Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Right of Secession

Joe Sobran has again taken a view contrary to popular belief. Nothing unusual about that, and as usual he's worth reading. His point in "The Federal Monopoly" is that when the Civil War prevented some states from leaving the Union, they were denied a constitutional option they had every right to exercise. That wouldn't surprise the founding fathers because they set things up that way, if only because the 13 original states wouldn't have bought into the federal scheme otherwise. He also said, without any concern for political correctness, that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, at least not directly. Key points:

In most teaching about the American Civil War, the pupil “learns” that there was a necessary association between slavery and secession. The war ended happily, he is told, because slavery was destroyed and the Union was saved.

But there was no inevitable connection between slavery and secession. In fact, the first secessionists were Northern abolitionists who wanted no part of a Union that tolerated slavery. They just didn’t acquire enough influence to persuade their fellow Northerners to declare their independence.

Suppose they had. Suppose New England had pulled out of the Union in indignation over slavery. Suppose the remaining states had declared war in order to save the Union, and after a bitter five-year struggle, costing nearly a million lives, New England had been conquered.

He then speculated on what would have followed, including the "reconstruction" of New England and the probability that slavery would have been reaffirmed by the victorious Union. More:

At the time the Constitution was adopted, several states, including Virginia and New York, ratified it on the express condition that they might withdraw from the Union at any time they deemed it in their interest to do so. This was in keeping with the Declaration of Independence, which says that people have both the “right” and the “duty” to “alter or abolish” a government destructive of their rights.

Nobody at the time challenged these states’ claim to a right of secession. Not only did the Declaration support them; as a practical matter, nothing could stop them. The federal government was too weak.

The Civil War established that the federal government had grown strong enough to prevent and punish any independence movement. From then on, no state could secede for any reason, no matter how tyrannous the federal government might become. ...

This is what makes it possible for the federal government to dictate to the states. If the Union were still voluntary, the Supreme Court wouldn’t dare, for example, to strike down the abortion laws of all 50 states, because many of those states would have seceded immediately after such an outrageous usurpation of their power. ...

So, as a practical matter, there is no longer any such thing as a federal “usurpation” of power. Nobody can enforce the Constitution against the federal government, so why bother trying? Which makes the Constitution pretty useless for the purpose of limiting that government.

When you look back on a famous victory in any war of the past, don’t be too sure the right side won.

Have you ever wondered what our country would be like if the limited federal republic created over two centuries ago had survived? Of course, Washington and Richmond would probably be the capitals of two separate countries. Might not have been so bad. It's highly unlikely slavery would have long endured, given the general course of history. And if the Confederacy hadn't spent a century recovering from the physical devastation of the war and the political and economic devastation of reconstruction, it might have emerged as a powerful, independent nation. I wonder who would be giving foreign aid to whom?


Blogger Amir said...

Every once in a while I see these "the Civil War was about states rights, not slavery" arguments, and I have yet to be convinced. The fact is that the abolitionists had the momentum and they didn't make any moves towards seceding. The South seceded to protect their states' rights to have slavery. The Federal government wasn't trying to set their speed limit, they were afraid it would one day outlaw slavery.

Also, two nations would probably have developed as serious rivals and the world as we know it would be very different.

4:40 PM, May 08, 2005  
Blogger Tran Sient said...

Perhaps South Carolina should have taken it to the Supreme Court in an attempt to secede peacefully. Perhaps Massachusetts should try that now.

I do not believe the Confederacy would have sustained itself as anything more than a loose confederation. What would have prevented other Southern states from then seceding again upon further disagreement?

9:10 PM, May 08, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Amir, the Civil War wasn't just about slavery. That was certainly an issue, but even Lincoln didn't think it was the major issue. His primary motivation was to preserve the union, with or without slavery, as he himself indicated. If the Confederacy had won, or if the war hadn't been fought, the world certainly would have been a different place today. It's one of the most fascinating of historical "what ifs".

Tran Sient, if the southern states had been allowed to exercise their right to secede, it would have had a major impact on both the Confederacy and the Union. The assumptions that today form the basis of our understanding of what the U.S. is would be entirely different. Who knows how many countries would exist between Canada and Mexico today?

8:28 AM, May 11, 2005  
Blogger Amir said...

Tom, agreed that it is a fascinating what-if.

I do believe that it was about slavery though. I understand Lincoln's position and I know he didn't try to abolish slavery from the get-go, but the fact is that the southern states attempted to secede over concerns they would lose their right to have slaves, not other rights.

I think that two nations would have been exponentially weaker than one. Would have taken the same sides in the two World Wars? Would one side ally with Mexico against the other and Mexico regain some lost territory?

7:16 PM, May 12, 2005  

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