The Political Legacy of the Civil War

A few years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, the Independent Institute’s Anthony Gregory remarked that “This event, more than the Declaration of Independence, Constitution or the American Revolution, signifies the true birth of the modern American nation-state.” Anthony elaborated, “It was on this day that the federal government first repudiated the Founding Fathers’ republican form of government.”

In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel expresses a similar opinion, writing, “Inasmuch as the war was fought to preserve the Union, it was an explicit rejection of the American Revolution.”

It would be difficult to find a more unpopular opinion in modern America than this. But although never a mainstream position, there was a time when it could at least be debated on its merits. That time is quickly passing, a fact to which anyone who attempts to point out the political ramifications of the North’s victory can attest. Such people are routinely called bigots and are charged with sympathizing with the Confederacy, both false but rhetorically effective charges.

Despite the hysterics by defenders of the mainstream narrative, there is considerable evidence that supports the claim that the Civil War radically transformed American government, which was changed from a decentralized system of relatively limited powers to something more closely resembling the highly centralized, intrusive state we have today.

Why the Founders Chose Decentralization

The most lamentable impact of the war on government was the rise of centralization. From the time of the American Revolution until the Civil War, Americans generally believed in limiting the power of the federal government and leaving almost all matters in the hands of the states. In designing the government this way, the American founders repeatedly expressed their view that centralization was destructive to liberty and the traditional right to self-government.

In South Carolina’s ratification convention, James Lincoln expressed his concern that the unamended Constitution would result in too much centralized power. Lincoln argued, “What is Liberty? The power of governing yourselves. If you adopt this Constitution, have you this power? No: you give it into the hands of a set of men who live one thousand miles distant from you. Let the people but once trust their liberties out of their own hands, and what will be the consequence? First, a haughty, imperious aristocracy; and ultimately, a tyrannical monarchy.”

Given the state of the current federal government, particularly the last two presidential administrations, it would be difficult to find better descriptors for it than “a haughty, imperious aristocracy” and “a tyrannical monarchy.” That centralization would lead to this was a point that those who fought and then preserved the American Revolution understood. Our current political problems find their genesis in the betrayal of our own revolution, in the centralization brought about by the Civil War.

Centralization and State-Level Stockholm Syndrome

A striking example of how centralization gripped Americans as a result of the war can be seen by comparing different state constitutions. When the original 13 states ratified the Constitution, many asserted that they retained all the powers that they did not explicitly delegate to the new federal government. Some even declared their right to leave the Union. The general tone of the ratification conventions was one of skepticism of the new federal government.

These precedents stood undisturbed until the Civil War. No state that was admitted in the intervening years submitted an understanding of the Union that was different from that of the original 13 states. Most new state constitutions included a reference to the natural right of people to “alter or abolish” governments as they saw fit, repeating the argument made by the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.

It was not until the admission of the 35th state, West Virginia, in 1863 that a state said something different. The first words in Article I of that state’s constitution are, “The state of West Virginia is, and shall remain, one of the United States of America.” Midway through the Civil War, states were beginning to reject ideas that their progenitors had considered to be essential natural rights.

West Virginia’s case was not an isolated incident. Nevada became a state in 1864 and included the familiar language about the right of people to alter their governments. But Nevada added a qualifier that early Americans never considered, stating,

“But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States. The Constitution of the United States confers full power on the Federal Government to maintain and Perpetuate its (existence),  and whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.”

Under this new theory of proper government, states were willingly declaring themselves to be subservient to a kind of authority that the Founders would have considered arbitrary – and this trend would continue for decades after the war. In embracing these ideas, the states supported a model of government in which the federal government, through the Supreme Court, could define its own powers and in which the states would have no recourse should the federal government become oppressive. Some states, like Nevada, willingly embraced the use of force against recalcitrant states who resisted arbitrary federal laws, which is a little like giving a bully a stick and telling him that he can beat you with it if you don’t give him your lunch money.

Similar ideas had been proposed when the federal government was created, and were soundly defeated. During the Constitutional Convention, the representatives of the states rejected a proposal that would have required the state legislatures to swear loyalty to the federal government. In his book Compact of the Republic, historian David Benner details the intense opposition to this suggestion and observes that “As a result of (the)…hostilities toward such a prospect, there is no measure within the Constitution that requires elected state officials to swear allegiance to laws passed by the (federal) government.”

What the founding generation balked at while forming the federal government, state politicians would readily embrace during and after the Civil War. They acceded to these ideas without realizing that the natural right of the people to to alter their government was an inherent contradiction to the belief that they could never secede from or oppose the central power.

This contradiction was not lost, however, on abolitionist Lysander Spooner who stated after the war that “the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave.”

The Civil War’s Political Legacy: Big Government

While the states were voluntarily becoming more subservient, the federal government was morphing into something different from what it had previously been. Hummel observes that

“The national government that emerged from the conflict dwarfed in power and size the minimal Jacksonian State that had commenced the war. The number of civilians in the federal employ swelled almost fivefold. A distant administration that had little contact with its citizens had been transformed into an overbearing bureaucracy that intruded into daily life with taxes, drafts, surveillance, subsidies and regulations. Central government spending had soared from less than 2 percent of the economy’s total output to well over 20 percent in 1865.”

Concurrent with the rise of government power and nationalism was the decay of political ethics. Hummel quotes Edward Bates, Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General, as observing, “The demoralising effect of this civil war is plainly visible in every department of life. The abuse of official powers and the thirst for dishonest gain are now so common that they cease to shock.”

Richard Yates, governor of Lincoln’s Illinois, remarked “The war…has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ The war had not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.”

All of this led former Harvard professor George Ticknor to say, “It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born…”

“America’s Turning Point”

Anthony Gregory and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel are correct. The Civil War was, in Hummel’s words, the “turning point” in American government. The political apparatus that sprung up during the war never fully went away. The centralization that occurred has never been reversed. The political power that America’s founders had struggled to limit, that was decreasing all the way through the 1850s, was put on a new upward trajectory that has yet to meet its zenith. Because of all of these factors, the citizens living under the rule of the federal government have been less free than they would have been had the war not happened.

This is the political legacy of the war. We rejoice, and rightly so, that the war brought the end of slavery. But this does not mean that we have to revere, or even refuse to recognize, the increasingly oppressive government it also brought about.

Would things have been different if the South had won its independence? Probably not. As we have already seen, the growth of government and the rise of nationalism were not uniquely northern phenomena since they also occurred in the Confederacy. A victory for the South may have validated the idea of secession, but it would have likely just resulted in two centralized governments – one in Richmond and one in Washington D.C. It appears that it was the war itself – and not the North’s victory – that set American government on the path to where we are today.

The ideals of self-government, decentralization and accountable government endured an unrelenting assault during the Civil War and these principles sustained injuries from which they have not yet recovered. That they ever will is in serious doubt. As H. L. Mencken said, “The American people, North and South, went into the war as citizens of their respective states, they came out as subjects. What they thus lost they have never got back.”

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.