Ep. 98: The Civil War as Corporatist Conquest

The Civil War was no clean contest between clear factions, no great battle between slavery and freedom, nor even a political war between the states.

00:00/
Previous Episode
Ep. 97: Resisting Leviathan, with Nicholas Mosvick
Next Episode
Ep. 99: Mushrooms & Men

It is a mistake to think of the Civil War a just a conflict between slavery and freedom. Planters and industrialists were interrelated groups that were dependent on the output of one another. The Civil War was not a clear contest between two groups as many academics make it out to be.

What was at stake during the Civil War? What impact did the Civil War have on America in the years following? Did the Civil War make the Federal Government to powerful? How did the Union use the Constitution throughout the Civil War to their advantage?

Further Reading:

Civil War Created the Modern US Economy, written by Jeremy Bender

The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. written by Mark R. Wilson

Related Content:

Was the Civil War a Libertarian Moment?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Why Did the Southern States Secede?, written by Anthony Comegna

Seward’s “Little Bell”, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Anthony Comenga: It’s a mistake to think of the Civil War as a mere contest between slavery and freedom—But do I really need to tell you that? It wasn’t planters vs industrialists; it wasn’t Republicans vs Democrats; it wasn’t even so much Northerners vs Southerners. Planters and industrialists were deeply interrelated groups, often dependent upon one another, well used to getting along and even sharing industrial values as time went on and southern agriculture modernized. There were no southern Republicans, but the place was loaded down with ex-Whigs who fully believed in big government and slavery both. And then, of course, when you tunnel down to the individual level, most Americans may have opposed the war for all we know—it’s not as though there was public polling at the time nor did more than a small fraction of people vote for any office whatsoever. No, the Civil War was no clean contest between clear factions, no great battle between slavery and freedom, nor even a political war between the states. The Civil War was the moment when the US government became a corporation and the Constitution became its charter—a tool for protecting the interests of its management and ownership class, subject to change only when our board of political directors allows it.

Anthony Comegna: Before we get going too much on this idea of the government turning into a corporation, let’s get right to our document for the week. 1864 was a rough year for President Lincoln. The war was going well enough, but it was taking far longer and costing more blood and treasure than anyone would have liked. Lincoln was on the ropes, challenged by his own former general, George McClellan. Technically speaking, there was no Republican Party that year—they temporarily dissolved the organization into what was called the National Union Party. They dumped Hannibal Hamlin, the old Locofoco from Maine, from the VP slot and propped up Tennessee Unionist Andrew Johnson instead—a bid for intersectional unity let’s say. Well, that turned out a stupid decision, but we’ll get there soon enough.

Anthony Comenga: During the election cycle, presses flooded the country with pro- and anti-administration propaganda, including our selections for the week from one Thomas Jefferson Miles and his short pamphlet “To All Whom It May Concern,” subtitled “The Conspiracy of the Leading Men of the Republican Party to Destroy the American Union, Proved by Their Words and Acts Antecedent and Subsequent to the Rebellion.” Miles was a Philadelphia Democrat and this is definitely campaign literature—we won’t read it to you, but the document ends with a rousing call for all true democrats to support McClellan and deliver the country from Lincoln’s Republicans. Little is known about Miles, but from the text he we can gather several other key facts to help us position him in the country’s swirling political and intellectual climate. For one thing, he was a stock northern Democrat in his racial thinking. In fact, he lays blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of northern abolitionists, driven mad by their own self-righteousness and moralism. They fancied themselves God’s own judges here on earth and held the country hostage for decades with their reckless political activism. Now, these “Black Republicans” (meaning advocates of equal rights across the color line) drove the South from the Union, they refused to recognize their independence, and concocted a fratricidal war with the sole purpose of forcing their own moral vision on everyone else. Politicians, meanwhile, sold themselves out to these special interests, hat in hand, and rode the Civil War hobby horse into new powers unknown to American states since the days of British imperialism. Miles began his pamphlet with this controversial yet fairly obvious claim and quickly shifted to call for action.

