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Southerners strategically supported a small & limited national government, but their motives for doing so were appalling.

Southerners did not support Jeffersonianism as a matter of principle, but as a strategy that would ensure the survival of slavery and institutionalized racism. This support of Jeffersonian liberalism was ill‐​founded and tainted the philosophical tradition for many years after.

What is the relationship between libertarians and the southerners who were proponents of limited government? How did slavery make the phrase “states’ rights” dirty? How did southerners use the Jeffersonian philosophy to their advantage? Why did southerners fear the health of the republic without slavery? Did southerners actually support a small and limited government or was that just a facade?

Further Reading:

Ericson, David. The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America. New York: New York University Press. 2000.

Finkelman, Paul. Proslavery Thought, Ideology, and Politics. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1989.

Finkelman, Paul. Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/​St. Martin’s. 2003.

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion, Vol. I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990.

The Road to Disunion, Vol. II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

The Slaveholder’s Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820–1860. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 1992.

Spooner & The Secret Six, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Was Frederick Douglass a Libertarian?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Libertypublicans, Liberty Chronicles Podcast



00:06 Anthony Comegna: The castle was one of the most important technological and engineering advances in military history. They were massive, built to last for centuries. They were supposed to house entire villages during a siege and last months, or even years, in the process. They were utilitarian; literally everything about a castle had a function, a clear and cost‐​effective purpose. They were almost industrialized in their own pre‐​modern sort of way. Milling around a medieval castle, you’ll find slits for archer fire every few feet, murder holes to drop boiling pitch and flames, setting invaders ablaze. There will be spiral staircases and defensive choke points at every corner, and toilets are everywhere. A castle’s center is it softest point, usually an open field for trade, training and acts of public governance, but that’s what the various layers of walls are for. Whatever else he did, a successful high medieval lord always protected the center of his castle and never abandoned the walls to his enemies. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

01:28 Anthony Comegna: When I was in college, I visited William the Conqueror’s castle in Normandy, the Chateau de Caen. I was on a trip there for my honors program, en route to see the Bayeux Tapestry, and while most of my fellow students and others on the tour seemed impressed enough just by the castle’s naturally imposing force, you know, its oldness, its bigness, all the concentrated power it represented, I felt a little ill, not far off from how I felt when we went to a concentration camp in Belgium, or how I imagine I’d feel if I ever did one of those New Orleans or Charleston plantation tours. Topmost in my mind was William’s invasion of England in 1066; we were on the way to see the Tapestry, after all, and I was reflecting on the so‐​called Harrying of the North, where Norman armies exterminated up to 5% of the entire English population, perhaps as many as 150,000 people, destroying nearly two‐​thirds of the villages and farms as they went, they even killed about 80,000 oxen. Of course, the story of William’s funeral kind of makes up for it.

02:33 Anthony Comegna: His body was too large for the tomb, and when the king’s medieval morticians tried to force him in, William’s body burst, spewing forth months of disgusting aristocratic luxury. I imagine them choking from the smell while scraping him back into the tomb, the entire country glad to be done with the Conqueror. But along with feudalism, William saddled England with another innovation from the continent: He brought the high medieval castle to protect his newly conquered domain. “But what could all of this possibly have to do with the antebellum South?” I hear nearly everyone out there demanding. Remember our conversation with Phil Magness about George Fitzhugh. Planters, and even small slaveholders, fancied themselves the modern world’s lords and ladies. Unsurprisingly, then, pro‐​slavery writers and politicians regularly used the castle metaphor when articulating their desire to protect slavery. If even once Congress was ever allowed to exceed its constitutional authority, the abolitionists would have their foothold on the castle walls and the soft center would be exposed, the great lord slain, his realm and all it stood for, destroyed. Castles, both real like William’s, and metaphorical, like the one protecting slavery in the American constitutional order, castles are titanic symbols of authority and control, paternalism and serfdom, slavery and submission.

04:09 Anthony Comegna: As with William and the castles he built all over England, so with the antebellum South and their arguments in favor of constitutionally limited government. The theory went like this: Under the Constitution, Congress has sharply curtailed powers, and is only allowed to do those things expressly delegated to them, same with the other branches. According to Jefferson’s cornerstone of the Constitution, the 9th and 10th Amendments, “Every right and power not explicitly delegated to the national government was retained by the states, or the people respectively.” This was the castle rampart, the outer wall protecting the softer targets of state and popular rights within. So again, the reasoning was that if at once Southerners allowed Congress to exceed their authority on any issue, it would immediately open the way to emancipation; therefore, every constitutional question was ultimately a question of protecting slavery. This was the real reason Southern political culture often appears Jeffersonian and even libertarian. Yes, they often argued against protective tariffs, but this was explicitly part of a tactical battle to protect slavery under the Constitution.

