end slavery, but rather to preserve the union.  This is well enough documented that I don't think it needs much elaboration here.  Lincoln's oft-quoted sentence, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also so that" is evidence enough of his own views on the subject.

The case of Virginia, a Confederate state but not one of the founders of the Confederacy, demonstrates the difference.  Virginia preferred to remain in the United States rather than join the Confederacy, but it changed its position in response to Lincoln's call for volunteers for an invading army.  There is no question that Virginia (along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) joined the Confederacy not to defend slavery, but over the Constitutional and moral issue of the right of states to secede and the wrong that Lincoln was doing by trying to keep them from leaving by force.

What about the firing on Fort Sumter?  Didn't the South initiate the fighting?  It is true that the South Carolina militia attacked the relief ship bound for Fort Sumter and then the fort itself, but this was merely the beginning of hostilities that Lincoln had made inevitable.  Already in March, he had announced that he intended to enforce the laws of the United States in the Confederacy, including collecting taxes.  South Carolina had been trying for months to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter from the United States; and, as Stephen Douglas pointed out during debates in Congress, what purpose could the United States possibly have for holding a fort in Charleston harbour but to keep Charleston under control?  Lincoln cleverly maneuvered so that the South would fire the first shot, but his stated policy is what made conflict unavoidable.

I have heard people ask whether the Union could not have attacked the Confederacy as a foreign country.  Even supposing secession was legal, what would stop the rest of the United States from attacking the now-independent country to its south?  This is a fun game for armchair historians, but it has no basis in reality.  The Union insisted from the beginning that the South was not a separate country, and it staked its diplomacy entirely on this viewpoint.  If the South had been an independent country, the North could not have legitimately complained to England about supplying military equipment, especially commerce raiders, to the South.  Moreover, it would have been inconceivable for the North, having once defeated the South, to try to occupy the territory and bring it in to the United States.  Reparations, a forced end to slavery, some favourable trade agreements:  these would have been likely, but not an outright conquest.

This brings us to the crux of the matter:  how could a collection of free states justify forcing others into its government?  Less than a hundred years previously, the United States had been formed by a secession movement of the 13 colonies against the British government.  Somehow, now, secession was not justified, even though the government of the United States was a voluntary union and that of the British crown an acknowledged empire under a hereditary monarch!  George Washing was a hero; Jefferson Davis, a traitor.

Attempts to justify the distinction based on the supposed justice of the cause in 1776 versus that in 1861 are doomed to failure, for when will a government ever accept the separation of a large part of its territory voluntarily?  The one thing that is essential is the will of the people, and no one can doubt that the legislatures and, in many cases, the populations of the Confederate states had legitimately voted in favour of separation from the United States.  This was not the case of an individual, group of individuals, or a city attempting to withdraw from its legitimate government, but of the acknowledged sovereign units of a government deciding to revoke the power that it had voluntarily (but, as Thomas Jefferson argued, always conditionally) conceded to the central authority.  The United States violated its own most sacred principles of government in ignoring the South's wish to form a separate government.

I will close with, once again, the qualification that this is in no way an endorsement of slavery, racism, or anything associated with it.  Slavery was ended after the Civil War; without the Civil War, it would doubtless have continued longer; to that extent, the Civil War was clearly good.  But do we justify bad actions by pointing to their positive results?  There is no point in hiding behind the pretense that the North was engaged in a noble enterprise to end slavery, because that was not the motivation of most of the participants, least of all the revered leader of the Union.  It was engaged in what it saw as a noble enterprise to preserve the republican government of the United States -- a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" that it was prepared to defend by killing hundreds of thousands of people and forcing millions more into a government that they had voluntarily chosen to leave.  It set a terrible precedent, that good results could justify practically any government action no matter how bad its motivation or its other effects.

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