Ron Paul Would Have Avoided The Civil War By Buying All The Slaves

As I noted in my post this morning, many of the people that Ron Paul associates with have odd views about the Civil War that include openly wishing that the Confederates had won, and suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was the worst tyrant in American history.  Well, Paul himself has expressed some rather odd views about America’s bloodiest war himself. Consider this 2007 appearance on Meet The Press

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the anti-government GOP presidential candidate who is now surging in Iowa, is not a fan of Abraham Lincoln. He believes the Civil War was a “senseless” bloodbath that was the result of Lincoln’s desire to “enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic.”

“He shouldn’t have gone to war,” explained Paul in a December 2007 appearance on Meet The Press. Failing to fight for the union, however, would not mean embracing slavery — after all, it was on its way out, and in 1833 the British Empire had successfully abolished it without violence. His advice to the north: “you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years?”

In other words, the “Godfather of the Tea Party” thinks the best policy would have been a massive public bailout of slaveowners. (There was no federal income tax until 1861, when it was implemented to fund the war.)

Nobody denies that the Civil War was a bloody horrible affair. However, it also seems pretty clear from antebellum history that it was largely unavoidable. The South was not only wedded to preserving its “peculiar institution” but also to expanding it into the western territories, the issue that was the primary dividing line of the 1860 Election.  Furthermore, in 1860 the economy of the Deep South was still inexorably tied to slavery in manner that would have made it incredibly unlikely that slaveowners would have voluntary given up their slaves, even in exchange for compensation. At the very least, such a program would have taken years, if not a generation or more. The fact that a supposed libertarian would have been okay with slavery possibly continuing into the early 20th Century is disturbing to say the least. Finally the very words of Confederates make it clear that they would not have given up their slaves, or their racism, very easily.

Take a look, for example, at the Declaration of Immediate Causes released by the leaders of South Carolina a few days later, in which they set forth the reasons for secession:

We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

And then there are the words of Alexander Stephens, who went on to become the Vice-President of the Confederacy:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Paul has an aversion to war that I understand and share to some extent. It is one of the things that people find compelling about him even if his ideas are unconventional. His rather obvious naivete about the most important moral crisis of the first century of the existence of the United States, however, is pretty glaring.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s what happens to ideologues, their ideology drives them off a cliff. He couldn’t come up with a better answer within the strait-jacket confines of his ideology, so he said something patently stupid rather than re-think or display flexibility. Ideology is the great crippler of minds.

  2. You’re falling the neo-con fallacy that saying “We should not go to war to stop X” is equivalent to says “I like X”. I can, for example, think that what’s going on in Syria is a crime against humanity, but still feel that it would be a bad idea for the US to jump in to try and stop it.

  3. datechguy says:

    Paul’s idea of buying the slaves and freeing them was not a bad one as it would have cost much less than the war, but it is unlikely the south would have agreed.

    Would have been worth a shot trying though

  4. @datechguy:

    Manumission was a practice that went back to the early days of the Republic, but it became far less common in the years leading up to the Civil War when Southerners rejected the notion put forward by people like Jefferson and Madison that slavery was an evil that would have to be ended some day, and came to view it as a positive thing and, in fact, justified by the Bible. When people started adopting that attitude, the chances of mass manumission became very slim.

    There were ideas like this prior to the start of the war too, most of which involved returning the freed slaves to Africa. That’s how Liberia came to exist. In the end, the idea that the slaves could have been freed and removed from the country was silly and impractical.

  5. ugarles says:

    What would be the point of the bailout anyway? If slavery were made illegal going forward, that was something the plantation owners would have been willing to fight over also.

    And if it WEREN’T illegal going forward, they would have used the bailout to buy new slaves.

  6. Eric says:

    See, I always believed that the Confederacy was founded because they were sore losers from Lincoln winning the election. A handful of states were gone long before Lincoln actually took hold of office. They didn’t leave because they were fighting for states’ rights or keeping their slaves. They were scared of what Lincoln might do.

  7. Eric,

    And it is worth noting that had the Southern states stayed in the Union after Lincoln became President they would have controlled a sufficient number of votes in the Senate for the foreseeable future to block any of the radical things they claimed to fear Lincoln would implement, none of which he ever actually proposed.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    This boils down to “copy what the British did [in Britain, anyway]” right? Except I think the % of the population enslaved was lower for them.

    I don’t think such a plan is realistic if we’re talking about the 1850s (or 1840s, or 1820s even). But in 1800? Maybe something could have been worked out. Probably still a fool’s hope, but my guess is that there was a legit chance at it if it had been put on the table early, and before the sectional differences got worse (the North always had fewer slaves and looked at the question differently, but in 1800 most of the North still allowed slavery. Vermont was the only state to enter the union w/o it). Sadly, the Founding generation kicked around the idea but never made it happen.

    It certainly is worth noting that this solution to the slavery problem is massive collective action.

    I think in fairness to Paul and others who engage in this sort of wishful thinking, it’s not just the 600+k deaths in the war itself that is so sad. It’s that it took another freaking 100 years simply to get to equality under the law. Looking at that is terribly depressing.

    I read these words:

    Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

    And (setting aside my non-belief in God), I’d like to believe that, having spilt that blood, we were redeemed. Instead, we got “the Redeemers,” Jim Crow, etc.

    So of course it’s tempting to go the counterfactual route and imagine a path that doesn’t involve the war. I don’t think it’s realistic, but I don’t think it’s malign.

  9. Gustopher says:

    Does the federal government have the right to buy all the slaves? What if the slaveholders didn’t want to sell? It would have been an unprecedented massive use of eminent domain.

    Does Ron Paul really support such an expansion of eminent domain?