05:31 Anthony Comegna: Yes, Southerners were often vocal in support of a small and limited national government, because they feared the ability of an unconstitutionally large and powerful central state to clamp down on slavery. Yes, Southerners often argued for low taxation, because they believed unconstitutional taxation and spending set the precedent that Congress could literally do anything they felt necessary and proper to establishing the general welfare of something. It is a captivating set of historical arguments for us modern‐​day libertarians, but we can’t let ourselves get sucked into the packaging of the record by ignoring its despicable contents. Broadly speaking, antebellum Southerners did not support Jeffersonianism as a matter of principle. It was a stratagem employed specifically to protect slavery and institutionalized racism. Ideally, they could do this within the constitutional framework, and most politicians and writers despised the Fire‐​Eater secessionists as much as they did the fanatical abolitionists.

06:42 Anthony Comegna: When comfortably in charge of the national government, Southern politicians did all they could to shore up their cherished institution and guarantee its future, including cooking up wars of conquest and political warfare over the territories stolen from Mexico. When, finally, the Yankees crossed the Rubicon and elected Lincoln, a man whose party was pledged to ignore the Supreme Court and ban slave owners from the territories, that was when seccession triumphed and Jeffersonian rhetoric was once again employed to protect slavery, rarely as an end in itself, always as a means to keep an entire class of people in chains. To see what I mean, to illustrate the castle metaphor and its development, deployment and deception, we have to go back to 1824, the debates over the tariff, and one of the South’s most important papers.

07:38 Anthony Comegna: Saying “one of the South’s pro‐​slavery papers” is redundant, by the way, they were virtually all pro‐​slavery, and anti‐​slavery papers were nearly always systematically destroyed by mob violence or positively outlawed. The Charleston Mercury, in many ways, led the community for several decades. Because South Carolina was already a hotbed of Southern extremism, their state’s most important radical paper was shared, read and quoted across the country. The Mercury, then, exercised a disproportionate influence, and their argumentation led the way. Let’s see what they did with it and how they built their castles.

08:19 Speaker 2: Charleston Mercury, March 20, 1824. The tariff. A letter which we have lately received from Washington contains a hope that the tariff bill may be defeated even in the House of Representatives, and speaks pretty sanguinely of its destruction by the Senate, in the event of its being brought before them. Who is there that does not concur in this hope? But then, why should we trust to the House of Representatives, when it is as evident as daylight that the manufacturing party have only allowed the erasure of the few items which have been expunged, and the modification of a few intelligent portions of the bill for the purpose of acquiring power and more effectually ensuring their final triumph? He who trusts to these erasures or alterations as evidence of a disposition to yield among the manufacturing ranks will most certainly find his anticipations clouded by bitter disappointment and regret. No modification which has yet taken place affects in the least the general character of the bill, nor can it be expected that any material modification will be allowed, inasmuch as it would defeat the great object of its advocates, and render the passage of the bill comparatively useless. Why, then, should we trust to the House of Representatives, when every movement in that body has been regularly against us, and when the supporters of the bill are even now endeavoring, by affected acquiescence in minor points, to secure the success of the general principle of their schemes?

09:54 Speaker 2: And if the measure passes the House, as we certainly think it will, what greater reliance can be placed upon the Senate? It is true that, in the body, all the states are equal, and every interest and section of the union are equally and fairly represented, and it is upon this consideration alone, that we look to the Senate as the conservative principal of the country and the great corrective of the rash and impolitic proceedings of the House. But is it not highly probable that all the Western and Southwestern states may be found in the Senate as favorable to the bill, as they are in the House? At all events, is it not more than probable that a majority of the Senate may support it? Under all the circumstances of the case, then, is it not infinitely better that the people of the South should consider the bill as very likely to be passed, and prepare accordingly, than to continue to indulge unfounded hopes and visionary calculations, and thus allow the operation of the measure to fall with its heaviest effect upon them? Is it not their best policy to take the passage of the bill for granted, and to determine at once what course it will become them to pursue to relieve themselves, if possible, from the pressure of the act, and to force the manufacturers to a sense of justice and of the equal rights of every section of the Union?

11:18 Anthony Comegna: So far, so good, not necessarily any problems here, but just wait for it. Nestled within a bed of liberal‐​sounding rhetoric about policy and Jeffersonian concerns over constitutional governance was the ultimate need to protect slavery. We should reject protective tariffs, not out of some pure devotion to free trade, but as a means of keeping Congress strictly within its limits and unable to interfere with slavery. Give them a first step across the walls, and the abolitionists will drive the South into extinction like so many defenseless Saxons slaughtered by Norman armies.

