Civil War, 1861-1865

Lincoln was a man of his age, and it was an age of unashamed empire building and of the coercion of independent political societies into consolidated unions.

When the Yankees Shut Down the 1st Amendment,” John Taylor, Abbeville Institute, September 12, 2018.


From Tom Woods’ “Significance of the Civil War,” 2004.  It looks like one goal of the war was the federal capture of small-town America and institute a modern state, one centrally controlled by a federal authority like the presidency and other departments of the federal government.  This seems to me to be accurate, given all of the rhetoric of revolution which is directed at the federal government.  America’s brilliance was always about self-government, not a state=planned government.

Donald Livingston, professor of philosophy at Emory University, has identified one of these larger issues, and it was one that Southerners did indeed appreciate. In the modern age, Livingston observes, we have seen federative polities giving way to modern states. A federative polity is one in which a variety of smaller jurisdictions exist — like families, voluntary organizations, towns and states, and in medieval Europe institutions like guilds, universities, and the Church. Each of these social authorities has powers and rights of its own that the central government cannot overturn. Each of them is also a potential source of corporate resistance to the central government. Prior to the rise of the modern state, political leaders who desired centralization, therefore, found themselves up against the historic liberties of towns, guilds, universities, the Church, and similar corporate bodies.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, set out parameters for the modern state in Leviathan (1651) that developed into unexamined premises that later thinkers (even putative opponents like John Locke) all but took for granted. The modern state about which Hobbes theorized is one in which the central government is absolutely supreme, and in which society is thought of as being composed not of independent social authorities, as in a federative polity, but of a simple aggregate of individuals. There are no truly independent social authorities in the modern state because nothing is thought to be independent of or prior to the central government. All potential for corporate resistance is gone; mere individuals, by contrast, are typically helpless against a strong central government.


From Donald Livingston’s “The American Genius for Self-Government,” 2013.

Likewise, it is wrong to describe the conflict of 1861–1865 as the “Civil War.” The exemplar of a civil war is the English Civil War. That war was a struggle, within a modern state, by two factions (Crown and Parliament) for control of the same government. But the federation of American states was not itself a modern state any more than the European Union is a modern state. Its central government had only enumerated powers delegated to it by the sovereign states.

. . . the struggle that occurred was not between two factions seeking control of the same government. Rather, it was between one group of states exercising their federative power to withdraw from the federation and govern themselves, and another group of states seeking to conquer and govern them. The Great Seal of the Confederacy bears an equestrian statue of George Washington, the symbol of secession from the British empire. Just as the break with Britain was not a revolution but an act of secession, so the break with the North was not an act of treason issuing in civil war, but an act of secession issuing in conquest by the North. That both conflicts are frequently misdescribed points again to the under-theorized character of secession.

Fascinating . . . 

Of those southerners who were opposed to secession, including Robert E. Lee, the great majority of them recognized the legitimacy of the conventions and supported their states, to which, under the compact theory of the Constitution, they owed their primary allegiance.

. . . 

With the orderly, legal secession of the southern states, the American genius for self-government reached its highest moral expression. Here was something unprecedented in history; a vast continental empire of republics torn by sectional, economic, and moral conflicts seeking to settle its differences not by war, but by peaceful secession of eleven contiguous republics, legitimated by the consent of the people. This was the very thing that, in 1840, John Quincy Adams said might be necessary in the future, and which the American commitment to self-government of peoples would legitimate, rather than a Union held together by bayonets. It was this also that President Buchanan had in mind when, although opposed to secession, he declared that the central government had no authority to coerce a seceding state. The same doctrine was asserted by Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist. Lincoln, however, like George III, was determined on coercion, but unlike the latter, he was also prepared to launch total war against the civilian population of the South to achieve the goal of a consolidated nationalism.

. . . With Lincoln, then, a radical break occurs between the older Americanism that was grounded in the natural rights of substantial moral communities to govern themselves and a new Americanism grounded in the centralization and consolidation of power, and like the French Revolution, dedicated to an egalitarian doctrine of individualism. This doctrine, wherever it has been applied in the world, has required the destruction of independent social authorities and moral communities and the massive consolidation of power needed to achieve such destruction. Lincoln was a man of his age, and it was an age of unashamed empire building and of the coercion of independent political societies into consolidated unions. What Bismarck was accomplishing in Germany with a policy of “blood and iron,” and what Lenin would accomplish in Russia, Lincoln had accomplished in America. Lincoln did not preserve an organic indivisible union from destruction because he did not inherit one; rather, like Bismarck, he created one.