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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Civil War and the Statist Mentality

On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began with the Confederate bombardment of the U.S. military’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Nearly four bloody years later to the day, the war ended with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. This issue of The Freeman is largely devoted to analyzing the reasons for and consequences of the conflict that took 620,000 lives and inflicted more than one million casualties in all.

The war damaged the country forever, as I suggested in Tethered Citizens (Future of Freedom Foundation, 2001). Here’s an excerpt:

“While early America always had its advocates of activist government, that view becomes more prominent after the Civil War. . . .

“The Civil War itself and its militaristic effect on American society had important consequences for the nationalist collectivization of America that occurred in the following decades: It encouraged collectivist intellectuals to vigorously promote their reform visions, and it won thinkers to a collectivist cause. It even convinced some individualists that the world had changed, making their worldview outdated.

“The war’s military collectivization of society profoundly impressed some Northern intellectuals, giving them visions of a new world. The war effort devalued the individualism that had characterized the earlier Jeffersonian America. Service to the Union became the reigning ideal. Order, explicit planning, and regimentation rose in value. Independent thought seemed more a liability than an asset.

“The war, wrote the historian Allan Nevins, ‘transformed an inchoate nation, individualistic in temper and wedded to improvisation, into a shaped and disciplined nation, increasingly aware of the importance of plan and control.’

“A symbol of that change in mindset is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist author of Self-Reliance, who before the war represented a distinctively American cantankerous individualism opposed to institutions and their impositions on the person. When the war came along, Emerson expressed approval that it imposed obligations on everyone. He hoped no one would be exempt from ‘the public duty.’ In a 180-degree turn, he assigned government and civilization priority over ‘the private man.’ In ‘American Civilization,’ written in 1862, he was willing to grant government ‘the absolute power of a dictator’ in a crisis. ‘Emerson’s characteristic emphasis on individualism and anarchism disappeared.’ [George M. Frederickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union.]

“In Emerson’s words, ‘War organizes [and] forces individuals and states to combine and act with larger views.’ Self-reliance was now replaced by service and obedience, particularly in the military. His new views influenced his outlook on culture, as evidenced by his support for a State-created National Academy of Literature and Art. A new era required new thinking.

“After the war, intellectuals were more interested in a strong central government and nationalism. Jeffersonian decentralization and individual liberty were seen as a part of the old ways, made obsolete in the new postwar America. The Declaration of Independence became old-fashioned. . . .

“Unlike poetry before the war, poetry now rhapsodized on the glory of the nation. Herman Melville wrote about empire, not freedom. The crushing of the Southern secession demonstrated the need for strong government and citizen compliance with the State. . . .

“The collectivist intellectuals believed that the Civil War held important lessons for the new America. It wasn’t war itself that they valued, but the things that war brought. John W. Draper, for example, wrote that war taught subordination and stimulated an appreciation of order. Men, said Draper, ‘love to obey’ those they believe are their intellectual superiors. ‘In military life they learn to practice that obedience openly,’ he said, adding that individualism was to blame for the war.

“What intellectuals such as Francis A. Walker, Charles Francis Adams Jr., and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wished for was, in [George] Frederickson’s words, a ‘continuance . . . of the crisis mentality of war.’ That mentality would maintain the sense of duty to society that was palpable during the war. While those men wanted conservative objectives served, others, such as John Wesley Powell, had ‘humanitarian ends’ in mind.

“The problem for these thinkers was that peacetime did not inspire service and sacrifice. People became centered on their own lives, their families, and immediate communities. But war was a call to duty and the ‘strenuous life.’ If only a substitute for war could be found, a call to duty that did not involve bloodshed. ‘There is one thing I do not doubt,’ said Holmes, ‘and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.’”

* * *

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel begins this special issue with an overview, describing why the war is aptly thought of as a turning point for America.

Following is Burton W. Folsom, Jr.’s assessment of the economic costs of the war.

Next, Bradley Birzer documents another sort of cost: the sacrifice of republican principles through the Reconstruction.

Joseph Stromberg then examines the political economy that arose during and emerged from the Civil War, with particular attention to the ensuing Gilded Age.

Finally, Hummel returns to look at the issue of slavery in order to sort out the reasons for secession and war.

Warren Gibson concludes his two-part series on gold and money.

Our columnists have also been hard at work. Lawrence Reed warns that rising gasoline prices can be counted on to bring out the political opportunists. Stephen Davies explains how maps serve the interests of power. John Stossel reports on another assault by the prohibitionists. David Henderson reminds us that war is a government program. And Fred Foldvary, confronting a claim that central banking is superior to free banking, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books on domestic surveillance, the financial crisis, Marxism, and private roads occupy our reviewers.

—Sheldon Richman
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  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.