The Just War for Southern Indpendence

Just War, by Murray Rothbard, is essential reading. It’s probably a 30-60 minute read, depending on how fast you go though it or ponder it. As with almost all things, I don’t accept many of the implicit premises. However, I do agree that Rothbard’s political and legal logic within the confines of the premises is pretty consistent.

The main idea advanced by this essay is that America has only fought been involved in two just wars: The American Revolution and Southern Independence (The "Civil War"). In other words, and he lays out a pretty good argument, the Southern States were conducting a just war against the unjust North for pretty much the same set of justifiable reasons the American Revolutionaries waged a just was against the unjust British crown. It’s certainly not a new idea that the South was right — Southerners being Southerners — but the just reasons they had to go to war have always been overshadowed by the slavery issue. After all, the North won and the winner gets to write and teach history.

A few key excerpts:

…a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.


There have been only two wars in American history that were, in
my view, assuredly and unquestionably proper and just; not only that,
the opposing side waged a war that was clearly and notably unjust. Why?
Because we did not have to question whether a threat against our
liberty and property was clear or present; in both of these wars,
Americans were trying to rid themselves of an unwanted domination by
another people. And in both cases, the other side ferociously tried to
maintain their coercive rule over Americans. In each case, one side –
"our side" if you will – was notably just, the other side – "their
side" – unjust.

To be specific, the two just wars in American history were the American Revolution, and the War for Southern Independence.


These 13 separate republics, in order to wage their common war
against the British Empire, each sent representatives to the
Continental Congress, and then later formed a Confederation, again with
severely limited central powers, to help fight the British. The hotly
contested decision to scrap the Articles of Confederation and to craft
a new Constitution demonstrates conclusively that the central
government was not supposed to be perpetual, not to be the sort of
permanent one-way trap that Grotius had claimed turned popular
sovereignty over to the king forevermore. In fact, it would be very
peculiar to hold that the American Revolutionaries had repudiated the
idea that a pledge of allegiance to the king was contractual and
revocable, and break their vows to the king, only to turn around a few
short years later to enter a compact that turned out to be an
irrevocable one-way ticket for a permanent central government power.
Revocable and contractual to a king, but irrevocable to some piece of

And finally, does anyone seriously believe for one minute that
any of the 13 states would have ratified the Constitution had they
believed that it was a perpetual one-way Venus fly trap – a one-way
ticket to sovereign suicide? The Constitution was barely ratified as it

So, if the Articles of Confederation could be treated as a scrap
of paper, if delegation to the confederate government in the 1780s was
revocable, how could the central government set up under the
Constitution, less than a decade later, claim that its powers were
permanent and irrevocable? Sheer logic insists that: if a state could
enter a confederation it could later withdraw from it; the same must be
true for a state adopting the Constitution.

And yet of course, that monstrous illogic is precisely the
doctrine proclaimed by the North, by the Union, during the War Between
the States.

In 1861, the Southern states, believing correctly that their
cherished institutions were under grave threat and assault from the
federal government, decided to exercise their natural, contractual, and
constitutional right to withdraw, to "secede" from that Union. The
separate Southern states then exercised their contractual right as
sovereign republics to come together in another confederation, the
Confederate States of America. If the American Revolutionary War was
just, then it follows as the night the day that the Southern cause, the
War for Southern Independence, was just, and for the same reason:
casting off the "political bonds" that connected the two peoples. In
neither case was this decision made for "light or transient causes."
And in both cases, the courageous seceders pledged to each other "their
lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor."


In his First Inaugural, […] what he [Lincoln] was hard-line
about toward the South was insistence on collecting all the customs
tariffs in that region. As Lincoln put it, the federal government would
"collect the duties and imposts, but beyond what may be necessary for
these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against . .
. people anywhere." The significance of the federal forts is that they
provided the soldiers to enforce the customs tariffs; thus, Fort Sumter
was at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, the major port, apart from
New Orleans, in the entire South. The federal troops at Sumter were
needed to enforce the tariffs that were supposed to be levied at
Charleston Harbor.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory words on slavery cannot
be taken at face value. Lincoln was a master politician, which means
that he was a consummate conniver, manipulator, and liar. The federal
forts were the key to his successful prosecution of the war. Lying to
South Carolina, Abraham Lincoln managed to do what Franklin D.
Roosevelt and Henry Stimson did at Pearl Harbor 80 years later –
maneuvered the Southerners into firing the first shot. In this way, by
manipulating the South into firing first against a federal fort,
Lincoln made the South appear to be "aggressors" in the eyes of the
numerous waverers and moderates in the North.

Outside of New England and territories populated by transplanted
New Englanders, the idea of forcing the South to stay in the Union was
highly unpopular. In many middle-tier states, including Maryland, New
Jersey, and Pennsylvania, there was a considerable sentiment to mimic
the South by forming a middle Confederacy to isolate the pesky and
fanatical Yankees. Even after the war began, the Mayor of New York City
and many other dignitaries of the city proposed that the city secede
from the Union and make peace and engage in free trade with the South.
Indeed, Jefferson Davis’s lawyer after the war was what we would now
call the "paleo-libertarian" leader of the New York City bar,
Irish-Catholic Charles O’Conor, who ran for President in 1878 on the
Straight Democrat ticket, in protest that his beloved Democratic
Party’s nominee for President was the abolitionist, protectionist,
socialist, and fool Horace Greeley.

The Lincoln Administration and the Republican Party took
advantage of the overwhelmingly Republican Congress after the secession
of the South to push through almost the entire Whig economic program.
Lincoln signed no less than ten tariff-raising bills during his
administration. Heavy "sin" taxes were levied on alcohol and tobacco,
the income tax was levied for the first time in American history, huge
land grants and monetary subsidies were handed out to transcontinental
railroads (accompanied by a vast amount of attendant corruption), and
the government went off the gold standard and virtually nationalized
the banking system to establish a machine for printing new money and to
provide cheap credit for the business elite. And furthermore, the New
Model Army and the war effort rested on a vast and unprecedented amount
of federal coercion against Northerners as well as the South; a huge
army was conscripted, dissenters and advocates of a negotiated peace
with the South were jailed, and the precious Anglo-Saxon right of
habeas corpus was abolished for the duration.


While it is true that Lincoln himself was not particularly
religious, that did not really matter because he adopted all the
attitudes and temperament of his evangelical allies. He was stern and
sober, he was personally opposed to alcohol and tobacco, and he was
opposed to the private carrying of guns. An ambitious seeker of the
main chance from early adulthood, Lincoln acted viciously toward his
own humble frontier family in Kentucky. He abandoned his fiancée in
order to marry a wealthier Mary Todd, whose family were friends of the
eminent Henry Clay, he repudiated his brother, and he refused to attend
his dying father or his father’s funeral, monstrously declaring that
such an experience "would be more painful than pleasant." No doubt!

Lincoln, too, was a typical example of a humanitarian with the
guillotine in another dimension: a familiar modern "reform liberal"
type whose heart bleeds for and yearns to "uplift" remote mankind,
while he lies to and treats abominably actual people whom he knew. And
so Abraham Lincoln, in a phrase prefiguring our own beloved Mario
Cuomo, declared that the Union was really "a family, bound indissolubly
together by the most intimate organic bonds." Kick your own family, and
then transmute familial spiritual feelings toward a hypostatized and
mythical entity, "The Union," which then must be kept intact regardless
of concrete human cost or sacrifice.

Indeed, there is a vital critical difference between the two
unjust causes we have described: the British and the North. The
British, at least, were fighting on behalf of a cause which, even if
wrong and unjust, was coherent and intelligible: that is, the
sovereignty of a hereditary monarch. What was the North’s excuse for
their monstrous war of plunder and mass murder against their fellow
Americans? Not allegiance to an actual, real person, the king, but
allegiance to a non-existent, mystical, quasi-divine alleged entity,
"the Union." The King was at least a real person, and the merits or
demerits of a particular king or the monarchy in general can be argued.
But where is "the Union" located? How are we to gauge the Union’s
deeds? To whom is this Union accountable?

