The current political climate of 21st century America is not so different from that of pre-civil war America in the 1840s and 1850s. Although the fight has shifted from states’ rights to warring political agendas, many of the conflicts that arose then are seen today such as war, government overreach, and taxes just to name a few. Despite the fact that many of the leading figures in the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist movements didn’t exist until the turn of the century, the 1800s saw the work of Lysander Spooner which blazed the trail for men such as Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. However, there is another man from this time period that deserves recognition for his role in the procurement of individual liberty: Henry David Thoreau.
Born, David Henry Thoreau, he was birthed into a heritage of rebellion as his grandfather Asa Dunbar led the first recorded student protest at Harvard University in 1766 known as the “Butter Rebellion”. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1887, Thoreau rejected most orthodox professions like law and medicine and decided to teach. This was short-lived as he soon resigned after refusing to use corporal punishment on his students. Shortly thereafter, Henry met Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced him to Transcendentalism which gave a greater shape to Thoreau’s beliefs in individual sovereignty. Emerson also established Thoreau with a position writing for a periodical which he used as a medium to express most of his ideals.
In 1845, Thoreau trekked into the wilderness of Massachusetts and built a small hut on the bank of Walden Pond where he lived a mostly self-reliant life for 2 years. It is here that his most popular works, Walden and Civil Disobedience, were written as well as his most notable acts of rebellion took place. In 1846, Thoreau was imprisoned for deliberately not paying poll taxes for six years. Thoreau refused to give money to the government especially since they were supporters of both slavery and the war with Mexico, both of which he abhorred. He was released a day later after his aunt paid his debt (much to his distaste), but was filled with an even greater disdain for the governing powers of the United States. In response to his unjust imprisonment, Thoreau wrote an essay that soon became known as Civil Disobedience in which he outlined his views on government. The opening lines of his essay read:
“I heartily accept the motto,— ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the best kind of government which they will have.”
Later on in his life, Thoreau voices his opinions as a staunch abolitionist and pacifist, joining with groups such as the Underground Railroad in order to fight the expansion of slavery and further resisted the payment of taxes. Thoreau was also a promoter of free-market capitalism, although he disapproved of harsh factory conditions and corporatism. He held tight to these beliefs until his death in 1862.
Henry David Thoreau was a man cut from a different branch. Rather than let his words rest dormant on a page, he acted upon them, thus giving him an unequaled amount of credibility as a writer and activist. Although he is often omitted from the ranks of libertarian pioneers, his works and deeds show that change is not achieved from the voting booth, a congressional seat, or before the printing presses of a paper, but rather from the doing and carrying out of one’s beliefs. That is why before reaching present-day Walden Pond one is met with the words of Thoreau:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Like Thoreau, we must live and also act deliberately in order to obtain the freedom and liberty that we desire.
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It has been accurately stated by an anonymous source, “The institution of chattel slavery is truly the worst chapter in American political history. Not only did the institution stand in stark contradiction to the professed ideals of freedom and equality, but its legacy extended well beyond the formal abolition of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The enduring repercussions of the institution of slavery and the white supremacist ideologies that supported it constituted a relentless assault on black people’s dignity.” This rang true for all, from Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin.
The onset of African chattel slavery in America began in the early Seventeenth Century as the Dutch began their slave trade in the colonies. The numbers of enslaved African people brought to America exponentially grew through the mid Nineteenth Century. It was not until after the U.S. Civil War that slavery was legally condemned throughout the nation via the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment which was ratified in 1865. Prior to this ratification, slavery was only considered illegal in various regions of the Northern states, and even there slaves were continually counted on national censuses as “slaves” until slavery was declared nationally illegal.
This would suggest that although slavery was one of the key issues fought over in the U.S. Civil War, it was not so urgent for the country, or even the North, to treat the enslaved as being equal to ordinary citizens until after the victory of the Union over the Confederacy. Even after defeating the slave-entrenched Confederacy, it was not until 1965 that Blacks would get full equal rights to Whites under the law.