12:00 Speaker 2: If we lived under a monarchical government, in which the sovereign power resided exclusively in a single head, or even under a consolidated government, in which all the rights and powers of the states had been transferred completely to one general head, we would have nothing to do in a case like this but to lament our misfortune or our blindness, and to submit to the measures which it might think proper to impose. But, fortunately for us, and thanks to the wisdom of our ancestors, we live neither under a monarchical nor a consolidated system, but under a federative compact, in which, although many powers have been given to the general head, each state is still sovereign and independent, and especially in matters in which its existence or vital interests are concerned. Now, as our wide, extended empire embraces many latitudes and climates, and encircles in its arms numerous states and territories, of which, from the very nature of things, the interest and pursuits are various and opposite and often incompatible, with what shadow of justice can a Congress pretending to legislate for the whole give its sanction to an Act which will benefit a few at the expense of many, and elevate the East and the West upon the ruins of the South?

13:24 Speaker 2: Or why, when the interests, nay, the very existence of the Southern states, is thus dreadfully invaded, and when we live under a government in which these same Southern states, although trampled and oppressed, are still as independent as the East and West which oppressed them, why should they delay to raise their voice, to proclaim their grievance, and to declare their resolution? Is it not the inevitable tendency of the proposed tariff to destroy their foreign commerce? To cut off their most valuable staples? To reduce their property to nothing, and to create a resort to direct taxation? And that, too, under circumstances in which the people of the South will be utterly unable to sustain it? Can they contemplate this picture with folded arms? Is it not highly probable that consequences may grow out of this tariff which cannot yet be foreseen, and which time alone can develop? Is it not possible, at least, that when this most iniquitous measure shall have produced its full effect, and the property of the South be utterly valueless and prostrate, that from the same quarters of the Union from which this blow has proceeded may arise another, still more odious and dreadful?

14:46 Speaker 2: Is it not possible that, when the value of our black population shall be ruined, those same charitable manufacturers may devise a scheme either for their immediate purchase or gradual emancipation? Is this idea fantastic? Is the Missouri question forgotten? Are not the states now arrayed against each other, more as slave and non‐​slave holding states than upon any other ground whatever? Have not resolutions lately passed in Pennsylvania requesting Congress to adopt measures for a general emancipation? And what is the fact in England, and her West Indian colonies? Did not the abolitionists profess at first to confine their endeavors entirely to the suppression of the African trade? Did they not profess the utmost respect for the order of things as it was established in the colonies, and disclaimed the remotest intention of interfering with the rights and the property of the planters? Was it not owing entirely to these professions that they succeeded in their plan, and that the trade was stopped? But what is the fact now? Have they adhered to their professions? Have they left the colonies undisturbed?

16:02 Speaker 2: Let anyone look at the late, dreadful insurrections which have agitated those islands and destroyed the value of their property, and hear the language which is now used in the British Parliament, and he will be satisfied at once that the abolitionists are steadily pursuing a system of general emancipation, which they had resolutely determined on from the very commencement of their labors. And when our produce shall be without a market, and our slaves without a purchaser, and our property, in short, have become burdens to their owners, what is to hinder our kind, manufacturing and colonizing friends from generously bestowing some unappropriated monies of the Treasury to our relief and the emancipation of our slaves?

16:48 Speaker 2: Be this as it may, the question for the determination of the Southern states now is whether, if the tariff bill passes, they will quietly submit to its operation, or manfully resist it. Shall they purchase from the manufacturers at their own monopoly prices, and thus rivet on themselves the chain of their own slavery and degradation, or shall they firmly determine to manufacture for themselves in every case in which it can be done, and only to buy when absolutely forced by necessity to do so. During the Revolution, British tea was thrown into the docks by those very Bostonians who are now engaged in saddling the South with a more oppressive monopoly than was ever attempted by the Parliament of England, and the great State of Massachusetts, which has been empathically called “the cradle of our liberties” now ranks foremost in the prosecution of a system infinitely worse to the people of the South than that which she so gallantly repelled when it bore upon herself. What, then, are the people of the South to do? What alternative is left them?

