Was the Civil War a Terrible Mistake?
By Jim Powell
Mr. Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of The Triumph of Liberty (2000), FDR’S Folly (2003), Wilson's War (2005) and Bully Boy (2006). His latest book, Greatest Emancipations: How Slavery Ws Abolished in the West, will be published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan.
During Dr. Ron Paul’s recent appearance on FACE THE NATION, he suggested that the Civil War was a mistake, and he has been criticized for saying that. The topic was a minor part of the interview, and he didn’t have time to present much of a case, but fascinating questions were raised. How else would American slaves have gained their freedom if the Civil War hadn’t forced the issue? How could important social reforms of any kind be achieved against stubborn opposition?
Most Americans know only about the four main anti-slavery strategies pursued in the United States: (1) abolitionist campaigns that involved publications and speaking tours, organized by William Lloyd Garrison and others; (2) slave rebellions, like the one incited by Nat Turner; (3) the Underground Railroad, in which runaway slaves like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, supported by Quakers and others, helped many more slaves escape to freedom; (4) and war which became the most important strategy because of its disastrous short-term and long-term consequences.
Reliance on the use of force resulted in the emancipation of American slaves, obviously a good thing. But this, the military strategy for emancipation, backfired badly. Massive destruction and loss of life embittered Southerners, giving them powerful incentives to avenge their losses whenever they had the chance. Pro-slavery Southerners were bad before the war and worse afterwards. Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory gestures had little effect because of the intense emotions stirred up by all the fighting, most of which had taken place in the South. Confederate President Jefferson Davis suggested that desperately hungry Southerners should eat rats because they tasted better than squirrels, while Union tax collectors went through the South, looking for assets to seize.
Imagine the disillusionment of Lincoln’s anti-slavery supporters when his hand-picked successor Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder who had been a Democratic senator from Tennessee, offered a peace settlement that conceded much of what many Northerners thought they had been fighting for. Johnson said nothing about granting political rights for former slaves, and he appointed state governors acceptable to Southern whites. In Southern elections following the Civil War, ex-confederate colonels, generals, the former vice president of the Confederacy, a half-dozen ex-confederate cabinet members and 58 ex-confederate congressmen gained power. Such people dominated southern state governments, and they began enacting oppressive Black Codes.
Radical Republicans in Congress tried to thwart this resurgence of Southern power. They passed the Civil War amendments to the Constitution, they impeached President Johnson, and many Northerners went down South in an effort to make sure that Southerners did the right thing. But there never were enough Northerners to staff all the offices of Southern state governments. Moreover, some three-quarters of Southern males, 18 to 45 years old, had fought for the Confederacy, so unless Southern democracy was suppressed, and the overwhelming majority of Southern males were excluded from voting, they were going to have an impact on elections. They were against giving blacks and women the right to vote. Despite the decisive military victory of the Northerners, after the war Southern state governments were loaded with their adversaries.
There were violent reactions against Republican Reconstruction. The White Brotherhood, the Red Shirts, Knights of the White Camelia and especially the Ku Klux Klan organized efforts to intimidate blacks and Republicans alike. These groups held rallies aimed at driving Northerners out of the South. Klan members burned black homes, schools and churches as a reminder that blacks should not challenge white supremacy. Blacks who had achieved conspicuous success were at risk. Similarly, Klan members physically prevented blacks from voting. Blacks had a hard time defending themselves from Klansmen, because they ganged up on their intended victims, and state laws made it illegal for blacks to own guns. Whites who intimidated or killed blacks came to be called “Redeemers.”
Overall, Republican efforts were limited in their ability to help blacks. Republicans faced relentless opposition from embittered Southerners, and Southern governments – largely bankrupted by the war – didn’t have any money. The Republicans lacked roots in the communities where they held office. Republicans tended to be professional politicians, and – without an established business or profession to fall back on -- if they failed to win an election, they were without a livelihood. Aside from a Union army of occupation, they were supported only by Republican newspapers that had tiny circulations and received little advertising revenue, because Southern businessmen were loyal to Democratic newspapers.
