Today marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. This event, more than the Declaration of Independence, Constitution or the American Revolution, signifies the true birth of the modern American nation-state. It was on this day that the federal government first repudiated the Founding Fathers’ republican form of government—a coalition of several states that combined under the Constitution to form a central state of enumerated and sharply limited powers—and asserted a plenary sovereignty over the people. Rejecting the right of states to secede, the federal government under Lincoln abolished the very system that was supposed to come out of the revolution against the British crown, a system where smaller political units could exercise their legal and human right to overthrow or at least leave the central government that ruled them without their consent.
During the U.S. Civil War, leviathan as we know it was born. The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians. For years, the nationalists—first the Federalists, then the Whigs, and then the Republicans under Lincoln—had advocated a system that subordinated the states to the central government and buried agrarianism and free enterprise under the heavy burden of corporarist neo-mercantilism. Henry Clay called this economic program “The American System” and boasted of its proposed “internal improvements.” A more modern label would simply be “corporate welfare” as these nationalists were championing high tariffs to discourage free trade and to raise revenue that could be shoveled toward big businesses that would build railways, canals and roads, the circulatory system of a new corporate state with Washington directing the economy through grants of privilege and monopoly.
Civil liberties took a hit virtually unparalleled in U.S. history, with the possible exception of World War I. During the Civil War, thousands of dissidents were arrested, hundreds of newspapers were shut down, martial law was declared, habeas corpus was suspended, and political enemies were targeted for arrest and persecution. When violent draft riots broke out in New York City, Lincoln sent in the army, which slaughtered hundreds of civilians. During the fog of war Lincoln conducted the largest mass-execution of U.S. history—American Indians stripped of any semblance of proper due process.
Then, of course, there was the mass bloodshed. How appropriate that the U.S. government, so-called protector of peace and liberty for the world, was the western state that ended slavery through a centrally administered and completely hellish war.
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