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The Bloody Hinge of American History


The Civil War was the Great Event of American history. Much of what happened in the preceding centuries can be seen as part of a process that culminated in the war, and much of what has happened since can be seen as, directly or indirectly, a consequence of the war. Before the war, millions toiled in legally sanctioned lifetime slavery; afterward, the laws permitted slavery only as punishment for crime. Before the war, the country was constitutionally a federation of sovereign constituent states (these United States); afterward, it was de facto a unitary state with a dominant central government (the United States). Before the war, individual freedom had tended to expand; afterward, it tended to shrink.

No subject in American history has given rise to as much writing--thousands of books and countless articles--as the Civil War. Why do writers continue to grind out still more? Haven't previous authors viewed the great conflict from every conceivable perspective, supported judgments for and against every significant politician and general, and traced the paths of thousands of others involved in the fray? Surely, one might have thought, at this stage no one can do much more than sweep up the crumbs.

Yet, notwithstanding the enormous literature, the publication of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men is a major event in Civil War scholarship. I know of no other book like it in perspective, structure, or conclusions. It will have an invigorating and altogether healthy effect on lay and scholarly understanding of America’s pivotal cataclysm.

Hummel’s book is simultaneously elementary and advanced, thanks to its unique architecture. Each of the thirteen chapters presents a succinct, clearly written narrative of the relevant historical developments that fall under its rubric. The first five chapters cover ante-bellum developments; the next five, the war itself; and the last two, post-bellum developments. Well-chosen contemporary quotations add luster to the narrative. The sources of the quotations appear in twenty-two pages of notes at the back of the book, leaving the text itself uncluttered by scholarly apparatus or intramural quibbling.

Immediately following each chapter, as well as the prologue and the epilogue, is a bibliographical essay. Here Hummel displays not only a mastery of the vast literature but also an extraordinary analytical ability. Experts will relish these essays for their discriminating descriptions of hundreds of books and articles and even more for the light they shed on prevalent misconceptions, errors, and oversights. Together, the bibliographical essays occupy 110 pages and the narrative chapters 255 pages, but the essays, owing to their smaller print and more closely spaced lines, actually account for more of the book than the page counts suggest. Readers with limited interest can skip the scholarly essays. Those who want to look up a particular point will find the 33-page index is excellent.

Conventional Wisdom

History tends to be written by the winners, and Civil War history is no exception, but southern sympathizers have hardly been mute. During the first half of the twentieth century, historians sympathetic to the Confederate cause gained a substantial hearing, but later, especially as racial attitudes changed in the twenty years after World War II, these renditions of the story lost ground, eventually becoming so rare as to seem cranky. Among academic historians, even in the South, such views are now extremely rare.

Historical understanding varies greatly among people who know anything at all about the war. At the level of “what every schoolboy knows,” the prevailing myth is pretty simple: The southerners (the bad guys), in order to preserve slavery, attempted to secede from the United States; the northerners (the good guys, led by the saintly Abraham Lincoln), provoked by the bombardment of Fort Sumter, rose up in righteous indignation to free the slaves and, after much bloodshed, did free them; the victors then reconstructed the nation, amending the Constitution to ensure a level playing field for the blacks. (The wily southerners soon reestablished white supremacy, but that's supposed to be another story.)

Even as we transcend this vulgar understanding, we find that the question of secession continues to be viewed as locked tightly to the question of slavery. Because nobody now wishes to defend the perpetuation of slavery, a defense of southern secession labors under a heavy burden. Hummel, however, willingly takes up this burden.

Against Slavery, For Secession

At the outset, Hummel proposes that we can advance our understanding of why the war occurred by posing two questions: First, why did the southerners want to secede? Second, why didn't the northerners allow them to secede? Refusing to be tied in the usual knot, Hummel insists that “slavery and secession are separate issues” (p. 8). Like the abolitionist Lysander Spooner, whom he cites, Hummel will draw “no moral analogy between slaves violently rising up to secure their liberty and the central government violently crushing aspirations for self-determination on the part of white southerners” (p. 205). By simultaneously condemning slavery (along with all the social and political evils it fostered) and the northern resort to violence to prevent southern secession, Hummel stakes out a seldom-occupied territory among historians.