Despite their good intentions, Radical Republicans did much harm. They promoted centralized government school systems in every Southern state. All the government schools were segregated, except for New Orleans government schools which were briefly integrated. Government schooling had taken root in Massachusetts during the 1830s and spread throughout most of the North before the Civil War. As a consequence, whoever controlled the government controlled everybody’s schools in each locality. This worked to the serious disadvantage of blacks who were excluded from schools their taxes helped pay for. Because they paid taxes for other people’s children, they had fewer resources available for their own children. Much like laws of the slavery era, that made it illegal to educate blacks, Reconstruction era government school laws helped promote black illiteracy and ignorance.
Republican politicians helped defeat themselves by becoming big spenders. They lavished subsidies on railroads, and in other ways state governments spent beyond their means to rebuild roads as well as other facilities destroyed during the war. The result of the spending schemes was corruption on a large scale. In North Carolina, $200,000 in bribes yielded millions of dollars of railroad subsidies. For years, bribery wasn’t a crime in Louisiana. Pervasive corruption discredited the administration of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.
By the mid-1870s, Reconstruction ran out of steam as Radicals died or moved on. President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in 1877, and Southerners were able to subvert the civil rights of blacks for nearly another century.
Various ideas for helping the former slaves achieve independence, like giving each slave 40 acres and a mule, were pipe dreams precisely because of the Civil War. It made angry Southerners even more determined than they had been before to suppress blacks. By going home, Northerners turned their backs on the mess they had made by promoting war.
Bottom line: the Civil War was no shortcut to achieving civil rights for blacks. While chattel slavery in the United States was abolished in 1865, blacks didn’t begin to get substantial legal protections for their civil rights until the 1960s.
The other place that relied on war to achieve emancipation was Haiti, and the results were even more dismal. French slaveholders had been brutal, but the understandably outraged slaves, who began revolting in 1790, proved to be just as brutal. The inability of slaveholders and slaves to do anything but fight each other, compounded by invasions of French, British and Spanish forces, convinced everybody that if they didn’t kill, they would be killed. The greatest champions of Haitian independence, like Toussaint Louverture, were brutal military dictators. After Toussaint was captured by Napoleon, Jean-Jacques Dessalines became president-for-life -- until he was assassinated in 1806. Then there was a civil war between black generals Alexandre Péxtion and Henri Christophe. Although about 465,000 slaves were emancipated, the result of all this violence was a seemingly endless succession of bloody power struggles up to the present, rather than a free society that slaves had dreamed of when their revolt began.
Since the abolition of slavery in Haiti, the people there have had to endure some 200 revolutions, coups and civil wars. Endemic violence obliterated historical information about Haiti when, for instance, fighting destroyed government offices in 1869, 1879, 1883, 1888 and 1912. The National Palace was blown up several times. Plagued with dictators to the present day, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest nations on earth.
I embrace the moral sentiment expressed by William Lloyd Garrison's credo, "Immediate emancipation without compensation for slaveholders," but in fact there never was any such thing as immediate emancipation. Slaveholders everywhere resisted emancipation. When force was used in an effort to emancipate slaves, the result was fighting if not full-scale war, the destruction was worse than anticipated, and there were terrible consequences to deal with afterwards.
How else could slavery have been abolished in the United States without the Civil War?
Well, in 1838 Great Britain achieved the most peaceful emancipation in the Western Hemisphere. There were some 800,000 slaves in its Caribbean colonies, the largest of which was Jamaica. The first organized anti-slavery campaign originated in Great Britain during the late 18th century when that maritime nation dominated the slave trade. Great abolitionists like Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Thomas Buxton overcame the opposition of powerful interest groups, demonstrated the moral evil of slavery and gained the moral high ground. Their patient, persistent campaigning achieved perhaps the most dramatic turn-around in public opinion, securing passage of an 1808 law to abolish the British slave trade, the support of the Royal Navy that launched a remarkable 60-year campaign to help suppress it, the support of British diplomats to negotiate anti-slavery treaties with other nations, and an 1833 law to phase out slavery in Great Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Within a few decades, the British people who had been complaisant or supportive of slavery became the most implacable foes of slavery.
