Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

James Madison

James Madison

Thomas Fleming gave the waiting world two roads clear of the American Civil War. The first, compensated emancipation, probably makes sense to most people who hear of it. The state buys all the slaves and sets them free, thus directly eliminating slavery. The second road, dispersion or diffusion, lacks the intuitive virtue of the first. Fleming explains:

James Madison’s remarkable intellect had created most of our Constitution. Watching the New England states, then New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania pass laws gradually abolishing slavery with no backlash from the white population or outbreak of violence from the freed slaves, Madison noted that in all these states slaves and slaveowners were a distinct minority of the population. No one paid the owners anything to free their supposed property. The slaves were emancipated by a majority vote of a state’s population or its legislature.

Madison concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.

Fleming sets Madison’s “remarkable intellect” against Thomas Jefferson’s famously poor political judgment, which included banning slavery in the Northwest Territory. In doing so, he strikes at the root of the difficulty with the dispersion argument. Proponents ask their audiences, then and now, to believe that the production of slave states without limit will weaken slavery and ease it toward abolition. In other words, the nation should have thrown the commonwealth, every particle of dirt from the Appalachians to the Pacific, wide open to slavery. By the production of at least a score of new slave states, slavery would somehow melt away despite the obviously dramatic boost this would give to the always powerful proslavery interest within the United States government.

Maybe James Madison could believe that. He had, as Fleming rightly notes, the example of the New England and Mid-Atlantic emancipations. In each case, marginal slave systems unable to reorient all of white society around themselves ended without great turmoil. Any new state would by definition lack a large population, yet have plenty of cheap land freshly stolen from the Indians and ripe for white exploitation. The labor shortage would promote the establishment and growth of slavery, inducing enslavers to import the enslaved from older states just as labor shortages in the Chesapeake and Caribbean had once prompted the same transport across the Atlantic. That northern enslavers frequently sold their human property South in advance of the scheduled date of emancipation, often in defiance of the law, further proved the point.

But the facts soon leave the diffusionists behind. They identified a dynamic that would pull slaves to new territories and away from old, but all the way back to the first census we know that the whole of the North then had only 40,000 slaves to move. This came to just over two percent of the total population. While an impressive number, more than the entire population of the county in which I live, it pales next to the South’s 657,000. That came to a third of the Southern population and about the same as my Congressional district, or significantly more than the state of Wyoming. It ought to go without saying that removing the greater portion of third of the population that the South enslaved would take more doing, if one could do it at all.

Furthermore, diffusion assumes a sort of antislavery asymmetry between the sources of slave supply and the slave demand generated by newly opened frontiers. The new states must have enough enslavers ready to move in with or import slaves to significantly exceed the capacity of the states supplying the slaves to produce new slaves. Given American optimism about the frontier, that assumption must have come easily. While the comparatively massive slave population of the South might make us a bit skeptical, at the time Americans imagined the whole continent available for their future use. Surely that could drain away the slaves.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Or could it? The Northwest Ordinance did bar slavery from part of the continent, but south of the Ohio no such ban existed. Here virgin frontiers full of whites hungry for slaves and the money they could wring from enslaved lives beckoned. Furthermore, that frontier held land well-suited to the most lucrative crop available to Americans: cotton. Indeed, it held most of the land well-suited to that crop. If the Old Southwest came in short of all North America for making dispersion dreams come true, then it still provided a nigh-ideal test case. All the land of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and then Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas ought to suffice in draining away at least enough slaves to make a dent.

