Ep. 94: Was the Civil War a Libertarian Moment?

It’s worth taking some time to consider the Civil War from your average early libertarian activist’s point of view.

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We have a tendency to treat the past as some sort of ideal world where historical actors played out their ideal scenarios under ideal conditions. We grant Lincoln the superhuman powers of creating the war all by himself and being responsible for everything done in the Union’s name. We go to some wild efforts to place historical agency in the hands of particular people or groups to avoid blaming the historical actors with whom we identify personally. There was a time when historians found it both easy and convenient to present the Confederacy as an exercise in Jeffersonian liberalism.

Was Lincoln both the Great Emancipator and the shredder of the Magna Carta? How did the Civil War have libertarian underpinnings? How did Frances Whipple use poetry to describe the Civil War as a movement?

Further Reading:

Sarah O’Dowd, A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, 2004.

“Elleanor Eldridge: Folk Hero of African American Feminism”

“Let Usurpers Tremble: The Unrepublican Anomaly”

Related Content:

The Possession of Frances Whipple, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Liberty Chimes: Free Speech, the Tyrant-Slayer, written by Frances Whipple

Liberty Chimes: The Slave Mother, written by Frances Whipple

Anthony Comegna: In some ways, it would be great if William Leggett or Lysander Spooner were the only early libertarians in American history—it would give us two incredible biographies of libertarian heroes, virtually unblemished and utterly admirable records of activism, ideology, and achievement that we could hold up as models for ourselves in the modern day. But we’ve spent way too much time charting the Locofoco movement for that—We know that there was a lot more to early libertarianism than a few scattered individuals on gloriously kooky personal crusades. Then as now, libertarianism was a complex and sometimes only loosely overlapping set of ideas, values, interests, and strategies based on a variety of different conceptions about human freedom. Today, I would say our dominant narratives of the Civil War either conflate our own ideas about small government with the Confederate cause, or they avoid the idea that libertarians were involved in the conflict altogether. On the one track, we either torture libertarianism to fit the Confederacy or we torture history to make the Confederacy into a libertarian state. And on the other track, we take to the bunker with Lysander Spooner and act like there was only ONE libertarian alive at the time and he hated both sides of the war. The much fuller, more vibrant, more wonderful, more terrible truth is that to its early libertarian supporters, the Civil War was a great libertarian moment—perhaps the most libertarian moment in American history.

Anthony Comegna: Wait, wait, wait a minute—How could the American Civil War (in which almost a million people died, many more were wounded, countless meaningful human relationships were snuffed out bullet by bullet, and in which countless amounts of wealth was poured out for works of death and destruction)…How the Hell could this possibly have been a libertarian moment? Sure, emancipation is the obvious and undeniable advance for human liberty in this darkest of hours, but is even that enough of a silver lining to make up for the costs of war? No, there is no way to calculate the value of a former slave’s new freedom, but all that freedom could have easily been purchased with a fraction of the money spent on war. That was the British model, after all, and it worked well enough for them. Besides, you might add—we all know the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free the slaves and neither did the Thirteenth Amendment—just ask America’s prison population about that second point.

Anthony Comegna: Well, let me tell you: these are perfectly valid questions, comments, observations. But here’s my worry—we have a tendency to treat the past as some sort of ideal world where historical actors played out their ideal scenarios under ideal conditions. We grant Lincoln the superhuman powers of creating the war all by himself and being responsible for everything done in the Union’s name. We go to some wild efforts to place historical agency in the hands of particular people or groups to avoid blaming the historical actors with whom we identify personally. There was a time when historians found it both easy and convenient to present the Confederacy as an exercise in Jeffersonian liberalism. Well, We know the problems with that interpretation by now. Libertarians have always found it easy to hate on Lincoln—by all accountings, he helped transform the country into a consolidated federal nation-state and dramatically increased the size and scope of government. We may recognize from time to time his libertarianish qualities (Phil Magness helped us out a bit there), but it’s always been easy for us to see him as “the intellectual other.”