British abolitionists recognized that after emancipation, most former slaveholders and former slaves were going to end up in the same society together. Former slaveholders had more power, and there wasn’t anybody to protect the former slaves, so it made sense to undermine incentives of the former slaveholders to avenge their losses. Accordingly, Parliament appropriated 20 million pounds to compensate former slaveholders for their slaves. From a moral standpoint, of course, the former slaves, not the former slaveholders, deserved compensation, but this way there was more likely to be peace, and the former slaves would be safer, and that’s how it worked out.
After emancipation, many blacks preferred to farm for themselves on a small scale where they were likely to benefit from their labor, rather than remain on plantations where they had been abused. There was considerable social progress. More former slaves got married, and husbands and wives lived together. Schools were established for former slaves and their children, and the former slaves formed self-help societies.
Plantation owners had to adapt in a free labor market. Some shut down, while others turned to labor-saving technologies that should have been introduced long ago. In Jamaica, for instance, planters began using animal-drawn plows and harrows adapted for their particular soil conditions. In British Guiana, planters built elevators to bring cut sugar cane to mill houses. Planters there equipped sugar mills with steam engines. Keep in mind that steam engines had propelled the Industrial Revolution during the previous century.
In Brazil, the largest market for slaves – about 40 percent of African slaves were shipped there -- abolitionists raised funds to buy their freedom. Slaveholders resisted, but here and there slaveholders found it in their interest to cash out, and gradually slaveholding areas began to shrink. There was competition among towns, districts and provinces to become slave-free. As liberated areas expanded and became closer to more slaves, the number of runaways accelerated, relentlessly eroding the slave system. Brazilian authorities, like the British, appropriated funds to compensate slaveholders who liberated their slaves. Again, this wasn't because the slaveholders deserved compensation. If anybody deserved compensation, it was the people who had been brutally enslaved and forced to work for nothing. But compensation undermined the incentives of former slaveholders to oppress former slaves, and the former slaves were safer. So slavery was gradually eroded through persistent anti-slavery action involving multiple strategies. In 1888, Brazil became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, when there were some 1.5 million slaves remaining.
Some people have objected that the United States couldn’t have bought the freedom of slaves, because this would have cost too much. Buying the freedom of slaves more expensive than war? Nothing is more costly than war! The costs include people killed or disabled, destroyed property, high taxes, inflation, military expenditures, shortages, famines, diseases and long-term consequences that often include more wars!
Just consider some major costs of the U.S. Civil War. Altogether, an estimated 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died. Including the number of civilians killed – almost all of whom were Southerners – the total could exceed the 700,000 American deaths in all the other wars the United States has been involved with. In many communities, entire adult populations were wiped out. This was because of the practice of encouraging all the young men in a town to join the same fighting unit.
The financial cost of the Civil War was overwhelming. The North raised some $3 billion in taxes and loans. The Confederacy borrowed more than $2 billion. Both North and South printed plenty of paper money. People in the North endured the inflation of Greenbacks. In the South, there was a runaway inflation. An estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion of property in the South was destroyed.
That kind of money could have bought the freedom of a lot of slaves and significantly undermined the slave system in the South!
Most of the Civil War had been fought in the South, especially Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Atlanta, Columbia, Richmond and other cities were substantially destroyed. Areas of the South that hadn’t been occupied by Union troops were flooded with some 200,000 refugees.
Union Major General Carl Schurz, traveling through the South on an 1865 fact-finding mission, reported seeing “ruin and desolation – the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly patch of cotton or corn cultivated by Negro squatters.”
Worst off were prisoners of war. Andersonville (Georgia) was among the largest Civil War prison camps, established in 1864 by the Confederacy. It held some 45,000 prisoners, of whom about 13,000 died from unsanitary conditions, malnutrition and disease. Altogether, a reported 215,000 Confederate soldiers died in Union prisons, and 195,000 Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons.
I might add that emancipation probably could have been achieved without having to buy the freedom of all American slaves. Buying the freedom of slaves was one among several strategies for reducing the number of slaves and the area of slaveholder influence. Presumably the initial focus would have been on undermining slavery in border states, then gradually moving further south. As some point, the combined impact of many emancipation strategies would surely have led to the collapse of Southern slavery, as happened elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.
Okay, how long might it have taken for blacks to gain equal rights without going through a civil war?
Well, starting in the early 19th century, one Western nation after another that had tolerated the slave trade passed laws banning their citizens from participating in it. These nations included Denmark (1792), Great Britain (1807), the United States (1808), Mexico (1810), Venezuela (1810), Chile (1811), Argentina (1813), Sweden (1813), the Netherlands (1814), France (1818), Brazil (1851) and Cuba (1867). While banning the slave trade wasn’t the same thing as stopping it, clearly time was running out for the slave trade. Throughout this period, Great Britain’s Royal Navy persisted with its long-term campaign to disrupt the slave trade, and while it didn’t intercept more than a small percentage of slave ships, it definitely increased the risks and costs of the slave trade, and created uncertainties for slaveholders who depended on fresh shipments of slaves. Meanwhile, nations that got on board to ban slavery itself in their territories included Argentina (1813), Colombia (1814), Chile (1823), Mexico (1829), Bolivia (1831), Great Britain (1838), Sweden (1847), Denmark (1848), France (1848), Ecuador (1851), Peru (1854) and Venezuela (1854).
By 1860, the number of Western slave societies had fallen dramatically. There were only three places of consequence in the Western Hemisphere that still tolerated slavery: the United States, Cuba and Brazil. Many Southerners comforted themselves by citing Biblical passages defending slavery, but they knew that increasing numbers of people viewed them as backward and barbaric because of their slavery. Cuba outlawed slavery in 1886, Brazil two years later, as mentioned above.
While it’s true the defeat of the South helped convince Cuban and Brazilian slaveholders that the end was in sight, a number of other factors were working against slavery in Cuba and Brazil. As more places were knocked out of the slave trade, the Royal Navy was able to concentrate its resources on Cuba and Brazil. In Cuba, the Ten Years War (1868-1878) undermined slavery because both sides became so desperate that they promised emancipation to slaves who joined their side, which significantly reduced the number of slaves there. I’ve already noted the multiple strategies at work in Brazil – raising private funds to buy the freedom of slaves, competition among towns, districts and provinces to become slave-free, the escalation of runaways and government compensation for slaveholders, undermining their resistance to emancipation.
Without the Civil War, the abolition of American slavery surely would have come later than it did, perhaps a couple decades later. The United States might have been the last hold-out. There would have been mounting pressure on the South.
As in other cases, perhaps the most important anti-slavery pressure might have come from home rather than abroad. The Northern economy was growing rapidly because of expanding population, advancing technologies and industrialization. The increasing numbers of immigrants who came to the United States didn’t want to compete with slave labor, so they settled in the North. The majority of inventions that revolutionized American life were developed in the North. The principal centers of American finance, manufacturing and commerce were in the North. With each passing decade, the North became more prosperous than the South, and this must be counted among the significant, long-term factors working against Southern slavery. In our own time, the collapse of Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the dynamic influence of tiny Hong Kong on Communist China, have reminded us how subversive it is to have a prosperous free society bordering a totalitarian society.
I believe the experience of emancipation elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere suggests that without the U.S. Civil War, emancipation might have come a couple decades later than it did, but without the bigger backlash caused by the war, blacks would have gained their civil rights decades earlier than they did, long before 1960.
What we can say with a great deal of confidence is that the use of force and violence tends to backfire, and this happened with the U.S. Civil War. Many of those who supported the Civil War thought it might be a short cut for blacks to gain their civil rights, but the Civil War turned out to be the long way around.
As I hope I’ve shown, the alternative to the Civil War wasn’t to do nothing and wait for Southern slaveholders to decide when, if ever, they might emancipate their slaves. The alternative was to recognize that slavery was a gigantic beast, and no single strategy was likely to bring it down, so multiple strategies, including buying off slaveholders, had to be pursued – patiently, persistently, relentlessly, as Great Britain’s Royal Navy went after slave traders for six decades.