From the origin of the United States of America, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, openly publicized in written word and voice that slavery was wrong and that he was against its very existence. In 1769, as a member of the Virginian Congress, he had a bill to end slavery in Virginia, but it was denied (Jefferson, 9). The unbeknownst issue for Jefferson was that he did not believe in ‘manumission,’ the immediate freeing of slaves by their owners. Few abolitionists in America believed in this immediacy, other than Benjamin Lay and few others. Jefferson believed in gradually transitioning slaves from enslavement to free-society through education and a sort of genetic weeding-out over time separating the naturally bright from the doltish (Jefferson, 243-244).
In part, the reason that Jefferson was hesitant to free slaves through immediate judicial means was that, culturally, chattel slavery was the norm for over one hundred years in America prior to Jefferson. His view of government and regulating society was to incorporate as peaceful of means necessary by gaining the democratic vote of the Colonies and then the American people as a whole.
Additionally, Thomas Jefferson held an Aristotelian philosophical concept of a natural hierarchy and specifically the idea of ‘Natural Slavery,’ being that some people are born to be slaves by their very nature. In the meantime, before any division could have been made, Jefferson felt that having slaves was a benefit to both the slave and the slave owner because enslavement benefited the slaves as being housed, clothed, and fed, etc.; while the slave benefited the slave owner by performing all work necessary for the slave owner’s survival and thriving. Unfortunately, this was a view that many Americans held in Jefferson’s day (Jefferson, 243-244).
Beyond simply thinking that people are naturally born leaders or slaves, Jefferson thought certain races of people, e.g. Blacks and Native Americans, were mentally inferior to that of Whites. He also thought the only way Blacks would become equal to Whites was if they mixed with Whites having mulatto children. This was not because of some hatred for others.
Rather, he believed there was empirical evidence for this idea. His racism towards Blacks was established through empirical evidence only by strict guidelines of social norms which had well-established slavery that also precluded education for these slaves. This means that Jefferson’s so-called evidence for the inferiority of black people was not determined by practical scientific methods, rather it was misguided understanding of the exasperating multi-generational enslavement of Blacks. Any mental inferiority held by black slaves of Jefferson’s period was due to their situation and not their skin color or any correlation of such (Jefferson, 238-241).
Although Jefferson advocated for the abolition of slaves through democratic processes while maintaining the conflicting view of ‘Natural Slavery,’ he also possessed slaves of his own from the age of 21 until his passing in 1826, at age 83. Since his slaves were considered his property, he had the option of what should happen to them once he died via his will, e.g. free them or give them to someone else. Jefferson chose to give them away to others as a means to pay off some of his growing debt, rather than giving these enslaved people their freedom. Just as America’s history of slave ownership, Jefferson’s slave owning is often a point of conflict for those that love Jefferson and those that oppose him.
I disagree with Jefferson’s gradual transition for the enslaved people on the grounds that he considered it an endangerment to Blacks as being mentally inferior to that of Whites and that it would be more harm for them than good. I do not think that someone is inferior or superior because of their skin color. I also do not think it is the place of a government to concern itself with what it determines as being best for individuals, such as when or how to free slaves.
Slavery should, of course, exist under no circumstances as it is the natural inclination of being a person that provides the need to be free. An enslaved person is under the arbitrary will of another and this prevents their truly living and flourishing. Not only does slavery hurt the enslaved, but it equally hurts those that enslave because it makes the master think of themselves as superior to another while cutting off sympathy to others. Simply put, it makes the slave owner less human as it makes the enslaved less human. It is my position that people are to live freely in society among others, and we have ‘negative duties’ towards others such as not hurting, not killing, not stealing, not enslaving, etc. Frederick Douglass thought the same.
Frederick Douglass was a slave for most of his life being traded from one slave master to another. He constantly felt that no matter how well his slave masters treated him, he was still not treated as being a human. His Liberty and freedom grew to be of most importance to him. In one relationship of slave and slave master, Frederick Douglass said that the woman of the house he worked for first treated him as one human should treat another human. As time went on, it became clear that the absolute power she was given over Douglass had corrupted her own integrity of treating others as fellow human beings, especially when it came to Douglass. In this example, it is empirically clear that slavery harms both the enslaved and the enslavers, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Further examples provided by Frederick Douglass were that some masters treated him less poorly than others. I will not say “They treated him better than others,” because after all, he was still not free and was treated as being a lesser creature than his white slave masters and White society as a whole.
