How Libertarians Ought to Think About the U.S. Civil War

Reason Papers, Vol. 28, pp. 61-83, 2006

29 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2006


According to many libertarians, the Union's victory in the Civil War represented a betrayal of American Constitution and of the fundamental principles of American political philosophy. These writers contend that secession is a legitimate, constitutional action under the Constitution and that, despite the evil nature of slavery, the federal government had no authority to prevent the southern states from leaving the union. In this paper, I contend that this argument is deeply flawed, and rests on a confusion between secession (a purportedly constitutional act) and revolution (an exercise of coercive force considered legitimate in libertarian political theory only when engaged in as a form self-defense). To counter this confusion, I propose a systematic, two-step analysis: first, does a state have the legal authority under the United States Constitution, to secede unilaterally? And, second, if secession is unconstitutional, was the Confederacy's action in 1861 justified as an act of revolution? I contend that the answer to both questions is no.

Keywords: Civil war, secession, libertarianism, slavery, paleo-conservatism, sovereignty, state's rights

JEL Classification: K10, K19

Suggested Citation

Sandefur, Timothy, How Libertarians Ought to Think About the U.S. Civil War. Reason Papers, Vol. 28, pp. 61-83, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Timothy Sandefur (Contact Author)

Goldwater Institute ( email )

500 E. Coronado Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
United States
(602) 462-5000 (Phone)
(602) 256-7045 (Fax)


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