Yet we don’t observe any significant reduction in proslavery fervor or in the slave populations along the Atlantic. Quite the opposite, even the dispersionists’ Virginia home seems more committed to slavery in perpetuity in the late Antebellum than in earlier decades. And why should the Upper South get rid of slavery? Tobacco had seen better days, true enough, but the chillier reaches north of the Cotton Kingdom had discovered a new cash crop which proved adequately profitable: slaves. While many of those slaves went to satisfy demand on the frontier, just as dispersionists hoped, the demographics don’t lie. Virginia had more slaves in 1860 than ever before, not less. It transpired that, whatever wistful dreams enslavers had about their states growing whiter, they still found profit the more congenial of their principles. Increasing the demand for slaves beyond what their local labor market dictated could both induce them to keep an enslaved population around for breeding purposes and encourage others to get into the business. Thus we see dispersion not shifting slavery, but simply expanding it. The same holds true in South Carolina, where losing out in the demographic race to younger states meant not a reduced commitment to slavery but rather an intensification of an already deep preference for the institution.

For that matter, even if dispersion had shifted slavery that didn’t necessarily point to an end of slavery. North American only goes so far. By the dispersionists own logic, concentration of slavery breeds commitment to slavery and renders emancipation impossible. Eventually the United States would have run out of land to steal, or found the rest taken up by empires that could win a war against it. Those empires might not permit slavery, and indeed both of the country’s continental neighbors came around to that position. With the frontier run out, slavery must concentrate and produce a polity committed to its perpetuation. The only road open to diffuse slavery away then would involve expanding it back into marginal areas and, ultimately, places that had freed themselves of bondage.

James Madison might not have lived long enough to settle in his mind that diffusion would not work, but Thomas Fleming has no excuse for pushing such an old, clearly discredited argument. Americans tried the experiment and got more slavery more enthusiastically embraced, not less. Nobody kept the demographics secret. They, and the Upper South’s embrace of slave cultivation as well as cultivation by the enslaved, feature prominently in more than a half century of scholarship. Fleming can’t have missed that, unless he chose not to burden himself with the laborious task of cracking a book on the subject. He may, if he so wishes, unburden himself. Novelists can write what they like with the understanding, shared between author and audience, that they produce fiction.

Fleming did not present himself as a making things up in the service of an entertaining story or offering up contemporary arguments as intellectual curiosities. All through his essay he seems entirely in earnest, understanding himself and expecting readers to understand him as a competent historian commenting on a subject of his study. His arguments concern history and use historical reasoning; they deserve that charity to the best of my admittedly amateur’s ability to provide it. Perhaps in his work on the Revolutionary era, which seems the main focus of his study, fares rather better under such scrutiny. I lack the familiarity both with his work and with the subject in general to comment upon them. I fear, however, that Fleming’s two roads represent the high point of his essay. It gets worse.

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Unpacking States Rights

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One often hears that nineteenth century Americans believed in states rights. With these two words we answer a multitude of questions: What policy position characterized white Southern opinion in the antebellum era? States rights. Why did white Southerners object to bans on slavery in the territories? States rights. Why did white Southern states secede in 1860-1? States rights. Why did white Southerners fight the Union? States rights. Uttering the two words absolves one from any obligation to further inquiry. States rights simply constitute an end unto themselves. They slice; they dice; they explain all American history for however many payments of $19.95.

One can find nineteenth century Americans making all of those claims and if one settles for a superficial reading, then they suffice. Looking at them in light of their authors, their times, their circumstances, and the broader history of the nation tells a rather different story. Only the rights to institute, expand, and defend slavery excited much interest in the antebellum South. Attempts to exercise state sovereignty against the federal government otherwise garnered this answer:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

Thus, South Carolina declared the ends of the Union frustrated and its obligations therefore void. The Carolina secessionists pointed to the Constitution, chapter and verse. The free states had undertaken obligations that yielded their sovereignty to the Union on the matter of slaves who dared steal lives from their rightful owners. One can’t argue otherwise, as the Constitution says so right here:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The free states dared nullify federal law. They did so not in some vague or ambiguous area, but where the Constitution explicitly denied them any such power just as it stripped from the states the power to set tariff rates. By breaking faith with their constitutional promises, in this and other matters, the free states had dishonored themselves and forced South Carolina from the Union.

One could go on with this hypocrisy. It would take an arduous search to find an invocation of states rights free from it, if one exists at all. Northern states did claim they had rights to nullify this law or that, most famously Wisconsin when it nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, but they also asserted that they lacked the any such power. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. recounted many such examples in his essay The States Rights FetishNearly a century has come and gone since he wrote and that makes his history downright antique. One should read it with considerable caution. But that said, I don’t think one can argue with the facts he cites.

Beginning with the wellspring of states rights rhetoric, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-9, Schlesinger points out that Jefferson and Madison drew them up as works of political protest. The Federalists in Congress had trampled what we would call civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts. This trampling applied rather selectively to people of Jefferson’s and Madison’s political party. From New England, where the Federalists had control of the legislatures, condemnations rained down. The Constitution vested the power to judge a statute’s constitutionality in the federal courts, not the state houses. That we might agree with Jefferson that the Federalists had gone so far should not blind us to the partisan concern.

Then Jefferson’s party gained control of the government in 1800. Jefferson’s and Madison’s policies harmed the New England shipping industry. The New England legislatures then discovered that they did, in fact, have the power to judge the constitutionality of federal laws:

In February, 1809, the Massachusetts legislature resolved that the embargo measures were, “in many respects, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on the citizens of this state,” though the citizens were counselled “to abstain from forcible resistance, and to apply for their remedy in a peaceable manner to the laws of the commonwealth.” The Connecticut legislature resolved in a similar spirit that it would not “assist or concur in giving effect to the … unconstitutional act, passed to enforce the Embargo.”

The War of 1812 brought the notion that state militias should come into federal service, under the command of federal officers. Connecticut put on its best South Carolina act in response, declaring

the state of Connecticut is a FREE SOVEREIGN and INDEPENDENT state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic

James Madison

James Madison

The issue of the Bank of the United States brought such talk to Pennsylvania and back down to Virginia. Who took the other side?

The federal government found an outspoken friend in South Carolina and a somewhat unexpected defender in Massachusetts. In resolutions of 1821 and 1822 both states asserted the full right of Congress to enact laws establishing a national bank with branches in the several states, and Massachusetts, with an odor of self-righteousness, explicitly championed the right of the United States Supreme Court to settle all questions involving the constitutionality of legislation.

The same South Carolina would discover that states had the right to nullify federal laws after all, aiming the power at the tariff. With all of this talk about sovereign states and nullification, one would assume that other states rushed to the Palmetto State’s banner but

they sought in vain for friends and defenders where they had every right to expect them. In the first stages of the controversy, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both former expounders of the state rights position, expressed their belief that the tariff was entirely constitutional. Event hose states of the South which had earlier declared a belief in the unconstitutionality of the tariff system were not willing to follow the logic of South Carolina into nullification. […] Mississippi adding, with myopic vision into the future, “we stand firmly resolved … in all events and at every hazard, to sustain” the president in “preserving the integrity of the Union-that Union, whose value we will never stop to calculate-holding it, as our fathers held it, precious above all price.”

Easy enough to say with an enslaver in the White House.

Schlesinger goes on: Massachusetts condemned the annexation of Texas and resolved to ignore the resolution that carried it into force. Vermont, Ohio, and Connecticut agreed. Schlesinger then moves on to Wisconsin’s aforementioned nullification. Not taking the Supreme Court decision as binding, the state

resolved in 1859, on the verge of the war to preserve the Union, that the several states which had formed the federal compact, being “sovereign and independent,” had “the unquestionable right to judge of its infractions” and to resort to “positive defiance” of all unauthorized acts of the general government.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

What does all of this amount to? One can read the various proclamations as evidence of a robust antebellum conviction that the states had the rightful power to judge federal laws unconstitutional and nullify them on their own authority. States both North and South claimed it. But states of both sections, the same states often enough, also condemned it and declared it treasonous. It seems, to judge from consistent patterns of behavior rather than isolated rhetoric, states had the right only when and only to the extent that they lost the most recent round of elections and resolved not to accept that verdict nor to wait for their redress in the next canvass.