Anthony Comegna: But here’s the other thing we have spent a lot of time showing here—President Lincoln was really a product of early libertarianism more than any other strain of politics or philosophy. That’s not to say HE was a libertarian—again, remember Phil Magness: Lincoln was *always* a Henry Clay tariff Whig, a railroad lawyer who loved internal improvements, and a partisan trueblood. But by 1856, Henry Clay and his Whig Party were both dead. And thanks to the deep history of Locofoco, abolitionist, and Free Soiler activism, the Republican Party took its place. The party’s majority of ex-Whigs had the power to nominate a moderate like Lincoln, but it was the relatively marginal libertarian vote that actually elected the man—really just like what happened with Polk in 1844. Remember that’s when literally about 5,000 New Yorkers tipped the scales away from Henry Clay. So here’s the point then: in both 1844 and 1860 libertarian votes made the difference and in neither case was the candidate an actual libertarian. But that’s how politics almost always goes for us. He wasn’t really their candidate, but he was the focal point for power in pursuit of their cause. It can make for great policy triumphs and equally great disasters. Most of the time, we’d rather ignore the good in order to also ignore the bad. We purge the image of Lincoln the libertarian Great Emancipator so we don’t have to also get wrapped up in praise for Lincoln the Censor or Lincoln the shredder of Magna Carta.

Anthony Comegna: It’s worth taking some time to consider the Civil War from your average early libertarian activist’s point of view. How would you feel if you had spent thirty or forty years fighting a grand “War on Monopoly,” you had one long string of false starts, failures, and Pyrrhic victories, and then finally you’ve managed to build a political party with a broadly anti-monopolist consensus that targeted the very worst offenders first. You’d seen those worst of all monopolists—the South’s great planters—buy out the major parties and twist them to suit private purposes. You’ve seen them use the nation’s army to conquer a continent for slavery’s expansion; you’d seen them dramatically expand national police powers and turn northern citizens into subject Slave-catchers; you’d seen every branch of government convert itself into the wholly owned subsidiary of the planter class; you would have seen American slavery reach the peak of its power, influence, the number of people enslaved, the peak of internal slave trading, a revival of support for reopening the Atlantic Slave trade, and unending, concerted efforts to guarantee slaveholders rights no matter what free state laws had to say about it. Well, 1860 may have just looked like liberty’s last chance. For a clearer glimpse into this worldview, let’s go back to one of my favorite characters in this long story—our Dorrite historian and spirit medium, Frances Whipple.

Anthony Comegna: You might recall from our last episode on Whipple that she delivered Colonel E.D. Baker’s funeral oration as a spirit medium in San Francisco. By channeling his spirit, Whipple made Baker the first prominent California politician to advocate full emancipation—and Baker was no minor figure. He was perhaps Lincoln’s best friend and some people even tried to claim Baker baptized Lincoln while they were both practicing law and Whig politics in Illinois. By 1867, though, the war was over, Lincoln was as dead as Baker—along with almost a million other Americans—and Radical Reconstruction was in full effect. We’ll get to all that background in time, but for now let’s turn to Whipple’s 1867 long-form poem (and her last major work), “The Genius of American Liberty,” where we will see her indisputably libertarian take on the Civil War. We pick up partly through the poem, which describes the Goddess of Liberty incarnated in the form of a great eagle—what else?—who has specially prepared North America for settlers to lead humanity into a freer future. The eagle goddess watches over the Puritans and other colonial generations as they struggle for individual liberty against the concentrated power of the British Empire. Ultimately, a great and ancient evil counterweight to our Goddess of Liberty arises in the form of a satanic serpent, Slavery. Whipple uses the Revolution as her opening act in the drama of Liberty and Power in the Atlantic world

Speaker: Then hand in hand close clasping, Our conquering Fathers stood, Strong in the sacred Union So sealed with patriot blood; Deep in the earth they planted. A fair and goodly Tree, To grow with the growing ages, A shelter for the Free; And there, to watch, and wait, and rest, the Eagle came and made her nest, in the Tree of Liberty. Strong grew the spreading branches; The Oppressed of every Land, Flocked to our shore by thousands, In many a woful band! The good Earth gave her treasures, And the lax hands grew strong; And minds, deformed and crippled. In the long arrear of Wrong, Came out of the deep dark, to be Intelligent, enlightened, free From Tyrants, bold and strong. 

Speaker: With a full self-possession, The conscious Man awoke; And there went forth from his presence. New power, with every stroke; His shining ax, fast swinging, In the forest deep and wide, Called forth the latent village, In its beauty and its pride; And while, amid the bowering green, The school-house and the church were seen, Where woke Life’s tuneful tide; He drove his piles down deftly. In the ocean’s oozy marge; And the sound of his ringing iron Woke turret, tower, and barge;And there, with inspiring Freedom To gladden the classic bower, We focalize the ages. In the baptism of an hour; A truer Science and a nobler Art Enrich the mind and purify the heart, With high, immortal power. No wilder tales of magic, The Orient ever knew, Than concrete all around us, Yet tangible and true. Forth walks the great Enchantress, All-opulent in might, And a thousand noble cities Stand strong against the light; Then weaves she many million miles Of iron road, to bind their piles In union true and tight. 

