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The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army

Murray Rothbard wrote that “There have been only two wars in American history that were, in my view, assuredly and unquestionably proper and just”: “the American Revolution, and the War for Southern Independence.” Now these wars may be just under “just war” theory, but in my view they were all unjust by libertarian standards. The use of conscription and taxation alone–by the US in the former, and the CSA in the latter–is enough to condemn the actions of these states as criminal.

Libertarians are not usually reluctant to condemn state crime and war, but for some reason if you make similar observations about the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War (either Lincoln’s, or the CSA’s, criminal actions), libertarians become apoplectic. Case in point: the reaction to my post Happy We-Should-Restore-The-Monarchy-And-Rejoin-Britain Day! “Proud Patriot” in the comments says that I “blame the freedom-loving patriots of the American Revolution for the mass murdering tyrants of the twentieth century”.

Well, some libertarians may want to overlook the typical crimes committed by states anytime there is war, but I don’t. The Declaration of Independence of course led to all the standard evils of war and raising an army-as Hummel noted, “unfunded government debt, paper money, skyrocketing inflation, price controls, legal tender laws, direct impressment of supplies and wide-spread conscription.”

Casual googling leads to all kinds of information on this. E.g.: as noted here:

The absence of a strong, central, colonial government resulted in a vast shortage of funding and human resources. Paper money and bills of credit financed the war, and while the paper money became almost valueless, inflation rocketed. Profiteers took advantage of these conditions to make money while workers held strikes for higher wages. Soldiers were also in short supply, with state militias sometimes competing against the Continental Army for them. Soldiers were generally ill fed, poorly clothed, and lacked weapons.

Around 5,000 blacks served in the colonial army. At first only free blacks were accepted, but the shortage in soldiers led to the conscription of slaves. Blacks fought with whites in unsegregated units. Americans Indians, threatened by colonial expansion, most often fought for the British, and after the revolt ended their claims to land and self-rule were largely ignored.

And here:

As the war dragged on, it became more difficult to find soldiers. States increased bounties, shortened terms, and reluctantly forced men to serve. But conscription was such a distasteful and dangerous exercise of state power that legislatures would use it only in extreme circumstances. More frequently, legislatures tried to reinforce the army with men drawn by incentive or compulsion from the militia for only a few months of summer service. The army’s composition thus reflected a bewildering variety of enlistment terms. After 1779, for example, a Connecticut company might have eight or ten privates serving for three years or the war, and twice or three times that number enlisted only for the summer. Washington’s complaints to Congress have obscured his genius in building an effective army out of the limited service most Americans were willing to undertake.


During the Revolutionary War, state governments assumed the colonies’ authority to raise their short?term militias through drafts if necessary. They sometimes extended this to state units in the Continental Army, but they denied Gen. George Washington’s request that the central government be empowered to conscript. As the initial volunteering slackened, states boosted enlistment bounties and held occasional drafts, producing more hired substitutes than actual draftees.


Even with their powerful new ally, the Americans remained in dire straits. Enlistments were down and conscription, while utilized, was unpopular.

This book mentions the execution of soldiers during the Revolutionary War for desertion and other things — “For examples of soldiers executed without recourse to a trial by courts-martial, see Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States ..”

As my friend Manuel Lora wrote me: “In order to be free we shall establish a state, inflate the money supply, control trade and enslave people to work the fields and the killing fields. … Happy 4th of July.”

Update: ¿Feliz día de la Independencia? by Albert Esplugas: an excerpt: “I am not convinced that [July 4th] should be celebrated in America either”

A good comment on Don Boudreaux’s post The Founders Would Be Appalled:

Ray Gardner,

I agree with you when you wrote that “the form of government that was laid down by these men set the stage for the most dynamic, and freest civilization the world has ever known.”

But I passionately hate this romantic notion regarding the founders of this country, purported by many libertarians and conservatives, as somehow being noble and good, and different from modern politicians, when in fact, many of them were hypocritical slaveholders.

To debunk this nonsense about these people as somehow being outstanding American citizens, I will emphasize my last post for the other readers to be perfectly clear:

“…these men knew what they were doing was not only morally reprehensible, but entirely against everything which they were fighting for, and yet they still held these people as slaves!