Stripping away the constitutional rhetoric and high theory, states rights boil down to just that. Even in the most generous reading, a consistent states rights sentiment would amount to the conviction that state governments have greater propensity to enact policies that one prefers than the federal government. Nothing about the state or federal governments makes one or the other inherently more virtuous. We can find in the past actions equally praiseworthy and horrifying from both. For every abolition of slavery and segregation, we have a Trail of Tears or Japanese-American Internment.

In this light, the regular changes in position on supposedly bedrock constitutionalism become entirely comprehensible. Whether Massachusetts in 1809 or South Carolina in 1860, the cry of states rights expresses no more than the partisanship of the losing party to an election. Its universality likewise comes as no surprise, given that everyone who prevails in an election requires another who did not.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

This brings one back around at length to one of the standard answers to neo-Confederates: states rights for what? Nobody wants any kind of abstract, unspecified states right or state sovereignty in itself. Rather one seeks them in order to achieve various ends which appear then impossible at the national level. Stripping all context from assertions of state power and rendered them into constitutional esoterica does nothing but impede our understanding of the past.

I suspect the authors of such arguments intend as much. By taking the politics out of political arguments, we hide from ourselves and others the information necessary to make informed judgments. So blinded, we inevitably come to the conclusion that past Americans simply had some kind of good faith dispute over the letter of the law which, thanks to some irresponsible actors, turned into a war. It would not do to pay attention to the main behind the curtain, whatever he does to his slaves. We must instead comment only the color of the drapes and the manly vigor he demonstrated in choosing it.

This policy or that, before the Civil War or after, violates states rights. Anti-lynching laws? States rights. Integration? States rights. Civil Rights? States rights. Obamacare? States rights. Same-sex marriage? States rights. If we can give it a name, we can invent some right of a state to block it. Curiously, the rights of the people never seem to get much airtime in these discussions.

Those who propose to argue for states rights as a good in themselves ask us to believe that they would change their position entirely if only a state did the work instead. In this fantasy, South Carolina would have abolished slavery in 1860, if only Lincoln had lost. The South would have integrated, but then the Supreme Court and Lyndon Baines Johnson made a federal case out of it.

Out in the real world, people do violence to others and their victims feel the pain and pay the cost more dearly than any rarefied constitutional doctrines. Whether malefactors draw pay from Washington or Lansing or Columbia, their prey suffer the same. Yet the latter-day speakers of the high-class rebel yell would have us always pay no mind to the man behind the curtain or to those he afflicts. We must say nothing about any of that, confining ourselves to commentary on the color of drapery he chose and the manly virtue he displayed in the choice.

Americans did not embrace states rights in the Secession Winter to defend themselves from tyranny. Winning an election does not make a tyrant any more than losing it does not make one virtuous. The white South flocked to the banner then to save themselves from the consequences that losing the election posed to the institution of slavery, going so far as to assail in their Dear John letters to the Union exercise of the very rights they simultaneously claimed. They did not rediscover their ancient faith in the late 1940s, but rather raised up the old banner in the name of white supremacy once again. By pretending otherwise we might make things more comfortable for ourselves, but in doing so we only outsource the costs to others and so make ourselves accessories to and accomplices in their deprivations, great and small.

Some bonus Madison

James Madison

James Madison

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.

What did the founders think of secession?