18:02 Anthony Comegna: In a very long series of editorial responses to the tariff, published in the Mercury and reprinted around the South, Robert Turnbull continued the theme and built more walls in his metaphor. He feared a Congress powerful enough to pass unconstitutional tariffs, because “Congress may be propelled by the public opinion of the North to regulate our domestic policy,” and everyone knew what that meant. But to put a finer point on the subject, like the Mercury so often did, Turnbull went further. “Any breach of the Constitution open the way for invasions, of committees from abolition in Negro societies crowding the lobbies of the House, soliciting and provoking the discussion of subjects which, to us in these states, will be productive of evil. If it’s necessary and proper to pass an iniquitous tariff,” he wrote, “Congress may well decide in 20 years that emancipation, too, is in order.” Military roads and canal projects from the national government, then, were Yankee designs on Southerners’ slaves. Turnbull wrote, “These roads and canals may become the means, as they will the monuments, of the subjugation of the South.” Turnbull insisted that congressmen not even be allowed to express the opinion that slavery is an evil, and followed up, “If there be an evil in slavery, the evil is ours.”

19:32 Anthony Comegna: Here’s the “positive good” school in development in the late 1820s. But it wasn’t long before the Mercury took the point even further, dropping Turnbull’s purposefully speculative “if” years before Calhoun’s infamous “positive good” speech. Again, leading the argument, the Mercury went against all of Jefferson’s own intuition about slavery and proclaimed it a benefit, a positive good, certainly no evil.

20:00 Speaker 2: Charleston Mercury, Wednesday morning, July 3, 1833. We see published in a Boston paper an account of a dinner at which a gentleman of Georgia and Messrs. Chester and Davis, two Northern clergymen located in South Carolina, were present. The Reverend Mr. Davis spoke of his section of the country; let it be remembered that both he and Mr. Chester are from the North. We regret much to see the remarks of Colonel Lumpkin. We are as certain that he was in error as to the fact that a change favorable to emancipation has recently taken place in the sentiments of the planters, as much as in the opinion that the interests of the owners and the slave were alike identified in emancipation. We regret much that Colonel Lumpkin should entertain such sentiments. The expression of them will not extend his influence in the South, and the stand which he took by the side of South Carolina in her recent struggle makes us still more regret his thus furnishing fuel to the fire of Northern fanaticism. Once for all on this subject, we say that the sooner the North makes its attempt, the better. It will attack the South in the citadel, and if that cannot be defended now, we deserve to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to our Northern taskmasters. As to Southern sentiment on the subject of slavery, so far from slavery being considered an evil, and the Southern people only regretting the difficulty of removing it, they deny that it is an evil.

21:37 Anthony Comegna: In his series of responses to the tariff, Robert Turnbull constructed the two ultimate bulwarks against the flood of abolitionism: State sovereignty and the union of sovereign states. When one or the other fell, Southerners must rise to the challenge to defend their inner sanctum of slavery. Turnbull wrote, “The safety of the republic is in the integrity and sovereignty of the states. We all know and feel the necessity of union, we all desire union. In a proper union, we are sensible that our interests and our safety consists, and to preserve the union, we are ready to make reasonable sacrifices.” But Turnbull made no mistake about it. He said outright that he would rather be a colonist of some European empire again, than live in an emancipated South Carolina. Abolitionists, then, were no better than pirates, streaming aboard the ship of state, or an invading army, who can only break against those walls so many times before one side or the other gives.

22:45 Anthony Comegna: One later editorial from the Mercury stated the metaphor even more clearly and succinctly. “We must make the fight on the outer wall of the tariff, if we would defend successfully our slaveholding institutions.” The Constitution and Jeffersonian philosophy, then, were not some illuminating natural principles, capable of toppling tyrants all over the world and striking the last chains from the last slaves on earth. No, to the vast majority of antebellum Southerners, it appears that the Constitution and Jefferson were like so many castles and trebuchets, strategies and weapons to satisfy their own self‐​interests. In the words of unionist South Carolinian, William Preston, “Slavery is our king; slavery is our truth; slavery is our divine right. The cotton plant might perish tomorrow, and yet slavery would be as necessary, as precious to us, as it is today.” When pitted against Lincoln’s emancipatory version of nationalism, then, it’s no surprise that the duplicitous and deceptive Confederacy tainted Jeffersonian liberalism for generations to come. When mixed up with such racism and pro‐​slavery, it’s no shock that state’s rights ended up a dirty word.

24:13 Anthony Comegna: This is why we have to be clear about the principles historical figures brought to bear on the documents they left behind, the reasons they actually gave for saying what they said, the true purposes behind what they did, and the strategies they employed. Underhanded strategic thinking about ideas accomplished Southerners’ short‐​term goals, it erected one mighty fine castle to protect slavery for a good four generations, but in the end, the whole thing lay in ruins. Jefferson, slavery, Republicanism, voluntary unionism, free trade, all of it, the good and the bad together. In a desperate siege to save their slave property, Southerners cannibalized whatever was good in their intellectual heritage, and by the seccession winter of 1860 to ’61, there was almost nothing left to redeem them.

25:20 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.