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Lord Acton on Slavery and the War between the States

Lord Acton was one of the greatest classical liberal historians of the nineteenth century, but his view of the War between the States has in some circles occasioned dismay. Acton, in a letter of 1866 to Robert E. Lee, said, “I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

For example, the political theorist Jacob Levy, who admires Acton’s pluralism, says that Acton’s insights “led him to analyses of the U.S. Civil War that were not merely wrong, but carefully and thoughtfully wickedly wrong. He identified the cause of the Confederacy as the cause of freedom, even knowing slavery to be evil, and he thought this with firm commitment, for many years.” (As we’ll see below, “wickedly” is a parody of something Acton says.)

If slavery is evil, how could Acton defend the cause of the Confederacy as the cause of freedom? Acton’s case for doing so is well argued and does not at all depend on doubting the badness of slavery. The case begins from the fact that a free society cannot be run by an absolute power but must make room for the rights of individuals. In saying this, Acton not only condemns absolute monarchy but unlimited majority rule as well. If anything, majority rule is worse, because it is much harder to resist. Many of the Founders, in particular those in the Federalist Party, recognized the dangers of democracy. As Acton explains in a lecture given in 1866,

[T]he authors of the most celebrated Democracy in history esteemed that the most formidable dangers which menaced the stability of their work were the very principles of Democracy itself. With them the establishment of a Republican government was not the result of theory, but of necessity. They possessed no aristocracy, and no king, but otherwise they inherited our English laws, and strove to adapt them as faithfully as possible to a society constituted so differently from that in which they had their origin. The earliest interpreters of the Constitution and the laws strove to be guided by English precedents, and to approach as nearly as they could to the English model. Hamilton is the chief expounder of these ideas: “It has been observed that a pure Democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient Democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny, their figure deformity. If we incline too much to Democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. Those who mean to form a solid Republican government ought to proceed to the confines of another government. There are certain conjunctures when it may be necessary and proper to disregard the opinions which the majority of the people have formed. There ought to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular current. The principle chiefly intended to be established is this, that there must be a permanent will.”

When Thomas Jefferson came to power, the principle of democracy moved to the fore, but the endeavor to limit democratic absolutism was not lost. Now the hope lay in the independent power of the states that formed the union. Acton takes John C. Calhoun to be the great theorist of federalism and agrees with him that a state should be able to nullify laws that promote the interests of one section of the country over another.

The philosopher of the South, Mr. Calhoun, of whom it was said, to describe his influence, that as often as he took a pinch of snuff all South Carolina sneezed, put forward what was called the theory of nullification. He maintained that if an interested majority passed a law injurious to the settled interests of any State, that State had a right to interpose a veto. He was answered by Daniel Webster, the most eloquent of Americans, who asserted the absolute right of a legislature where all were fairly represented, to make laws for all. Then Calhoun insisted that if a State could not prevent the execution of a law which it deemed unconstitutional and injurious, it had the right to withdraw from the Union which it had conditionally joined.

In his letter to Robert E. Lee, Acton says:

I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and his policy of waging war on the South meant the triumph of mass democracy over liberty. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, though it left the slaves in bad conditions, but the result of the war was a disaster for liberty. In a striking formulation, Acton says:

[S]lavery was not the cause of secession, but the reason of its failure. In almost every nation and every clime the time has come for the extinction of servitude. The same problem has sooner or later been forced on many governments, and all have bestowed on it their greatest legislative skill, lest in healing the evils of forced but certain labour, they should produce incurable evils of another kind. They attempted at least to moderate the effects of sudden unconditional change, to save those whom they despoiled from ruin, and those whom they liberated from destitution. But in the United States no such design seems to have presided over the work of emancipation. It has been an act of war, not of statesmanship or humanity. They have treated the slave-owner as an enemy, and have used the slave as an instrument for his destruction. They have not protected the white man from the vengeance of barbarians, nor the black from the pitiless cruelty of a selfish civilisation.

If, then, slavery is to be the criterion which shall determine the significance of the civil war, our verdict ought, I think, to be, that by one part of the nation it was wickedly defended, and by the other as wickedly removed.

This passage contains the phrase “wickedly removed” that led Jacob Levy to his parody. Whether Acton took adequate account of the evils of slavery I’ll leave to readers to judge; but his carefully argued position merits careful study and confirms his standing as an acute analyst of liberty.

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