To be clear, they were hypocrites who talked a big game about liberty and justice, but were abject failures because they lacked the courage to follow their passionate convictions. They were pure cowards, and nothing better.”

That’s my beef…….that so many libertarians and conservatives look up to these cowards as somehow superior and worthy of emulation, when they failed at following up on even the most basic tenets of their writings and speeches.

In fact, had they not enslaved people, then yes, I probably would be exalting the things they wrote about too, but unlike many other libertarians, I see them for the complete cowards they were.

I mean, how can a man think, write, speak and fight for liberty and justice all day from the comforts of his home while looking out the window as the people he “owns”, his slaves, are being forced to work against their will.

Really, let’s stop this foolishness about the “founders” being so great and “better” than today’s politicians, and get a proper perspective of history here.


And from Trevor Bothwell:

Celebrating Evil

Today I will be celebrating friendships at the Fourth of July party I’ll be attending. Unlike the vast majority of people, however, I will not be celebrating my country’s decision to shed one criminal enterprise for the formation of another, nor will I delude myself into thinking that the United States is in any capacity a free country in terms of libertarian values.

We live in a state that sanctions the theft, assault, and murder of innocent citizens on a daily basis. That, my friends, is nothing to raise a glass to.

And in Los padres fundadores, con perspectiva histórica, Albert Esplugas discusses this post.

Update: Hurrah for King George!, by John Attarian.

[LewRockwell.com Cross-post]

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Brad Sandelin July 3, 2009, 9:29 am

    Great article Stephan. I had read that quote from Rothbard before, and I never understood what would compel him to say such a thing. Your point of view here is the right one, in my opinion. How could Rothbard, after accepting that it is justifiable for the state to force an individual to kill or sacrifice his life – even if the supposed cause is just – oppose any of the myriad lesser forms of state compulsion?

  • Joseph O'Donnell July 3, 2009, 10:21 am

    Great post. I think the reason why Rothbard and many other libertarians like the revolutionary war, is because they saw it as the best, most successful attempt up to that time to establish anything close to a purposeful libertarian society. Did it fall so far short of that ideal as to be not many steps past ignorant barbarism?- by the more advanced understanding of libertarianism we have today, yes.

    There is a deep problem in libertarianism that hasn’t been addressed yet, how to create and maintain a libertarian society. Unfortunately, anarcho-capitalism probably won’t ever establish itself without purposeful effort and organization of some type. This is because the enemies of anarcho-capitalism will keep on organizing against it in significant numbers, and prevent it from happening on it’s own. The organizing principle of anarcho-capitalism must be anarcho-capitalist itself, and thus war is out of the question.

    I think that principle should be ‘freedom communities’, secession and freedom enhancing businesses of the type described in ‘power,state and market.’ My idea of a ‘freedom community’ is an intentional libertarian community such as the ‘Free State’ project in NH.

    Here is a plan help build the power and support necessary to do this, and regain freedom in our time:


  • Tony July 3, 2009, 6:24 pm


    I understand that you are an anarcho-libertarian, and therefore you view the very existence of the state to be a criminal act. But there are a great many libertarians who do not come to the same conclusion you do about that. Given that reality, in commenting on another topic, something separate from the acceptability of a state as such, standard conversational courtesy in these situations suggests that either you restrain your references to such extraneous debated points (as the criminality of any state) so as to leave room for others to comment on the topic at hand without explicitly agreeing with your position on the state, or to at least postulate your position on the state as a hypothetical so that others can enter the debate agreeing to grant your hypothesis strictly for the issue at hand, though not more generally.

    I don’t agree with the thesis that the state is a criminal act of its own nature, so naturally I don’t look at the acts of the Revolutionary period through the same lens. Without your assumption that the state is criminal, it does not follow as a matter of course that the acts the states and the union of them engaged in to become independent were criminal either. And if it does not follow as a matter of course, wouldn’t you have to argue to such a conclusion, rather than merely point out the so-called crimes that many people don’t think are crimes?