For instance, when he was growing up on a plantation, the slave master would give him cakes and speak kindly to him (Douglass, 16). Yet another slave master would allow Douglass to go work elsewhere for money, but he had to give the entire earnings to the slave master at the end of every week. Sometimes this master would give Douglass some of the earnings back. Frederick Douglass thought that all of the money should be his own since it was earned through his own labor. These examples demonstrate that even when given some taste of kindness or freedom, he was still not treated as being owner over himself or his labor (Douglass, 59).
It is not clear in Frederick Douglass’ words as to whether he felt the same towards government and taxation. It is my speculation that he would think that a government should tax as little as possible in order to operate, but in the end every person’s income is justifiably their own. In order for ‘justice’ to exist, there requires a unilateral system of equal treatment under the law, so anarchy would not be applicable for ‘justice’ to exist. Either small amounts of taxation would be required, or a voluntary system would be necessary. It is more likely that small amounts of taxation would be successful, and it is my understanding from Douglass’ situation with the master that took his money that he would be inclined to agree with this sentiment for a Minarchist, or “Night-Watchman,” state.
Douglass saw the world in a different way than many other slaves did at the time, which provided him the ability to grow as a person. He learned to read and hungered for knowledge by playing games with white children nearby (Douglass, 22-23). He rightfully understood that a person has property within themselves and is responsible for their actions and labor (Douglass, 59). Furthermore, he saw that people are to be treated equally under the law as the concept of ‘justice’ would have it, no matter one’s skin color or mental capacity.
Frederick Douglass, in contrast with Thomas Jefferson, saw that immediately releasing slaves was imperative. Where Jefferson saw Black people as being naturally inferior, Douglass was able to refute such a hasty generalization and distasteful claim by proving over and over again of his humanity and intellect, while establishing his equality to Whites.
Douglass, like Jefferson, for the most part, believed in peace; and his solution to being enslaved was to run away from the slave owners rather than leading acts of violence towards those that enslaved him and others. Until his death in 1895, at age 77, Frederick Douglas continued to advocate for the equality of Blacks to Whites, and condemned the practice of slavery. He lived to see the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, the Emancipation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. If only he could have seen the progress made around 70 years later through the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin.
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What I recall is a camera perched high above the desert city of Baghdad. Rattling from a ground that quaked beneath heavy artillery, the early morning images showed a nation I had never set foot in, being bombarded by our military.
I was 16 then. We have been in an endless war ever since.
7,000 miles and a world away from the terrifying consequences of another costly interventionist war on behalf of ‘peace and freedom’, we all sat glued to our television sets. It was March of 2003 when we invaded and only weeks later, Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.
We had won.
On May 3, 2003, less than 90 days after the first rockets struck Baghdad, George Bush triumphantly stood atop the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared our troops the victor.
Veteran and US Senate candidate from Michigan, Brian Ellison, described his experience serving in Iraq as such:
I remember the time I had to go out and help clean up the mess after a massive car bomb exploded just outside the gate killing dozens and wounding many many more. It was devastating. I’ll never forget the callousness of the American contractors that were responsible for removing the human remains and the pictures that they relished sharing. And the smell of burnt flesh. It was awful. These people were simply waiting in line to come to work for the occupying forces one minute, and their bodies were ripped apart and burnt the next minute. The death that we caused, that’s what I remember.
The official narrative surrounding the Second Gulf War has dramatically changed over the years. Labeled an “Axis Of Evil” terror threat by the Bush oligarchy, Iraq was a war justified by the lies of war-hungry government who willingly preyed on the fear of a psychologically depressed public after the events of September 11th, 2001. It didn’t matter that 11 of the 15 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia (and that none of the hijackers were Iraqi). It didn’t matter that asleep at the wheel taxpayers had supported Hussein’s reign for whole decades of the 20th century. And it sure as hell didn’t seem to matter that Bush’s father had made the same ghastly and arrogant mistakes only 12 years prior when a US-led coalition attacked Iraq in the First Gulf War.
In the months that followed the Saudi-led terrorist attack on 9/11, Bush would reach an incredible 85% approval rating and few seemed spirited enough to question his serpent-like gaze at the oil-rich desert kingdom across the Atlantic. Bush officials pounded the proverbial desk as they lectured Americans about the catastrophic ramifications facing our nation if we did not act swiftly.