The Union was taken, by its Northern worshipers, from a
contractual institution that can either be cleaved to or scrapped, and
turned into a divinized entity, which must be worshipped, and which
must be permanent, unquestioned, all-powerful. There is no heresy
greater, nor political theory more pernicious, than sacralizing the
secular. But this monstrous process is precisely what happened when
Abraham Lincoln and his northern colleagues made a god out of the
Union. If the British forces fought for bad King George, the Union
armies pillaged and murdered on behalf of this pagan idol, this
"Union," this Moloch that demanded terrible human sacrifice to sustain
its power and its glory.

For in this War Between the States, the South may have fought for
its sacred honor, but the Northern war was the very opposite of
honorable. We remember the care with which the civilized nations had
developed classical international law. Above all, civilians must not be
targeted; wars must be limited. But the North insisted on creating a
conscript army, a nation in arms, and broke the 19th-century rules of
war by specifically plundering and slaughtering civilians, by
destroying civilian life and institutions so as to reduce the South to
submission. Sherman’s infamous March through Georgia was one of the
great war crimes, and crimes against humanity, of the past
century-and-a-half. Because by targeting and butchering civilians,
Lincoln and Grant and Sherman paved the way for all the genocidal
honors of the monstrous 20th century. There has been a lot of talk in
recent years about memory, about never forgetting about history as
retroactive punishment for crimes of war and mass murder. As Lord
Acton, the great libertarian historian, put it, the historian, in the
last analysis, must be a moral judge. The muse of the historian, he
wrote, is not Clio, but Rhadamanthus, the legendary avenger of innocent
blood. In that spirit, we must always remember, we must never forget,
we must put in the dock and hang higher than Haman, those who, in
modern times, opened the Pandora’s Box of genocide and the
extermination of civilians: Sherman, Grant, and Lincoln.

Perhaps, some day, their statues, like Lenin’s in Russia, will be
toppled and melted down; their insignias and battle flags will be
desecrated, their war songs tossed into the fire. And then Davis and
Lee and Jackson and Forrest, and all the heroes of the South, "Dixie"
and the Stars and Bars, will once again be truly honored and remembered.

The above, though a lot of excerpts, is just a scratch on the surface.

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  1. Matt on December 28, 2007 at 13:35

    Charley Hardman wrote a great article about Lincoln's occupation of the southern states:

    Within the article, one section is titled "Who owns you?" That's a question I've been asking people for a long time, now, and very few ever grasp the implications.

  2. John T. Kennedy on December 28, 2007 at 14:48

    I don't see how a war fought via conscription is just. There was some conscription in the Revolutionary War, but conscription was widespread and systematic under the Confederacy. The Twenty Nigger Law doesn't seem like part of any just war.

    The North had no right to bind the South, but the fact that the South fought in significant measure to preserve slavery certainly taints their side of the war also.

  3. Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2007 at 15:06

    Of course you're right, John, and had I written this up myself I'd have stipulated that it was the cause itself to go to war that was just. Slavery taints it, of course, but then from an anarchist perspective, going to war in order to establish "your own government," as was the case with the Revolutionaries certainly taints that side too.

    It should be noted that I said at the beginning that I don't accept the premises, and this is all wrapped up in that. If America as it stands was really invaded by a foreign power intent on domination, we'd consider it just to go to war. We'd be fighting for the currently existing oppressive government we have (the devil we know) and if the threat was big enough, conscription would surely become a part of it.

  4. John T. Kennedy on December 28, 2007 at 17:02

    I'm just surprised that Rothbard couldn't see that the Confederacy was every bit as much a criminal gang as the Union and that criminal gangs don't have rights.

    Individuals have rights. They have the right to secede, and the right to defend their property directly and by voluntary association. And the Confederacy was nothing like a voluntary association.

    Here he conflates "a people" with "a government".

    And this simply won't do: "But the North insisted on creating a conscript army…"

    The Confederacy did that first, and Davis and Lee were the architects for national conscription in the South. So lets not go overboard with honors for them Murray.