All serious historians appreciate that, whatever his personal attitudes toward slavery and blacks, President Lincoln did not resort to armed force to suppress the secession in order to destroy slavery. Indeed, during the interim between his election in 1860 and his inauguration in 1861, Lincoln supported a proposed unamendable constitutional amendment that would have prohibited interference with slavery in the states where it already existed.

Lincoln made his reasons for waging war against the Confederacy utterly clear in a letter to newspaperman Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1862:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union. (pp. 207-8)

When prosecution of the war bogged down in 1862, Lincoln formulated the Emancipation Proclamation, largely to dissuade Britain and other powers from recognizing the Confederacy and partly to encourage blacks to join the Union army. When formally promulgated on January 1, 1863, the proclamation freed not a single slave, because it applied exclusively to territory then under rebel control. Noting that the proclamation left slavery intact in all areas under U.S. control, the London Spectator observed: “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States” (p. 210).

Later, as Union troops advanced, hundreds of thousands of slaves fled to the safety of army camps, finding freedom and a rather wretched existence, because supplies were often insufficient to feed the refugees as well as the soldiers, and commanders resorted to putting the runaways to work as laborers. Even where the rebels retained control, slavery began to break down, as the presence of nearby Union troops encouraged the slaves to resist the impositions of their owners. Union victory, of course, finally did result in the complete destruction of slavery. In 1865 the victors forced the vanquished to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. (How many Americans have ever considered that vital portions of the Constitution were ratified at gunpoint?)

Slavery’s Achilles Heel

The decay of slavery within the Confederacy during the war illustrates a fact of supreme importance for Hummel’s interpretation of ante-bellum political maneuvering and his assessment of whether the war was necessary to destroy slavery. Put simply, slaves preferred freedom to slavery and, given a fair chance to escape, they would run away from their owners.

The fugitive slave issue, which Hummel characterizes as slavery’s Achilles heel, was so important to the southerners that it played a crucial part in the compromise that gave rise to the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Article IV, Section 2, states in part: “No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” This provision, to the extent that it received effective enforcement, prevented the free states from serving as havens for runaway slaves and thereby placed a mighty prop under the slave system in the South.

Congress passed legislation to enforce the Constitution]s fugitive-slave clause in 1793. Under that law, national and state courts shared jurisdiction over the recovery of runaways. The number of slaves successfully escaping to the free states, almost all from the border states, probably never exceeded a thousand per year, but Hummel argues that “without a fugitive slave law, the number would have soared“ (p. 55).

Besides enjoying the cooperation of the federal government and the free states in the apprehension and return of runaways, the slave states socialized the enforcement costs of the slave system by requiring virtually all able-bodied white men to serve in the local slave patrols. “Exemption usually required paying a fine or hiring a substitute. The slave patrols thereby affixed a tax that shifted enforcement costs to small slaveholders and poor whites who owned no slaves” (p. 48).

In the three decades before the war, the emergence and growth of the abolitionist movement heightened the southerners’ worries about runaway slaves. All slave states moved to suppress whatever fostered slave escape: they suppressed free speech, censored the mail, tightly restricted manumissions, and closely regulated the movement and activities of free blacks. As Hummel writes, “The South’s siege mentality turned it into a closed society” (p. 25). This slavery-related repression contrasted starkly with the flowering of individual freedom in many other spheres of American life in the 1840s and 1850s.

Appreciating the vulnerability of the slave system to runaways, William Lloyd Garrison and some other abolitionists supported Northern secession. In their view, a separate free nation adjacent to the slave South would serve as an asylum for runaways far more effectively than the free states of the United States, which remained subject to the federal fugitive-slave law.

In the 1830s and 1840s, radical abolitionists increased their efforts to evade the fugitive-slave law and to challenge it in court. The “underground railroad” spirited a number of slaves to freedom in Canada. Seven northern states passed personal-liberty laws, prohibiting state officials from assisting in capturing runaways or forbidding the use of state or local jails to confine fugitive slaves. These developments spurred southerners to demand new protection of their property rights in slaves.

One upshot was the passage of a new federal fugitive-slave act as part of the Compromise of 1850. This law, which Hummel calls “one of the harshest congressional measures ever” (p. 94), created federal commissioners to assist in capturing runaways, empowered these officers to conscript the aid of any private citizen, and paid them fees that created a financial incentive for them to identify blacks as escaped slaves.