  10. @Gustopher:

    It should be noted Paul said “you” should have bought the slaves, not the government. He probably was envisioning some sort of charitable slave buying program, not a government one.

  11. It should also be noted that there are still between 12 and 27 million slaves around the world today. Does the US have a moral responsibility to invade countries like the Sudan to stop slavery there as well?

  12. Herb says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    “He probably was envisioning some sort of charitable slave buying program, not a government one. “

    Which makes it all the more ridiculous….

    Surely you can see how “some sort of charitable slave buying program” would have only increased the slave trade rather than eliminate it, right?

  13. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    He probably was envisioning some sort of charitable slave buying program, not a government one.

    Which existed, and had no systemic effect. People voluntarily freed slaves, and others worked to free slaves w/o the government. This did nothing to prevent the growth of the instituition and the coming of the Civil War.

    I ‘mean, wow, it’s absurd. Somebody gets a bunch of donations and buys some slaves to free them. The slaveholder, thus enriched, goes and buys new slaves. DUH.

  14. Anonne says:

    The bailout wouldn’t have rectified the overall problem: cheap labor. We couldn’t have afforded the bailout, because the theft of labor couldn’t be replaced. No, they would not have acquiesced to such a plan without bloodshed.

  15. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:


    I don’t find the situations analogous.

  16. @Herb:

    Yes, I’m not defending the idea, just pointing out he wasn’t necessarily suggesting the government buy all the slaves as some of the other commenters seem to be assuming.

  17. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Fair enough. I made the leap to a governmental program because: a) it’s what was done in Britain, as far as I understand it; and b) it’s the only way it could possibly work. You buy them in one big program that frees them *and bans the practice from then on*

    Otherwise, FAIL.

  18. @Rob in CT:

    Agreed, one just has to look at the various attempts by charitable groups to combat modern slavery by buying slaves to see that this idea doesn’t work unless you also have some way of preventing new slaves.

  19. Herb says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    just pointing out he wasn’t necessarily suggesting the government buy all the slaves

    That’s fine, but understand what Paul is doing here*. If we’re playing “historical coulda shoulda woulda, ” why start at Lincoln and the Civil War? Why not go back further? How do you prevent the Civil War? Easy…don’t implement the institution of slavery in the first place. I mean, as long as we’re revising history…

    * Making excuses for the Confederacy.

  20. Clivesl says:

    Actually Lincoln tried just this tactic with border states early in the war prior to the emancipation proclamation. He offered to buy all of the slaves in the border states still in the union. The border states rejected his plan out of hand.

    So it is kind of silly to think that the firebreathers in the deep south would have had any interest in this sort of plan prior to the war. It should be remembered that at the time, it was the consensus opinion around the world that the South was going to succeed in leaving the union. It is only with hindsight that the North’s victory seems inevitable.

    On a side note Lincoln also offered prominent African-American leaders (such as Frederick Douglass) financial and political support to start colonies in Africa and Latin America for the slaves that were to be freed. Lincoln believed that it would be impossible for the two races ever to co-exist in America. They too rejected his idea out of hand.

  21. Rob in CT says:

    That’s right. I’d forgotten that, Clivesl.

    How do you prevent the Civil War? Easy…don’t implement the institution of slavery in the first place. I mean, as long as we’re revising history…

    Sure. But of course slavery goes back past the Founding, which makes it difficult to discuss in the context of US politics (which is a good example of how politics and history don’t mesh terribly well).

  22. John Burgess says:

    I don’t have my Civil War books in front of me, but I recall proposals by both Abolishionists as well as some slave-owner Southerners to support a buy-out of the slaves. Yes, it ultimately could have ended up as an act of eminent domain, but the first proposals were for a nationwide charitable collection to buy all the slaves. With their ownership contracts in hand, the buyers would have manumitted them all. Labor would still have been available to those who wanted to hire the now freed slaves, but obviously as a cost >0.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @Clivesl: Yep. Lincoln had a long history of supporting compensated emancipation. Before the war, he supported it as a general goal to reduce slavery as much possible, coupled with colonization. When the war broke out he tried to get the border states to agree to a plan, which Lincoln thought of the highest strategic importance in discouraging the continuation of the rebellion. He was, however, able to get compensated emancipation for the District of Columbia.

  24. I don´t think that was the point. There were some slave owners that even immigrated to Brazil so they could have slaves there.

  25. Dazedandconfused says:

    It’s an old “Lost Causer” trope. Was it worth it for the North?

    Another way to refute it is to ask if it was worth it for the South.

  26. sam says:

    I wonder if Ron Paul knows that slaves were the single most valuable property in the US prior to the Civil War? Their combined value was greater than that of all the banks, factories, farms, and railroads in the North. [Yale University, HIST 119 – The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877. Professor David Blight, Spring, 2008]

  27. DRS says:

    I get the impression that RP doesn’t really understand the historical situation in 1850’s-1860’s American history. He’s just projecting modern feelings backwards. I’m really not clear on this – does anyone know if he’s really read up on this era?

  28. P Stevens says:

    Conveniently left out things like Lincoln’s innaugural address and the morrill tariff or that every other nation peacefully emmancipated their slaves. Nor that Lincoln never freed anyone within his purview to free

  29. Captain Obvious says:

    LOL. RP is a big Spooner fan, you guys are way out of your league… you sound a lot like lincoln cultists supporting the lincoln myth. Read some DiLorenzo. U hi falloooootin’ lawyers don’t understand they overtly freed the colored slaves, and simultaneously and covertly enslaved anyone claiming to be a US citizen. 650,000 men, women and children were slaughtered to “save the union at any cost.” In other words: liberty died in 1865.

  30. Danielle says:
  31. Danielle says:
  32. Danielle says:

    Ron Paul discusses the Civil War with D.L. Hughley