  5. John Lopez on December 28, 2007 at 18:59

    The Revolutionary War was a "just" war? Nonsense, the founders threw off one state and imposed a new one. Both were imposed by force on non-consenters and so both were illegitimate. The amount of force imposed or whether or not some of the thieves involved later got cheated by some of the others is irrelevant.

    What I think that Rothbard's piece really demonstrates is that he either couldn't apply principles consistently or that he chose not to apply priciples consistently.

  6. John T. Kennedy on December 28, 2007 at 19:22

    In the last quoted paragraph we see Rothbard display the same fetish for the confederacy that's so pronounced at LRC. I have not seen Ron Paul explicitly indulge in that fetish but it wouldn't surprise me if he did, considering his close ties to LRC. His mention of Thomas Dilorenzo the other day was somewhat troubling since Dilorenzo, the house historian of LRC, is an embarassing apologist for the Confederacy.

    Criticism of Lincoln's crimes is fully justified, glorification of the Confederacy is not.

  7. Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2007 at 20:32

    Well guys, I think you simply need to draw a distinction between the simple fact in going to war to throw off an oppressor from whatever oppressor ultimately takes its place. You can't really know what's going to happen and that's a critical thing to keep in mind for both the revolutionaries and the secessionists. I admit that conscription muddies the waters because you're employing a form of oppression to throw off another. But so does taxation to pay for it.

    The reality is that so far, looks like you're going to have some form of oppressor one way or another, and given that demonstrable fact, there's nothing wrong or irrational in preferring one oppressor over another.

    I'd say it's always just to throw off any oppressor, at any time, by any rational means: a priori. You can't be responsible for the form of the oppression that fills the vacuum.

    In the end, I see a simple justice and value in simply pressing the reset button and seeing what springs up.

  8. John T. Kennedy on December 29, 2007 at 00:19

    "I admit that conscription muddies the waters because you're employing a form of oppression to throw off another. But so does taxation to pay for it."

    Conscription and taxation don't "muddy the waters", they manifestly make the entire project a criminal enterprise. You cannot justly claim to be securing your rights by holding a gun to the heads of innocent men.

    One may prefer the least tyranical oppressor, but that is not justification.

    So no, you can't have a just war with conscription or taxes.

    I think the best example in American history of a just war might be John Brown's campaigns, championed by Lysander Spooner.

    No conscription. No taxes. His men sought to secure the rights of slaves, a morally defensible goal. That's a just war in principle.

  9. John T. Kennedy on December 29, 2007 at 08:57

    "The overall point, in the case of both the revolutionaries and the secessionists, is that their struggles were just in principle…

    For freely associating individuals, not states.

    Not everyone in the colonies or the Confederacy chose to secede. What gave any seccesionists the right to determine the disposition of property of those loyal to the crown or union? In fact the seceeding governments acted as protection rackets and dissenters could whistle for their rights, as is always the case in criminal enterprises.

    Rothbard says the peoples of the 13 colonies formed republican governments but this is pure historical fantasy, as pure as the fantasy that we the people consented to the constitution. Most of the people in the 13 colonies had no say in their state governments just as the overwheliming majority of Americans living at the time had no say in the constitution.

    "Is it not important to draw such distinctions rather than make the perfect the enemy of the good?"

    I read this in context as: Can't we excuse conscription and taxation if it's in a good cause? I don't see how.

    Delivering mail is just in principle. Does that mean the United States Post Office acts justly in principle? Would you say "Hey John, this mail got delivered so let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good?"

    "In the specific case of the secessionists, The North was the more unjust because it used slavery (conscription) if it claims to fight to end slavery."

    And the South claimed a right of seccesion it did not allow slaves or even it's own citizens. What's the difference in principle?

    "Had there been no conscription or taxes, the government of the South would have been squeaky clean."

    Except for the institutionilization of slavery. And as long as it recognized the rights of disenters, which it didn't. Oh, and except for the fact the the government of the South wouldn't exist at all without taxes. Otherwise, maybe.