As Hummel observes, free blacks in the North now [had no legal recourse if a Southerner claimed they were escaped slaves. Consequently the law fostered an unsavory class of professional slave catchers, who could make huge profits by legally kidnapping free blacks in the North and selling them into slavery in the South” (p. 94). Some previously hostile or indifferent northerners came to support abolitionism after witnessing such horrifying abductions.

Was Slavery Efficient?

For more than thirty years, economic historians trained in neoclassical economics have tortured their data and pounded their word processors in a debate over the efficiency of slavery. Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, most notably in their 1973 book Time on the Cross, argued that large slave plantations were much more efficient than northern farms. Critics have disputed the claim, arguing that the apparent efficiency advantage reflected among other things such factors as the abnormally high price of cotton circa 1860 or the greater labor input coerced from the slaves. Though valuable facts have been unearthed along the way, several rounds of this debate have done little to close the gap between the disputants.

Unlike the neoclassical economists, Hummel never forgets that efficiency is a welfare concept that presupposes the existing property-rights regime. In this light, finding that slavery was efficient amounts to little more than finding that theft benefits thieves when legal conditions allow them to get away with it. Hummel does not lose sight of the crux, which is that the slaveowners were kidnappers and thieves, that slavery “involved a compulsory transfer from black slaves to white masters” (p. 40); hence, “the ability to coerce the slave is [the slave system’s] only possible advantage over free labor” (p. 65).

Hummel faults Fogel for continuing to view “coercion and wages as merely two alternative ways to motivate workers” and for failing to “comprehend the fundamental economic distinction between a voluntary transaction, which because of its mutual gains moves the transactors toward greater efficiency and welfare (given the initial endowments), and a coercive transfer, which because of its nearly inevitable deadweight loss must reduce efficiency and welfare” (p. 70). Hummel’s penetrating discussion of the efficiency debate, on pages 61-70, is by itself worth the price of the book.

Tyranny on Both Sides

Both sides fought under a flag of freedom: the North (eventually) to release the slaves from bondage, the South to gain political self-determination. Waging war, however, has its own logic, independent of the belligerent’s motive for fighting. In wartime, political authority dilates and individual liberty shrinks. The Civil War was no exception.

When Lincoln took office as president, eight slave states remained in the Union. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to suppress the “rebellion” prompted four of them--Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas--to join the Confederacy. Virginia governor John Letcher wrote to Lincoln: “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited toward the South” (p. 141).

Lincoln undertook to hold the remaining slave states in the Union at all cost. In Maryland he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imposed military occupation, and imprisoned leading secessionists without trial. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote an outraged opinion declaring that the president had no constitutional authority to take these actions, whose effect would be that “the people of the United States are no longer living under a Government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found” (p. 142). Lincoln ignored Taney’s opinion and prepared standing orders (never served) for Taney’s arrest. When Maryland held elections in the fall of 1861, federal provost marshals watched the polls and arrested secessionists who attempted to vote.

In Missouri the administration took even more drastic actions. In an early confrontation with an angry crowd, army troops killed twenty-eight people, mostly innocent onlookers, thereby turning many Unionists into secessionists. Ostensibly loyal but clamped under martial law, Missouri became the scene of its own bitter civil war, featuring brutal guerrilla forays and scorched-earth tactics by the Union army, for the duration of the war and beyond. These events left a “legacy of hatred” that would “continue to plague Kansas and Missouri long after the rest of the country attained peace” (p. 144). The outlaw Jesse James was just one of the many involved in the Missouri conflict who continued to hold a grudge.

In Kentucky, where sympathies were similarly divided,

Federal authorities declared martial law; required loyalty oaths before people could trade or engage in many other daily activities; censored books, journals, sermons, and sheet music; and crowded the jails with Rebel sympathizers. By 1862 the military was interfering with elections, preventing candidates from running, and dispersing the Democratic convention at bayonet point. The net result was that the people of Kentucky felt greater solidarity with the rest of the South at the war's end than at its beginning. (p. 146)

Unable to hold Virginia, the Lincoln administration finagled the creation of a new state, West Virginia, in 1863. By further political chicanery, the Republicans admitted Kansas and Nevada to the Union as states in 1861 and 1864, respectively. “And let us not ignore,“ writes Hummel, the “tampering with the soldiers’ vote” at a time when ballots were not secret and “most of the army's junior officers and paymasters were members of the Republican Party“ (p. 258). By such shenanigans, Lincoln managed to get himself reelected in 1864, though General George B. McClelland, the candidate of a Democratic Party whose platform called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, received 45 percent of the popular vote even on this sharply tilted political playing field.

