Disclaimer: Most of these arguments come from Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln (except the assassination stuff—that’s all me!)
First, it is preposterous to argue that the North invaded the South out of concern for the welfare of blacks. Very few Americans at the time were abolitionists. Most Northerners opposed abolition because they didn’t want ex-slaves moving north. The overwhelming majority of Northerners discriminated against free blacks, who were treated with contempt, ridicule, and sometimes violence. Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1831 that Northerners were more racist than Southerners. The Union Army “confiscated” slaves and forced them into manual labor. Union General Ulysses S. Grant—who owned slaves before, during, and after the war—said that if he thought the war was about freeing the slaves, he would resign and fight for the other side. Many Northerners apparently shared his view; the Emancipation Proclamation caused a desertion crisis in the U.S. Army and race riots in New York City. In short, Northerners were not fighting for blacks. They were fighting because Lincoln turned “saving the Union” into a nationalistic crusade: “America—f*ck yeah!”
It is equally preposterous to argue that Southerners were suffering and dying to keep blacks in bondage. Less than one-fourth of Southern adults owned slaves. The average Southerner was a yeoman farmer or merchant with no special interest in slavery. In many cases, wealthy plantation owners were the most reluctant secessionists. General Robert E. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.” Stonewall Jackson was a champion of black literacy. Most educated Southerners assumed that slavery would end at some point. Jefferson Davis requested, and some Confederate officers demanded, that blacks be promised their freedom in return for military service. In 1864, President Jefferson Davis approved a plan for emancipation in return for the official recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France. If the South was fighting mainly for “slavery,” why were they willing to free the slaves in order to win the war?
Everyone, including Lincoln, agreed that the federal government was powerless to end slavery. As a presidential candidate, Lincoln defended the rights of slave-owners and he promised to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act, which obligated the federal government to return runaway slaves to their owners. When Lincoln decided to invade the South, the Union still had eight slave states, more than had left. He promised not to disturb slavery in those states and even supported a constitutional amendment that would prevent the federal government from ever interfering with slavery. Slavery was certainly one of the main reasons why the seven states of the Deep South were the first to secede, but that doesn’t mean they saw Lincoln as a direct threat to slavery. As DiLorenzo argues, the Deep South was more concerned that any anti-slavery agitation within the federal government might lead to bloody slave insurrections.
Although the Deep South might have initially left the Union because of “slavery,” the upper South—Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—did not. They remained loyal to the Union until Lincoln decided to wage an invasion of their neighbors to keep them from peaceably seceding. Because Lincoln was ordering all states to help in crushing the Southern Confederacy, the upper South was forced to pick sides. Lincoln’s ultimatum was like a husband telling his wife, “Honey, I love you and I hope we stay together forever. But if you ever try to leave me, I’ll f*cking kill you.” Southerners were fighting mainly because they wanted no part in a Union that was held together at gunpoint. Stonewall Jackson from Gods and Generals:
Like many of you, indeed most of you, I’ve always been a Union man. It is not with joy or a light heart that many of us have welcomed secession. Had our neighbors to the North practiced a less bellicose form of persuasion perhaps this day might not have come. BUT! That day has been thrust upon us, like it was thrust upon our ancestors!Lincoln himself was no friend of the black man. He had not a single black acquanintance until the final year of his life. He told n*gger jokes. He told a group of black delegates at the White House that the two races could never live together in peace. His lifelong dream was to ship all the blacks back to Africa. As a lawyer, he tried to help one of his clients recover runaway slaves. As a member of the Illinois legislature, he urged his colleagues to appropriate money to remove all the free blacks from the state. Lincoln barely mentioned slavery before 1854, and he denounced abolitionists as “zealots.” Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said that Lincoln “had not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.” His statements against slavery were just political posturing; he wanted the abolitionist vote but had no serious intention of abolishing slavery. In the summer of 1861, he had several opportunities to liberate thousands of slaves, but he refused to do so. The Emancipation Proclamation was not a genuine attempt at emancipation. Widely ridiculed at the time, the Proclamation did not free a single slave because it applied only to rebel territory. It was really a desperate war measure; Lincoln was trying to destabilize the South by encouraging slave insurrections against the women and children who were running the plantations (which, curiously, never happened). He failed to use his legendary political skills to end slavery through peaceful, compensated emancipation. The federal government could have purchased the freedom of every slave (and given each 40 acres of land and a mule) for much less money than it spent on the war itself. Finally, Lincoln stated over and over that he opposed racial equality. He wanted to deny blacks citizenship, the right to vote and to become jurors, and so on.