Speaker: “To All Whom It May Concern.” The Conspiracy of Leading Men of the Republican Party to Destroy the American Union, By Thomas Jefferson Miles. 1864. Let us…Freemen of America, resolve by all the inspiring memories of the past, by all the imperiled interests of the present, by all our anxious hopes in the future, that the Constitution, the laws, and the Union of these States shall be maintained and defended against treason, in every form, whether it be arrayed under the flaunting banner of Southern secession, or under the atrocious and contemptible, because insidious and cowardly black flag of Northern Abolitionism.

Is it not amazing that so many of the honest yeomanry of the country can be so blinded by party prejudice, so trammeled by party discipline as still to array themselves under a banner that for thirty years has had emblazoned upon its folds, in characters so plain that none need misunderstand, those very doctrines of disunion and discord, which are now so falsely charged upon the Democracy of the country? Yet, so it is,—a lamentable fact. Although the rank and file of all political organizations are honest and well meaning, they are liable to be cajoled and misled by wily, selfish, and unscrupulous demagogues, made willing victims of their own destruction.

Speaker: While history records some examples of voluntary surrender of liberty by the people, under the baleful teachings of artful, ambitious men, its pages will be searched in vain for a parallel to that self-stultification, moral blindness, prejudice, fanaticism, or by whatsoever name it may be called, through whose maddening influence a large portion of the free citizens of this enlightened and most favored land, are, at this very moment, deliberately riveting the manacles of despotism upon their own free limbs.

Words of wisdom seem to be lost amid the shrieking whirlwind of passion, the tread of marshalled hosts, the clash of glittering steel, the discordant bellowing of ponderous artillery, and the crackling embers of conflagrated cities; and when at length “some dreary pause between,” and sympathizing Night has cast her dusky mantle over the horror of these scenes, hark! another sounds, more terrible than the din of battle, breaks upon the stillness of the midnight hour. Alas! for that wail of anguish whose woful cadence, rising from fields of carnage, is floated to every cottage and mountain-home throughout the broad area of this once bright and peerless, now bleeding and distracted land.

Speaker: Let us then, in the first place, endeavor to brush away the cobwebs which the spider, Abolition, has woven about the eyelids of so many conservative and well-meaning men, in order that they may be enlightened in regard to some, at least, of the numerous heresies of the Republican creed: prominent among which, and perhaps the most mischievous, is that of confounding the Administration of the Government with the Government itself. This is a cardinal error, and betrays a misapprehension of the true theory of our governmental structure. A little reflection, unbiased by party zeal, would reveal the nakedness of this fallacy.

Republicans clamor for an unconditional support of the Government, meaning the Administration. Democrats contend for an unconditional support of the Government, meaning the Constitution and the laws. Republicans argue that the Administration, for the time being, is the Government. Democrats deny the correctness of this proposition.

Speaker: I hold as an axiom, that the Constitution of the United States, embodying in its provisions the WILL OF THE SOVEREIGN PEOPLE is, per se, the Government of the United States. That Constitution provides for its own administration in the election by the people of agents, with power to those agents to appoint subordinates. The official titles of said principal agents, their terms of office, their duties and their salaries, being fixed and designated by the people in their Constitution. And whenever, and by whomsoever, addition to or subtraction from that fundamental law is attempted, in ever so minute a degree—save in the manner written and provided therein; or whenever or by whomsoever another law is attempted to be substituted for this supreme law, the person or persons so offending are guilty of, at least, moral treason to the Government of the United States.

How natural that the author of the “Higher Law” doctrine, should also be the author of the following words, addressed to Lord Lyons in November, 1861:

“My lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen of Ohio; I can touch the bell again, and order the imprisonment of a citizen of New York; and no power on earth, except that of the President, can release them. Can the Queen of England do so much?”

Speaker: I wonder if it did not occur to Lord Lyons, when the precious words were uttered, that it might have been better for those “citizens of Ohio and New York,” had their forefathers been content to remains subjects of King George the Third. The Queen of England certainly cannot “do so much.” There are but few Despots in the world who would dare “do so much.” Perhaps the Empires of Japan and China, the dominions of the Sultan of Turkey, the King of Dahomey, and the United States of America! are the only Governments within whose realms there can be done “so much.” What higher claim has any Despot ever advanced than the unconditional support of his subjects? The difference between a Despotism and a Republic is in this: that while a Despot claims unconditional obedience from the people to his will; in a Republic like ours, the sovereign people demand unconditional obedience from their agent to their (the people’s) will, as expressed in their written Constitution.