The leader and nation that we propped up and aided were now made the spear end of our bayonet. Hussein, once seen as an ally and treated as a King, was now pointed to as an example of a brutal modern dictator. The Bush administration adamantly suggested there was cold hard evidence proving that Hussein had developed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s). In the wake of the deadliest terror attack in our nation’s history, Americans wanted blood and were passive enough to accept any middle eastern sounding country that our officials labeled dangerous.
In reality, our misadventures in Iraq (and the Middle East at large) date much further back. In a long-standing dispute between Iraq & Iran that boiled over in the summer heat of 1980, The United States sent billions in economic and military aid to Hussein. It was during the US-funded proxy war that Hussein used chemical weapons to murder over one million Iranian troops and citizens. Whether they knew it or not, the American taxpayer provided the cash for that terrorism.
Hussein, since his first murderous day in office, was always known to be a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. He was a man that was willing to use torture as a device of control and his psychopathy led to untold death and misery throughout the region. The late Christopher Hitchens, a surprising proponent of the invasion, detailed just how terrifying Saddam’s regime was in his narration of video footage from the Ba’ath led coup in 1979.
Four years later, in 1983, Ronald Reagan would send a special envoy to meet and broker deals with the Hitler-like authoritarian. Included in that convoy was Bush’s Secretary of Defense to be, Donald Rumsfeld, who smiled eagerly for cameras as he shook hands with the Iraqi leader. 20 years later, Rumsfeld would be a leading advocate for war with the man he once glowingly shared greetings.
As with most of The United State’s 20th-century expansionism, it revolved around oil. By the time George Bush Sr. took office, Iraq owed close to 15 billion dollars in debt from the war with Iran. Meanwhile, Kuwait had become a major producer of petroleum and threatened Hussein’s tight grip on the economic reigns of the Middle East. Over two days in early August of 1990, Iraqi forces swiftly captured Kuwait.
The coup was condemned by world leaders. Outside of Palestine, every traditional Iraqi ally demanded Hussein remove his troops from Kuwait. He refused. After the UN Security Council passed Resolution 660, Hussein’s army faced the consequences of a unified global army. The Iraqi Air Force was destroyed and within two months, a US-led coalition had driven Saddam back across the border.
Sensing Hussein’s weakness, George Bush SR pitched a coup from an ocean away. Speaking on February 15, 1991, Bush called for an uprising within Iraq to overthrow the Hussein regime:
There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations. – George Bush SR
In the year that followed, US officials would stoke the fire of revolution but never fully commit to defeating Saddam on his own lands. While Bush SR and his administration helped fund the rebellious factions within Iraq, our military stood down as Hussein decimated the poorly organized revolution in the South. As Saddam defeated the revolutionaries, Bush SR distanced himself and The United States from any perceived involvement with the uprising:
I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So I don’t think the Shiites in the south, those who are unhappy with Saddam in Baghdad, or the Kurds in the north ever felt that the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man… I have not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America, or has any other coalition partner, all of whom to my knowledge agree with me in this position. – George Bush SR
In the aftermath of war, an international embargo was placed on the Kingdom in 1993 after Hussein refused to comply with disarmament demands. Over the course of the next decade, the elite members of Iraqi society remain wealthy while the majority of the nation’s people grew poor and turned to radical sects of religion. During the next 10 years, a dark cloud permeated the country and Hussein ruled with an iron fist as the world watched from afar.
Astute historians will note that intervention without concrete ideas for a controlled state’s future inevitably leads to chaos and destruction. It is said that FDR’s administration spent over three years planning what do with Germany after WWII. What is most striking about the Bush administration was their lack of foresight in organizing a post-war Iraq. The poor oversight was indicative not only of a leadership hell-bent on war but a salivating public. Outside of a small opposition that included Ron Paul & Bernie Sanders, most citizens of the United States were blood hungry, ready to fight and willing to ask questions later.
In the chaotic aftermath of the initial strike, Iraqis freely looted the cities of Iraq as US military stood down on orders from the Pentagon. It is estimated that over 12 billion dollars of antiques, art, and building material were stolen or destroyed by the Iraqi public. The administration did not care about the historical or artistic nature of the Iraqi people and this lack of foresight paid dearly as Iraqis lost trust in our mission. The Iraq National Museum contained some of the earliest artifacts in the history of mankind and we did nothing to stop the destruction.