Like most Northerners, Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, but this opposition was not based on moral grounds. Northerners were more concerned about slave labor competing with white labor, and Republicans in particular were concerned that extension of slavery would increase the power of Democrats in Congress. Even the “free” territories did everything they could to keep blacks out. As Lincoln confidant and Secretary of State William Seward explained, “The motive of those who protested against the extension of slavery had always really been concern for the welfare of the white man, and not an unnatural sympathy for the Negro.”
If it wasn’t freeing the slaves, what was Lincoln’s real agenda? Throughout his entire political career, Lincoln had an almost single-minded dedication to his “American System”: an economic agenda of a national bank, protectionist tariffs, and government subsidies for “internal improvements. A system that goes by many names—mercantilism, corporatism, corporate welfare, and crony capitalism—it’s basically where government and corporations work together to subvert free enterprise and plunder consumers and taxpayers. It works like this: The State grants special favors and monopolistic privileges to well-connected special interests groups, who in turn provide support for the politicians dispensing the favors. It benefits the special interests and politicians, but it harms everyone else. Consumers pay higher prices because of reduced competition, and they also have fewer choices. Potential competitors are kept out of the job market, which means a loss of jobs. A nationalized bank allows the government to simply print paper money to finance special interest projects. That way, consumers pay for the subsidies through inflation rather than direct tax increases. All of these policies tend to generate corruption and a centralization of government power. In its extreme form, mercantilism becomes fascism—where corporations and government become one.
In other words, Lincoln was trying to establish a political patronage system that would allow Republican cronies to increase their wealth and power indefinitely. Two things stood in his way: the South and the Constitution. Because the South’s economy was mostly agrarian, high tariffs meant that Southerners would have to pay more for manufactured goods whether they came from Europe or the North. In other words, a high tariff benefited Northern industries while burdening Southerners with the lion’s share of the cost of government. This is patently unconstitutional, since the Constitution requires that all taxes be uniform. Neither internal improvements nor any other form of special-interest legislation is authorized by the Constitution. Southern resistance forced the federal government to back down from the Tariff of Abominations in 1833, and The Bank of the United States and numerous “internal improvement” bills had been defeated on constitutional grounds—mostly by Southerners.
Abraham Lincoln argued that secession was “treason” because the federal government created the states. This is complete nonsense. The states preceded the federal government and retained their sovereignty after ratifying the Constitution. Each state declared its independence from Great Britain on its own. The Constitution was proposed by a convention that was called by the states, it was ratified by the states, and it can only be amended by the states. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison affirmed the supremacy of the states with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, whereby states could nullify acts of the federal government which they believed to be unconstitutional. No state agreed to enter a “perpetual” Union. They delegated certain powers to the federal government while reserving the right to withdraw from that compact. Three states had secession clauses in their ordinances of ratification. Even Union supporters like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and Daniel Webster supported the right of secession. Jefferson Davis was never tried for treason because the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, said that there was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited the secession of states.
Secession was not just a “Southern thing.” Most Americans—Northern and Southern—took for granted a state’s right to secede until 1861. New England Federalists orchestrated three serious secession attempts in the 1800s, and no one questioned their right to do so. Northern abolitionists had been arguing since the 1830s that the Northern states should secede from the Union and not be associated with slave-owning states. Prior to Fort Sumter, there was widespread sentiment in the North of allowing the Southern states to secede peacefully. A large majority of Northern newspapers were opposed to the use of force against any state that might secede. Even the “middle states” of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland considered seceding. The Mayor of New York wanted the city to secede from the Union and the state and become a free-trade zone. As late as 1865, Washington, D.C. was overrun with Confederate spies and sympathizers. Global opinion—from British commentators to Pope Pius IX—was also sympathetic toward the secessionists.
