Today’s post ran very long, but it began life as very broad study of the idea of secession in the antebellum republic and then shrank when I realized that I had written mostly about the founders. In light of both the length and the focus, I opted to leave this piece of evidence out. I present it here as a coda to the rest:
James Madison lived into the 1830s, long enough to follow the events of the Nullification Crisis and offer his opinion on the matter. He put them to paper in a letter to Nicholas Trist, of later Mexico negotiation fame, on December 23, 1852:
It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers, who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes & lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly & emphatically agst. them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington ps. 43 & 202. Vol 2d with respect to the power of the old Congs. to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover his remark that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce, in the Federal Articles; that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.
We can’t know what a remarkably long-lived Madison would have said about Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the slaveholder insurrection in 1861. Living through those extra decades, his opinions informed by every development between his letter and then, he might have thought rather differently. But the Madison, and his memory of Jefferson, of the Jackson years considered the coercion of delinquent state entirely appropriate and, indeed, inherent in the Union’s nature. In calling nullification a “colossal heresy” he wounds like an adherent to the strict and permanent Union that a certain sort, unburdened by an obligation to facts, insist that Abraham Lincoln invented. I know Lincoln held a patent, but don’t recall it involving time machines.