Rumsfeld joked about the startling images that showed the museum and city in chaos.
Meanwhile, US officials were lining up their chosen replacement for the governance of Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi, a founder of the Iraqi National Congress was selected. Chalabi was a well-known asset in Iraq and in the run-up to the war, it was his information on WMD’s and Al-Qaeda insurgents that was relied upon to stoke the fire within the American populace. In the years that followed the war, much of this information was proven to be fabricated and many believe Chalabi was working as an informant for the Iranians.
If it wasn’t obvious already, soon the US military came to find out that there was a decades-long civil war brewing beneath the surface of Iraq. By April, US forces were caught in the middle of a bloody war between Sunni and Shiite that boiled over in the lawlessness of post-Saddam Iraq. With no police force and 100,000 criminals released from jail before the invasion, Iraq quickly deteriorated into a complete mess. Our army was caught in a free for all without the proper intelligence about the society and how to help.
Although Hussein was condemned for the brutal tactics his regime instituted, the power structure of his grey empire kept warring factions in place during the 30 years he controlled Iraq. Without a dictator in charge, Iraqis turned to the mosques and Muqtada Al-Sadr rose to power. Against the ‘well-laid plans’ of the United States Military, Al-Sadr created a militia and took over the southern part of Iraq. The war had gotten wider.
To make matters worse, the Bush Administration placed Paul Bremmer in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Bremmer did not speak Arabic, had never served in the military and had no prior experience with middle east or post-war reconstruction. Bremmer’s decisions while in charge of the CPA had massive unintended consequences that furthered the war and entrenched the enemy.
First, Bremmer set out to destroy Saddam’s Ba’ath party of Iraq. His method of De-Ba’athification created immediate instability as almost all of the government and infrastructure of Iraq was built through the Ba’ath party. To live in Hussein’s Iraq was to be a Ba’ath member and Bremmer’s move turned middle-class families into an impoverished class without the means to find work or make money. This sewed resentment and anger towards our army.
The policy destroyed the Iraqi government, education, and economy. It purged men and women who had joined the Bath party just to survive during Saddam’s regime. Within only months of occupation close to 30,000-50,000 people that were exercised from life. If that wasn’t enough, Bremmer made the mess worse by disbanding the Iraqi military full stop.
Under CPA #2, Bremmer and council decided to disband the Iraq military. 500,000 men were made unemployed overnight and instead of helping to prevent an insurgency, these men created one. Ten’s of thousands of Iraq families depended on the military for their salary and unemployment quickly skyrocketed to over 50%. Before they knew it, US military wasn’t so much fighting a war that could be won but surviving a war that couldn’t.
Danny Wolf, Founder of The Sentinel, served during The Iraq War:
I remember being 18 years old and scared shitless in Fallujah. And I remember learning a hard lesson at a young age…there aren’t always good decisions. Just decisions.
With or without the United State’s involvement, Iraq was prime for a catastrophic disaster. Quasi-ruling over disparate peoples became the work of private contractors outsourced to American third-party mercenaries. In 2007, the private military company Blackwater indiscriminately murdered 17 Iraqi citizens in Nisour Square. The disaster set back already strained Iraqi and American relationships.
While officials nor the media could ever find evidence of the alleged WMD’s, there was plenty of evidence that showed the feudalist methods American soldiers were using to gain information from prisoners. The news media centered on the detention centers and torture policies administered that ran markedly against our own country’s faith in justice and dignity. Videos leaked of guards humiliating and attacking innocent prisoners and the debate regarding Iraq quickly turned to our own undemocratic values.
As the administration fell under the watchful gaze of a critical media and a now frustrated American public, all hell broke loose in Fallujah. One of the largest cities in Iraq, Fallujah became the major point of the Sunni Insurgency. In the fighting that ensued, over 70% of the city was destroyed and nearly 100,000 citizens displaced.
On December 15, 2005. Muktada Al-Sadr’s and his United Iraqi Alliance win nearly half the seats in Iraq’s national government. Rumsfeld is replaced by Robert Gates and the staggering number of killings and kidnappings rise into the hundreds per day. The country we had once called friends had been reduced to rubble and confusion.
