Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, 2nd ed. by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Open Court 2013), 421 pages.
Not many volumes advance a radically revisionist thesis while maintaining proper respect for the mainstream historical literature. To do so with a topic as exhaustively explored as the American Civil War warrants special recognition. Jeff Hummel’s survey treatment of the central event in U.S. history succeeds on both counts, which explains the praise it has drawn from Lincoln skeptics as well as from a range of more-conventional historians, including the late and venerable Kenneth Stampp, who praised Hummel’s “impressive command of the relevant contemporary literature” and his interpretations as “well worth considering.”
Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men was originally published in 1996 and has just come out in a second edition, complete with a beautiful new introduction by the author, touching on some of the recent scholarship and replying to some of his critics, and a foreword by UC Santa Barbara Civil War historian John Majewski.
A groundbreaking work of scholarship
Emancipating Slaves exists well within the serious conversation of dedicated academics, while pushing a subversive thesis: that the bloodiest war in U.S. history, claiming the lives of 650,000 to 850,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians, represented both the fulfillment and the repudiation of the American Revolution, by simultaneously affirming the most fundamental liberties of black Americans while overthrowing the revolutionary right of political secession embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
Hummel pays proper attention to the enormity and significance of chattel slavery. Following famed historian Eric Foner, Hummel writes, “We can simplify our understanding of the Civil War’s causes [by asking] two separate questions. Why did the southern states want to leave the Union? And why did the northern states refuse to let them go?” For Hummel, the “answer to at least the first of these questions necessarily revolves around what Southerners called their ‘peculiar institution’: black slavery.” Thus does Emancipating Slaves avoid the mischaracterization of the Southern cause as one motivated mainly by tariffs or liberty, while leaving room for the insight that Lincoln waged the war primarily to secure the Union. In his new introduction, Hummel reemphasizes the distance between his ideas and those that downplay slavery as a Southern motivation or pretend that abolishing slavery was the principal or only relevant Northern goal.
That nuance seems sensible enough, but as Hummel explains in the bibliographical essay following his prologue, the common alternative perspectives “tend to approach the war’s causes as a single issue” rather than distinguishing “sufficiently between the two distinct questions” concerning Northern and Southern motivations. Hummel admits his identification of “six alternative perspectives” is “inherently imprecise and arbitrary,” and yet he very usefully gives examples of characteristic texts in these six schools: “nationalist, revisionist, economic, cultural, neo-Confederate, and neo-abolitionist.”
That is but one example of the book’s unusual potency. His account of the Civil War era, from antebellum sectional politics and the political economy of the Union and Confederacy, to the horrors of battle and a short discussion of Reconstruction, comes in 13 chapters, each followed by a bibliographical essay teeming with secondary- source citations and incisive historiographical discussion. In these essays, whose aggregate word count rivals or exceeds that of the main text, we see Hummel’s full command of the literature, each page raising historical questions for scholars to ponder. And yet nonscholars can skim over or skip the bibliographical essays and learn an immense amount from the readily accessible main text.
Hummel’s most novel contribution in Emancipating Slaves comes in chapter 2, where he addresses the profitability of slavery, a major theme since Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974) argued that slavery was economically profitable for the South and thus would not have withered away naturally. Hummel seeks to distinguish slavery’s profitability from its economic efficiency, showing that slavery, like the tariff, “while profitable to protected interests,” was bad for the South’s economy as a whole. In particular, Hummel homes in on the socialization of slavery’s enforcement costs. Because “[enforcing] the slave system required the use of labor and capital … the entire southern economy, including both whites and blacks,” suffered. Runaways and resistance made enforcement expensive, but because of compulsory slave patrols, which Hummel was among the first historians to emphasize, and the federal capture of runaways, slaveholders did not have to pay the full costs of enforcement. “[Just] as the compulsory patrol imposed slavery’s enforcement costs on non-slaveholders in the South, the fugitive slave clause imposed these costs on Northerners.”