Lincoln did not hesitate to act as a dictator when doing so served his purposes. A favorite tactic was to toss political dissidents or other troublesome persons into jail; at least 14,000 civilians met that fate at the hands of the Lincoln administration, not to speak of the many others similarly treated by state and local authorities. Union authorities monitored and censored the mails and telegraphs, and at one time or another closed more than 300 newspapers. In promulgating his Emancipation Proclamation and in taking many other actions, Lincoln chose to ignore Congress.

Confederate authorities behaved similarly. President Jefferson Davis suspended the writ of habeas corpus in various areas. Confederate commanders sometimes instituted martial law, required loyalty oaths, and made mass arrests. “The courts viewed anyone not supporting the Confederacy as an enemy alien, outside any legal protections accorded to citizens.” Private vigilance committees “imposed, to the point of lynching, their own versions of loyalty,” and “the military's provost marshals required passports of travelers in nearly all Confederate-held territory” (p. 261). In the later stages of the war, Confederate army officers earned the hearty hostility of the southern people by seizing property, especially foodstuffs and workstock, as the opportunity arose to resupply their units in this convenient way.

War Brought Big Government

When, to the surprise of most war hawks on both sides, the war turned out to be big, protracted, and gory, rather than short and glorious, the warring governments faced the basic problem of going to war in a market economy: how to channel resources away from their current owners and into the war machine. Aside from receiving gifts, only two methods can serve. The government either buys the resources or just takes them. The former method can be facilitated by imposing new kinds of taxes, raising the rates of existing taxes, borrowing funds, or printing new money. Both sides employed each of these means to get control of resources, though the mix of methods differed.

To make a complicated story as simple as possible, one might say that for the most part the North borrowed funds and bought resources, and for the most part the South printed paper money and bought resources. As a result, while the paper dollar lost about half its value in the North during the war, the purchasing power of paper money in the Confederacy fell by more than 95 percent, and many southerners abandoned the use of money and resorted to barter in 1864 and 1865. To stimulate purchases of its bonds, the Union government created the national banking system, in which federally chartered member banks had to buy U.S. bonds as backing for the national bank notes they might issue in making loans to customers. Like many other innovations of the Civil War, the national banking system remains a part of our economy today.

The war was tremendously expensive in dollars as well as blood. In the four years of fighting, the federal government spent $3.4 billion, far more than it had spent in the entire preceding history of the United States ($1.8 billion). Although borrowing accounted for 77 percent of Union revenues, other receipts rose enormously: from $56 million in fiscal 1860, nearly all from customs, to $334 million in fiscal 1865, which included $209 of internal revenue.

Republican politico James G. Blaine called the revenue act of 1862 “one of the most searching, thorough, comprehensive systems of taxation every devised by any Government” (p. 222). It included excises on a vast collection of goods, everything from liquor and tobacco to meat, carriages, and professional services, plus a stamp tax not unlike the one that had inflamed the American colonists in 1765. The wartime Congress also imposed taxes on incomes, inheritances, real estate, and nearly everything else that would stand still. Not surprisingly, many people attempted to evade the taxes; hence the creation of the Internal Revenue bureaucracy, another of the war’s diabolical legacies to succeeding generations.

Still scrambling for funds, Congress authorized the issue of fiat paper money, the famous “greenbacks,” and declared them to be a legal tender. Ultimately, $431 million was put into circulation by this means. When counterfeiters began to issue greenbacks of their own, the government established the Secret Service, another agency that refused to die after the war. While it was monkeying with the money, Congress banned private minting; thereafter the federal government would enjoy, as it never had before, a monopoly of the mintage.