By the time Obama was elected in 2008, the war had shifted and Iraq was now the central front of Al Qaeda terrorism. Whatever gains had been made in the valleys of Afghanistan no longer seemed to matter. It was Iraq, all or nothing. After an estimated $500 billion spent on war and more than $1 trillion spent in economic overhead, Iraq became the war we lost both ideologically and economically.
Linda Lyons, a retired security manager, watched the war from afar:
What comes to my mind is the Chapel at our college. He was outraged when it happened. I remember having a long conversation with him about it. He thought that you couldn’t change countries like that and that it had gone on for 100 years. He thought we didn’t have any business going into Iraq.
I thought we were going to go in and help. Maybe I was stupid.
During the ripple effect years that cascaded throughout the Middle East as we plundered Iraq, old enemies were empowered. Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia both benefited economically from the war while growing their ideological reach in a region of the world that had no reason to trust the Americans. As the mosques filled, terrorists found refuge in the divisive ideology of radical Islam and whatever communication we had attempted to build was lost.
Today, the circus continues. We are still lingering on the deserted plains of Iraq and just this past month, President Trump attacked Syria after Assad allegedly poisoned rebels with chemical weapons. At some point, the American citizens will come to realize that these are wars not meant to be won. They are corporate wars that are meant to be endless with the individual taxpayer footing the bill.
Iraq is not a singular lesson but the continuation of wartime policy that has seen our country buck its anti-interventionist foundations for the policing of others in places thousands of miles away. Morally and strategically these wars harm our perception as the beacon of freedom for the world to aspire to and The United States has become known today as a hawkish war power that treads on the lives and sovereignty of others without a second thought. We have failed to preserve the enlightenment envisioned by our founding fathers and the painful recognition of our lost wars will be a history we cannot undue.
At few other times in history were the hearts and minds of Americans filled with so much fervor than the dawn of the American Civil War. Men from across the nation rallied to the cause of the North or South with passion that carried them into the jaws of death for four long years, fiercely loyal to the decision of their home states to either remain a part of the Union or to leave it. Although this allegiance was often reluctant, men on both sides usually put aside their personal opinions to defend their homes regardless of the larger cause―something that would never happen today.
Today, citizens of the United States refer to themselves as “Americans.” One people, united by a bond of a national identity made possible not only by modern travel and communication, but also by shared trials and tribulations throughout history. Before such circumstances as a depression or World War could bring us together, however, we more closely resembled an amalgamation of small, loosely organized countries. As a young nation defined first by colonies and then states, a resident of the Carolinas, for example, would refer to himself or herself as a Carolinian first, and an American second.
In a time when the bounds of technology limited the ability of any government to effectively rule large amounts of territory, the regional governments of states (and even counties, to some extent) played a much larger role in the lives of citizens than the federal government ever did. This created a perfect storm for civil war, however, as the regional differences intensified by this form of rule allowed for a gap between north and south to grow ever wider in the Antebellum period. When the question of secession finally arose, it was these states and counties that shaped the opposing sides. The counties of Kentucky, for example, contained split allegiances, and the state fielded both Union and Confederate troops as a result.
The fact is, if you were a white male between the ages of seventeen and forty in 1861, you would most likely join your friends and neighbors to fight for the State in which you were born. Your loyalty to your State Government, already largely independent from Washington, would supersede your loyalty to the United States as a whole. You would take up arms under the impression that you were doing so in defense of what was best for your state and its citizens. That isn’t to say that people did not see the larger cause, though; references to “defending the South” or “preserving the Union” are not uncommon in original letters from the highest ranking generals to the lowliest of foot soldiers.
In a letter to his children penned soon after leaving to join the Confederate Army, Lieutenant Samuel J. C. Moore of the Second Virginia Infantry perfectly expressed the reasons for his sacrifice. In it, he emphasized an attitude of state loyalty common among soldiers of both sides, and like many southerners, claimed to be defending his home from an invader:
“Do you know for what your Papa has left his family and his home and his office and his business? I will tell you. The State of Virginia called for all the men who are young and able to carry arms, to defend her against Lincoln’s armies, and it is the duty, I think, of every man to answer her call, and be ready to keep the army of our enemies from ever setting their feet in the state.”