James Madison

James Madison

The conventional story goes something like this: The founders donned their powdered wigs, put their knee breeches on, and cheered as George Washington applied the requisite amount of boot leather to the necessary number of British posteriors. Thirteen colonies turned into thirteen free and independent states. They did not constitute, in any meaningful sense, a nation. The founders shared with the people of the several nations an abiding suspicion of central authority. Only the Revolution had united them and with it done they could all go back to those nations and have nothing more to do with one another. They never intended to create a consolidated republic and always imagined association between their states as strictly voluntary and subject to unilateral termination, secession in a word, at any time. To the degree the former colonies associated, they associated like you might associate with someone you met once at a party. Having a good time together did not make them married. This vision persisted through the Antebellum until the Tyrant Abraham I, the Hammer of Dixie, enslaved us all. Thus they said “the United States are” before the war and “the United States is” after, or even if they didn’t then they held sentiments largely along those lines. Shelby Foote said so.

I cannot improve on Andy Hall’s demolition of the argument from phrasing. Americans did not primarily or exclusively say “the United States are” until the Civil War and take up the singular verb after. The transition happened decades earlier. But that still leaves the meat of the story. Did antebellum Americans, most especially the founders whom the secessionists claimed as their own, consistently understand the Union as inherently voluntary, with states free to depart at will or, failing that, when they felt things sufficiently dire to justify an extreme step? In short: no.

By that I don’t mean to say that secession never crossed the minds of anybody prior to the late antebellum, nor that talk of disunion only arose late in the age. Threats of it go back to the Constitutional Convention. But those threats did not necessarily indicate general approval of the concept. Rather the convention, twelve of thirteen states strong, came together to curb state sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient to the task of governing the nation because the states had much greater power than the national government, even if that government constituted a permanent union. One needn’t interpret the text to drive that conclusion, incidentally, the Articles call themselves perpetual:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

A perpetual union hardly incorporates in itself any right to secession. Finding the power of the central state insufficient, must we think that the founders got together in Philadelphia to remedy that and then undermined their own work so comprehensively as to nullify it at the whim of any given state? The requirement that all states agree on legislation proved a critical weakness in the Articles, so would they really write it back into the Constitution? People in the past can do things that seem to us perverse and understand themselves instead as consistent with sound principles, but that suggestion would not have made any sense at the time.

The Philadelphia debates bear this out. Just a few days ago I noticed that Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause the Oxford History of the United States volume on the revolutionary era, sold by Amazon as an ebook for all of three dollars. I have not taken much interest in revolutionary history due to all the patriotic myth making. I know that historians do good work there, but the flag waving enthusiasm put me off long ago. All the same, I wanted to check something I’d heard in Mike Duncan’s wonderful Revolutions podcast. So I winced at the title and got my file. I have only read the chapters on the Constitutional Convention and ratification, but they proved a gold mine of information about what the founders thought on the issue. As much of the Philadelphia deliberations concerned representation in the Congress, they naturally dwell upon what states deserve in the way of power. It also made for a really good read. I intend to go back and finish the rest at some point.

I already knew that James Madison came to Philadelphia with a plan to grant the national government a sweeping veto over any state legislation, but the account I got back in high school painted the advocates for equality of the states in the Congress and those who argued for apportionment by population as roughly equal. In fact, only New Jersey and New York favored the former’s equal representation plan when it came down to voting. If a broad consensus existed in Independence Hall, it did not view the states in themselves as the principal components of the new nation. Otherwise one would expect much stronger votes in favor of state equality. What does this have to do with secession? A weak government could hardly prevent it. A strong one could coerce recalcitrant states and wake them from any dreams they had of disunion and nullification alike.

The advocates for state equality touched on the connection themselves. As Middlekauf has it:

Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, all from Connecticut, made the heart of the case for equality of representation with minor, though longwinded, aid from Luther Martin. The essential weakness in the argument for proportional representation, they insisted, was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the Confederacy. The states in reality were joined together by an agreement much like a treaty; they were free and sovereign. Now they were asked to give up their equal voices in the Union, in effect to be consolidated out of existence

James Wilson

James Wilson

Ellsworth further insisted that every confederacy in history had equality among its members, a point of history more convenient than correct. Madison and his fellow Virginian James Wilson would have none of this. Middlekauf continues:

Both rejected the small-state contention that a treaty bound the Confederation together. Far from a union of equals, the Confederation possessed some-but not enough-authority over the states. […] Wilson agreed and rejected the Connecticut proposal for a compromise -the lower house to be apportioned according to population, the upper according to state equality-and cited statistics which purported to show that such an arrangement would permit the minority to control the majority. Seven states, Wilson noted, might control six; seven with one-third of the country’s population would control six with two-thirds of the population. “Can we forget,” he asked, “for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”

That argument sounds downright twentieth century. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court rejected malapportionment of state legislatures in the 1960s on the grounds that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” I have heard that decision, which articulated the “one person, one vote” standard, damned as a grievous offense against state sovereignty. This sovereignty forms a necessary prerequisite for unilateral secession as practiced by the Confederates and admired by their various descendant movements today. Madison, back when the states had a far better claim to sovereignty in matters save for secession,

denied flatly the states were sovereign-“in fact they are only political societies. There is a graduation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.” The states, Madison argued, “are only great corporations, having the power of making by-laws, and these are effectual only if they are not contradictory to the general consideration. The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government-at least as much as they formerly were under the King and British Parliament.” And from these propositions about the character of the states-devoid of sovereignty, mere corporations, properly under the thumb of the national government-it followed that since America was a republic, representation must be based on the people.

A state which does not have final sovereignty, which constitutes a mere corporation and with laws that hold only as by-laws of its particular interests rather than paramount legislation, could hardly secede on its own initiative alone.

Madison further opined, implicitly, on the nature of state governments in The Federalist, Number 10:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

A state government must, by definition, constitute a smaller society than the general government. A local government would constitute one still smaller. Madison considered the smaller a far greater risk to the rights of others, a position often born out in twentieth century Supreme Court cases. One could also reach further back and look at the sort of oppression and outright persecution that the slave states indulged in to protect slavery. If one counts up state-level emancipations and exempts states built out of territories which had nationally imposed bans on slavery in their bounds prior to statehood, we have to stop counting states that ended slavery on their own and without war forcing matters at the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania-Ohio border. This gives us only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

From these nine we could subtract Maine as it had a Massachusetts-imposed slavery ban before it became a state, and Vermont, where slavery had never been practiced and so eliminating it took little exertion. This leaves us with seven states to live up to the laboratory of democracy reputation. Against them, we could count both the fifteen slave states of 1860 and the two slave territories of Utah and New Mexico. I would not say that states necessarily and always take the low road, and some have gotten out in front of the national government often enough, but the overall example does not give much encouragement when concerns go beyond simple things like traffic laws and into questions of minority rights.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

We know how the dispute worked out in Madison’s day, just as we know how it did in the case of Lee v. Grant. Adherents to other theories of national composition certainly existed. They had enough strength, when the advocates of state equality made it into a make-or-break issue, to force compromises. But the notion that the founders acted with one mind, however always borderline absurd, and that this mind fixed on the sovereignty of states simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. National supremacy flowed not from Lincoln in Washington, but from the convention Washington chaired in Philadelphia.

But, the conventional story then goes, whatever happened at Philadelphia ratification came contingent upon various undertakings. Most famously, the states only ratified with the promise that the Congress would pass a Bill of Rights and with some kind of tacit understanding that if this did not work out, the states could quit the union and resume their independent sovereignties.

This point came lately to my attention via a video Al Mackey posted over at Student of the Civil War. It begins with Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Yale, discussing the legality of secession. The secession discussion only consumes the first portion of the run time, but in it Amar makes some important points.

