February 23, 2012 columns

A response to commenters

Blanks addresses critics about the issues surrounding liberty and secessionism.

I would like to take a few moments to address some of the comments and criticism that came my way after my essay went live yesterday. First and foremost, thank you to the many commenters here on libertarianism.org for your thoughtfulness and, for the most part, respect shown to me and fellow commenters. Other places the essay was shared or linked did not reflect nearly the level of dialogue or courtesy. This, I think, reflects well on the online community Aaron is trying to develop here. I cannot address the hundreds of comments and tweets here, but I want to address some of the more recurring themes of the criticisms.

Many people launched into the traditional back-and-forth about whether the North acted imprudently in the war, whether Lincoln was a tyrant, and other post-secession arguments that weren’t at all germane to my point. I made no claims about whether a libertarian should support the Union cause, actions, or anything at all about Lincoln. The most basic formulation of my argument was this, as put forth this morning by my colleague Jason Kuznicki on Twitter, “Secession must be justified morally, not legally. If a given secession is for slavery, it’s not justified.” He added, quite astutely, that “Secession is the decision to step out of an existing political order, so it’s a category error to try to justify it legally.”

Union-backing is by no means a requirement to recognize the fundamental truth of the argument above. If communists are fighting fascists, it is not necessary for libertarians to pick a side. However, if libertarians start defending one as the definition of freedom, others would and should object. I didn’t and don’t ever make the argument that the North entered into the war with the greater cause of freedom beyond the preservation of a Union based on human equality, but it is clear that the South’s actions—the catalyst for war—were explicitly motivated by freedom’s suppression.

Relatedly, another common misunderstanding also raised itself in the comments: that slavery wasn’t the principal reason for secession and thus was not the fundamental cause of the Civil War. This is simply revisionism. That the South had other qualms with the Northern states’ governmental prerogatives is not at all surprising. Indeed, disagreement is a fundamental assumption of republican government. (See generally Federalist 10, but also note that the Confederate soldiers at the Crater weren’t yelling “Spare the white man, kill the tariff!”) As the Cornerstone speech I cited makes clear, however, those other concerns were secondary to slavery, the “immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” There is no plausible counterfactual in which the South secedes for any other reason or group of reasons, despite enduring regional concerns and political disagreement. If you subtract slavery out, you remove the immediate cause for secession, which removes the cause for war, and the litany of complaints about the Union’s actions are moot because they never take place. The essay dealt with the secession and whether or not it was morally justifiable, and that justification must be based on the secession’s root cause: chattel slavery and white supremacy. Jumping past that crucial point of the essay to what the Union did in response to the unjust secession, though worthy of discussion in its own right, misses the point entirely.

Lastly, I included the abuses of blacks by the Southern states not to inflame those who disagree with me, but to support my point that the white supremacy upon which the South relied to maintain slavery was more than just a quirky feature of the time. That the South seceded “for economic reasons” and to “preserve their way of life” are but timid euphemisms for “to protect their slave economy based on white supremacy.”  This ugly truth should not be obscured by such nondescript misdirection and leads only to more defenses of tyranny in the name of liberty. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Southern governments installed the Black Codes—punitive laws against blacks based on the antebellum Slave Codes—demonstrating the clear and unmistakable priority Southern governments gave to oppressing black people. (This, like the secession itself, prompted the federal government to intervene further, resulting in Radical Reconstruction) The establishment of Jim Crow after Reconstruction only furthers the point that oppression had been and continued to be at the forefront of so many of the Southern states’ policies.

“Liberty” does not and cannot mean “tyrannical license of individual states,” and any secession explicitly built upon the perpetuation of such injustice should not and must not be conflated with it.