Moore was simply one among millions of enthusiastic volunteers on both sides who understood exactly what was on the line. Before the war was over, his native Shenandoah Valley would be in ruins like so many other parts of the country, but not in vain. The country needed the most bitter of conflicts to become more unified and successful than ever before. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the nation rose to enter the industrial era as a world superpower. Although much progress was still on the way, the final result of the Civil War set the stage for the modern day.
Perhaps now more than ever, it is important to learn from history. It, unfortunately, took the deaths of over 600,000 men to change the way Americans thought of their identity, but that sacrifice ensured that America would never be the same. The Civil War achieved many other essential accomplishments, but its effect upon our idea of unity cannot be overstated. We went from the United States of America to the United States of America… a simple distinction forged in bloodshed.
Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, the American economy experienced growth like no country had ever seen before in the entire history of the world. The discovery of lots of oil, along with the progression of electricity, expanded logging industries, and advancements in mining gold and silver created profound economic growth. New investments from overseas stimulated the American economy and migrant workers provided cheap menial labor. The development of steel lead the railroad system to a great multitude of new locations.
This age in American development was also seemingly plagued by the ills of the free market and was only held through because of government intervention. That is what historians see, and that is what the textbooks teach. Labor conditions were horrible, income inequality increased, and robber barons took over the oil industry. The issue with this, though, is that people look at it with no depth. They take everything at an economically uneducated mainstream face value. A deeper look into the issues afflicting America must be taken if we want to truly see what harmed and benefited the United States during this time.
In the first place, we must look a bit at what did not happen, and where funds did not go. This is important because of what Bastiat described as the seen versus the unseen. In one of his most famous essays, he wrote the following “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” What this means is that we saw the consequences of what happened in history, but to find out if what we did was as beneficial as it could have been, we need to look at the consequences of the potential action that was not taken. This is especially important for the second industrial revolution., because the government did intervene, and growth did happen, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. We must look to what we know to be economic law, and what is true in all instances, and look at what did and didn’t happen.
Many argue that the government’s subsidies and land grants to the railroad industry allowed the economy to boost, and even more, that they were instrumental and critical to the economic growth that happened. This is not true at all. The subsidies that went to the railroad industry went there because the money was taxed from people around the United States. This was money that could have gone places consumers wished for them to go. There is no way to gauge demand for a government agency, so instead, they must bring in scientists who make a guess as to where the best place to promote industry would be. An astounding amount of money went from the government, after it had been stolen to the taxpayers, and went to what there wasn’t necessarily demand for. The railroad industry would have flourished, and maybe even in more economically strategic places without the government’s “help.”
Furthermore, this was seen as the age of the “robber barons,” with men like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie dominating economic industries, both by cutting prices to beat out competition and by buying out the entire process of producing the good that dominates their industries. Many do not like what these men did and see it as sensible as to why antitrust laws were passed soon after. The issue, though, is that many men of great industry in these times colluded with government to benefit their industry. When it comes to monopolies, you can achieve one in two ways: the natural way, which means serving consumer demand better than everyone else, or the unnatural way of working through government subsidy and regulations to get a foot up on the industry. The second method was the one used primarily in these days because of the lack of lobbying laws. It was not a flaw in the market that these men climbed to the top, but rather it was collusion with the state, the ultimate organization of violence.
Lastly, the poor working conditions and the profound income inequality is seen by many to be a flaw in the upgrading capitalist system. The issue with this is that the workers may have had a tough working environment, but it was better than the alternative of starving by not working or the economy staying behind and everyone continuing to live in a sort of agrarian post civil war economy. The real wages of the workers increased in these times because the development of chain companies, steel for transport, and electricity, which all worked to drive down the price of goods. The conditions of each worker was actually improving from what it had been. At the same time, inequality in income is not an inherently bad thing. The way capitalist economies have tended to work is the rich get richer, and the poor get richer at a slightly lower rate, contrary to the Marxist joke.
In the end, we must realize that we cannot take what happened during the second industrial revolution at face value without looking at economic law and applying it. The point of studying history is to learn from the mistakes of those in the past, so what we must mainly learn is that government subsidies put money into places where there is not necessarily demand and that corporate lobbying is the primary cause of unnatural and harmful monopolies.