There’s an old saying that “he who distinguishes well teaches well.” In other words, if one’s going to talk about an important subject, one should be able to define his terms and tell the difference between two things that are not the same.
This wisdom, unfortunately, is rarely embraced by modern pundits arguing about the causes of the American Civil War. A typical example can be found in this article at the Huffington Post in which the author opines: “This discussion [over the causes of the war] has led some people to question if the Confederacy, and therefore the Civil War, was truly motivated by slavery.”
Did you notice the huge logical mistake the author makes? It’s right here: “…the Confederacy, and therefore the Civil War….”
The author acts as if the mere existence of the Confederacy inexorably caused the war that the North initiated in response to it. That is, the author merely assumes that if a state secedes from the United States, then war is an inevitable result. Moreover, she also wrongly assumes that the motivations behind secession were necessarily the same as the motivations behind the war.
But this does not follow logically at all. If California, for example, were to secede, is war therefore a certainty? Obviously not. The US government could elect to simply not invade California in response.
Moreover, were war to break out, the motivations behind a Californian secession are likely to be quite different from the motivations of the US government in launching a war. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Californians secede because they couldn’t stand the idea of being in the same country with a bunch of people they perceive to be intolerant rubes. But, what is a likely reason for the US to respond to secession with invasion? A US invasion of California is likely to be motivated by a desire to extract tax revenue from Californians, and to maintain control of military bases along the coast.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on August 24, 2017.