Hummel concludes that government subsidies made all the difference, a finding that offers economic analysis to bolster abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s idea of Northern secession from the South as a possible anti-slavery measure. “If Northerners had been interested in ending slavery rather than preserving the Union,” Hummel writes in his new introduction, “there is a set of alternative policies they could have adopted that would have brought down slavery within an independent Confederacy possibly within four years and certainly by the turn of the century”: full emancipation in the Union and “northern secession from the South.” Chapter 2 offers an extensive defense of this thesis, and Hummel has elsewhere expanded on his argument, sharing his archival research on the political economy of slavery in a lengthy working manuscript, “Deadweight Loss and the American Civil War,” available online at the Social Science Research Network (https://bit.ly/1oXj0I2).
The North, South, and rise of statism
Hummel well describes the political developments preceding the war — the polarization of North and South, the fracturing of the Whig Party and rise of the Republicans, the violence erupting over Kansas’s status as free or slave state, and the infamous Dred Scott decision, in which Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect. Along the way, he offers some uncommon points. Today’s proponents of both civil rights and federal power often argue as though a natural consistency ran through the anti-slavery and pro-government beliefs of Lincoln’s Republican Party. But Hummel explains that before the war, “[slavery] was erasing the old ideological lines that had divided political parties.” Hummel in fact calls it “ironic” that the Democrats
should become the northern bastion for the peculiar institution. This party had traditionally been the home of the South’s non-slaveholding whites. The slaveowning oligarchy, accustomed to using government to shore up the plantation system, had more naturally gravitated toward the Whig ideology of economic intervention. Large planters had tended to support state subsidies for railroads and banks.
The evolution of the two parties’ dominant ideologies has caused much confusion among mainstream political thinkers, but also among libertarians. Hummel’s history of the shifts in popular political philosophy carries immense value.
Although most of its narrative will sit well with conventional historians, Emancipating Slaves is thoroughly libertarian, as Hummel discloses in his new introduction, featuring “a definite normative dimension” and an “undeviating opposition to all forms of State coercion — conscription, taxation, economic regulation, and violations of civil liberties,” whether in the North or South. This orientation is especially compelling in chapter 9, a gem of a chapter, exploring the wartime political economies of both governments. Posing “Republican neo-mercantilism” against “Confederate war socialism,” Hummel presents the most balanced and cogent libertarian analysis of the vast interventionism in both systems. In looking at the Union, Hummel describes just how radically the war transformed the economic relationship between the individual and the national government. “The highest that annual outlays had reached was $74.2 million in 1858…. Adjusting for population, the government in Washington was spending approximately $2.50 per person in 1858, or the equivalent of $44 per person today” (1995), given inflation.
“The cost of waging the Civil War, however, would ultimately average $175 million per day,” writes Hummel, and so by “the war’s close the United States could boast higher taxation per capita than any other nation.” In addition, the Lincoln administration oversaw massive monetary inflation, which Hummel describes while gracefully critiquing mainstream historians’ interpretations of 19th-century banking. Later, he describes the corporatist relationship between the Union and favored industries, defined by an “illusion of general prosperity” that did not in fact “extend to all sectors of the northern economy. Adjusting for inflation, workers’ wages actually fell by one-third.”
The Confederacy had even more problems taxing and borrowing than the Union did, and resorted to even worse inflation. “The skyrocketing inflation,” Hummel writes,
worked a great hardship on the southern people. As this hidden tax diverted resources to the Confederate war effort, prices climbed faster than incomes. Real wages fell by almost two-thirds. Food riots swept through Richmond and other southern cities in the war’s third year, with wives and mothers at the forefront of the rioters.
As for central planning, the South outdid the North on that score as well: “While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism, it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.” That meant a huge government that ultimately compromised the southern cause: “Managing the ubiquitous system of war socialism was a central government bureaucracy that had grown from nothing to 70,000 civilians in 1863.” This “[rebel] central planning … misallocated resources and fostered inefficiencies,” hindering the war effort.