    "The individuals in the South who took up arms voluntarily were squeaky clean,…"

    Even when using stolen funds? Even when collobarating with those who conscripted their fellows?

    And once conscription is in place it becomes very unclear who the real volunteers are. Would Bush, Kerry, or Gore have volunteered for any branch of the military if no draft were in place? My guess is no, but we have no way of knowing for sure. So were they volunteers? I don't know. It's a safe bet that many individulas who "volunteered" for service in any war in which they were subject to being drafted would not have volunteered in the absence of a draft.

    "I volunteered for the Army on my birthday. They draft the white trash first around here anyway." – Steve Earle, Copperhead Road

  10. Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2007 at 04:20

    The overall point, in the case of both the revolutionaries and the secessionists, is that their struggles were just in principle, particularly as contrasted from other excursions Americans have undertaken.

    Is it not important to draw such distinctions rather than make the perfect the enemy of the good? Regardless of some of the things that happened, and what came after, these were just wars in principle.

    In the specific case of the secessionists, The North was the more unjust because it used slavery (conscription) if it claims to fight to end slavery. If the war was fought against secession, then that's simply unwarranted aggression. They should have let them go their way. The South was not trying to conquer the North (it was the other way around).

    Had there been no conscription or taxes, the government of the South would have been squeaky clean. The individuals in the South who took up arms voluntarily were squeaky clean, while both volunteers and conscripts in the north were individually culpable — they were the aggressors, either voluntarily or through the justification of following orders.

  11. Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2007 at 10:39

    "For freely associating individuals, not states."

    Well unless I've renounced my anarchism somewhere I don't know about, that's always the most buck-stops-here fundamental point. In most cases, even if I'm talking about something unquestionably good or cool that a state does (like explore space, for instance), I qualify it by pointing out that somewhere along the line some grandma is financing it involuntarily.

    It's easy enough, and I don't object to pointing out (in fact I appreciate your comments very much) that everything is ultimately wrong. It's all wrong for the same reason.

    Still, given the fact that every modern society on earth is bridled with a state, and most of those states wage war at one time or another, it's a value to understand and apply the principle of individual defense and retaliation to the collective representing the state. I do this because I think anti-war pacifism is wrong in fundamental principle.

    "I read this in context as: Can't we excuse conscription and taxation if it's in a good cause? I don't see how."

    I'd have to read Rothbard's piece again with that explicitly in mind to say for sure whether he was excusing it rather than, as I, setting it aside (as well as other injustices) in order to look at the fundamental aggression in the thing and make a judgment call based solely on that.

    "Delivering mail is just in principle. Does that mean the United States Post Office acts justly in principle?"

    Interesting question. I'd have to ask: which principle(s)? In terms of businesslike services, it's probably the biggest value the state provides (fire departments are good, too), it generally does a good job, and for the most part runs near or in the black averaged out, and does so on money collected for services rendered. The only real problem is the one 'ole Lysander ran into, and given that there really only exists now a monopoly on first class and junk mail, it's an area of state domination that's diminishing (also owing to email and electronic file transfer and such) and doing so rather naturally and peacefully.

    "And the South claimed a right of seccesion it did not allow slaves or even it's own citizens. What's the difference in principle?"

    Simply that the North was the overall aggressor. Both conscripted soldiers, both levied taxes, neither allowed their subjects the right of secession, and so on. Had the north simply let the seceding state go their merry way, there would not have been a "Civil War," and that's the main point. At the point of secession, you were dealing with two separate states in principle, and then one of them (the North) set out to conquer the other.

    Here's a consolation that your comments have brought me to: the more important point is that the government of the North was the unjust aggressor, not that the government of the South was the just defender. I think the South, given the reality on the ground, acted justly, but you point out why it shouldn't be a major point. The major point is that the North was the unjust aggressor and invaded, and had they not there would have been no war, at least at that time and under those circumstances.

  12. John Sabotta on December 31, 2007 at 20:22

    The fashion in certain libertarian circles for sympathising with the late unlamented slaveocracy is simply loathesome.

  13. Anonymous on December 31, 2007 at 21:57


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