Speaker: To admit that unconditional allegiance is due from the people to the Administration, of their own creation, is to admit that the people resign their sovereignty to the Administration; and inasmuch as there has been no interregnum between the expiration of one Administration and the commencement of another, it follows, as a logical deduction (according to the theory of the Republicans) that ever since the election of General Washington, we have been merely the subjects of a long line of sovereign Administrations! Our familiar vaunt, “the sovereign people,” has been a shallow pretence—a delusion.

Anthony Comegna: Miles’ conviction that two different theories of government were operating here is especially important. Now, we know the problems with casting the issue in political terms like he does, but the intellectual division he drew was very real. On the one hand there was the radical democratic notion that the people truly were sovereigns; and on the other, the Old World theory that governments themselves were sovereign. This is supposed to be the thing that made America exceptional—on this side of the Atlantic people supposedly had the rare opportunity to genuinely escape feudalism and construct societies and states from below, like Tom Paine said. Government was supposed to be voluntary, built by popular conventions and popular votes, and if you no longer consented to the government in your colony or state, you moved on to the frontier and started a new one! Under the British, new colonies had to start with corporate charters—either granted to private individuals or held as a crown property—but after the Revolution, no corporate charters were necessary. Now they were all constitutions, again created and voted on by the sovereign people, not handed down from some sovereign monarch, nor even really granted by the political class. We’ll come back to this point, but let’s go to Miles, busily laying blame for the calamities of war at the feet of New England Puritanism…

Speaker: And this is the unfortunate condition to which a large portion of the honest yeomanry of our country have been reduced by the infernal sorcery of the fiends of Abolitionism. With plausible sophistry they have poisoned the delicate, sensitive, and impressionable mind of a large portion of the mothers and daughters, and through their influence, the male youth of our land; holding up to the distempered fancy, highly colored pictures of a false philanthropy, until at length the glorious institutions of our Fathers have become subordinate to the dangerous sentimentalism of a “higher law” doctrine, promulgated as a political dogma by him who sits as prime minister at the right hand of Abraham the First. No free people ever lost their liberties by sudden assault.

Speaker: The citadel of AMERICAN liberty, especially, could not have been stormed without overwhelming discomfiture to the assailants. The attempt has been made to take it by siege, by gradual approaches, by “parallels,” to use a now familiar military term. Declarations and proclamations are issued, and acts performed to-day that could not have been declared or performed six months ago. Things were said and done six months ago that could not have been said or done six months previously, and so on to the beginning of the chapter….

The worst passions of the human heart, disguised under the mantles of charity, philanthropy, and expediency, have been employed with diabolical skill and success, to steal away the precious birthright of American liberty.

Speaker: If Satan were only permitted to wage his warfare against our fallen race in all the hideousness, wherein he is represented to appear in the regions of Pandemonium, there would be no need of warning the people against him; all men would flee in terror at his approach; but, for some inscrutable purpose, he is permitted to assume many bright and alluring forms. Perhaps there is no garment in all his extensive sulphurous wardrobe, which he wears with greater success in his infernal mission, than the drab cloak of canting hypocritical philanthropy.

The horrible condition of our country to-day, is the result, or natural sequence, of the Puritanical meddlesomeness and selfishness of the witch-burning semi-infidel portion of the New England population…

Anthony Comegna: Most of Miles’ pamphlet is full of quotes from prominent Republicans across the anti slavery spectrum suggesting that they long intended to concoct a military contest between the sections that would allow them to abolish slavery and seize greater power for the central government than normal relations between the states would allow. Having lots of suggestive quotes is…something, but it’s hardly a series of conspiratorial smoking guns. At least, not like we normally think of. But of course, as I’ve spent a lot of time and perhaps credibility arguing on this show, history is conspiracy—we just need to break away from our twentieth century understanding of conspiracy. Miles wants to connect Lincoln’s war to abolitionism because he believes that is the best political path to blaming the war on his opponents down the ballot. But he’s way off—the administration was fighting a war for Union, not black freedom. He’s much closer to the mark early on talking about different theories of government. Lincoln was clear about his purposes in the Gettysburg Address—his War was to make sure that the United States could not break apart without the permission of its political ruling class. And the Civil War, then, was a contest between ruling classes for monopoly rights to administer the state. For the moment, let’s hear our last from Thomas Jefferson Miles…

