The Regime’s 150th Birthday



Today marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. This event, more than the Declaration of Independence, Constitution or the American Revolution, signifies the true birth of the modern American nation-state. It was on this day that the federal government first repudiated the Founding Fathers’ republican form of government—a coalition of several states that combined under the Constitution to form a central state of enumerated and sharply limited powers—and asserted a plenary sovereignty over the people. Rejecting the right of states to secede, the federal government under Lincoln abolished the very system that was supposed to come out of the revolution against the British crown, a system where smaller political units could exercise their legal and human right to overthrow or at least leave the central government that ruled them without their consent.

During the U.S. Civil War, leviathan as we know it was born. The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians. For years, the nationalists—first the Federalists, then the Whigs, and then the Republicans under Lincoln—had advocated a system that subordinated the states to the central government and buried agrarianism and free enterprise under the heavy burden of corporarist neo-mercantilism. Henry Clay called this economic program “The American System” and boasted of its proposed “internal improvements.” A more modern label would simply be “corporate welfare” as these nationalists were championing high tariffs to discourage free trade and to raise revenue that could be shoveled toward big businesses that would build railways, canals and roads, the circulatory system of a new corporate state with Washington directing the economy through grants of privilege and monopoly.

Civil liberties took a hit virtually unparalleled in U.S. history, with the possible exception of World War I. During the Civil War, thousands of dissidents were arrested, hundreds of newspapers were shut down, martial law was declared, habeas corpus was suspended, and political enemies were targeted for arrest and persecution. When violent draft riots broke out in New York City, Lincoln sent in the army, which slaughtered hundreds of civilians. During the fog of war Lincoln conducted the largest mass-execution of U.S. history—American Indians stripped of any semblance of proper due process.

Then, of course, there was the mass bloodshed. How appropriate that the U.S. government, so-called protector of peace and liberty for the world, was the western state that ended slavery through a centrally administered and completely hellish war. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war—throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern “masters.” For Lincoln, the war was about preserving the Union, first and foremost, and this preservation was consecrated upon the altar of mass death. Approximately 625,000 Americans died in the butchery. This out of a population of about 32 million people. That’s almost one out of fifty Americans. To give an idea of what this would mean to the average American, imagine the bloodshed of 9/11 multiplied by about two thousand.

We’re often told to question or lambaste today’s politicians while reserving respect for Lincoln. But this is an inconsistent outlook, to say the least. Conservatives who decry Big Government and liberals who decry Big Brother need to reexamine the legacy of Honest Abe. The Republicans are accused of not following in the shadows of Lincoln, but this party of corporatism, war, nationalism and suppression of civil liberty has been Lincolnian to the core for 150 years now, with essentially no significant interruption.

It was difficult for critics of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism to respond when its defenders pointed out the many precedents set by Lincoln. If Lincoln could suspend habeas corpus, why should Bush be any more restrained? After all, as both conservatives and liberals sometimes say, Lincoln had to ignore half of the Constitution to preserve the other half. Unfortunately for liberty, he preserved the wrong half—the half that sets up the framework for the central state, rather than the half that puts limits on that state, their necessity being the one important lesson from the colonies’ experience under Britain.

Ever since the Civil War, the U.S. government has been king of the land. There have since then been moments of relative freedom from federal meddling, but once Washington, DC, claimed the right to overturn the states’ prerogative, all the tyranny that transpired was to be expected. The most important revolutionary check on federal power, the threat of states leaving the country, was now destroyed. With it went many other great traditions, such as the threat that states might nullify federal laws as well as the very real power states used to have in checking federal detentions through habeas corpus. After the Civil War came federal military control of the South through Reconstruction. Soon enough after we were into the Progressive Era and the rise of America’s global empire, which made its major debut in the Spanish-American War, proved itself worthy of competition with the old world in World War I, and asserted itself as the world’s superpower in World War II and the Cold War. Most major political evils coming from Washington since 1861—federal control over the economy, the Fed, alcohol prohibition, the welfare state, the New Deal, the Great Society, immigration controls, the war on drugs, gun control, the U.S. empire—had either direct or indirect origins in Lincoln’s war. More than any other single event, the Civil War, launched by the president against his own people, both enemies and those purportedly on his side—a war that once and for all abolished the radical federalism that was the Founders’ most important Constitutional legacy—was the event that gave birth to the modern regime in Washington. Happy Birthday, Lincolnian central state. I do hope you don’t persist for another 150 years more.

See Robert Higgs, “The Bloody Hinge of American History,” for a review of Jeff Hummel’s most important book on the Civil War. Also see the OnPower archives for a thorough bibliography.

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