I waited entirely too long to write this post, and now it’s no longer topical, but I did want to take a few moments to specifically address one of the points Jon Stewart continually brought up during his interview debate with Judge Napolitano.
Throughout the inquisition, Stewart repeatedly feigns utter shock that someone like the Judge, who regularly praises the virtues of individual liberty and is well known to respect and to have written favorably about the American founding fathers could possibly oppose Lincoln’s invasion of the south. After all, the founding fathers fought a war because they were being denied their freedom. And Lincoln fought a war because blacks were being denied their freedom. Same principle, right? How could a consistent person possibly support the one but not support the other… unless they’re secretly some sort of evil neo-confederate!
Multiple times, the Judge attempted to explain the flaws with this argument, but whenever he tried to respond, Stewart would either resort back to mockery and making jokes, or change the subject entirely. All things considered, it’s not a very hard argument to shoot down. First, let’s consider how delicately the argument is framed. You have to frame things in an incredibly narrow and specific way for this argument to even make the slightest amount of sense. In the paragraph above, I actually struggled to find the words to frame the argument in a way that was fair to Stewart while not foreshadowing my objections to it. For the comparison to work, you have to view the war of independence as a bunch of subjugated colonists fighting for the right to self-determination, and you have to view the war between the states as a bunch of noble northerners fighting for the freedom of enslaved blacks in the south. Any other framing would cause the analogy to collapse.
Consider (as the Judge attempted to point out) that in both cases the wars were fought over the right to secede; and Stewart’s analogy is completely flipped! The war of independence consisted of the founding fathers declaring that they had a right to break away from a political arrangement that no longer suited their interests. The war between the states also featured a group declaring that it had a right to break away from a political arrangement that no longer suited its interest – and that group was the south, not the north. Stewart’s analogy is not only flawed, he essentially has things completely reversed. The analogy, when expressed in terms of secession, supports the exact opposite conclusion from the one he is attempting to draw. Someone who supported the American colonists’ right to break away from Britain should also support the south’s right to break away from the Union.
But what about slavery? Let me be very clear: Slavery is evil, abhorrent, and runs completely counter to all libertarian values. No self-respecting libertarian has ever argued that slavery in the south was justified for any reason. The Judge never attempted to claim that it was. On this fact, he and Stewart (and me!) are in agreement. That being said, the notion that the purpose of the war between the states was to guarantee the right of self-determination to all people and bring about the fulfillment of the promises of the declaration of independence is absurd. Prior to the war, freed blacks could not vote in many northern states. Women could not vote in any state. Native Americans were not considered citizens and could not vote. In some jurisdictions, people of Asian or Irish descent could not vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements were used to limit voting access to all of these groups, and even to poor, uneducated whites. I could go into plenty of detail regarding the various evidence that Lincoln, as well as other prominent Union politicians and generals, were racists who didn’t care much about slavery at all, but there are plenty of resources available for anyone who would like to do research on that. Besides, that was the general issue that The Judge and Stewart were debating in the first place – whether Lincoln really cared about slavery or not.
Stewart’s analogy also fails due to the incredibly obvious fact that the methods in which the two wars were fought are not at all comparable. Or, to the extent that they are comparable, once again, the south has far more in common with the founding fathers than the north does. The American founding fathers fought a defensive war. Their main objective was to chase the British out of America. They wanted to be left alone. They had no intention of invading the British Isles and imposing their will on English citizens. When they obtained victory, the terms of the Treaty of Paris simply required that Britain recognize that the various states (plural) were sovereign and independent entities.
Now consider the war between the states. Which side fought a defensive war? The south. Which side’s main objective was to chase the agents of a foreign government out of their lands? The south. Which side simply wanted to be left alone? The south. Which side had no intention of invading the other and imposing its will on their citizens? The south. While it’s true that the confederate army did “invade” Maryland and Pennsylvania during two separate campaigns, this was not an invasion for the purposes of establishing dominion over the invaded territory. There is zero evidence that the south had any desire, to impose its system of government on the entire nation. The purpose of these invasions was to draw the northern army into a vulnerable position, and defeat it. Had this been accomplished, their demands would have been the same as the demands of the American colonists: You acknowledge our right to exist as a separate nation and you leave us alone. That’s it.
As a side-note, that’s why I no longer use the term “civil war.” I used to think people who referred to the war as anything but “the civil war” were ridiculous cranks who were complicating language for no good reason, until recently when the real justification was explained to me. A “civil war” is properly defined as a struggle over who gets to wield power in a particular jurisdiction. Essentially, two sides fighting over control of one nation. That definition does not apply to this case, precisely because the south had no intention of ruling over the north. This was a war of secession, not a power-struggle for one centralized crown.
This is a very complex debate and there are plenty more issues to cover. But I don’t intend to have the whole thing out right here. For now, I’d just like to highlight how dumb one of Stewart’s analogies was, and to encourage everyone to go do their own research. Read a “revisionist” history book on the civil war. You might be surprised what you learn.