What should libertarians think about the Civil War?

Unlike the pro-Confederate position, these libertarian defenders of the North are keenly aware of both the centrality of slavery to the conflict as well as the importance of the abolitionist cause to the liberal intellectual tradition. Standing as a direct antithesis to the pro-Confederate arguments, these faute de mieux Unionists recognize the inherent and fundamental contradiction between slavery and human liberty.

Their position embraces the Union victory on a consequentialist acceptance of the resulting emancipation of the slaves, and disavows any conceivable association between libertarian thought and a brutish Southern slavocracy, born of no other motive or purpose but to entrench and expand that pernicious institution—and deserving of nothing short of a violent and warring elimination by any means or justification.

The argument is both morally appealing and marked by its clarity, but it also suffers from its Manichean simplicity and a tendency to read an inevitable “irrepressible conflict” into the hindsight of the Civil War’s destruction.

This view recognizes slavery and celebrates its abolition, but it tends to neglect or even rationalize the war’s uglier features and consequences: a dramatic weakening of the constitutional federalism laid out in 1787, a rapid acceleration of the scope and power of the federal government, a precedent-setting assault on habeas corpus and expansion of presidential war powers that persists to the present day—and the horrendous destruction itself.