The real ground for secession is not legal but philosophical. In the eyes of the American Founding Fathers, the most fundamental principle of political philosophy is the right of secession. It is the Jeffersonian dictum that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed and that whenever a government becomes destructive of the rights of life, liberty, and property, citizens have a right to secede from that government and form a new one. Secession was the principle of the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies seceded from the British Empire. Although Lincoln “saved the Union” in a political sense, he destroyed the idea of the Union as a voluntary association of states. The conquest of the South was a repudiation of the central ideal of the American Revolution, which held that the People are sovereign—they have a right to determine in all cases how they will be governed. Northern victory meant that the federal government was now sovereign—rather than the People through their state legislatures.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said that Union soldiers were fighting for “government by consent.” The complete opposite is true, because Southerners no longer consented to remaining in the Union. H.L. Mencken wrote about Lincoln’s most famous speech: “It is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense…The Union soldiers fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”
From the very beginning, the right of secession was viewed by Americans as the last check on the potential abuse of power by the central government. The mere threat of secession was important because it countered the federal government’s inclination to overstep its constitutional bounds. After Lincoln destroyed the threat of secession, the long-term consolidation of power in Washington became inevitable—which was Lincoln’s goal all along. Robert E. Lee predicted that the federal government would become “more aggressive abroad and more despotic at home.” That’s exactly what happened. After conquering the South, the federal government went on to eradicate the plains Indians and make war with the Spanish Empire. For twelve years after the war the Southern states were plundered by military dictatorships appointed by the Republican Party. Reconstruction was a time of unprecedented oppression, crime, chaos, and corruption. General Benjamin Butler issued an order that any woman in New Orleans who did not display proper respect for occupying Federal soldiers would be considered a prostitute and treated accordingly. Things got so bad that Robert E. later regretted surrendering at Appomattox.
There is no question that Lincoln was a dictator. He suspended constitutional liberty in the North for the entire duration of his administration. His crimes include: launching a military invasion of the South without the consent of Congress; suspending habeas corpus; declaring martial law; blockading Southern ports; imposing without trial thousands of Northern citizens; shutting down opposition newspapers; censoring all telegraph communication; nationalizing the railroads; creating several new states without the consent of the people of those states; ordering federal troops to interfere with democratic elections; deporting a member of Congress for criticizing his income tax proposal; issuing a warrant for the arrest of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; confiscating private property; confiscating firearms; effectively gutting the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution; and ordering the mass execution of the Sioux Indians, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Lincoln imprisoned virtually anyone who disagreed with his views. The Union military and secret police arrested and imprisoned thousands of citizens, sometimes on mere rumors of being “disloyal.” The majority of Maryland’s political leaders favored peaceful secession of the Southern Confederacy in 1861, and all were arrested under orders by President Lincoln. When Delaware leaders showed interest in the formation of a Central Confederacy, Lincoln ordered the federal army to occupy the state and prevent the legislature from discussing the issue. An Episcopal minister in Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested for omitting a prayer for the President of the United States in his church services as required by the Lincoln Administration. A New Orleans man was executed for merely taking down a U.S. flag. More than 13,000 political prisoners were held in Lincoln’s inhumane military prisons. DiLorenzo writes, “As the fatalities from the war multiplied, the peace movement in the North grew stronger and stronger, and the repression of it by the federal government became more and more severe.” Newspapers that advocated for a peaceful resolution to the war were ransacked by mobs of Union soldiers. Lincoln’s tyranny far exceeded King George’s “train of abuses” cited by the colonists as justification for the American Revolution.
There is also no question that Lincoln was a war criminal. His greatest crime was abandoning international law and U.S. military codes by waging war on civilians. Federal armies pillaged and plundered their way through the South for the duration of the war. They killed thousands of civilians by bombarding and burning Southern cities and towns. General Sherman announced that to secessionists—be they men, women or children—“death is mercy.”
In this writer’s opinion, Lincoln’s declaration of “total war” renders all legal, philosophical, and practical arguments about secession irrelevant. Southerners had every right to defend themselves against the Union mongols by any means necessary—and that includes taking out Lincoln himself. In a way, the South’s sense of chivalry got the best of them. They probably could have won their independence by fighting a dirty, guerrilla-style war against the Union invaders (more like the colonists used against the British). My favorite quote from Gods and Generals is the following by Stonewall Jackson:
Colonel Stuart, if I had my way we would show no quarter to the enemy…The black flag, sir…We should meet the federal invader on the outer verge of just and right defense and raise at once the black flag. No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides!...Only the black flag will bring the North quickly to its senses and rapidly end the war.Total war might explain why many blacks fought for the South. Although they probably despised slavery (at least, the ones who didn’t own slaves themselves—as some blacks did), they were willing to fight against the conquest and indiscriminate destruction of their homeland at the hands of genocidal maniacs. One example was John Noland, a free black who joined Bushwhackers in Missouri after Unionists abused his family. When Union forces tried to bribe him to switch sides, he said, “I ain’t fighting with those bastards!” It’s also worth noting that black Confederates fought in mixed regiments and free blacks received equal pay. Neither was the case in the Union Army.
It’s common for Americans to say, “The Civil War was good because it ended slavery.” This cartoon version of U.S. history is captured by The Simpsons episode where Apu takes his citizenship test:
Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--
Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir!
