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Book Review: When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession (Charles Adams)

This book has a not-new thesis, beloved by Marxists and Charles Beard: that economic reasons were the real driver behind the Civil War. Actually, Charles Adams tells us that only one economic reason was the sole driver—increased tariffs dictated by the North. As with all ideologically driven analysis, this ignores that all complex happenings have complex causes. Compounded with Adams’ numerous gross falsehoods, obvious ignorance, and bad writing, the result is Not Fresh.

I cannot speak with any authority to how much economic reasons had to do with the Civil War, although I can say with certainty that was only part of the reason the Civil War erupted. I suspect few rational people would argue that economic reasons were irrelevant. But I can speak with authority on legal matters and the structure of the American legal system, an analysis of which Adams heavily relies on to support his thesis, and in that regard Adams is comprehensively ignorant in a dishonest way.

Adams, at the beginning of the book, spends a lot of time establishing the supposed illegitimacy of Lincoln’s behavior, unoriginally casting Lincoln as a Julius Caesar-type dictator. Adams puts great weight, 10% of the entire book, on a discussion of Ex Parte Merryman. This was an 1861 case in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, acting as a circuit judge (i.e., explicitly not in his Supreme Court role), granted a writ of habeas corpus to a man imprisoned in Maryland by the military for sedition. The military, and Lincoln, refused to comply, with Lincoln explaining the legal basis for his reasons to Congress a month later.

Adams repeatedly and shrilly claims that Lincoln’s failure to obey Taney’s writ meant that Lincoln was undermining the entire system of American constitutional government by “refusing to obey a decision of the Supreme Court.” For many pages, Adams goes on in this vein, comparing Lincoln to Caesar crossing the Rubicon at least ten times and never acknowledging that there could be any doubt about the legal conclusion involved. But Ex Parte Merryman was NOT A SUPREME COURT DECISION. It was the act of a lower court judge acting “ex parte”—that is, without hearing from the parties involved. This is typical for a writ of habeas corpus, but an ex parte opinion from the Supreme Court itself has limited precedence, and the opinion of one justice of several, not even acting as a Supreme Court justice, has no Supreme Court precedential value at all.

But Adams flatly denies all this, or does not understand it, and even bizarrely claims “Today, Taney’s opinion is studied in law school as one of the great decisions on constitutional law, with no dissenters.” Nothing could be farther from the truth—in fact, the core legal question involved (whether it is Congress, the President, or some combination of the two who can suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which suspension is explicitly allowed in the Constitution) has never been settled by the Supreme Court. Lincoln, unsurprisingly, took the position that the President had that authority, which was not and is not an illegitimate position. Then Adams tells us that Lincoln’s response was to order the arrest of Taney, who only was not arrested because of the discretion of the arresting officer. But this is a conjecture supported by no historians at all; there is no evidence such a thing ever happened except the word of one man years later. It is the Civil War equivalent of claiming that the government is warehousing aliens at Area 51. Adams doesn’t say that—he treats the supposed arrest warrant as an acknowledged fact, though from his defensiveness you can tell that there is something wrong. In sum, the atrociousness of the facts and analysis in this chapter cannot be overstated.

The rest of the book has some interesting sections—for example, on the British press’s reaction to the Civil War. But given the total falsehoods and biased selection of evidence related to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, there is no way for a non-expert to tell whether the rest of the book is similarly filled with falsehoods and cherry picking. But the rest of the book is undoubatedly filled with tendentious writing, constant propagandistic phrasing favoring the South, unbalanced analysis, and vitriol unbecoming in a supposed historian.

For supposed historian is what Charles Adams is. He self-describes himself on the blurb of his book as a “the world’s leading historian of taxation.” I am not a slave to academic qualifications, but Adams appears to have none. It is hard to find information on him, but according to a 1993 newspaper article, he is “a former California lawyer who is a research historian at the University of Toronto,” and before that “taught history at the International College of the Cayman Islands.” The book prominently notes that it is the “Winner of the 2000 Paradigm Book Award.” I can find no reference to such an award except in connection with this book. The back cover has positive blurb quotes from four people from Emory, Auburn, USC and Florida Atlantic University. The first two are not from historians, but from a philosopher and a trustee who is not a teacher at all. The third is from an elderly historian who is a founder of the League of the South, a neo-confederate organization. The fourth, a short and anodyne quote, is from a historian about whom I can find little information. But none of this increases my trust in this book. I’m sure there’s a case to be made for some of Adams’s opinions, but he does himself and his positions no favors with this book.

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