All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 2001

When in the Course of Human Events: The Case for Southern Secession by Charles Adams

A Multifaceted Critique of the Most Central Event in American History

Rowman & Littlefield · 2000 · 272 pages · $24.95

Reviewed by Joseph R. Stromberg

Some reviewers have had a hard time with the present book. They imagine that there is a single historical thesis therein, one subject to definitive proof or refutation. In this, I believe they are mistaken. Instead, what we have here is a multifaceted critique of what must be the most central event in American history.

This is not Mr. Adams’s first book. His For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization (1999) lives up to its title and underscores the importance of a matter frequently ignored by conventional historians. Taxation and other fiscal matters certainly play a major role in Adams’s reconstruction of the War for Southern Independence.

Those who long for the simple morality play in which Father Abraham saved the Union (always capitalized) and emancipated slaves out of his vision and kindness have complained that Adams has ignored slavery as a cause of the war. That is incorrect. Slavery and the racial issue connected with it are present; they do not, however, have the causal stage all to themselves.

In chapter one, Adams sets the American war over secession in a global context by instancing other conflicts of similar type. He plants here the first seeds of doubt that political separation is inherently immoral. Chapter two deals with Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s successful gamble to have the Confederacy “start” the war. Here one learns that the Fort was primarily a customs house—a nice bit of symbolism, especially since the South paid roughly four times as much in tariffs as the North did.

Given that, Lincoln was very concerned about his tariff revenues in the absence of the Southern states. After Fort Sumter, the (Northern) President unconstitutionally established a blockade of Southern ports on his own motion. Soon, Lincoln had robbed Maryland of self-government and was making other inroads on civil liberty—his idea of preserving the Constitution via his self-invented presidential “war powers” (of which there is not a word in the actual document).

In chapter four, Adams unfolds his revenue-based theory of the war. The shift from a pro-peace to a pro-war position by the New York press and key business interests coincided exactly with their realization that the Confederacy’s low tariffs would draw trade away from the North, especially in view of the far higher Northern tariff just instituted. There is an important point here. It did not automatically follow that secession as such had to mean war. But peace foretold the end of continental mercantilism, tariffs, internal improvements, and railroad subsidies—a program that meant more than life to a powerful Northern political coalition. That coalition, of which Lincoln was the head, wanted war for a complex of material, political, and ideological reasons.

Adams also looks at what might well be called Northern war crimes. Here he can cite any number of pro-Lincoln historians, who file such things under grim necessity. Along the way, the author has time to make justified fun of Lincoln’s official theory that he was dealing with a mere “rebellion” rather than with the decision of political majorities in eleven states.

Other chapters treat the so-called Copperheads, the “treason trial” of Jefferson Davis (which never took place, quite possibly because the unionist case could not have survived a fair trial), a comparative view of emancipation, and the problems of Reconstruction. The author’s deconstruction of the Gettysburg Address will shock Lincoln idolaters. Adams underlines the gloomy pseudo-religious fatalism with which Lincoln salved his conscience in his later speeches. This supports M. E. Bradford’s division of Lincoln’s career into Whig, “artificial Puritan,” and practical “Cromwellian” phases—the last item pertaining to total war.

To address seriously the issues presented by Adams requires a serious imaginative effort, especially for those who never before heard such claims about the Constitution, about the war, or about Lincoln. Ernest Renan wrote that for Frenchmen to constitute a nation, they must remember certain things and were “obliged already to have forgotten” certain others. Adams focuses on those things that Northerners, at least, have long since forgotten.

What Adams’s book—with or without a single, central thesis—does, is to reveal that in 1860 and early 1861 many Americans, north and south, doubted the existence of any federal power to coerce a state and considered peaceful separation a real possibility. In the late 1780s The Federalist Papers, for example, laughed down the notion that the federal government could coerce states in their corporate, political capacity. For much of the nineteenth century Americans saw the union as a practical arrangement instrumental to other values. That vision vanished in the killing and destruction of Mr. Lincoln’s war. Americans paid a rather high price for making a means into an end.

  • 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.