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Book Review: When in the Course of Human Events

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When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession
by Charles Adams (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); 255 pages; $24.95.

IN HER 1924 BOOK Free Trade and Peace in the Nineteenth Century, Helen Bosanquet pointed out,

The conflict between Free Trade and Protection was one of the chief causes of the great [American] Civil War…. Interests and passions and prejudices were all largely engaged in the war between North and South, and among the interests those of Free Traders and Protectionists were perhaps the most influential next to that of slavery itself…. The Southerners saw the sources of their prosperity attacked by the policy of Protection even before the North had advanced its anti-slavery policy to the point of abolition.

She also pointed out that “on the question of Free Trade the sympathies of Europe, and more especially of England, were with the South, so much so as to neutralize to a large extent the national abhorrence of slavery. ”

That the primary factor in bringing about the American Civil War was the long-running debate and dispute over free trade and protectionism between the South and the North is the essential theme that Charles Adams develops in his new book, When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession.

Central to his argument is the idea that the Southern states had the right to secede, if sufficient provocation warranted dissolution of the Union. Adams insists that the very rationale for the American War of Independence against British rule in the 18th century had been the right of people to separate themselves from one political authority and form a new government and political entity. If this was true in 1776, how could it be any less true in 1861? Indeed, many of the flash points of international affairs today — Russia’s insistence on retaining political control over Chechnya or communist China’s demand that Taiwan accept political control by Beijing, or the Israelis resisting full political independence for a Palestinian state — are all examples of a political authority trying to prevent or suppress secessionist movements by people who do not want to accept or remain under a government’s political authority.

Why secession?

The right of secession has long had the moral sympathy of the American people and sometimes the support of the U.S. government. In the 19th century, Greeks and Poles visiting the United States for the purpose of gaining financial and political support for their independence movements received a warm welcome from most Americans, who saw these people merely desiring the same right of secession from a larger nation that Americans had claimed for themselves against Great Britain. And one of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the end of the First World War was the right of various national and ethnic groups in Central and Eastern Europe to self-determination from German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian rule.

Why then did Abraham Lincoln and the Northern states so vehemently oppose the right of the Southern states to leave the Union? The answer, Adams insists, can be found in the long-standing debate in the United States over free trade versus protectionism.

In a nutshell, the Northern states were developing industrial centers heavily dependent upon high tariffs to protect themselves from lower-cost European manufactured goods, especially goods sold by England. A high tariff on imported goods provided two benefits: first, for the Northern manufacturers it provided captive Southern consumers who were unable to purchase more-cheaply priced foreign goods; and, second, for the federal government it supplied a generous source of tax revenue to meet the financial demands of government spending.

The Southern states, on the other hand, wanted free trade so that they could purchase less-expensive European goods with the income they earned from selling raw materials, especially cotton and tobacco, to the European market.

An independent Confederate States of America, therefore, meant a threat to the economic viability of the Northern higher-cost producers, who would now have to price-compete for Southern consumers against their European rivals. And the costs of the federal government would now fall entirely on the shoulders of the taxpayers of the Northern states. These consequences, Adams argues, were considered intolerable in the North. Hence, the decision was made by President Lincoln to not relinquish Fort Sumter at the mouth of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

Furthermore, the initiation of hostilities against the Southern states, Adams explains, was undertaken by Lincoln in clear violation of the procedures outlined in the Constitution. And once war was under way, Lincoln continued to violate the Constitution and to infringe on freedoms of the American people.

Lincoln’s usurpation of congressional authority

For example, Lincoln only called Congress into session three months after hostilities broke out in April of 1861, in the meantime implementing various executive decisions that clearly involved a usurpation of congressional authority. He ordered up the militias of the states in the Union to suppress the Southern states; instituted a naval blockade of the Southern ports (which threatened incidents or conflicts with foreign powers whose ships might attempt entry into Southern waters); initiated government spending without congressional approval; suspended habeas corpus; and began closing newspapers in Union states that directly criticized his policies. Lincoln, Adams declares, “pushed the Constitution aside, ignored its checks and balances, and assumed the role and power of a Roman consul, a dictator in fact, for the duration of his life. ”

The most dramatic constitutional confrontation, Adams reminds the reader, occurred in 1861 when John Merryman was arrested and imprisoned by federal troops in Maryland. Merryman petitioned the chief justice of the United States, Roger Taney, for a writ of habeas corpus, who ordered that the commanding officer responsible for the arrest and Merryman appear in court. When neither did, Taney wrote a famous opinion accusing Lincoln of a grievous violation of the Constitution for unlawfully suspending the writ of habeas corpus and sent a copy of the opinion to the White House. Lincoln’s response was to order Taney’s arrest, which fortunately was never effected.

Wars are cruel and wild practices by human beings which always lead to death and destruction. But as the most lethal and destructive conflict among any of the “civilized nations ” in the 19th century, the Civil War was unique. Anti-Southern fanaticism reached such a peak in the North that calls were made for the mass murder of every white man, woman, and child in any of the Confederate states as well as the wholesale destruction of all means of livelihood for Southern whites.

And in fact the degree of violence against the civilian population of the Confederacy by the Union Army leads Adams to conclude that the orders of the Northern generals “made their behavior criminal by the laws of nations…. In fact, it will be hard to not call what he [Lincoln] did a crime against the laws of war and nations, making Lincoln, as painful as it may be, a war criminal. ”

It would create a completely wrong impression of Adams’s argument throughout the book if it were not strongly and forcefully pointed out that he has no sympathy with slavery in the South and no desire to make an apology for it. If anything, his political views are clearly just the opposite; he is a thorough defender of individual liberty. What he does is demonstrate that the issue of slavery was not the “cause ” of the American Civil War, and that in fact, Lincoln and the citizens of the Northern states were quite willing to accept and support this “peculiar institution ” in the South.

What drove America into this terrible tragedy, which continues to leave its mark in the country, were the issues of free trade versus protectionism and the right of secession and self-determination. These are issues that continue to plague the modern world and continue to bring war and violence in their wake.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).