All Commentary
Monday, May 16, 2011

Civil War and the American Political Economy: Response to a Critic

Ideology and interests.

In “Springtime for Jeff Davis and the Confed’racy,” a piece published on his personal blog, April 19, Mr. Timothy Sandefur, a lawyer, author, etc., who likes to mock only southern pronunciation, takes umbrage at my “Civil War and the American Political Economy” (The Freeman, April 2011). Airing definite opinions on secession and the war of 1861-1865, he has unkind words for paleoconservatives generally and the Mises Institute in particular — a place where I certainly do not work.

He writes: “For Joseph Stromberg, antislavery was only ‘the stalking horse for more practical causes.’”  (The “only” is his.)  To claim that people waving moral flags might have hidden motives, he writes, borders on “conspiracy theory.”  Perhaps so, but my point was that when there are important material interests at work, they necessarily enter into an historical explanation.  And some outwardly stainless ideological figures might well have purposes beyond (or alongside) their ideology that warrant historical investigation.

Sandefur proceeds to discuss the causes of a war.  That was not my subject. (Like Lincoln, I was content merely to say, “War came.”) I don’t know whose essay Sandefur read.  Yet he can write: “[F]or Stromberg, antislavery, which wrecked the chances of compromise, was really the work of northern agitators — where have we heard this before? [Not from me; I never discussed compromises] – because capitalists wanted rid of slavery so they could get subsidies and tariffs….” (He then quotes from my third paragraph, the closest he comes to discussing the essay I wrote).  My point was that some Northern capitalists seem to have used antislavery as leverage against southern congressional opponents of subsidies these capitalists wanted (citing Thomas Ferguson).

Sandefur counters that many northern capitalists “appeased” the South, thereby blocking fulfillment of some “Miracle at Philadelphia.” He continues: “But we are to just ignore the massive moneyed interests that supported and perpetuated slavery; no, it was greedy corporate welfareists who made compromise impossible and are thus at fault for the war.”

Colossal Background Fact

For my part, I stated at the outset that:

“Slavery itself was a colossal background fact… the biggest single capital investment in the United States — an enormous material interest uniting millions of people (not just in the South) through ties of interest, commerce, and sentiment.  This interest stood athwart the political-economic ambitions of powerful interests in the northeast.”

Perhaps I am a Beardian; perhaps I am wrong, but I did not ignore slavery as a vast economic interest.  Sandefur is once again debating Civil War causation with unknown opponents.

Sandefur concedes that the Republican Party was not especially libertarian, but counters that “southern Democrats often opposed central banks and subsidized industry” but “only out of an opposition to the libertarian tint of the industrial revolution (his italics). The Industrial Revolution may be many things, but “libertarian” does not spring first to mind.  (The banking system, land monopoly, tariffs, and patents gave early illiberal impetus to American industrialization.) Sandefur adds that South Carolina Governor James Hammond’s “defense of slavery was rooted in a fundamental hostility to industrial capitalism: wage workers were, he said, worse off with freedom than slaves were without it” (his italics). One supposes, therefore, that no historically specific critique of wage labor (and its conditions) could ever be sound. (This exclusion simplifies historical work enormously.)

Sandefur: “Stromberg tells us that Yankee businessmen were determined to preserve the union for economic gain … and that this ‘calculation’ was ‘made easier’ after they examined the different tariffs offered by the U.S. and C.S.A. governments. He offers no evidence for this; gives us no reason to believe that tariffs were more important to the northern war effort than were antislavery, defense of the union, patriotism,” etc., etc.

Decisive Tariff

“Calculation made easier” summarizes a major finding of historian Philip S. Foner (The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict [1941]), namely, that tariff schedules were decisive for some influential businessmen – and therefore for key newspaper editors who began calling for war.  (Charles Adams, whom I quoted in the offending sentence, relies on Foner’s work.)  Similarly, Richard Cobden, writing to W. Hargreaves on June 22, 1861, asked, “Has he [Tocqueville, Democracy in America] not accurately anticipated both the fact and the motive of the present attitude of the State of New York?  Is it not commercial gain and mercantile ascendancy which prompt their warlike zeal for the Federal Government?” (John Morley, Life of Richard Cobden [1905], 850.)  (And, yes, Cobden soon became pro-Union on other grounds.)

Sandefur expands on Confederate war measures, etc. — all very interesting, no doubt, but my subject was northern actors precisely because the winners’ economic arrangements endured and expanded.  Wearing his morality on his sleeve, Sandefur shortly says, “This is not to defend the draft, which I consider profoundly immoral.”  Here is a nice libertarian touch to offset the free pass for war that he issues elsewhere.