Speaker: Now, my fellow-countrymen, if any of you will take a copy of the Constitution of the United States and read it carefully, you will find that there is scarcely a fragment of it left. The President and his party in Congress have torn it into ribbons. Will it be said that these innovations are warrantable on account of the civil strife in which we are engaged. How utterly fallacious is this excuse! These are the very times when the sacred provisions of the Constitution should be most jealously guarded….

Time and space admonish me that I must bring this narrative to a close. A folio volume would not contain all the usurpations of this most extraordinary Administration. The servants of the people have assumed to be their masters, and have so conducted themselves during the last three years.

Speaker: Men are as nothing in this great crisis. Whole generations of men pass, in their regular order, into the sepulcher of oblivion. But few individuals live, even in memory, beyond a succeeding generation. Yet, in the progress of time, there are epochs which live for ages; to be referred to by posterity with either blessings or curses. We are passing through one of those periods now! The cause of American liberty is a sacred trust, which each generation of Americans is bound by every principle of honor to transmit unimpaired to its successor. This principle must not be surrendered now. If it should, upon this generation will rest the merited execration of those that are yet in the womb of time….

Anthony Comegna: So there’s our document—and it sets the table well. For the main argument, though, let’s turn back to Rhode Island’s Little Civil War, the Dorr War. You’ll recall (I hope) that Dorr’s suffragists routinely argued that they had absolute, sovereign power to create and recreate their governments at will, without consulting the political class currently in office or getting permission through the current constitutional regime. They argued that the people were the ultimate sovereigns and any legitimate government must represent those popular sovereigns. Their opponents in the Old Charter regime took the opposite stance—they held their ground, clung to their royal charter from the 1660s, and believed that governments as such were sovereign. The Supreme Court then weighed in with Luther v Borden and argued that only those regimes with political power enough to actually defend themselves were truly sovereign. Might, they said, makes right.

Anthony Comegna: If Rhode Islanders really wanted to change their government, they would have to politely request that the government reform itself, that the state’s political class voluntarily decide to dissolve and restructure itself. Well, that was not happening and across the Union very few states’ regimes actually wanted the Dorrites to win out. There were friendly governors and legislatures out there (especially New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), but overall even Democrats didn’t want to admit that revolutionary, popular sovereignty was really the political status quo in America. If we really get carried away with all this Jeffersonian language about the people’s equal, universal, inalienable rights to self-government, that could imply all sorts of wild stuff from Rhode Island’s spontaneous People’s Convention down to innumerable series of secessions from the national government down to free individuals. No government on Earth could stand for long in the face of such principles; no political class could really entrench and develop itself; no current officeholders could keep their power without actually appealing to the people—all of them.

Anthony Comegna: So here’s the point: Lincoln walked into the Civil War with all the necessary tools to crush the revolutionary heritage and establish his own class as the ruling class for the whole country. Under the weight of war, he absolutely squeezed out the last bits of Dorrism left in the American story. There no longer were any sovereign citizens—only clientele with the meagerest of voices (their solitary votes), easily drowned in a rising tide of corporate lobbyists, endless bureaucracies, and thirty years of precedent saying if you couldn’t win a war like this then you couldn’t separate from the body politic. The corpus of the United States was here to stay, animated and operated by railroad lawyers and politicians like the President.

Anthony Comegna: And it’s not like the South was any better, either—there every plantation was a corporation headed by a single great patriarch. Stitch them together, and that was the South’s ruling class and they’d already been at it for centuries. Nope, the Civil War was no libertarian moment—even with the supposed emancipation of slaves. No matter who won such a nasty contest, the results would have been much the same: the most important parts of the revolutionary heritage were forever dead. No more spontaneous, bottom-up revolutions, no more sovereign citizens, no more universal, equal rights for all people. Meet the New World boss, pretty much the same as the Old World boss.