Madison did not get his global veto of state enactments for the Congress, but he did get the Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

By definition, sovereignty rests with whoever has the final say. The Constitution did not grant that power to the states, nor hazily delegate it to them by not granting it to the nation. It instead strips them of any such power to make laws, even state constitutions, contrary to the laws of the United States. Note that the provision does not limit itself to the national Constitution or treaties, but reaches to any federal legislation whatsoever. Even if the states had sovereignty before ratification, they ceded it then. This leaves no room for nullification either of one law or, in its ultimate form, the nullification of all federal laws by secession. A state could pass a law nullifying the tariff or the Fugitive Slave Act, as respectively South Carolina and Wisconsin did, but such laws existed only on paper and until a federal court declared them void at the latest. Roger Taney’s Supreme Court agreed on the second point when it tossed Wisconsin’s act of nullification, to the thunderous silence of most of the usual states rights enthusiasts. What part of this did South Carolina miss? Presumably the part where its nullification must meet with general approval as such a nullification would strengthen and preserve slavery whereas Wisconsin’s would not.

Amar further argues that if the founders intended the Constitution to come with a free trial period and sovereignty-back guarantee, then they did not act it. During the ratification debates in New York, with the vote very close and Alexander Hamilton not sure he had the votes, the anti-federalists suggested that they would give way for the promise of a Bill of Rights. Failing delivery on that front, New York would secede. Hamilton asked Madison for his opinion of such a deal. Even at this critical juncture when New York’s refusal would bisect the Union, possibly fatally, Madison declined to endorse compromise:

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification.

[…]

This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection

If Madison would have broken principle in the name of pragmatism, one must imagine he would have done it then. The Constitution already had the nine states it needed to go into effect, plus an extra, but the loss of New York would have meant a great blow. Unlike Delaware, South Carolina, or other states which desperately needed a union to sustain themselves, New York with its great port and generous hinterland might have been able to go it alone. Its bad example would weaken the new union from the start, hence his, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s writing of The Federalist to begin with.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Lest one think Madison and Wilson alone, or necessarily extreme, in looking into the future and cursing the names of John C. Calhoun and his unruly brood of nullifiers and disunionists, despite the votes at the convention and final Constitution arguing very much otherwise, Hamilton himself got into the act in The Federalist, Number 11:

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Strict and indissoluble, not loose and easily broken.

The framers did not envision anything like what Lincoln called the dreams of the Confederates:

In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement,—[laughter,]—to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction. [Continued laughter.]

I don’t know how the founders chose to organize their private time save for the evidence given by their progeny, acknowledged and otherwise. In their political acts they present a clear record favoring not states, with the national government as a kind of necessary evil, but rather saw it as a necessary and positive good and, moreover, as a clear way to suppress contrary movements in the states. That doesn’t mean we would necessarily find all their motives for doing so appealing or in line with those who favor a stronger national state today, but they did what they did and wrote what they wrote.

This myth, like the myth of the antislavery Lee, will endure this and many other blog posts. It will survive the scorn of historians. The supposed advocates of original intent will read it, as they do all other inconvenient facts, as irrelevant rather than persuasive. They and their more radical compatriots, latter-day secessionists who ask us to believe that just this once the rhetoric they employ lacks the white supremacy which has so consistently informed it in the past, must wrap themselves in a pretend history of original intent. The real one doesn’t have much to offer them.

The framers envisioned the possibility of unilateral secession, as attempted in 1860-1, and nullification as attempted by South Carolina and Wisconsin alike, and foreclosed each in Philadelphia and at ratification. Antebellum Americans knew as much and needn’t live in the cold heart of Yankeedom or on the Illinois prairie to notice it. The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war. Why should we pretend otherwise, unless we aspire to rehabilitate the some of the same politics that they did? Secession for what? States rights for what? If one can get a straight answer from the Confederacy’s latter-day partisans, in itself a major achievement, and they have cleverness enough to not simply say “slavery” with one of the usual codes, then I usually hear preserving the founders’ vision of the Union. It didn’t take a deep look into the founding era to find out what that vision entailed. One can and should note that it included slavery for at least the foreseeable future. But it did not include secession or nullification at all.