Are You Sure You Are Waving the Right Flag?

29303976It seems strange to me that those marching and protesting in the name of limited government and states rights would choose a Confederate flag as one of their symbols.  We have Libertarian-leaning economists such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams who celebrate the Confederacy and its leaders as the last bastion of limited federal power in the face of the Lincoln administration, which turned the nation toward “big government” with all of its inherent evils attached.  For these guys, it’s the beginning of the end.  [It’s also one of the best examples of stepping out of your field of study and looking silly.]  For most people who take part in political rallies such as the one this past weekend the flag represents the last stand of limited government, respect for individual and state rights and perhaps even a final gasp before the evils of modernity took hold.

Such overly simplistic distinctions may work well to reinforce our tendency to view the Civil War and much of the rest of our past as battle between good and evil.  On the other hand, it makes for some really bad history.  No one who understands the history of antebellum America could possibly make the mistake of drawing such sharp distinctions given the fact that it was the Southern states who were pushing for the power of the federal government during the 1850s to protect the institution of slavery through legislative acts such as the Fugitive Slave Act and court cases such as the famous Dred Scott decision. Northern states, on the other hand, insisted at times that states had the right to resist the Fugitive Slave Act by passing Personal Liberty Laws which effectively nullified the power of the federal government in their respective communities.

So, is the record of the Confederacy one of limited government and respect for individual rights?  The record includes:

  • Conscription (before the United States)
  • Tax-In-Kind
  • Tariff (higher than the 10 to 15 percent rate proposed by Hamilton in his Report on Manufacturers (1791)
  • Confederate National Investment in Railroads (amounting to 2.5 million in loans, $150,000 advanced, and 1.12 million appropriated)
  • Confederate Quartermasters leveled price controls on private mills and were later authorized to impress whatever supplies they needed.
  • Government ownership of key industries
  • Government regulation of commerce
  • Suspension of habeus corpus (According to historian, Mark Neely, 4,108 civilians were held by military authorities)

John Majewski describes this government as “Confederate war socialism”.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

32 comments… add one
  • RW Sep 21, 2009 @ 5:27


    Here is a partial list of the tyrannical policies of Southern governments (to say nothing of slavery itself). The central and state governments of the Confederacy:

    * instituted military conscription

    * used forced labor in their government-owned factories;

    * preached anti-capitalism in Marxist terms, denouncing the “wage-slavery” of the North

    * adopted military aggression as its foreign policy;

    * carried out untold numbers of warrantless searches,seizures, and arrests, starting early in 1861

    * seized guns from civilians beginning in 1861(after the war, governments of Southern states would enact
    the first gun control laws in the U.S.);

    * printed paper money to finance military aggression, leading to runaway inflation;

    * repudiated lawful debts and contracts;

    * took political prisoners;

    * silenced dissent, curtailing freedom of the press, speech, and assembly;

    * instituted a welfare state;

    * created, in less than three years, a bureaucracy of 70,000 in Richmond to manage the socialist

    * regulated agriculture by imposing acreage controls on cotton and tobacco;

    * nationalized control of foreign commerce, regulating exports, raising tariffs, and banning the importation of all “non-essential” goods;

    * occupied East Tennessee with thousands of troops to prevent the counties there from seceding from the Confederacy (as the counties of western Virginia did).

    SOURCE: THE TRINITY REVIEW, Christians and the Civil War by John W. Robbins

    “Here in the South one occasionally hears people refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression or the War for Southern Independence. They say it in jest, but there seem to be undertones of both resentment and deadly seriousness. Somehow , they think , the North aggressed against the South, an opinion based, not on history, but on Confederate mytho logy. Part of that mythology involves blaming Lincoln, not only for the war (anyone who thinks Lincoln started the war is seriously misinformed), but also for unconstitutional policies that led to the growth of government in the 20th century. This is a distortion of American history (the Progressive Era and the New Deal would seem to be more likely culprits) for the
    purpose of defending slavery and the Confederacy by maligning Lincoln and the Union. Some of the pernicious policies pursued by the federal government in the 20th century either originated in the South or were the results of the war the Confederacy started.”

