All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1996

Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War

An Accessible History and Thoughtful Interpretation

Mr. Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and columnist for The Freeman. He is the author of several books, most recently, Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

Is there anything new that could conceivably be written about the Civil War? No other conflict so enthralls U.S. amateur historians. There are no World War I re-enactors. The Spanish-American War inspires no nostalgia for the lost cause. No other episode of American history can match the bibliographic output of that one four-year period more than a century ago.

But Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has produced a volume that offers both an accessible history of the war, along with its causes and aftermath, and a thoughtful interpretation that breaks with the usual idolatry of Lincoln and the unified nation state. The book should be read not only by Civil War buffs, but by everyone who has been force-fed the victor’s tainted history of a conflict that killed 620,000 people, devastated a large section of the nation, and began the long process of centralization of power in Washington.

Hummel begins his book where the story of the Civil War properly begins—slavery. The hundreds of thousands of blacks kidnapped in Africa and enslaved in the new world were, of course, the glaring exceptions to the founding of a nation of free men. Many Americans understood the contradiction. Explains Hummel, the Revolution’s liberating spirit induced many white Americans to challenge slavery. But while emancipation spread across the North, it halted in the South.

Because large slaveowners, who dominated the South politically, would bear the greatest cost of emancipation, observes Hummel, the slavocracy was willing to invest considerable political resources and eventually fight tooth and nail to preserve a system that in the long run benefited very few Americans. Other issues, particularly the tariff, were acrimonious, but only slavery was a union-breaker.

Hummel tells the standard story of the war though with less attention to the battles and a greater focus on economics than is customary. What really sets Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men apart is not new facts, but invaluable insights usually absent from more mainstream accounts. One is the significance of the South’s two waves of secession. The deep seven went out over their fear—exaggerated, but real—about the future of slavery. The outer four, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, left only after Lincoln called out the troops to coerce the others into submission. Writes Hummel, Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states were now ready to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union. Their willingness to do so adds moral complexity to what is normally presented as a simple crusade against slavery.

Even more important, Hummel asks whether the war was necessary. Hummel rises above the usual Lincoln hagiography to contest the sixteenth president’s claim that the break-up of the union would have been disastrous. Thus, argues Hummel, As an excuse for civil war, maintaining the State’s territorial integrity is bankrupt and reprehensible. Only the abolition of slavery could conceivably provide such a justification—had that been the purpose, as opposed to the outgrowth, of the war, and had war been the only way to end slavery. Here Hummel is at his informative best. Of more than a score of slave societies, only America and Haiti used violence to uproot the peculiar institution. Although he does not believe that economics necessarily ensured slavery’s extinction, he persuasively argues that slavery was doomed politically even if Lincoln had permitted the small Gulf Coast Confederacy to depart in peace.

Finally, Hummel emphasizes the centralization of power that occurred during the Civil War. One aspect was the odious abuse of civil liberties and democratic processes in the North, usually dismissed by Lincoln idolators with what Hummel refers to as the not as bad as Hitler-Stalin-Mao excuse. Beyond that, however, he contends that America’s decisive transition toward government intervention over the free market and personal liberty at every level and in every sphere started during the Civil War. As Hummel puts it: In contrast to the whittling away of government that had preceded Fort Sumter, the United States had commenced its halting but inexorable march toward the welfare-warfare State of today.

Believers in freedom have long felt disenfranchised by the typical Civil War history. On the one side are the Lincoln idolators and triumphant nationalists, who view 620,000 dead as a small price to pay for an indissoluble union. On the other side are the southern traditionalists, who consider slavery to be but a minor blot on Idyllic Antebellum society. With Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel fills the yawning philosophical gap in between.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
  • Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is Professor in the Economics Department at San Jose State University and has taught both history and economics.