THE VICTORS WRITE history books, and the dominant accounts of the Civil War reflect the victorious perspective: misguided Southerners sought to destroy democratic governance and preserve slavery. Led by the heroic Abraham Lincoln, Northerners responded by saving the Union and emancipating the slaves. And for leading his moral crusade, Lincoln is America’s greatest president, martyred in his hour of triumph.
Charles Adams, best known for his books on taxation, takes aim at this history. His analysis of what more accurately would be called the War of Northern Aggression is a bit different:
With the passing of time, all wars seem pointless. The American Civil War certainly looks that way at this time in history. Heroes begin to look like fools. The glorious dead, the young soldiers who suffered and died, need to be pitied, and the leaders who led them to early graves need to be lynched. In that war, as in so many wars, the wrong people died.
When in the Course of Human Events offers a sustained challenge to much of the conventional wisdom about the conflict. Indeed, the book’s title is a bit misleading. Adams doesn’t so much develop a comprehensive argument for secession as puncture the worst hypocrisies surrounding the North’s decision to initiate war.
Observes Adams: “Lincoln’s concern that government ‘of the people’ would perish from the earth if the North lost may have been the biggest absurdity of all.”
Particularly valuable is Adams’s critique of Lincoln. The victors’ history books tend to glide by Lincoln’s constitutional usurpations and violations. Adams does not. Even those familiar with the 16th president’s unconstitutional militia call, suspension of habeas corpus, and other lawless acts may not know that Lincoln ordered the arrest of U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for ruling that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus without congressional approval violated the law. Only the failure of a U.S. marshal to carry out the order “saved the president from what would have been his worst crime against the constitutional scheme of government,” the author writes.
The tariff and the war
Adams’s most detailed argument, with interesting citations to domestic and foreign opinion of the time, is that the federal tariff was more responsible than slavery for the war. Certainly the tariff was a factor in the North’s decision to use force to prevent the South from leaving. Abolition was not particularly important: as Adams details, most Northern states shared the racism of the South, and several refused to allow free blacks to enter. Concern over the effects of lost revenue — the tariff was the federal government’s most important tax — and creation of a veritable free-trade zone in the South stoked Northern opposition to secession.
Still, protectionism alone might not have been enough to justify a Northern invasion. Raw nationalism and anger over the South’s decision to pick up its marbles and go home also were important. Taken together, the combination proved irresistible, especially when most war hawks thought that little fighting would be necessary to reunite the states. This fatal underestimation of the costs of war, by both sides, might have been the decisive factor in leading the Southern states to secede and the Northern states to try to stop them.
Adams’s emphasis on the tariff is less satisfactory when applied to the departing states. Although the protective tariffs passed at the behest of Northern manufacturing interests rankled Southerners, Lincoln’s election did not dramatically impact that issue. The rush out of the Union by the seven Deep South states reflected anger over the triumph of someone viewed as hostile to the South and fundamental fears about the security of the “peculiar institution.”
Adams argues that the institution of slavery had never been more secure — but sometimes even otherwise rational people act irrationally. Indeed, the slave states could fear the continuing effectiveness of paper guarantees, especially if Lincoln used federal institutions to campaign against slavery.
Not one to shy from controversy, Adams charges Northern generals with barbarism and war crimes. He contends that the actions of the Ku Klux Klan after the war — before its later lawless campaign against helpless blacks — could be understood in the context of defending Southern society from “the Yankee invaders” during Reconstruction.
Finally, Adams offers a wonderfully vicious parsing of Lincoln’s celebrated Gettysburg Address. It might be “good poetry,” Adams writes, but that didn’t make it “good thinking,” based as it was on “a number of errors and falsehoods.”
Standard histories of the War between the States make an inviting target for debunking. Adams joyously shoots away. Most of his criticisms hit home, but you don’t have to agree with all of them to recognize that he is right in calling the Civil War “a great national tragedy in every conceivable way,” including “a botched emancipation; the extermination of a whole generation of young men, including hundreds of thousands of teenage boys; the destruction of the constitutional scheme of limited federal power.” It is a war that should never have been fought.
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2000, Washington Times. Copyright © News World Communications, Inc., 2000. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.