Thursday, June 25, 2015

John Stuart Mill on the Confederacy


John Stuart Mill 

I wish I could have titled this blog post, "John Stuart Mill on the Confederate flag." But alas, as far as I know, he didn't weigh in on the current controversy over whether governments should fly the Confederate battle flag.

He did, however, weigh in on whether the American Civil War was at its base a war over slavery, and that debate is directly related to the flag debate. Defenders of the Southern rebellion still like to argue that it wasn't about slavery. Because if it was, the Confederate flag stands for slavery, and ends the "heritage vs. hate" debate. What "heritage"?

Mill was a 19th century British philosopher and an important thinker in the history of libertarian and classical liberal thought.

That isn't just my opinion. Here is Robert Anton Wilson, in Cosmic Trigger 1, explaining his former job at "Playboy" magazine:

My job was editing the letters in the "Playboy Forum," and also writing the italicized replies in which the Playboy position was stated. This position is straight old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and (since that is my philosophy as well as Hefner's) I enjoyed the work immensely.

I was quite pleased when I ran across this blog post by Ilya Somin which points out that back in 1862, Mill took on the question. Here's Mill:

There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of Slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to Slavery than the South have….

If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery….

It is true enough that the North are not carrying on war to abolish slavery in the States where it legally exists [note by IS: Mill was writing before the Emancipation Proclamation, though elsewhere in the essay he correctly predicted that the Union will eventually seek to abolish slavery]….

The present Government of the United States is not an abolitionist government…. But though not an Abolitionist party, they are a Free-soil party. If they have not taken arms against slavery, they have against its extension. And they know, as we may know if we please, that this amounts to the same thing. The day when slavery can no longer extend itself, is the day of its doom. The slave-owners know this, and it is the cause of their fury….

If, however, the purposes of the North may be doubted or misunderstood, there is at least no question as to those of the South. They make no concealment of their principles. As long as they were allowed to direct all the policy of the Union; to break through compromise after compromise, encroach step after step, until they reached the pitch of claiming a right to carry slave property into the Free States, and, in opposition to the laws of those States, hold it as property there, so long, they were willing to remain in the Union. The moment a President was elected of whom it was inferred from his opinions, not that he would take any measures against slavery where it exists, but that he would oppose its establishment where it exists not,—that moment they broke loose from what was, at least, a very solemn contract, and formed themselves into a Confederation professing as its fundamental principle not merely the perpetuation, but the indefinite extension of slavery.

"Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery." Not much has changed, huh?

As Mill points out, Southern leaders made it clear that launching the Civil War was about slavery. See this piece by Ta -Nehisi Coates, and another post by Somin, which includes a lot of evidence.

3 comments:

supergee said...

Lincoln fought to maintain central control, but his spiritual descendants insist he was opposing slavery. The Confederacy fought to maintain slavery, but their spiritual descendants insist they were opposing central control.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Yes, Lincoln was not a slavery fan, but his top priority at first was to preserve the Union. The South's prolonged resistance turned it into more of a war over slavery.

nakchtra devi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.