Speaker: Her Ariel is the Lightning; And around the Earth she’ll bind. A girdle for his pathway, Till his flight outspeeds the wind; She yokes the snorting Steam-Steed. To the ponderous iron car, And through the tunneled mountains. He bears our burdens far; And when her longest trail is done, From Sunset to the Rising Sun, We’ll ride away, ha, ha!

Speaker: Fair grew the Tree of Freedom;But a deadly Serpent lay. Around the root, close coiling, And the Weak he made his prey. His poisonous breath infected. With its venom all the air, Till its vaporous folds hung heavily Around the noxious lair; And, like some fell narcotic flower, It bound the Eagle with its power, The while she nestled there. Thus, side by side with Freedom, An arrant Slave-Power grew; But its strength, its wrong, its danger, We never saw or knew. It cracked its cutting scourges, Defiant, daring, bold; And at its simple history All human blood runs cold: The weeping friends asunder led, The husband’s violated bed, Are stories true and old. Hard grew the grasping Slave-Power, Pushing to outposts far, Beyond all former limits, Its Juggernatuic car. The godly Gospel blessed it, With a bold, emphatic “Vive!” And Law the golden sceptre Held out, and bade it live. Thus honored, in its high estate The blinded Power defied its fate, Forever crying, “Give!” It made its own vile statutes, To suit its own vile ends; And learned Judge, and pious Priest, Stood fast among its friends. Profaned and helpless Woman, Before its presence fell; And high and holy “Virtue” Beheld, and said ‘t was well— (For who might hope or dare to save? The Master owns his chattel-slave)— And thus struck hands with Hell.

Speaker: Though strong and bright as Lucifer, All-mighty it would stand; And, like him, it wrought sedition, With suicidal hand. The chain, with deep corroding, Thought dumb and dark so long, At length reached human bosoms, With its magnetism strong: The mother’s shriek, the virgin’s prayer, The dark dethroned Man’s despair, Found voice to speak their wrong!

Anthony Comegna: Whipple runs through a brief history of proslavery and antislavery, including a long train of hails for abolitionist and black heroes from Crispus Attucks (killed in the Boston Massacre) to Frederick Douglass. In our second portion, she notes the key moment that converted William Leggett to abolitionism—the southern burning of antislavery mail—and she is especially venomous toward the Fugitive Slave Act and all its northern abettors. In time, though, the Eagle spies a humble “Man of Destiny” scratching out an honest living somewhere in the Midwest. He made for the perfect chieftain in the coming battle against slavery’s serpent.

Speaker: Armed with flint, and shod with iron, Forth it trampled in its pride, Spreading death and desolation Through our borders, far and wide, Doing deeds whose bare rehearsal. Seems the savagest of tales. Still more bold and overbearing, It attacked and robbed our mails, All faith and public honor spurning! Behold our private letters burning, Lit by infernal gales!  With their cotton, and their sugar, For a mote in either eye, No wonder an unwelcome truth Should, sometimes, show awry; And that engrossing color, Which we have known as White, Should, looking from between them, Make Wrong seem fair as Right— Its high prerogative a deadly ban, Poor human beings to unsex, unman, And plunge in endless night.  The patronizing Slave-Power Fondled a currish Law; And the animal, obedient, Made haste, and “gave its paw.” It turned us all to blood-hounds, And led us in its chains, To hunt the flying fugitive. Over our own free plains; And all the powers of Church and State Made its decrees as fixed as fate, And licked its bloody chains! The Land of our Pilgrim Fathers, Became one vast SLAVE-PEN; And the Hills of our free New England A HUNTING-GROUND FOR MEN; For we were bought with money, Though our chain we could not see; And we caught the Slave, no only, But we TRAFFICKED IN THE FREE! Yes, we were a guerilla band, When, from the Slaver’s bloody hand, We took the bloody fee. The famished and the foot-sore Our mercy sought in vain, Till mothers slew their children, To save them from the chain! Through old, time-honored King Street We dragged the preacher, BURNS; Yes, o’er the very pavement Which the blood of ATTUCKS urns! Not unto death, for that were kind; But the deep dark of heart and mind, Where no sweet day-star burns. With more than Spartan courage, Came forth John Brown, the brave, And the first blow struck for Freedom— The freedom of the Slave! And the Slaver swaggered hugely, And swore it in his song, That HE should die for Treason— Yes, TREASON AGAINST WRONG! But hosts of angels round him hung, Shouting aloud, as off he swung: “Good heart! Great heart! Be strong!”He sleeps in his mountain fastness, Where the blue-bird earliest sings, And the towering Pines make music, Like the swoop of an eagle’s wings; And there shall the Friends of Freedom Gather, with reverent tread, To look on the earth that shelters So blandly the brave old head; While the free wind goes sweeping by, And pillared wood, and arching sky, Entomb the glorious dead.

