In my time engaged in politically decentralist activism in general, and my work on Vermont independence in particular, I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to escape the long historical shadow cast by the Civil War. When considering the idea of using state sovereignty as a legitimate tool for resisting Federal abuses, the claim is often made that the issue was settled by the Civil War. The North (and thus centralized sovereignty) prevailed over the South (and distributed sovereignty) in 1865, and the question is thus closed.
Generally, this attitude is characterized by two key elements. The first is the concrete opinion that the Civil War functioned to cement America as “One Nation, Indivisible,” which is true, as far as it goes. In the years after the Civil War, the term “United States” morphed grammatically from plural to singular, and the balance of power between the Federal Government and the States has shifted continuously towards the former. However, though the aforementioned attitude is certainly descriptive of historical phenomena and trends, it is not, from a legal or moral standpoint, a valid argument against the legitimacy of the reassertion of a state’s sovereignty, up to and including its secession from the union. Rather, as has been argued persuasively and in great detail elsewhere, such principles as that of self-determination and the legitimacy of government being derived from the consent of the governed mean that subsidiary political units have the inalienable right to independence.
However, the attitude’s second element is trickier to grapple with, since it resides less in the realm of reason and more in that of myth and emotion. Namely, it is the fact that the Civil War was inextricably driven by the issue of slavery. There were certainly many causal tributaries that flowed into the genesis of that internecine bloodbath, but the debates swirling around slavery were ultimately at the conflict’s core. As such, the simplistic narrative by which our culture understands the Civil War is defined by the connection of slavery and racism to the political instruments wielded by the governments in Washington and Richmond.
The basic outlines of the usual tale are thus: the Southern states tyrannically abused their autonomy and broke up the Union in order to preserve the abhorrent institution of slavery. In response, a strengthened Federal Government was required in order to secure the liberty of the millions of enslaved blacks and save the great republican experiment launched in 1776. The righteousness of the cause of abolition was powerful justification for this newly robust central state as the true guardian of individual rights, and contemporary calls for renewal of State sovereignty at the expense of the Federal Government often find themselves suspected of harboring sympathies for the “Lost Cause.”
Unfortunately, many contemporary decentralists have also bought into this binary narrative, and, as a result, have found it necessary to become Southern apologists in order to defend their belief in the dispersal of political power. Such individuals are just as wrong-headed as the people who buy into the aforementioned “Union triumphant” narrative, as both are working from the same oversimplified premises. Ultimately, the Southern cause is indefensible because it used a legitimate tool (sovereignty) to defend an illegitimate institution (slavery), while the Northern cause is equally compromised since it used illegitimate tools (the creation of an authoritarian expansionist state) to pursue a positive end (the destruction of slavery). As a result of these deep moral issues poisoning the two conventional sides of the Civil War, contemporary decentralists must search beyond either in order to find an historical model that aimed to end slavery without sending America down the road of centralism and empire.
I believe that such a model can be found in the person and vision of John Brown and his fellow travelers. Though Brown created a storm of controversy in his day and his name still pops up from time to time in our current culture, he’s usually thought of (if remembered at all) as the bearded, slightly kooky man who fought slavery in Kansas and led an abolitionist raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The latter act is generally portrayed as a quixotic martyrdom mission which, though an immediate failure, helped stoke the fires of the Civil War.
While this story is true as far as it goes, it neglects entirely the strategic purpose of the Harper’s Ferry raid. Far from the impulsive act of a crazed man and his small band of followers, Brown had been ruminating and preparing for the action for the better part of twenty years. His aim was to seize the as many of the weapons in the arsenal as could be quickly spirited away, liberate and arm the local slaves and free black population, and then retreat with his enlarged band, weapons, and supplies into the Appalachian Mountains. From there, his troops would wage a guerrilla war against slavery, spreading south and augmenting their forces through lightning raids on plantations followed by retreats back into their mountain strongholds. As a model, Brown held up the history of Maroon communities of escaped slaves in places such as Jamaica where, with no outside assistance and scarce arms, the British had been forced to recognize and make peace with a de facto autonomous black republic. By contrast, with thousands of muskets from Harper’s Ferry and the material, political and moral support of Northern abolitionists, Brown’s force would compose a mortal threat to the Southern slave economy.