The demise of slavery was a wonderful but unintended consequence of Lincoln’s war of aggression. His real goal was to establish a consolidated federal government that destroyed state sovereignty. A war was not necessary to end slavery. After existing virtually without criticism for some three thousand years all around the world, slavery ended within the course of a century for religious, philosophical, and economic reasons. Christians realized that slavery was not exactly the most “Christian” of institutions. Enlightenment ideals were spreading. Capital-intensive agriculture and industry were rendering labor-intensive production, including slave labor, uncompetitive. For all of these reasons, slavery was on its way out in the South and likely would have ended, state by state, well before 1900. The abolition movement was growing in the South before the war. The Underground Railroad was thriving. Slavery was in sharp decline in the upper South generally, and there was growing political support in the border states for gradual, peaceful emancipation. Southern secession would have accelerated the demise of slavery because the practice was artificially propped up by federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act. If Northern citizens would no longer have been compelled to assist in returning runaway slaves, many more thousands of slaves would have escaped through the Underground Railroad. Even many Southerners admitted that slavery was more secure inside the Union than outside it. The pace of industrialization would also have increased in an independent South, since the Confederate Constitution prohibited growth-killing measures like protective tariffs and subsidies for internal improvements.
Yet, it still strikes people as “naive” to think that slavery could have been ended peacefully. But again—that's what happened in virtually every other country in the world through either manumission—the willingness of slave-owners to allow their slaves to purchase their freedom—or some form of compensated emancipation. Only in the United States was emancipation associated with warfare. The American public certainly would have preferred compensated emancipation to the bloodiest, most destructive war in U.S. history. Moreover, blacks would probably have been better off over the long term if slavery had died a peaceful death. The Republican Party used blacks as political pawns during Reconstruction, which led to the establishment of Jim Crow laws that made blacks second-class citizens for the next century. The gradual, peaceful end of slavery would have helped ex-slaves integrate into Southern society more quickly—first economically, then socially. Nobody is saying that blacks and whites in the Confederacy would have been holding hands singing Kumbaya, but it’s far from clear whether the Civil War helped or hindered blacks’ uphill struggle for legal equality in America.
Even the immediate end of slavery has to be weighed against the total costs of the Civil War: 620,000 battlefield deaths (standardized for today’s population, that would be 5 million deaths); thousands more maimed for life; thousands of civilians killed or executed; the destruction of 40 percent of the nation’s economy; the poisoning of race relations in the South; and the permanent destruction of the Constitution, federalism, and state sovereignty. The long-term impact of Lincoln’s “policy of repression” was to lay the groundwork for such unprecedented coercive measures as military conscription and federal income taxation. Even today, any trampling of civil liberties can be justified with the phrase, “It’s okay because Lincoln did it!” The Civil War transformed the nature of American government from the highly decentralized, voluntary Union of states that was established by the founding fathers into a consolidated Union held together at gunpoint. The purpose of government changed from the protection of individual rights into the quest for Empire. More than any other figure in U.S. history, Lincoln is responsible for creating the welfare–warfare–corporatist–police state that Americans slave under today. The U.S. government confiscates more than half of national income, invades and occupies foreign nations, imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other government on Earth, spies on American citizens, politicizes every aspect of social and economic life, whores its lawmakers to corporate lobbyists, and treats states as mere subsidiaries of the federal Leviathan.
The Lincoln myth persists mainly because of public education. The real purpose of state-run schools is to foster allegiance to the State, which means perpetuating historical myths that make the current regime appear legitimate and inevitable. George Orwell described this phenomenon as the “memory hole,” into which any facts that contradict the “official” version of history are discarded and forgotten. A more sinister reason for Americans’ historical ignorance is the Cult of Lincoln—the conspiracy of intellectuals to elevate Lincoln to god-like status and smear anyone who disagrees. Although it’s easy for Lincoln-lovers to play the race card, the real reason why intellectuals love Lincoln is that they love government (and hate freedom). Most ntellectuals are fans of Big Government, for three reasons. First, most intellectuals want to mold society to fit their personal preferences, which requires the coercive machinery of a strong central government. (Historian Gary Wills and Columbia University law professor George Fletcher openly praise Lincoln for subverting the Constitution because it opened the door to their cherished pursuit of “egalitarianism.”) Second, most intellectuals make a living directly or indirectly from the State. Social scientists spend their entire careers debating government policies in tax-subsidized universities, think tanks, and corporate media outlets. Without the endless “policy debates” generated by an all-powerful government, most of them would have to get real jobs. Third, anyone who holds the “revisionist” view of the Civil War would have to conclude that the federal government has been illegitimate since 1861. Therefore, even “small government” conservatives have to join the Lincoln Cult to give themselves moral cover for collaborating with tyranny. The Lincoln Cult is the refuge of state-worshipping journalists (Peggy Noonan and Tim Russert), Christian nationalists (Alan Keyes), economically illiterate protectionists (Pat Buchanan), neocon imperialists (National Review), fascists (Adolf Hitler), court intellectuals (public school teachers and college professors), socialists (Barack Obama), authoritarians (Dick Cheney), conservative collaborators (the Claremont Institute), sell-out libertarians (the Cato Institute), and politically correct Republicans (“Lincoln freed the slaves! See? We like black people, too!”).
