Who were the good guys in the Civil War? In modern America, it is taboo to express any belief but that the Union was righteously crusading for freedom. Many of those who dare to express politically-incorrect opinions are inclined to say that it was the Confederacy who was heroically fighting for liberty and independence.
But what if neither of these is true? What if both governments advanced their own power at the expense of the people, even while purporting to fight for liberty? There is ample evidence that, in both the North and the South, the actions of government led to a decline in freedom both during and after the war.
Lincoln’s Abuses of Power
The Abraham Lincoln that Americans are taught to revere is largely a myth. His views on race and slavery and his objectives in the Civil War have been misrepresented to generations of Americans. Similarly, his reputation as a defender of the Constitution and an advocate of accountable government is nothing more than a well-constructed facade.
In his book The Real Lincoln, Thomas DiLorenzo recounts Lincoln’s abuses of power beginning with his suspension of habeas corpus in April of 1861. At his whim, and without any constitutional grant of power, Lincoln did away with an entire array of rights – including the right to not be arrested without a warrant and to not be jailed without being charged or tried – that had been painstakingly developed by Western Civilization over over the course of centuries. When rebuked for his actions by Chief Justice Roger Taney, Lincoln simply ignored the rebuke and continued his unconstitutional behavior.
Lincoln also interfered with free elections in Maryland, where the state legislature tended to be sympathetic with the South. Concerned that Marylanders might discuss secession, Lincoln, through his secretary of war, ordered mass arrests of his political opponents. DiLorenzo writes,
“All of the members of the legislature from the Baltimore area were arrested, as was the mayor of Baltimore and U.S. Congressman Henry May. All other state legislators who were even suspected of having secessionist sympathies were arrested, as were several newspaper editors and owners from Baltimore.”
On election day, Lincoln’s cronies and henchmen ensured the election of Republicans – politicians certain to rubber stamp his war and policies.
DiLorenzo also details Lincoln’s interference with freedom of the press throughout the war. Federal soldiers and officials censored telegraph communications, denied newspapers delivery through the mail if they editorialized against Lincoln or the war, and threw editors and other dissidents in jail. Throughout the war at least 13,000 of Lincoln’s political opponents were imprisoned for the non-crime of disagreeing with his policies.
Enraged at these events, Clement Vallandingham, an Ohio Congressman, excoriated Lincoln on the House floor. Vallandingham fumed,
“…today, for the opinion on questions political, under a free government in a country whose liberties were purchased by our fathers by seven years’ outpouring of blood, and expenditure of treasure – we have lived to see men, the born heirs of this precious inheritance, subjected to arrest and cruel imprisonment at the caprice of a President or a secretary or a constable.”
For taking a stand for liberty, and for criticizing Lincoln, Vallandingham was exiled to the Confederacy. All of this was unconstitutional and a violation of the basic rights that Lincoln is supposed to have defended, yet this side of Lincoln’s presidency is never taught as a part of his legacy.
The North’s Anti-Free Market Economic Policies
The Republicans who took power in 1861 were in large part the political offspring of the defunct Whig Party and, as such, they adopted much of its economic platform. The Whigs had never been able to implement their policies on a large scale in peacetime, but the war offered Republicans the opportunity to do so – and they seized it.
Their economic platform had three main components: central banking, protective tariffs and public works subsidies. Central banking allowed the federal government and politically-connected bankers the influence they needed to manipulate financial markets. Protective tariffs – taxes on imports – were designed to increase the price of foreign goods in order to protect northern manufacturers at the expense of consumers. Public works subsidies, what the Whigs and Republicans called “internal improvements,” were government handouts to companies that would build railroads or other infrastructure projects at the taxpayers’ expense.
All of these made the economy less free and efficient and all three, especially internal improvements, provided an immense opportunity for corruption. All three continue to plague the American economy today.
In addition to all of this, taxation increased dramatically to the point that, as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has observed, “At the war’s end the United States could boast higher taxation per capita than any other nation.” One part of this taxation was the first national income tax in American history, one without a constitutional justification.
The result of all of these policies was more oppressive government and less economic freedom.
The Confederacy: The Union 2.0
In the minds of some, all of this could have been avoided if only the South had won the war. Because the South seceded from the Union and because they didn’t have the Whig tradition that the North did, there is often the assumption that the Confederate government valued decentralization and economic freedom more highly than its northern counterpart did.
In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Hummel demolishes this myth. He writes, “One of the Civil War’s enduring myths is that the South’s unbending commitment to states’ rights paralyzed its war effort. In actuality, Confederate war socialism was more economically centralized than the Union’s neo-mercantilism…”
In order to finance the war the Confederate government resorted increasingly to direct taxation, eventually laying an income tax on its citizens, just as the Union did. While the Union gave government contracts to private companies, the Confederate government started or took over businesses that were deemed essential to the war effort. This included manufacturers of not only war materiel, but also of clothing and agricultural products.
While much is made in some circles of the very real Union violations of civil liberties, the Confederacy engaged in similar behavior. Like Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended habeas corpus and Confederate agents, like their Union counterparts, restricted travel and intimidated the press.
The implications of the Confederacy’s similarity to the Union was captured by its own vice president. Alexander Stephens, who despaired, “Constitutional liberty will go down, never to rise again on this continent, I fear.”
What if the South Had Won?
If it is true that the Civil War marked the beginning of a significant change in American politics, then it may be worthwhile to ask how things would have been different, politically speaking, if the South had won. Or maybe a better question to ask is if things would have been different at all.
Both governments centralized power, both violated civil liberties, both attacked and plundered civilians, both manipulated the economy and both conscripted citizens into their armies. While the South might have been fighting for its political independence, a Confederate victory was not likely to have brought about the laissez-faire society that some claim it would have.
The official participants of the Civil War, the Union and Confederate politicians and military leaders, were more similar to each other than not. The actions of both belie the noble motives that many ascribe to them today. The political legacy of the war – the overbearing government that Americans now live under – is the pitiful inheritance left to us by both governments.
Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.