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The historical event that looms largest in American public
consciousness is
the Civil War. One-hundred thirty-nine years after the first shot was
fired,
its genesis is still fiercely debated and its symbols heralded and
protested. And no wonder: the event transformed the American regime from
a
federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that
circumscribed
liberty in the name of public order. The cataclysmic event massacred a
generation of young men, burned and looted the Southern states, set a
precedent for executive dictatorship, and transformed the American
military
from a citizen-based defense corps into a global military power that
can’t
resist intervention.

And yet, if you listen to the media on the subject, you might think
that the
entire issue of the Civil War comes down to race and slavery. If you
favor
Confederate symbols, it means you are a white person unsympathetic to
the
plight of blacks in America. If you favor abolishing Confederate History

Month and taking down the flag, you are an enlightened thinker willing
to
bury the past so we can look forward to a bright future under
progressive
leadership. The debate rarely goes beyond these simplistic slogans.

And yet this take on the event is wildly ahistorical. It takes
Northern war
propaganda at face value without considering that the South had solid
legal,
moral, and economic reasons for secession which had nothing to do with
slavery. Even the name “Civil War” is misleading, since the war wasn’t
about
two sides fighting to run the central government as in the English or
Roman
civil wars. The South attempted a peaceful secession from federal
control,
an ambition no different from the original American plea for
independence
from Britain.

But why would the South want to secede? If the original American
ideal of
federalism and constitutionalism had survived to 1860, the South would
not
have needed to. But one issue loomed larger than any other in that year
as
in the previous three decades: the Northern tariff. It was imposed to
benefit Northern industrial interests by subsidizing their production
through high prices and public works. But it had the effect of forcing
the
South to pay more for manufactured goods and disproportionately taxing
it to
support the central government. It also injured the South’s trading
relations with other parts of the world.

In effect, the South was being looted to pay for the North’s early
version
of industrial policy. The battle over the tariff began in 1828, with the

“tariff of abomination.” Thirty year later, with the South paying 87
percent
of federal tariff revenue while having their livelihoods threatened by
protectionist legislation, it become impossible for the two regions to
be
governed under the same regime. The South as a region was being reduced
to a
slave status, with the federal government as its master.

But why 1860? Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery, but he
did
pledge to “collect the duties and imposts”: he was the leading advocate
of
the tariff and public works policy, which is why his election prompted
the
South to secede. In pro-Lincoln newspapers, the phrase “free trade” was
invoked as the equivalent of industrial suicide. Why fire on Ft. Sumter?
It
was a customs house, and when the North attempted to strengthen it, the
South knew that its purpose was to collect taxes, as newspapers and
politicians said at the time.

To gain an understanding of the Southern mission, look no further
than the
Confederate Constitution. It is a duplicate of the original
Constitution,
with several improvements. It guarantees free trade, restricts
legislative
power in crucial ways, abolishes public works, and attempts to rein in
the
executive. No, it didn’t abolish slavery but neither did the original
Constitution (in fact, the original protected property rights in
slaves).

Before the war, Lincoln himself had pledged to leave slavery intact,
to
enforce the fugitive slave laws, and to support an amendment that would

forever guarantee slavery where it then existed. Neither did he lift a
finger to repeal the anti-Negro laws that besotted all Northern states,
Illinois in particular. Recall that the underground railroad ended, not
in
New York or Boston — since dropping off blacks in those states would
have been
restricted — but in Canada! The Confederate Constitution did, however,
make
possible the gradual elimination of slavery, a process that would have
been
made easier had the North not so severely restricted the movements of
former
slaves.

Now, you won’t read this version of events in any conventional
history text,
particularly not those approved for use in public high schools. You are
not
likely to hear about it in the college classroom either, where the
single
issue of slavery overwhelms any critical thinking. Again and again we
are
told what Polybius called “an idle, unprofitable tale” instead of the
truth,
and we are expected to swallow it uncritically. So where can you go to
discover that the conventional story is sheer nonsense?

The last ten years have brought us a flurry of great books that look
beneath
the surface. There is John Denson’s “The Costs of War” (1998), Jeffrey
Rodgers Hummel’s “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men” (1996),
David
Gordon’s “Secession, State, and Liberty” (1998), Marshall de Rosa’s “The

Confederate Constitution” (1991), or, from a more popular standpoint,
James
and Walter Kennedy’s “Was Jefferson Davis Right?” (1998).

But if we were to recommend one work — based on originality,
brevity, depth,
and sheer rhetorical power — it would be Charles Adams’ time bomb of a
book,

“When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern
Secession”
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). In a mere 242 pages, he
shows
that almost everything we thought we knew about the war between the
states
is wrong.

Adams believes that both Northern and Southern leaders were lying
when they
invoked slavery as a reason for secession and for the war. Northerners
were
seeking a moral pretext for an aggressive war, while Southern leaders
were
seeking a threat more concrete than the Northern tariff to justify a
drive
to political independence. This was rhetoric designed for mass
consumption .
Adams amasses an amazing amount of evidence — including remarkable
editorial
cartoons and political speeches — to support his thesis that the war
was
really about government revenue.

Consider this little tidbit from the pro-Lincoln New York Evening
Post,
March 2, 1861 edition:

“That either the revenue from duties must be collected in the ports
of the
rebel states, or the port must be closed to importations from abroad, is

generally admitted. If neither of these things be done, our revenue laws
are
substantially repealed; the sources which supply our treasury will be
dried
up; we shall have no money to carry on the government; the nation will
become bankrupt before the next crop of corn is ripe. There will be
nothing
to furnish means of subsistence to the army; nothing to keep our navy
afloat; nothing to pay the salaries of public officers; the present
order of
things must come to a dead stop.

“What, then, is left for our government? Shall we let the seceding
states
repeal the revenue laws for the whole Union in this manner? Or will the
government choose to consider all foreign commerce destined for those
ports
where we have no custom-houses and no collectors as contraband, and stop
it,
when offering to enter the collection districts from which our
authorities
have been expelled?”

This is not an isolated case. British newspapers, whether favoring
the North
or South, said the same thing: the feds invaded the South to collect
revenue. Indeed, when Karl Marx said the following, he was merely
stating
what everyone who followed events closely knew: “The war between the
North
and the South is a tariff war. The war is further, not for any
principle,
does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the
Northern
lust for sovereignty.”

Marx was only wrong on one point: the war was about principle at one
level.
It was about the principle of self-determination and the right not to be

taxed to support an alien regime. Another way of putting this is that
the
war was about freedom, and the South was on the same side as the
original
American revolutionaries.

Interesting, isn’t it, that today, those who favor banning
Confederate
symbols and continue to demonize an entire people’s history also tend to
be
partisans of the federal government in all its present political
struggles?
Not much has changed in 139 years. Adams’s book goes a long way toward
telling
the truth about this event, for anyone who cares to look at the facts.

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