Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.
No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.
Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:
At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.
Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:
Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!
Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.
First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.
I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.
Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.
So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.
This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.
The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.
For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.
If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.
Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*
Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.
While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.
* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.
* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.