In the financially less developed South, the Confederates had limited success in collecting taxes, which covered only 7 percent of their war expenses, or in borrowing money, which financed about a fourth of their spending. Not that they didn't try. They imposed taxes on imports, exports, and excess profits; a graduated income tax; license fees, excises, and taxes in kind. “A sequestration law, passed in response to the Union confiscation acts, expropriated all northern private property within Confederate jurisdiction” (p. 228).

In the main, however, the Confederacy just printed money--ultimately more than $1 billion. Individual southern states added another $45 million, and local governments and private companies spewed out assorted “shinplasters,” a kind of homemade small-denomination substitute for money. After injuring southerners with hyperinflation, the outpouring of new fiat money insulted them at the conclusion of the war by becoming totally worthless. Hyperinflation, and the economic collapse of the southern economy it hastened, may have done as much to ensure the rebels' defeat as their reversals on the battlefield.

The Republicans took advantage of their control of Congress, raising tariffs dramatically, authorizing subsidies to railroad companies and to states that established agricultural, mechanical, and military colleges, creating a Department of Agriculture, and serving its favored constituents in a variety of other ways, all of which Hummel lumps under the heading of northern “neo-mercantilism.”

The Confederate government, in contrast, did much more to involve itself directly in the ownership, control, and operation of productive enterprises, including arsenals, powder mills, smelters, mines, foundries, shipyards, textile mills, flour mills, salt works, and assorted other enterprises. Late in the war the government “took possession of all un-captured southern railroads, steamboats, and telegraph lines outright, incorporating their employees and officers into the military” (p. 236). Hummel calls these activities “State socialism.” He concludes that despite the South’s avowed loyalty to states’ rights, [Confederate war socialism was more economically centralized than the Union’s neo-mercantilism, which at least relied heavily on private initiative” (p. 238).

Ironically, their socialism, like so many other policies the rebels adopted to wage war, also contributed to their defeat. “Rebel central planning, while adequately serving the single-minded goal of supplying conventional armies, otherwise misallocated resources and fostered inefficiencies” (p. 238). Moreover, “the despotic centralization of Jefferson Davis and his West Point cabal alienated the southern people from the cause of independence” (p. 289).

What they could not get in any other way, both governments just took. Hummel estimates that the South got “somewhere between one-fifth and one-third” of its soldiers by conscription and used draft exemptions as “the mechanism for manipulating the labor market” (p. 250). The North had better luck attracting volunteers, partly by paying large bonuses for enlistments, but in the latter half of the war the Union also resorted to conscription, and about 6 percent of those who served in its ranks were draftees.

In the land of the free the people did not take kindly to conscription, and disturbances broke out in hundreds of places. Mayhem and murder ensued in draft riots, most notably in New York, where rampaging Irish immigrants and others vented their fury on local blacks. Draft evasion reached extreme levels in both the North and the South.

Aftermath

When the guns finally fell silent in the spring of 1865, the devil must have been smiling. Some 360,000 northern and 260,000 southern soldiers had died; some 400,000 combatants had been seriously wounded, many maimed for life. Even the survivors with bodies intact would have to live with the nightmares of the horror they had experienced. For countless relatives and friends of those who did not return home, the heartache would never end. Across the South, where more than 50,000 civilian casualties augmented the military losses, many towns and cities, railroads, farms, and mills lay in ruins, and frightening specters loomed over the region’s economic, social, and political future. For sowing with slaves, Americans had reaped a whirlwind. Nor was the full price paid yet. Perhaps it never will be.

Twelve years later, Reconstruction had run its course, the damaged southern economy had been repaired and reorganized with free labor, and the rebels had regained political control of their states. Northerners had grown tired of trying to secure justice for the southern blacks, abandoning them to the tender mercies of their erstwhile masters. Although the freed people managed to continue improving their economic conditions, around the turn of the century the southern whites created piecemeal the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and political disfranchisement that would inhibit and insult black people in the South until it was finally dismantled in the 1960s. So much blood, so little to show for it.

Nor was that disappointment all. Hummel argues that the war destroyed the best government the country ever had: “The national government that emerged victorious from the conflict dwarfed in power and size the minimal Jacksonian State that had commenced the war” (p. 328). With the old federation of sovereign states shattered forever, the national government began the long march that eventually transformed it into the monstrous police state we know today. Intellectuals, who once took seriously the ideals of state sovereignty and secession, became for the most part worshippers of central government power. Federal taxing and spending ratcheted up; federal involvement in economic life increased in important sectors, including banking and transportation. The national debt, almost negligible before the war, had reached $2.8 billion by the war's end. Tariffs, jacked up to finance the war, remained high for decades afterward.