Additionally (and I’m venturing into the murky world of counter-factuals here), Brown’s plan might not have even spilled much blood, but could instead have forced a political solution. As Gavin Wright noted in his excellent book The Political Economy of the Cotton South, slaves were considered by their owners in the 1850s to be a form of speculative property. With the market protection afforded by the illegality of the overseas slave trade, prices were quite high, but easily effected by events that impacted public perception as to the future of slavery. Indeed, Wright argues that Southern touchiness on the topic of slavery during the period was amplified by the fact that even a little bad press could seriously hurt the value of a Southern planter’s human property.
This dynamic was at play in Brown last major action prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid. In retaliation for a massacre of Free Soil settlers by Missouri “Border Ruffians” in Kansas, Brown and a handful of compatriots crossed into Missouri and liberated at gunpoint eleven slaves, along with horses and supplies, and escorted them more than a thousand miles to Canada and freedom. After the raid, many other farmers near the Kansas border were terrified that they might be the subject of similar raids and hurried to sell their slaves rather than lose them. Had Brown succeeded at Harper’s Ferry and there been bands of freed slaves mounting weekly raids out of hidden mountain forts from Georgia to Maryland, one can imagine a similar reaction, only across the whole slave system.
It is basic economics that when many sellers simultaneously enter a market, prices fall; factor in further the uncertainty for the future of the slave system that would have been sparked by a sustainable force of slave guerrillas spread through the South, and it would not be unreasonable to expect a crash in the price of slaves. Such a crash might have opened the way for one possible political solution to the slavery question: compensated emancipation. According to Hughes and Cain’s American Economic History, had the Federal Government purchased and emancipated every slave at 1860 prices and provided each slave family with forty acres and a mule, it would still have cost $3.5 billion less than the Civil War. With Brown in the mountains and slaveholders suddenly terrified of losing everything, the Federal Government might have been able to make the purchases for pennies on the dollar, making such a “compromise” far more viable than it otherwise might have been.
Even if the Southern elite proved to be intransigent and an all-out war resulted from the raid, I believe that the character of such a war would have differed greatly from that of the Civil War. A powerful strain within the abolitionist movement was “disunionist,” meaning they called for the North to secede from the South so as to no longer bear the moral stain of association with slavery. Had Federal troops been mobilized to suppress the rebelling slaves, a disunionist response on the part of the North is conceivable. With only the resources of the South the draw on, sympathetic Northerners providing support to a guerrilla army for which each new recruit was a blow to the Southern economy and was fighting for his freedom in the purest sense imaginable, and European support eroded due to the war’s moral clarity, it would only be a matter of time before the South was forced to the negotiating table.
Such a victorious peace would likely have meant a better post-war situation for Southern freedmen. As a result of the Civil War, the maintenance of former slaves’ rights was dependent on Federal support, and when propping up those rights ceased to be politically popular, blacks were abandoned to the horrors of Jim Crow. By contrast, had their freedom been primarily won by their own force of arms under black officers and political leaders (a provisional government had been formed at a conference in Canada before the raid), Southern African Americans would have been far more prepared, organized, able, and willing to vigorously defend their new rights.
As the most astute and militant abolitionists understood by the 1850s, a war was already underway long before the shelling of Fort Sumter. By fundamentally violating the inalienable right to personal freedom of millions of men, women, and children, the institution of slavery had been waging a one-sided war for hundreds of years. As such, a slave killing a master who refused his emancipation was not committing murder, but instead was engaged in righteous self-defense. John Brown took this logic one step further by putting his own life on the line to aid in the self-defense of the helpless, brutalized, and downtrodden. He did not seek to emancipate the slaves, as Lincoln’s government ultimately did, as an expedient to other ends and a fig-leaf for self-interested activities, but because it was morally imperative and he possessed the rare courage to act on his principles in the cause of liberty and humanity. His example is one that all decentralists should take to heart; we should not accept centralism because the Federal Government emancipated the slaves, and we should not celebrate the decentralist Southern defense of slavery. Instead it is vital to recognize the fact that there was another way, rooted in principle, that might have eliminated slavery while saving many lives and the integrity of the American political system. John Brown was Right!
Note: This essay was heavily inspired by my recent reading of John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds. Recently published and full of fascinating insights, it offers a powerful perspective both on Brown and the turbulent times that culminated in the Civil War. I can’t recommend it strongly enough to the history buffs out there.