    I don’t see why you extol the tea party website which proposes and prefers limited government, when you don’t believe in government at all. Seems odd.

  • Stephan Kinsella July 3, 2009, 7:07 pm


    I’m an anarchist. You may not be. You are free to state your views. Should I not be free to state my mine?

    Most minarchists I’m familiar with don’t believe in conscription or taxes or other actions engaged in by the Continental Army so pointing this out should give you minarchists pause, no?

    What do you mean about my extolling the tea party website?

  • Tony July 4, 2009, 12:35 pm

    I’m an anarchist. You may not be. You are free to state your views. Should I not be free to state my mine?

    Do whatever you want. It’s your website. I certainly am not suggesting that you don’t state your point of view.

    Most minarchists I’m familiar with don’t believe in conscription or taxes Perhaps, though I suspect that this heavily depends on whether you are willing to class as a minarchist someone who allows for taxes. This from Wiki:

    In civics, minarchism (sometimes called minimal statism,[1] small government, or limited-government libertarianism[2]) refers to a political ideology which maintains that the state’s only legitimate function is the protection of individuals from aggression.[2][3] Minarchists defend the existence of the state as a necessary evil,[1][4] but assert that it may only act to protect the life, liberty, and property of each individual. A minarchist state would therefore consist simply of courts, a military, and a police force—the mere components of a night watchman state. Generally, minarchists identify themselves within the broader libertarian movement.

    There are a great many people in favor of minimum government who believe that no government with courts, police and military can be run without taxes, and therefore support taxes. There are other minarchists who think that the minimum government can be supported with donations. Since both of these views are consistent with the basic notion of minarchism as enunciated, both classes of people are minarchists.

    What do you mean about my extolling the tea party website?

    This: you don’t believe in a state. They do. They want to restore small republican states. What were those Minute Men fighting for at Lexington and Concord? A republic of largely independent states.

  • Bob Kaercher July 4, 2009, 3:27 pm

    “I understand that you are an anarcho-libertarian, and therefore you view the very existence of the state to be a criminal act. But there are a great many libertarians who do not come to the same conclusion you do about that.”

    Well that’s a given, and largely beside the point. Most libertarians who identify themselves as anarchist are well aware that they are a (albeit growing and progressively more vocal) minority in the movement. But whether or not a “great many libertarians” reach the same conclusions about a given claim has no bearing on the correctness or incorrectness of the claim itself.

    I’ve also come across some minarchists who think a “limited” amount of taxation is permissible to maintain the minimal “night watchman” state, and I’ve also come across other minarchists who are adamantly opposed to taxation. But there is a burden on both of these “limited government” camps to reconcile the self-contradiction of their respective positions.

    First we need to ask ourselves, what is taxation? Well, taxation is theft. Even if only a few people in society don’t want the so-called “services” provided by a government and therefore don’t want to pay the taxes that fund them, those few people are being robbed and that is morally wrong. Even those who say they don’t mind paying taxes are being robbed because they’ve never been given a choice in the first place and so their “consent” is meaningless considering that they’ve never been in the position of being free to reject government “services” and taxation. (On this, see Rad Geek’s excellent blog post, “Can Anybody Ever Consent to the State?” http://radgeek.com/gt/2009/01/08/can_anybody/)

    So the minarchist who defends limited taxation to maintain their ideally minimal state is in the morally awkward position of defending “limited” theft and bullying. Sort of like proposing that a mugger be allowed to regularly steal only a few bucks out of your wallet each time they put their gun to your head instead of simply denouncing mugging.

    The minarchists who defend the concept of a “limited” state and at the same time denounce taxation and instead propose strictly voluntary donations put themselves in the awkward position of defending something that simply does not comport with reality: If a government is run solely on donations, then people are free not to donate and instead seek similar services from other agencies competing in the market, which makes the minimal “government” no government at all but a market competitor. This is, in effect, market anarchy. If an agency initiates force against individuals in order to maintain itself as the only “provider” of certain protective services and establish itself as a “limited” government (in other words, a “limited” monopoly), then this calls into question the minarchist’s commitment to a gov’t being “limited” if he defends this. (On this, see the late Roy Childs’ open letter to Ayn Rand: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig4/childs1.html)

    As for the Tea Parties, I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory for an anarchist to support and attend these rallies, though that may depend upon the overall character of each rally. Based on what I’ve read, most of those things devolve into being more “Support The Troops” rallies than rallying cries against taxation (mass slaughter by government is funded by taxes–Surprise!!!), but there may be genuine opportunities for anarchists to make some progress in persuading sincerely anti-tax people to take their principles to their logical conclusion and adopt the anarchist view. Of course, some of these rallies may be less fertile grounds for such anarcho-conversion than others seeing as how they are organized and funded by the pro-Big Government GOP.

    The fact of the matter is that probably 98% of people today would be utterly shocked by proposals for a government-less society. We anarchists shouldn’t let that restrict ourselves, especially when we see the opportunity to connect with some people who are genuinely outraged by at least some government policies to at least some degree. What’s the sense of singing only to the choir?

  • David C. July 4, 2009, 4:36 pm

    In for a penny, in for a pound. What all these commenter debates devolve to is pitting a clearly-defined philosophy against a fuzzy, flexible philosophy. People espousing gray-area philosophy tend to get their backs up when the implications of such fuzzy thinking are highlighted.

    The problem is that any minarchist position is subject to the creeping “little bit more” argument. When is it acceptable to compel people to defend the collective (AKA conscript them)? Is it okay when the Enemy is massing over yonder hill? How about if the Enemy is across the river? Or massing on the next continent? Whose word is to be taken on the identity of the Enemy and his supposedly threatening behavior? How do you define such questions of acceptability in a non-arbitrary manner?

    Answer: You don’t. Fuzzy philosophy begets arbitrary and changing parameters, which in turn generate conflict and division.

    Minarchist defenses of the Revolutionary War inevitably devolve to utilitarian defenses of state coercion. They rest on the sandy foundation of Outcome Utilitarianism, and such thinking can be tortured into accepting all manner of evil means in order to promote some (supposedly) beneficial ends.

    Having said this, I seem to recall Mr. Kinsella agreeing with the idea that a collective judicial entity could compel a man to provide monetary support for his offspring. Given that monetary support is but a small part of the value a man can (but sometimes fails to) provide his children, and the fact that no collective entity can coerce a man into providing that which he does not himself have, the very notion of a court coercing a collective desire for provision of monetary support is itself another arbitrary employment of the fist of the mob.

    The question that always requires an answer is this: Is the rule I propose worth killing someone over? In the final analysis, the rules of the state (from establishment of conscription to establishment of child support to seat belt laws) will be enforced by a loaded gun in the hand of someone willing to use it. Those who defend social controls (taxes, conscription, welfarism, etc.) argue in favor of killing people with whom they disagree, and the burden of proof is on them to justify such bloody intent.

  • George P. Burdell August 6, 2009, 3:26 pm

    Just found the post, I would like to make a point about the character of the founding fathers. The posters are correct that they were neither saints nor economic/social government geniuses. They also should absolutely not be given a pass on the crimes they committed and the atrocities they wrought on the early nation, or on the Indian nations.

    But, the founding fathers should be looked at as individuals, not as a group. There were some, like Hamilton (arguable if he was a founding father or not) that were absolutely a evil men. George Washington was not saint, as this post lays out. John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition act, the 19th century version of the Patriot Act. Other, not famous founding fathers died fighting in the war, or spend literally their whole fortunes in fighting for independence. Those individuals, who I sadly have to admit I do not know by name, can hardly be called cowards or your standard fair of politician.

    What is important is that we learn for their mistakes and successes. What is true is that they produced probably the two best documents ever created by governments. They also created a nation that is unique in many ways in all of human history. We have 200+ years of advances in Austrian economics, anarchical theory, and libertarian thought that inform us so much better than were the founding fathers. We also have the, though the Internet and things like the open source software movement, living examples of how and why freedom can and does work. It is our job to learn these lessons and notto create a return to the american Republic, but instead achieve BETTER things than our founders.

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