Just as both North and South underwent significant transformations toward statism in political economy, both saw major violations of civil liberties too. The Confederacy imposed “the first centrally administered conscription in American history,” which “furnished somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of southern military manpower” and drew more public resentment than any other Southern war measure. In the North, “conscription directly provided only about 6 percent of the men who served in the Union armies,” although it provoked a bloody draft riot in New York and became an important precedent for later U.S. wars.
Both the Union and Confederacy cracked down on political opponents, as well. In the Union, more than 300 newspapers, “including the Chicago Times, the New York World, and the Philadelphia Evening Journal, had to cease publication for varying periods.” The South saw limited bans on alcohol and firearms. The two governments enforced martial law and suspended habeas corpus for dissidents and others.
Of course, the war’s worst features were the killing and destruction. Hummel offers a compelling discussion of how new military technology led to new military tactics and far more bloodshed: “The bayonet became almost useless, as the rifle’s enhanced range inflicted terrible casualties long before the opposing lines physically met. Out of about 245,000 wounds treated by surgeons in Federal hospitals, fewer than 1,000 were from bayonets or sabers.” But even more than bullets, “disease … was the primary killer. While 140,000 Union soldiers perished as a result of battle, more than 220,000 died from disease.” His discussion of military strategy and the horrors of combat, culminating in his chapter on “the ravages of total war,” including a description of Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, add harrowing color and humanity to the volume.
The consequences of war
In chapter 13 and the epilogue, Hummel gives his concluding thoughts on the war’s significance for America, insights that libertarians should especially value. “The war had dramatically altered American society and institutions…. The national government that emerged victorious from the conflict dwarfed in power and size the minimal Jacksonian State that had commenced the war.” By 1865, federal spending had risen to 20 percent of the economy’s total output. Nationalism, militarism, high taxes, and federal banking laws would maintain their stranglehold on American society for most of its remaining history.
With the abolition of slavery and the violent suppression of decentralism, the Civil War represented “the simultaneous culmination and repudiation of the American Revolution.” The “radical abolitionists and the South’s fire-eaters boldly championed different applications of the [American Revolution’s] purest principles,” and Hummel argues that a counterfactual history would have been possible, one that would have served both radical secessionism and the anti-slavery cause. Although “American nationalists, then and now, automatically assume that the Union’s break up would have been catastrophic,” Hummel argues that the precise boundaries of the United States today are a historical accident, considering the uncertain contours of America’s border with Canada throughout much of the 19th century.
The only defensible justification for the war, Hummel contends, would have been the abolition of slavery, which was not the Union’s principal goal, but rather a consequence. That rationale works only if war was necessary for abolition, however. But as noted, Hummel reminds us that the institution of chattel slavery relied on a tangle of governmental supports: “restrictions on manumission, disabilities against free blacks, compulsory slave patrols, and above all fugitive slave laws.” Given the shift in political attitudes toward slavery and slavery’s reliance on federal support, Hummel argues that disunion between North and South would have doomed the institution, as anti-slavery forces would work to abolish slavery in the border states and radically reduce the costs of escape. Some northerners had even argued that this would lead to slavery’s becoming less and less viable farther and farther south until it collapsed everywhere. The history of slavery’s demise in Brazil unfolded in just that way, as one free region led to the whole country’s abolition of slavery in four years, Hummel explains.
Emancipating Slaves stands out for its impressive historiographical reach, its accessibility to readers, and its radical rethinking of old assumptions while holding its own within the serious discussion of Civil War experts.
On a personal note, Emancipating Slaves became for me the model of scholarly yet controversial historical writing more than a decade ago. It had such a permanent impact on me in showing what was possible in a history text and what was possible for a libertarian to do to garner the respect of mainstream experts while pushing the debate our way and reaching an intelligent lay audience. The bibliographical essays are works of scholarly art, and I hope one day to master a field well enough to write something comparable. The book also had a major effect on my radicalism, realizing there was never reason to compromise on the issues of individual liberty, war, and government power — that it was possible to be a dedicated humanitarian, individualist, and serious thinker at the same time.
Hummel’s is my favorite book on the Civil War, one of my favorite works on history, and certainly one of the very best history books written by a libertarian. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out, and you are almost certain to learn something by picking it up today.