No one can deny that the Civil War was a turning point in the long-run growth of government in the United States, but Hummel overstates the extent of government power in the late nineteenth century and the degree to which the growth of government that did occur during those decades sprang from war-related causes. A huge retrenchment did take place immediately after the war, and some war-spawned measures, such as the subsidization of railroad building, the income tax, and almost all of the federal excise taxes, were terminated within a few years.

Much of the growth of government in the late nineteenth century occurred at the municipal level, as cities undertook to impose public-health regulations and to build schools, paved streets, transport and water-supply systems, sewers, and other urban infrastructure, all of which probably would have occurred even if the war had never been fought.

At the federal level, such developments as passage of the Act to Regulate Commerce (1887), the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), and the Food and Drugs Act (1906), as well as many other interventions, also might have occurred in any event. Despite the political entrenchment of mildly statist Republicans, recurrently waving the bloody shirt, something approximating classical liberalism retained a strong hold on most Americans, even many opinion leaders, prior to the Progressive Era. Still, although one may quarrel about the magnitudes, Hummel is surely correct to argue that the war had an enduring effect in augmenting the size and scope of government.

War Weighed in the Balance

Nowadays few Americans hesitate to conclude that, on balance, the war was a good thing. Yes, they will say, it was horrible in many ways, but it was the price that had to be paid to destroy slavery. Hummel does not dispute the war's great benefit: “the last, great coercive blight on the American landscape, black chattel slavery, was finally extirpated--a triumph that cannot be overrated” (p. 350). Moreover, “the fact that abolition was an unintended consequence in no way gainsays the accomplishment” (p. 352).

But a justification of the war on the grounds that it destroyed slavery holds only if the war alone could have destroyed slavery. Hummel denies that this horrible price--one dead soldier for every six freed slaves--had to be paid. Thus, for him as for the abolitionist Moncure Conway, the war that radiates such grandeur in American mythology reduces to “mere manslaughter” (p. 355).

Although Hummel accepts the research of economic historians who have shown that slavery was flourishing and not at all on the brink of withering away, he argues that even without the war it would have petered out:

Slavery was doomed politically even if Lincoln had permitted the small Gulf Coast Confederacy to depart in peace. The Republican-controlled Congress would have been able to work toward emancipation within the border states, where slavery was already declining. In due course the Radicals could have repealed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. With chattels fleeing across the border and raising slavery’s enforcement costs, the peculiar institution’s final destruction within an independent cotton South was inevitable. (p. 353)

Maybe. One still wonders, though, whether slavery could have been ended easily or quickly in the border states; whether the Gulf Confederacy might have been able to stem the flow of runaways; and whether, ultimately facing a serious threat to its slave system because of escapees fleeing to the north, it might have gone to war eventually anyway. In the last scenario, we have the worst of worlds--a prolongation of slavery and the horrors of war, perhaps an even more horrible war.

Of course, no one can know. Counterfactuals defy direct testing; we cannot rerun history to find out what would have occurred had some critical event not happened. Yet all causal thinking necessarily involves counterfactuals. Too often in historical analysis the counterfactuals lie quietly between the lines, frequently in the form of unquestioned assumptions. A great merit of Hummel’s book is that it brings new counterfactuals to the surface, compelling a reconsideration of assumptions too long taken for granted, especially the assumption that the secession required that Lincoln wage a war to preserve the Union and the assumption that only a terrible civil war could end slavery.

It is worth recalling that the people of every slave society in the New World save two--Haiti and the United States--managed to terminate this vile institution without immersing themselves in blood. In Haiti the slaves quite justifiably took matters into their own hands; the masters got no more than they deserved. In the United States, however, the termination of slavery occurred only in conjunction with a disastrous war and bitter reconstruction that left many issues unsettled and harmed a great many innocents. How tragic that the means by which men overthrew a wicked institution should also have been the means by which they arrested the progress of their own freedom, that emancipating slaves entailed enslaving free men.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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