  • Charles.lovejoy Sep 18, 2009 @ 11:37

    I see no reason in 2009 to apply 1861 logic to any of out modern day political causes ot issues , Confederate or Union 🙂

  • Charles.lovejoy Sep 18, 2009 @ 11:08

    My point is in part , those like Thomas DiLorenzo seem to indicate that the CSA had some type of limited federal power goal and if if had been successful in its secession attempt that today in 2009 it would be the perfect’ balance of government’. I dont buy it, nor do I think the USA to day would be the perfect ‘balance of government’. I think you would be seeing much the same in both the US and CSA today as you see across the globe. Kevin, the reason I used the term ‘Fact’ is it seems everywhere I go people are complaining about their government. Canada, Italy the UK , Mexico, Honduras ect ect . I have even heard Swiss persons complain about their government. I just seem to encounter complainers just about everywhere I go. I dont see if the CSA had survived as being any differnt than the rest, it would have its own set of unique issues and problems. Maybe Im overly Cynical 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009 @ 11:17

      I got it.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009 @ 10:44


    I think what you are laying out here is more clearly defined as a counterfactual rather than a fact.

  • Charles.lovejoy Sep 18, 2009 @ 10:25

    FACT: If the South was successful in its succession and formed the CSA, today it would be divided into different political groups engaged in the same type conflict and debate as you see today in the US, and its people would all be grumbling about its government . Grumbling about what it was and was not doing. Its northern neighbor the USA would be doing the same thing. Anywhere you go in the world people grumble about their government, that’s human nature. Most humans are by nature are complainers.

  • Mike Sep 18, 2009 @ 7:10

    Sorry Kevin it is hard to detect intent and tone on a blog. I felt from reading the information at the top that the writers were trying to make a moral issue point. As for Moral Issues I care. Historically and today. Since the writers intent is to simpily point out the flaws the CSA government had I relent and cocur with their analysis of the data. The CSA government was far from perfect and this was made worse by the war. If Abe had let the South go peacefully and with a agreement of transfer of Fed property for cash or cotton the CSA government might have been a better government but I digress. History show that both abuse our natural rights as men in order to win a war.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009 @ 8:06


      I wasn’t trying point out flaws as much as I was addressing a discrepancy between the past and our collective memory. Again, I am not interested in making a moral point here. Finally, the counterfactual doesn’t really hold as we know that white Southerners were pushing for increased state intervention well before the start of the war to help subsidize and support an agricultural economy. I highly recommend checking out Majewski’s book.

  • Craig Sep 18, 2009 @ 5:30

    I think it is important, also, to keep in context the expansions of both the Confederate and Federal government as result of the war. Certainly the basic Republican platform was not one pinned to “big government.” And there were significant voices of opposition, within the Republican party, to Lincoln’s running of the war, with specific points made about the expanding government powers. And on the other side of the battle line, the ready example of opposition to the expanded central government is Gov. Brown of Georgia. (Although I’d be interested to see how many of the 4,000 some odd suspended Habus Corpus cases involved dissent along a similar line.)

    Again, in order to fight a war, governments expand, and often do things the political leaders would probably criticism in other times. Look at WWII where a pro-labor President was put in the position to place limits on collective bargaining.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 18, 2009 @ 3:35

    Kevin, I read Hummel’s book when it first came out, and it is very good. He takes an expected libertarian stance and delves into economics more than most folks, but I enjoyed it. He obsesses on Lincoln’s decision to oppose secession, and suggests Lincoln considered arresting Taney in the wake of Merryman (a claim he has since backed off of); those are the weak points, I guess. He has real nice chapter-by-chapter bibliographic notes kind of discussions.

  • Chris Sep 17, 2009 @ 18:55

    Kevin you write: “For most people who take part in political rallies such as the one this past weekend the flag represents the last stand of limited government, respect for individual and state rights and perhaps even a final gasp before the evils of modernity took hold.”

    For MOST people. Really, where do you get this evidence from? I know, I am a silly simply minded conservative and excuse me, I need to hang go hang my Confederate flag out the window of my redneck home. You probably saw a news report on NBC or CBS that told you MOST of these people were racists!


    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009 @ 0:51


      Wow…who said anything about being a racist or being a redneck in this post? You need to back off and chill out. Yes, I was speaking loosely here, but I think the point was made even if I didn’t do a statistical survey. You are more than welcome to comment on the content of this post, but please don’t waste my time with your own petty insecurities.

  • John Stoudt Sep 17, 2009 @ 16:28


    I would recommend for you and your readers Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s volume, entitled _Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men_, for a Libertarian interpretation of the Civil War. Hummel is a strict free marketer and a dogmatic Libertarian, and his views show it. Unlike Thomas DiLorenzo, Hummel holds the state, the federal, and the Confederate governments all accountable for their many restrictions of civil liberties and incursions into the economy.

    The breadth and depth of Hummel’s research is outstanding, with excellent bibliographical essays at the end of each chapter. Hummel is an economist and an historian, and he works well in both fields. While I do not agree with several of Hummel’s interpretations or his Libertarian opinions, I greatly respect his research. Hummel’s book, though sadly overlooked by the academic community, is a favorite of the Libertarian, neo-Confedrate, and anti-federal government websites. Of course, they commonly cherry pick Hummel’s anti-Lincoln quotes and ignore his anti-Confedrate comments.

    As an aside, Daniel Feller’s witty, pointed, and incisive triple review entitled “Libertarians in the Attic, or a Tale of Two Narratives” appeared in the June, 2004, issue (vol. 32, no. 2) of _Reviews in American History_. Feller reviews Hummel’s volume, DiLorenzo’s _The Real Lincoln_, and Charles Adams’ _When in the Course of Human Events_. Unlike the other two books, Feller regards Hummel’s volume as a “breath of fresh air.”

    While I am not a Libertarian, I appreciate a history book which is well researched and written and one that challenges my preconceived views. I think that you and your readers would appreciate it, too; hence, I have submitted these comments.

    Thank you for your time spent in operating this blog.

    John Stoudt

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 16:34


      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the reference. While I have not read Hummel’s book I have also heard good things about it. The problem with DiLorenzo is not that he is a libertarian, but that he uses the past to reinforce his own economic/political views. That said, the bigger problem is that he is simply a crappy historian.

  • Victor Sep 17, 2009 @ 16:15

    Absolutely agree, Craig. The governments increased enough to keep the war running as efficiently as possible. This trend has existed throughout history, in every conflict. The lucky thing is that we as Americans survived this war without a dictatorship or oligarchy or some other non-democratic system. Being reminded of the resiliency of the American system always makes me feel better about the absurdities of today’s world.

  • Craig Sep 17, 2009 @ 15:12

    I always love seeing long standing “beliefs” debunked. Perhaps related, or at least an intersecting thread, by 1862, the Confederacy was the third ranking industrial nation in the world. So it is hard to paint “Dixie” as a nation of simple agrarians.

    The real lesson learned here is that it takes a big government to fight a war. If you prefer small government, you should really oppose war!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 15:16

      Good point, Craig.

  • Matt McKeon Sep 17, 2009 @ 13:59

    Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were not alike, but they had the same job: winning a really big war. The message is that Americans are willing to trade away some of their civil rights and local control in time of war, with the understanding that wartime is a temporary thing.

    What makes our current global war on terror concerning(one of the things) is that it’s so shapeless and endless, the president’s power is permanently enhanced.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 13:34

    Thanks Dan.


    Of course, Lincoln did not intend to be king, but neither did Andrew Jackson and the Whig Party successfully portrayed him as such. On the specific issue of Lincoln and habeus corpus/civil liberties I highly recommend Mark Neely’s _The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties_ (Oxford University Press). It is considered by many to be the best book on the subject and it even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

  • Victor Sep 17, 2009 @ 12:18

    I’ve read quite a bit about Abraham Lincoln and never once did I read anything he wrote where he said he wanted to be a king. Aside from some commercial stuff, I never heard about him making it a life goal to suspend habeas corpus, either.

    The unconstitutional things he did were done not because he was a dictator at heart but because he felt they were necessary emergency measures. Nowhere can we find that they were intended to be permanent or as part of some evil scheme of Lincoln’s.

  • Dan Wright Sep 17, 2009 @ 12:08

    The Southern Heritage/Lost Cause guys that I’ve talked with tend to blast Lincoln for a variety of shortcomings and ignore similar issues in the Confederacy. I agree with Jarret about the Davis book “Look Away.” There was plenty of big government, trampling on states’ and individual rights and other abuses in the Confederacy. Still, the Southern Heritage/Lost Cause crowd tends to remember the Confederacy as a Mort Kuntsler painting. I see it as a massive failure and I have a “lose the war, take down the flag” attitude.
    Another excellent post from Kevin.

  • Mike Sep 17, 2009 @ 10:18

    For all that is listed at the top of this page, Ole Abe did worse! From shutting down newspapers to suspending habeus corpus. Mr Abe is no saint and violated the Constitution more than any other President in US History. We talk about Andrew Jackson expansion of Presidental Power but Lincoln wanted to become King.

    This is just another case of the self righteous North fulfilling the old saying about the Pot calling the Kettle black.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 11:06


      With all due respect, now you sound sort of silly. My point is not make a moral claim about the steps the Confederate government took during the war, but to point out a disparity between history and memory. Lincoln clearly extended and increased the power of the federal government during the war and that is still debated to this day. I wonder if it would help if we tried to understand the steps taken by both the Confederacy as well as the United States to broaden the powers of their respective governments as part of a broader movement of nation states throughout the nineteenth century. I suspect that we will learn much more than simply sinking into a morality play about who was more evil. I mean, who cares.

  • Victor Sep 17, 2009 @ 9:57

    This was a great post. I agree completely with the article, it’s something that I’ve known but never really thought about before. The CSA really did embrace “big government.” You make a very good point.

    I tend to think that virtually any person who has a Confederate flag attached to their car or hat probably knows little about the actual Civil War. I have Confederate flag items in my home (a pretty cool knife that was a gift, a small flag along with many other nations’) but I never “root” for the South. I keep them as historical items of value to me. But these people who embrace the Confederacy as some sort of thing to look up to…well…they should really thank God the South didn’t win.

  • Vicki Betts Sep 17, 2009 @ 5:13

    Here in Texas, which was relatively untouched by battles although not untouched by the war, the Confederate government seemed to try to stay respectful of private property held by Confederate citizens for as long as it could. But as the war dragged on longer than initially expected, and resources began to either dry up or be withheld, that’s when the more severe measures went into effect. Desperation seemed to bring about desperate measures, none of which were particularly relished by local military leaders, and most of which were abhorred by local civilian leaders. Had the same level of need arisen in the northern states, would similar scenarios have developed?

    I’ve seen Texas correspondence referring to the clearing of debts to Northern business, although after the war the letter writer worked to pay that debt back to reestablish his credit…can’t remember where right now, of course. And “enemy” property was seized by the government in Sequestration Courts, particularly in Galveston with its strong import commercial base.

    Vicki Betts

  • Mike Sep 17, 2009 @ 5:09

    Folks it reminds me of the old saying “All is Fair in Love and War” The CSA government lasted 4 years and was in a state of war that entire time. What they would have become is an educated guess at best and pure conjecture at worse. As for limited government and taxes I prefer to fly the Gaston and Gonzales flags.

    Most folks I have meet over my 44 years in the South fly the battle flag because they are independent ole cusses and others because it upsets Liberals and Yankees. Sometimes folks in the media, Govenment and Education read too much into the why someone flys the battle fly based upon it’s misuse by some in the past. If you want to know stop and ask them.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 5:14


      I hear what you are saying, but please don’t reduce this simply to a case of the media and academics imposing their interpretation on what people mean when they fly the flag. Plenty of people have voiced this interpretation in one form or another and I do not mean in any way to suggest that everyone believes it to be so. Clearly, the belief that the Confederacy is best defined as a a government in contrast with a much more expansive and invasive US government is widely held. Thanks for the comment.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2009 @ 2:14


    I will have to look into it. The other thing that may be surprising to some is that R.E. Lee himself seems to have been one of the more emphatic advocates for government intervention. Gary Gallagher is fond of pointing out that Lee believed the Confederate government ought to have the right to take every last cow to feed the army if necessary. Not really the Lee that many choose to remember.

  • Robert Moore Sep 16, 2009 @ 18:25


    Great post! By the way, are you familiar with the Confederate-initiated clearing of all Southern debts to Northern businesses? I recall having heard something about this back in grad school at ODU, but can’t recall the source or complete details. I’d like to read more about it.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

  • Bob Pollock Sep 16, 2009 @ 17:26


    This is a great post. I had a discussion a couple days ago with some visitors to White Haven on this very topic. I think it is interesting that the CSA Constitution specifically made the federal government permanent. Also, if the state governments were doing such a great job of protecting the rights of ALL their citizens (Ok, those living within their borders) there would have been no need for the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I later wanted to look more closely at the CSA Constitution and found this website conveniently posted the U.S. side by side with the CSA.

    I thought the summary was quite interesting:


    Overall, the CSA constitution does not radically alter the federal system that was set up under the United States constitution. It is thus very debatable as to whether the CSA was a significantly more pro-“states’ rights” country (as supporters claim) in any meaningful sense. At least three states rights are explicitly taken away- the freedom of states to grant voting rights to non-citizens, the freedom of states to outlaw slavery within their borders, and the freedom of states to trade freely with each other.

    States only gain four minor rights under the Confederate system- the power to enter into treaties with other states to regulate waterways, the power to tax foreign and domestic ships that use their waterways, the power to impeach federally-appointed state officials, and the power to distribute “bills of credit.” When people champion the cause of reclaiming state power from the feds, are matters like these at the tops of their lists of priorities?

    As previously noted, the CSA constitution does not modify many of the most controversial (from a states’ rights perspective) clauses of the American constitution, including the “Supremacy” clause (6-1-3), the “Commerce” clause (1-8-3) and the “Necessary and Proper” clause (1-8-18). Nor does the CSA take away the federal government’s right to suspend habeus corpus or “suppress insurrections.”

    As far as slave-owning rights go, however, the document is much more effective. Indeed, CSA constitution seems to barely stop short of making owning slaves mandatory. Four different clauses entrench the legality of slavery in a number of different ways, and together they virtually guarantee that any sort of future anti-slave law or policy will be unconstitutional. People can claim the Civil War was “not about slavery” until the cows come home, but the fact remains that anyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting for a country in which a universal right to own slaves was one of the most entrenched laws of the land.

    In the end, however, many of the most interesting changes introduced in the CSA constitution have nothing to do with federalism or slavery at all. The President’s term limit and line-item veto, along with the various fiscal restraints, and the ability of cabinet members to answer questions on the floor of Congress are all innovative, neutral ideals whose merits may still be worth pondering today.

  • Jarret Sep 16, 2009 @ 15:58

    William C. Davis’ “Look Away!”: A History of the Confederate States of America” is a great resource to see just how far the Confederacy slipped into a “big government” nation. His chapter on salt socialism is great. In addition and only slightly off-topic, many historians, like Nicholas and Peter Onuf in “Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War,” have argued that the nineteenth century South was moving towards becoming a thoroughly modernized, slave-holding nation-state. Which makes sense, especially when scholars of nationalism like Ernest Gellner argue that modern nation states need centralized governments to contain their complex economies and huge territories. The point being that the Confederacy was not headed towards a Jeffersonian small-farmers’ republic because it was not going backwards but forwards, as were all modern states in the nineteenth century. Its expantionist leanings and impressive wartime mobilization point to a modern, centralized state, not “small government.” This is true of all of nineteenth century America.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2009 @ 16:01


      Thanks for mentioning the Onuf book, which is a must read. I found that book to be an incredibly dense read. Majewski’s book is short and tracks the extent to which Southerners pushed their respective state governments to support agriculture with subsidies for railroads and other government projects. He argues that this easily translated into policies within the Confederate government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *