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Ron Paul and the Civil War

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By Peter

Ta- Nehisi Coates has been doing invaluable work picking apart Ron Paul’s pro-confederate musings. Paul, if you listen to the speech, argues that the true cause of the Civil War was less slavery (though he magnanimously concedes that slavery did play an “important issue”), and more the desire by Lincoln and the Republicans to enhance state power and to get rid of states’ rights.

There is a lot thats insane about this view. But what’s most remarkable is the conspiratorial tone. Listen to the conscious agency that Paul attributes to Lincoln. Federal power, in this case, did not develop out of the necessities of war, but rather was the conscious goal all along. The abolitionists/Republicans “saw this opportunity and used the issue of slavery to precipitate the war and literally cancel out the whole concept of individual choice.” Slavery was a “rabbling-rousing ” issue. Yes, Lincoln just wanted to share in the glow of the notoriously popular abolitionists. Rather than just buy out the slave owners as the British had, the Republicans seized on the slavery issue in order to fight an unnecessary war under the cover of which they could centralize the government, pass a tariff (odd that they hadn’t needed to kill 600,000 people in order to get the other tariffs passed), and issue the hated fiat currency. Lincoln, then, was basically a nineteenth century Senator Palpatine.

Then, consider the extent of the treachery involved. Hundreds of newspaper editors were convinced to spend the 1850s writing about slavery while ignoring their true desire: an increase in Federal Power. An entire political party had to be developed which pretended to be formed out of outrage over the spread of slavery and pretended to want “free soil, free labor, and free men,” while really devoted to the destruction of liberty. Think of all the Jeffersonians deluded into joining the Republican Party. And then think of how clever it was to convince all the Southerners to draft secession statements in which they listed slavery, not State’s Rights, as the preeminent cause of secession. And finally extraordinary duplicity of the Fireeaters who attacked Federal Forts in order to provide the pretext for the North to invade. A conspiracy to pretend that everyone was fighting over slavery that was so vast and monstrous that an entire society was in on the secret.

Like most libertarian fantasies there is a small element of truth to what Paul is saying. The power of the Federal Government did rise, of course, during the Civil War, though the vast majority of the power was an unintended by product of modern war (War is, after all, the health of the state). Those things that were part of the Republican platform of 1860– like the Homestead Act or the tariffs– were unquestionably constitutional. More to the point, the major changes to the fundamental structure of the US Government were the Reconstruction Amendments, especially the 14th. But does Paul think there is something unconstitutional about passing a Constitutional amendment? Isn’t that what strict constructionists would want us to do?

And there is a plausible case to be made– much as the Beards did– that whatever people thought they were fighting over, the true out world-historical import of the war was that it represented a victory for the Northern industrial and merchant class over the agrarian South. But this is only an argument that can be made with some sort of “ruse of reason,” type logic, where the actors are unaware of the ultimate consequences of their actions. Paul, who I suspect isn’t much of a Hegelian, is making a much stronger argument: that the war was created in order to centralize federal power, rather than centralization being a side effect of the war.

Which brings us to the final point: Paul isn’t just some crackpot amateur historian. He’s a politician who, at least theoretically, is running for President. Giving an address about how slave owners should have been paid for their “property,” while standing in front of a Confederate Flag is sending a pretty direct message about who he imagines his supporters to be. Even if there is a theoretically race-neutral pro-Confederate argument to be made (and I don’t think there is), the simple act of choosing to present oneself that way in 2012, knowing how offensive people find the Confederate Flag, illustrates perfectly the unstated racial assumptions Paul’s ideology.

Which is all another reason why progressives should be cautious about Ron Paul. Yes, he’s anti-war and pro-civil liberties. But these positions develop from an ideological perspective that historically defines “Freedom” as defending the prerogatives of landed white men. He does not come from the broad tradition of the Left that sees emancipation as a goal, but rather a particular type of right-wing libertarianism that sees the protection of inherited privileges as the goal. The dislike of the Federal Government cannot be separated from the historical fact that the Federal Government has been, vis a vis the Southern elite at least, the friend of Southern blacks. Even listen to Paul, while talking about the Declaration of Independence, smoothly define “consent of the people,” to “consent of the states,” as if it would be impossible for a state to not be representative of its citizens.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 23, 2012 at 21:38

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] Ron Paul and the revised Civil War. […]


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