History is written by the victors. As the narrator says in the beginning of Braveheart, “History is written by men who hang heroes.” The only reason Americans revere Lincoln is that he won. If the South had won, slavery would have ended peacefully, the states probably would have reunited at some point, black and white Americans would be more free today, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee would be honored as the greatest heroes in U.S. history, and Abraham Lincoln would be remembered as a blood-soaked tyrant who brought America to the brink of despotism.
Of course, Lincoln did bring America to despotism—and Americans love him for it! It just makes me sick. It makes me want to go down to the Lincoln Memorial and spray-paint “Sic Semper Tyrannis” on his big stupid face.
Most Lincoln critics stop short of celebrating his assassination—probably because they want to protect their academic reputations. I have no reputation, so I’m telling it like it is: LINCOLN HAD IT COMING! Responsibility for all the horror and destruction of the Civil War rests squarely on Lincoln’s shoulders. The South did not want a war. After the Deep South reluctantly seceded, Jefferson Davis appointed a peace commission to travel to Washington and offer to pay for federal property on Southern soil and the South’s portion of the national debt. Lincoln refused to acknowledge their existence. He also rebuffed an offer by Napoleon III to mediate the dispute. Lincoln carefully maneuvered the South into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter. He crushed the peace movement in the North with brute force, and he ignored several proposals for peace conferences made by the Confederacy during the war.
The Civil War wasn’t actually a “civil war,” which is where two factions fight over control of the central government. The South had no intention of governing the North or capturing and controlling Washington, D.C. They simply wanted to withdraw from a political union that no longer served their best interests. For that “crime,” they suffered near-annihilation (one of four white male Southerners between the ages of 20 and 40 perished during the war). The “Civil War” was a war of secession for the South and a war of conquest for the North. Its proper name should be The War to Prevent Southern Independence.
Lincoln sugar-coated his mass-murdering as “saving the Union,” but this is nationalism in its most evil form. Nobody should be killed over an abstraction like “Union.” If the South had been allowed to secede, Americans would have still been united by heritage, commerce, kinship, faith, and their shared views on representative government and (sadly) white supremacy. If the federal government behaved itself, the Southern states would have likely returned to the Union at some point—although with a strictly limited federal government more in line with the founders’ intentions.
Americans’ squeamishness over assassination is created by the ideological stranglehold that is put around their necks by the State’s intellectual bodyguards. Intellectuals perpetuate the idea that the State should be held to different moral standard than everyone else. Normal people can’t kill or steal, but government can kill and steal as much as it wants. State violence can always be rationalized, excused, explained away, or given the benefit of the doubt. But no matter how much needless death and suffering that government inflicts on citizens and foreigners, politicians are untouchable. As Mark Rudd says in the documentary The Weather Underground, “Americans are taught from a very young age that any violence not sanctioned by the government is either criminal or mentally ill.” And the kicker here is that Lincoln was mentally ill!
People should not feel sorry for politicians when what goes around, comes around. Sympathy for Lincoln is especially misplaced considering that he probably ordered the assassination of the Confederate cabinet. Although it can be argued that John Wilkes Booth did more harm than good by turning Lincoln into a martyr, Lincoln’s assassination was justice, plain and simple. Americans should be weeping at Booth’s grave and dancing on Lincoln’s grave! Like Achilles says in the movie Troy, “Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn’t that be a site?”
Some people might say that Civil War revisionism is pointless and that Southerners should just get over it. To those people, I say this:
THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN!
..And so will New Hampshire, and Vermont, and Montana, and Idaho, and California, and any other state where citizens want to reclaim their sovereignty and freedom by breaking away from the federal Leviathan. But if anyone tries to stop us this time (I’m looking at you, President Obama), we’ll fight dirty.
“The black flag, sir.”
Sic Semper Tyrannis
update: Lincoln-lovers often accuse secessionists of being "neo-Confederates" who want to bring back slavery or Jim Crow laws. Actually, a 2008 poll showed that black Americans support the concept of secession in higher percentages than whites. (See? I like black people, too!)