Sandefur: “From his distorted mass of secondary source quotations, Stromberg concludes that the Republican Party’s ‘definition of laissez faire … would run as follows: open-ended, active federal assistance for connected businesses through tax money, favorable statutes and legal rulings, and other institutional favors, with no corresponding obligation of these businesses toward society or even the State itself. So assisted, businessmen would make big bucks and accumulate capital, thereby greasing the wheels of progress and development.’ (Interesting, that last bit. Does Stromberg think industry does owe an ‘obligation’ toward ‘society or even the State itself’?)”

Red Herrings

Sandefur is running a serious surplus on red herrings.  Short magazine articles do not usually rest on primary sources.  As to his ideological test oath: yes, I do think railroads ought to have conformed to legal conditions attached to subsidies they received from the awful “State” (an institution Sandefur would hardly ever use except for war).  An obligation to society is even plainer: Businesses really shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal, or create externalities.

Further: “Does [Stromberg] oppose ‘favorable statutes and legal rulings,’ by which, the context makes clear, Stromberg means lawful enforcement of contract and property rights?”  Well, contractual relations and property rights are often the very things in dispute. Since legislatures and courts can change both rules and outcomes, actual results may be unfair and exploitative generally but good for those favored.  (Justice Field, who seldom met a land monopolist he didn’t like, seems a case in point.)  So, no, the context does not require Sandefur’s point.

In quasi-religious tone, Sandefur asks: “Is Stromberg a believer in free markets in the first place?” (Emphasis supplied.) In his sense, quite possibly no. And where “first places” are concerned, Sandefur’s own notions of a free market might not pass muster, either.

Diverse Coalition

Sandefur agrees that the Republican Party “was a coalition of groups, from radical abolitionists to racists, who for whatever reason advocated the restriction and ultimate extinction of slavery — which is only the precondition of laissez-faire capitalism.” I merely add that coalitions are commonly rife with economic ends. Certainly there were some honest ideologues and religious zealots who spent the war years bemoaning their relative lack of influence except as useful propagandists.

As for the Gilded Age, etc., Sandefur writes: “Stromberg is anxious to make the case that the union’s victory somehow caused the welfare state and 19th century corporatism.”  Not really. Actually, I believe the war and the victory caused or aggravated a good many nineteenth-century problems, which did not however include the welfare state or corporatism.  (There were still some forks in the road.)  So, no, Lincoln did not “cause” FDR – or Bush II for that matter.

Still, Sandefur allows a “minute element of truth” in this interpretation that is not mine and arrives at an irrelevant comparison: “One might just as well argue that Allied victory in World War II is morally tainted by the subsequent erection of LBJ’s ‘Great Society.’” No again: The tainting involves saturation bombing, atomic bombing, etc., during that war.  LBJ need not appear. But I move along, for Sandefur seems very protective of the warfare state.

After an Olmstead-like tour of the evils of the postwar South (the Klan, etc.), Sandefur finds that “southerners were every bit as effective at grabbing hold of the new order for their own.”  But that’s just it: Grasping ex-planters and rising Snopeses operated in an overall “new order” whose defects were the point of my essay.  Sandefur adds, “The north may have had the Sugar Trust and imperialism in Central America, but the south had peonage, sharecropping, the Colfax Massacre, and Jim Crow” – no doubt, and all these things hardly bothered the new northern owners and creditors.

No Smear

And now we have Sandefur’s final grapes of wrath: “The tactic of smearing the north with whatever bad things came with war or after it, is worse than mere post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”  A realistic account of what northern movers and shakers actually did hardly constitutes a “smear” of anyone.  Nor does the fog of war explain very much away.

Sandefur: “Leaving out any reference to the slave power’s perfidy serves the intentional design to distort and mischaracterize the war as if it was an act of aggression by the north against a freedom-loving south, when in reality, the south was the closest thing to a totalitarian dictatorship America has ever seen, and its eradication was worth the enormous, tragic costs it brought” (emphasis supplied).

I was writing about the political economy created by those who happened to be on the side whose arrangements prevailed. That was enough “perfidy” for one essay.  I was (again) not arguing war causation.  As to my awful “intentional design,” psychologist Nathaniel Branden has complained about “psychologism,” i.e., lecturing people on what their real motives supposedly are. Here indeed is a theory of conspiracy — okay at law, apparently, but wicked when detected in historical work disliked by Sandefur.  There is still nothing touching the essay I wrote.

It has been a merry chase over bellicose hill and causal dale.  Sandefur objects to my account of the northern political economy that came – not accidentally – with the actual war of 1861-1865.  He prefers to discuss the forces and relations of free-standing ideas.  But, alas in the history that actually America had, interests triumphed and honest fanaticism was gone with the wind.  I, on the other hand, really did want to say something about the political-economic triumph of just those interests in a certain period of time.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and has held the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A columnist for, his research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the "War on Terrorism". He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University, and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida.