Libertarians and the Confederacy

We are all familiar with the libertarian perspective on the Civil War that views Lincoln as a tyrant and the Confederacy as the last bastion of limited government. It’s a strange cast of characters, including Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams, both of who go out of their way to paint the Confederacy in the best light by minimizing the importance of slavery to secession and overlooking its own march toward a centralized state. Their limited understanding of historical scholarship comes through loud and clear in their books and/or Op-eds. In recent years there seems to be a realignment among those on the right regarding Lincoln and the war from folks like Glenn Beck to National Review editor, Rich Lowry, who recently published a new book on Lincoln

In this video Jason Kuznicki of the Cato Institute asks his fellow libertarians to reconsider their support of the Confederacy. Let’s ignore for a moment just how bizarre it is to be even talking about supporting the Confederacy 150 years later. I am less concerned with sound historical interpretation than I am with the fact that the Cato Institute believes there is a need for such a video. What do you make of it?

30 comments… add one
  • Chris Shelley Mar 14, 2014 @ 15:29

    Like most Libertarian arguments, he makes some great points, but ignores others in order to push his argument. Chief among them is the fact that saving the Union on its own terms–restoring the status quo ante bellum–was incredibly important, and by itself justified Lincoln’s actions. After all, if a minority can simply leave because they don’t like the results of an election (as he admits South Carolina did), then there is NO SUCH THING as popular government–no such thing as democracy, no such thing as self-rule. Lincoln, of course, like many Union men and women of the time, felt this to the core of his being, and so understood the stakes: that the success of the Confederacy meant that all those European monarchies were right, and that the American experiment was wrong. Common people were NOT capable of self-government. Happily, We, The People proved them wrong and Lincoln right.

    His treatment of the Confederate flag is inadequate. Ta-Nahesi Coates of the Atlantic has made the definitive statement on that:

    “If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word ‘patriot’ has no meaning…. [T]he Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery…but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.” (

    To my mind, the mistake of most Libertarians (like Ron Paul) is that they assume slavery was merely an economic system–that if Lincoln had simply purchased the slaves, the war could have been avoided. Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore destroy that argument on the basis of economics and morals; but the other aspect is that slavery was a system of social control and white supremacy. Southern slave owners were terrified of living in a multi-ethnic society. Even Lincoln pushed colonization for this reason. And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the actual cost of compensated emancipation would have caused a massive increase in federal bureaucracy and tax revenue to pay for it–the exact thing Libertarians say they abhor.

    Libertarianism is just too ahistorical to really make sense as a political or economic theory. If they would stick to civil liberties they would be much more appealing.

  • TF Smith Aug 18, 2013 @ 11:59

    “There were no heroes in this war” pretty much sums up this individual’s divorce from the historical reality of assesing human behavior in times of great danger and stress…

    Granted, it’s just trying to cover for Sen. Paul, but bottom line, libertarianism comes down to the “parlor pink” equivalent of anarchy.

    About the most one can say to that is “grow up”…

  • Delmar Mewes Aug 16, 2013 @ 16:50

    Libertarian professors have been anything but silent on the Paulbots and the Jack Hunter flap. This is just the latest in a long line of Libertarians denouncing him. And it isn’t just to provide Libertarians cover. They are in genuine disagreement with the neoconfederates.


  • Ken Noe Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:17

    When you refer to the Pauls, DiLorenzo, Williams, and Rockwell, as well as people like Thomas Woods, you’re discussing a particular strain of libertarianism, the followers of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School of Economics, headquartered about six miles from my house. There’s a longstanding rivalry between the Mises Institute and the Cato Institute over the soul of their movement, which includes their conflicting views of Lincoln and secession.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:21

      Thanks for the reminder, Ken. Good point.

    • Rob Baker Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:55

      I knew about the different Institutes and that one is a “think tank” where the other maintains “no political party affiliation”, but I did not know about the rivalry. Thanks for that insight.

  • Jack Rentfro Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:09

    As if bad military strategy weren’t enough, libertarianism is what killed the Confederacy from within. These geniuses ought to read “The Fall of the House of Dixie” by Bruce Levine. It’ll knock the (Bonnie Blue) stars out of their eyes.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:12

      Excellent book.

  • Rob Baker Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:40

    I love how the comments section says “Join the Conversation” as that is what I feel at this point.

    As someone that is Libertarian leaning, I think DiLorenzo’s work is absurd. I do not, however, chalk this up to mere Libertarian fundamentals as much as pointing out that an Economist is playing historian…and poorly at that. To clarify, this happens outside of the political influence of Libertarianism. Last year I attended a conference at the Federal Reserve (Atlanta Branch) where an Economist applied an Economic view of American history in line with Common Core standards. It was garbage. The man went so far as to suggest a re-colonization of Haiti, without taking into account that colonization is a factor in their current poverty stricken state. He got defensive when I told him so. I am going back this year, I’ll probably blog about it while I’m there.

    I guess this brings us to historical interpretation all together. As far as I know, there really are not any prominent Libertarian leaning professional historians to point Libertarians in the right direction. ( Most seem to be economists, which although sound in their economic theories, come up short when attempting to write history. Some of the others mentioned, Glenn Beck bring one of them, are horrible examples of Libertarians, as he exhibits what fits him at the time, and what helps his ratings. You allude to them being “right leaning” or Conservatives, and rightly so.

    Most Libertarians that I’ve spoken to personally, do not share DiLorenzo’s beliefs, or those that parallel them. Libertarian-leaning Republicans however, parade these “icons of Freedom” at Tea Parties. I don’t count these people as Libertarian but rather Neo-Conservatives under the guise of Libertarians (i.e. Rand Paul). In short, these Libertarian forms of history are crap. As I said before, there are not any prominent Libertarians historians. Instead, many gravitate to the “academics” and their published literature. Ideologically, I think Gary Johnson is emerging as the icon of true Libertarian thought (thankfully) leaving Ron Paul’s, later in life overzealous states’ rights concepts behind. Just my 2 cents.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:00

      Thanks for the comment, Rob.

      As far as I know, there really are not any prominent Libertarian leaning professional historians to point Libertarians in the right direction.

      Why would Libertarians need a LLPH at all? You seem to do just fine reading the latest scholarship. Do Libertarians approach the historical profession in the way that many neo-Conservatives do? In other words, ignore the argument and focus in on the author’s profile.

      • Rob Baker Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:10

        Thanks for pointing that out Kevin. I am not suggesting that there is a LLPH viewpoint, such as a marxist (small ‘m’), social, military race, etc. emphasis or viewpoint on history. I’m suggesting that people feel comfortable among their own. When I say “point Libertarians”, I should clarify by saying ‘those Libertarians without a background in history.’ If the internet is any indicator, peoples of numerous political backgrounds can be led astray by like minded individuals. Such is the case with Libertarians. In this instance, they resonate on arguments made by other Libertarians who share their view of economics and freedom, and they insert such arguments practically everywhere whether they belong there or not.

        Hope that clarifies.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 7:12

          Thanks for the follow up, Rob. I got it.

  • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:12

    This is damage control on the part of the Cato Institute. The two best-known Libertarian elected officials in the United States are Ron and Rand Paul, both of whom have long histories of long affiliations with Confederate apologists, in Ron Paul’s case spanning four decades, in his close and ongoing relationship with Lew Rockwell. (It’s Rockwell who is widely acknowledged to have written the race-baiting screeds that were published over Ron Paul’s name in his newsletter in the 1980s, that Paul later said he had no idea who wrote them.) Rand Paul’s self-inflicted wound with hiring Jack “The Southern Avenger” Hunter is just one more in a long string of needless embarrassments both men have brought onto themselves that inevitably taint their image as Libertarians.

    I’m not sure that the folks at Cato think either Paul is particularly Libertarian at all, in a lot of ways. (Ron Paul was especially good at bringing earmarks to the 14th Texas while he was in office.) But to the extent that both men are viewed by the electorate as the face of the Libertarian ideas, their long-standing crush on the Confederacy is a real image problem for the folks at Cato.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:15

      Interesting, but how does this fair with the fact that Rand Paul remains extremely popular among libertarians?

      • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:31

        Both Pauls have taken high-profile stands on specific issues that score high points with Libertarian groups, Ron on the drug war, for example, and Rand on drones and surveillance. (For the record, I think there’s a lot of merit in both those positions.) In Ron’s case, part of his appeal was that while he held all sorts of other slightly cracked positions on various issues, he never had the weight to move votes in the House that would get those things made into policy. He was, on the right, something like Alan Grayson or Dennis Kucinnich on the left — an advocate and agitator, someone to get the base fired up, rather than someone considered seriously as someone who could (or should) shape public policy.

        It’s worth noting, as well, that the last time Ron Paul ran for Congress, in 2010, he had five Tea Party-ish primary challengers who considered his record, as opposed to his Libertarian rhetoric, to be too moderate.

        • Rob Baker Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:55

          Andy hit it on the head for many Libertarians I know. They plainly recognize they won’t get everything they want, but those points are often brought up.

      • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:44

        I should have been more succinct. Ron and Rand Paul are very popular among Libertarians because they’re the closest thing to a pure Libertarian that can win and hold office in this country. Better? 😉

    • Lyle Smith Aug 17, 2013 @ 5:16


      Is it really fair to say that Rand Paul has a long standing crush on the Confederacy? What writings or speeches of Rand Paul suggest this?

  • grandadfromthehills Aug 16, 2013 @ 5:57

    I am caught in the position of needing to read more original sources rather than interpretations. Naturally,in reading the sources, one needs to understand the culture in which the writer was engaged.

    This study of history reminds me of what I was taught about reading the Bible: You consider what is read in light of the message of the verse, chapter, book, and entire Bible. To isolate a historical passage without considering its context is just as ambiguous as deriving a doctrinal teaching from a single phrase of a sentence when taken out of context.

    I have stumbled acrossa lot of resources citing the independence of the South taking priority in interpretation of history. Understandably, slavery was the root cause. But just like a person trying to get their own way, perhaps to go against social mores or to (as we with a degree in religion might say) justify their own sin, many focused upon the independence issue rather than slavery.

    That the libertatians would jump on this band-wagon to further distance itself from the liberals in political power does not surprise me. I think the libertarians have some things right, but the application of the Confederate “link” is a bit of a stretch historically. About a 100 year stretch…

    Perhaps I should sign this:
    In need of more history education,

    Sam Vanderburg
    Gun Barrel City, TX

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 6:19

      I think we all run the risk of distorting the past when we use it simply to serve our own present purposes.

  • Matt White Aug 16, 2013 @ 5:56

    As I understand it, the right-wing libertarian movement’s fascination with the Confederacy started in the 1980s when libertarian theorists reasoned that to bring new (and libertarian ready) blood into the movement, they needed to bait potential converts with something they were comfortable with. Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell (of Ron Paul newsletter fame) and others decided that they could target white “paleos” (old-line conservatives) with racism and then they could start swaying them towards libertarianism. Now, Rothbard or Rockwell wouldn’t say that they were baiting them with racism, but effectively that’s what they were doing. They combined an ironically economic interpretation (shall I call it Beardian or “progressive”?) of the Civil War with Constitutional arguments and some lost cause mythology and there you go. In their view, the war was over economic power and centralization. The war had little to do with slavery, because everyone knew that slavery was destined to die because of the play of the free market. Lincoln was a murderous tyrant who forced the south to go to war. Amongst Neo-Confederates, it is incredible how much of an effect right-wing libertarians have had. The Neo-Confederate view of the war is often the view of the war created by DiLorenzo, Rockwell, et al.

    I’m sure this description is far too general, but it still boggles my mind. How so-called libertarians can defend slavery is beyond me.

  • Dr. Christina Johns Aug 16, 2013 @ 5:07

    I am new to all this. Since i stopped teaching Criminology, I have had time to explore other areas. I am just starting a novel/movie series for the local library on the Civil War. My introduction to the “Libertarian/right” interpretation of the Civil War came over Sunday lunch at a local restaurant. We ran into friends of my partner and shared a table with them and another couple. We got into a discussion of the Civil War Series (and the local Civii War Forum). When I mentioned “The Killer Angels” the man of the couple (who belongs to the Civil War group) regarded me with disdain, which I found puzzling. Then, after listening to him for twenty minutes, I found myself being told that all the problems of the country came from the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, that it was the victory of the radical left over common sense and decency and set the stage for the current socialist take over of the society. I was dumbfounded. I just sat there staring at him with my jaw hanging down. I had recently told a woman friend in Atlanta, with confidence, that interest in the Civil War didn’t necessarily imply racism. I had second thoughts after that lunch. Anyway, I am thoroughly enjoying the discussion and appreciate the education.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 5:29

      Yeah, that’s pretty much the standard argument. In all of this, somehow slavery is lost. Of course , the response is that slavery was on its way out, which is absolutely ridiculous. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Patrick Young Aug 16, 2013 @ 4:18

    I think that libertarians would do well well to read the actual works of their putative heroes. Hayek, for example, endorsed the Lincolnian growth of the state during World War II as necessary to defeat Hitler. His critique was that such “war socialism” should not be extended into the postwar era.

  • Christopher Graham Aug 16, 2013 @ 4:12

    Part of that realignment includes the most recent interpretation offered by the regular (as opposed to libertarian) and evangelical conservative right: that the Democrat south suffered the sin of greed and cravenly wanted to keep slavery (you’ll notice the pointed identification of slaveholders with the modern Democrat party) and the true heroes were the evangelically inspired abolitionists. The latter is appealing to the right because of…the moral righteousness of evangelical people and the moral condemnation of the modern Democrats.

    Yeah, it is a complete perversion of historical thinking and nothing more than a modern rhetorical device but I’m fascinated at how it has facilitated a rethinking of both slaveholding and abolitionists by many on the right who until recently defended (or dismissed) slavery and considered abolitionists heretics.

  • Barb Gannon Aug 16, 2013 @ 4:06

    Libertarians believe in freedom to own people. While I refuse to attribute all modern CSA support to racism, it’s hard not to in this case. Libertarians who support the CSA are argueing that white economic/political freedom is more important than African Americans having the most basic human freedoms. Hard to see that as anything but a notion of racial hierarchy.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 4:27

      Kuznicki is distancing himself from just this point.

    • Lyle Smith Aug 17, 2013 @ 5:09

      Libertarians do not believe in the freedom to own people. That’s an absurd statement. I mean, what libertarian today is arguing for the individual’s right to enslave people in the United States? None that I know.

  • Patrick Young Aug 16, 2013 @ 3:43

    When you consider that modern libertarianism has it’s roots in the 1960s encounter between anarchism and a certain brand of conservatism, the notion of anyone seeing the Confederacy as a model for one of the most idealistic of ideologies is absurd. I, frankly, always think of DiLorenzo and his ilk as marginal figures, but if Cato has to make a video refuting them perhaps they are exerting more influence than I realized.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2013 @ 3:44

      DiLorenzo has one of the most popular Lincoln books on Amazon.

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