To be honest I hadn’t intended to write this article. Heaven knows a veritable library of books has been written on the subject. I have of late, however, found myself involved in a few conversations, most of them with self-proclaimed conservatives, about whether or not there truly is a conservative case to be made for the Confederacy. And unlike my Lincoln-loving Republican friends, I absolutely believe there is indeed a conservative case to be made for the good ol’ C.S. of A. Consider the following:
Slavery vs. States’ Rights
First, the obvious elephant in the room. Liberals and Lincoln-lovers love to point out that the South fought for slavery and not states’ rights, whilst many Confederate partisans will insist that the South fought solely for states’ rights and not for slavery. In these claims both sides miss the mark. The fact is that given the political and legal context of the time, “states’ rights” and slavery were effectively the same issue. Slavery is undoubtedly a great evil, but as conservatives in this case our main concern can not be morality, rather it should be legality.
If it was indeed fighting solely to “preserve slavery” (which, admittedly, numerous secession documents suggest) the CSA was also literally fighting to preserve its legal and social status quo, hardly a revolutionary endeavor. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that at the time slavery was legal and black slaves were property. That is all that is relevant. And to any conservative who recoiled in horror after reading that sentence, consider for a moment abortion. The state-sanctioned slaughter of millions of unborn children (or in Kermit Gosnell‘s case, born) is without question also a great evil, arguably more so than slavery. Yet would we, as conservatives, sanction a Federal war to eradicate it? Would we support the utter devastation of the homes and states of the folks who are in favour of abortion? Would we, as true conservatives, be okay with anti-abortion John Browns, raiding places like San Francisco or New York City, murdering innocent people merely for supporting something completely legal but with which we disagree on moral grounds? I would pray the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no.
The Moral High Ground?
The Republican party was certainly anti-Slavery, but that is by no means the same thing as being in favour of racial equality or against white supremacy. Many claim the South was fighting to preserve white supremacy, but the North was just as in favor of the notion as the most vicious of Southern slave-owners. In fact, in many an anti-slavery statement from the years preceding the War Between the States, one finds not so much a concern for the plight of blacks under slavery, but rather a horror and disgust at the resulting proximity of the races the plantation system necessitated. But why take my word on all this, when you can take old Honest Abe’s:
I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. – Lincoln, 1858
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. – Lincoln, 1858
And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. – Lincoln, 1858
There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races … A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation, but as an immediate separation is impossible, the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. – Lincoln, 1857
I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. – Lincoln, 1858
You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. – Lincoln, during a meeting with black ministers, 1862
Clearly, any attempts to depict the Confederacy and her leaders as uniquely racist are ridiculous. Then again, the Federal government never claimed it was waging a war for the freedom and dignity of African slaves. The government was crystal clear that it was waging a war against the Southern states to preserve the Union. This, of course, is the basic heart of the conflict. The Southern states wished to dissolve the Union, the Federal government and the states that supported it wished to preserve the Union. But why?
It’s The Economy, Stupid
Anti-Confederates like to insist that secession was an unwarranted, treasonous overreaction based on the perceived-threat a Lincoln presidency posed to the Southern society and its peculiar institution, a threat that wasn’t even there, they say. The importance of this line is the justification for the anti-Confederates’ dismissal of the importance of the tariff issue that was at the fore of American politics for most of 19th century up until the outbreak of war. But that threat to the Southern way of life was indeed there, and the tariff issue is crucial for illustrating that threat.
Lincoln, who had been an ardent advocate of the proto-corporatist, mercantilist American System his entire political life, was the candidate of a party founded specifically on the platform of preventing the expansion of slavery in the western territories, an expansion that was a direct threat to the expansion of the American System in those territories, and first rose to prominence as a vocal opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
On a side note, the infamous Bleeding Kansas that followed the passage of the act would likely not have occurred were it not for the abolitionist movement. Sherman held Massachusetts as equally as responsible for the war as South Carolina, and rightly so. Southerners, coming from an agriculture-based society, actually had a natural motive for westward expansion: land. Northerners, on the other hand, coming from a mainly industrialized, monied society, did not, and it was for this very reason that the abolitionists needed to pay people to move to Kansas.
The American system and its high tariffs favored by Northern Republican politicians and their monied masters, whilst great for Northern industry and the northeastern financial establishment, were economically-devastating to the import-reliant South and its people. Northern industry effectively plundered Southern natural resources to fuel the growth of a Northern economy from which the South derived little benefit. If that sounds familiar it is probably because it is exactly what many corporations based in the developed world do to underdeveloped nations today. The bottom line is that the South didn’t really need the North, but the industrial and economic boom occurring in the North would have been unthinkable without the resources provided by the South.
Inherent in the North and South’s differing economic opinions were two inherently-conflicting visions of society, and it is in this conflict that one finds perhaps the greatest argument in favour of the South from a conservative perspective. Southern society was genteel, hierarchical, agrarian, and controlled by quasi-aristocrats. That’s about as traditionalist as it gets, bar monarchy. Northern society, however, was comparatively unrefined, industrialized, mechanized, and controlled by industrialists and financiers.
Many Confederate partisans like to describe the War Between the States as the American Revolution part two, and whilst there are certainly notable parallels, it is far more valuable to understand the War Between the States as the English Civil War part two. The Parliamentarians were largely Puritan, urban, and mercantile, the Royalists more mainstream if not high church Anglican (or even Catholic), country-dwelling, and agrarian. Despite all the flowery language about Stuart tyranny, the English Civil War was in effect the monied interest asserting its dominance over the landed interest, and barely a century following the Parliamentarian victory, the English/British economy would be dominated almost entirely by merchants, stock companies, and bankers.
The War Between the States saw the exact same interests in conflict with one another. It was a war waged by the monied interest to destroy the political power of the last trace of traditional, aristocratic, agrarian society in America. The America that emerged in the following decades after the War Between the States was the America the North and Federal government fought the war to create. It was the America that destroyed the Plains Indians, that sent soldiers to murder in cold blood their women and children, that forced them onto reservations and broke treaty after treaty.
It was the America that drove western settlers off of their land and out of their homesteads to build railroads for eastern profits. It was the America that herded workers into factories, waged aggressive, imperialistic wars in foreign lands, and created the Federal Reserve. It was the America that abandoned true federalism and began the march towards statist corporatism, that changed “These United States” into “The United States”, and saw the entire country transformed into an effective plantation for the benefit of a small, financial elite.
What, exactly, is so conservative about that vision of America, and what, pray tell, is so anticonservative about the brave Southern gentlemen who made a valiant, though ultimately doomed, stand against it? As the great Nicolás Gómez Dávila observed, “revolution is progressivist and seeks the strengthening of the state; rebellion is reactionary and seeks its disappearance. The revolutionary is a potential government official; the rebel is a reactionary in action.”