Speaker: But the North, though so long hooded, Could NOT be made  a slave; For a sterling heart was in it, And it came out true and brave. The sugar, and the cotton-bags, Like cobwebs dropped away, And on the People’s naked eyes Fell Truth’s most potent ray; Quickened and warm, it woke, to shine Forth from the soul, with light divine— Life of the fair new day! Like the young god in his cradle, By serpent foes entwined, Came forth, unto our rescue, THE FREE, ENLIGHTENED MIND; It grasped the subtle clasper, And broke his sinuous tie; Writhing, with savage impotence, He gave himself the lie: The Coward COURAGE seemed to show! The “MUDSILL” might not be so low! But blenched that cruel eye! The North awoke so grandly, And knew her strength once more, Fired with the quenchless freedom She had inhaled of yore; Though mystified by Leaders, A slavish, selfish band, There yet was conscience in her heart, And sinew in her and; From her long lethargy she woke; And, with ten thousand voices, spoke Our glorious Native Land. And the MAN for this great conflict Was living; and he stood Beside his father’s cabin In the opening of a wood; So small the corn-clad clearing, It seemed all hid away, Like an island, ‘mid the ocean Of deep green that round it lay. The Eagle came and watched the boy With a far-seeing, prescient joy, As he went forth day by day. To wider paths she led him, And higher lessons taught; And she opened for him volumes Of deep, unwritten thought. The Stars looked down and blessed him, As he boated by the shore, While the solemn cypress shadows Fell round, ad stretched before; With muscle strong, and spirit free, Thus grew the MAN OF DESTINY, As men grew up of yore.

Speaker: He came forth for an Era, That made the Ages wait; And he was duly chosen— For HIS VICTORY WAS FATE. Before him was a purpose Unto his heart most dear— ‘Tween Scylla and Charybdis The Ship of State to steer. He never seemed to heed or know The praise or blame of friend or foe, But kept his canvas clear. The Nations old, King-ridden, As they watched the clouded star That crowned our boasted Freedom, Laughed bitterly, “Aha!” And they told the slaves around them, Whene’er our flag unfurled, That ours, like all Republics, Into ruin, should be hurled; And as they answered from afar, The hissing sneer, the bold “Aha!” Went ringing round the world. Sneer on, ye owl-eyed prophets! Nor seek, as yet, to know The deep and deadly ruin That quickens now below All rule—all power engrossing— However high or strong, That fixes its foundations On the rotten base of WRONG! Round RIGHT’S eternal center stand The Nations true, a deathless band, As peopled ages throng! Out from the blossoming forest, When the opening year was young, Came forth our glorious Eagle, And high in the air she hung, Her keen eye piercing Southward, And her talons striking, strong, Into our lifting banner, That woke the wondering throng: “Ho! Dastards! Tarry not, nor lag! Give to the winds our brave old Flag, That hath lain idle long!”

Anthony Comegna: She once again spends a great deal of time cataloging Civil War heroes, but none stand higher than the martyred Lincoln. Yes, it is hard for us to hold him in equal esteem—to us he’s the excuse we’re always given for “national emergency” powers and all sorts of terrible precedents to erode civil liberties. But just take a few minutes here to bask in Whipple’s point of view, her lush appreciation for Lincoln having finally delivered on decades of activism in her own life. Yes, the war was a horrible catastrophe, and as she said in Baker’s funeral oration, a moral country would never have embarked on such an evil campaign. But southerners coveted their slaves and northerners coveted their votes and profits from the cotton trade, so on it all went for far too long. The battle between Might and Right (to borrow the title of her history of the Dorr War) could not be put off any longer. And we would ultimately be better after getting it out in the open, fighting it through to the end, and moving on in a more just society.

Speaker: But the space of ponderous volumes, Filling, swelling, flying fast, Teeming with a thousand Epics, Would require a theme so vast. Every man becomes a hero, When for Liberty he draws; And our Foes had skill and courage Worthy of a better cause: They yet shall give, with heart and hand, Their strength unto our common Land, And aid our common cause. On your brows, heroic WOMEN! We the crown of virtue set; At the Hospital or Fireside, Bravely still your work ye met. Who can know its strength—its pureness? Who can measure all its power, Save the Suffering ye have cherished In the agonizing hour? Weave and wear your crowns immortal, And, in passing Death’s dark portal, Claim your glorious dower! Shall our hard-handed Freedom, With its all-grasping Toil, Drive from beyond our border, The Princes of the Soil? Room for the hapless Indian To flourish by our side, And reach the grand proportions His fate has yet denied! Cherish—unfold the Forest Braves, The while and Equal Freedom waves O’er all our country wide! Now our weeping hearts are joyful, Thinking sweetly of the Brave Who have poured their precious life-blood, Our bleeding Land to save. Now in hosts they gather round us! Say not, then, that they are dead; For they walk on the wider pathway From Earth to Heaven outspread: And thus come forth the brave Immortals, With light illuming Death’s dark portals Around each starry head! The Eagle led our armies forward, As they crowded rear and van; And never more heroic hosts Honored the name of Man. The clash of their glittering weapons Struck out new sparks of light, That warmed the waking Nation With a truer sense of Right; Then soared the Eagle, far and high, Pouring her bugle through the sky For Honor and for Right! She looked through the eye of LINCOLN, When the glorious word he gave That woke the dumb and dreaming Man In the bosom of the Slave; “Snap off the soul’s deep rivet! The fetters fast unbind!” Then the Four Winds sang together, “Freedom for ALL MANKIND!” From shore to shore—from main to main— Swept on the world-awaking strain: “FREEDOM FOR ALL MANKIND!” The inmost heavens burst open With Freedom’s quenchless fires, As the multitude of Angels Smote their responsive lyres: “The human step is forward; Hand, heart, and soul are free! Lead on the happy Ages To higher Liberty!” Through worlds remote the chorus rang, And Heavens and Earths together sang, “To higher Liberty!” But when our martyred Chieftain On his bloody bier was borne, The World wept, and the Nations Came forth, like friends to mourn; Then the stooping Eagle softly, With her folding plumage, crept Close to the faithful bosom, And there her vigils kept; And thus—his bright, immortal bays Illumed by Love’s divinest rays— A People’s Savior slept.Up rose our glorious Eagle, With victory on her crest, And the Starry Banner flowing Around her pure, white breast; And she shall still soar upward, Her broad wing hovering o’er One BROTHERHOOD OF NATIONS To Earth’s remotest shore! Her strength still grasping truer Right, Her deep eye shedding purer light. Forever, ever more!

Anthony Comegna: This may well be the last bit we hear from Whipple—unless I channel her spirit and come up with a brand new, never-before seen document. But I’m no spirit battery, and even loving her Libertarian spirit as I do, I couldn’t bring myself to really adopt her point of view anyways. I do understand it, I sympathize with it, I feel her care, consideration, her concern that the United States could either be the world’s greatest force for spreading Liberty or the world’s worst collection of tyrants. This country really was the turning point in human history—it was as though God perfectly prepared this continent as a vast staging ground for revolutionizing the world, but people like Whipple believed they would have to grab history by the agency and make sure that the experiment was one in freedom rather than slavery. They could take God or Nature’s blessing and run with it, creating a better, more just society and an exemplar for all peoples everywhere; or, they could fight for themselves, their own personal power, and spread domination, subjection, and slavery the world over.

Anthony Comegna: Sure, folks like Whipple could have given up the South and just let them secede—but at what price? At what cost to the millions of human beings held to slavery there? And the millions more they may conquer as history went forward? The risk for world history itself was simply too great. A slaveholding empire must not be allowed to stand next to Lincoln’s emancipatory empire. The Civil War was not some heaven-mandated moment to biblically cleanse the country’s moral slate, and I could never bring myself to sign death warrants for a million people no matter what the potential gains. But we need to understand that to those libertarians who supported the war and fought its battles, this was the only actually good chance to stamp out the Serpent of Slavery they had ever gotten. And they were not about to pass it up.