Unpacking Secession

The Charleston Mercury's extra announcing South Carolina's secession.

The Charleston Mercury’s extra announcing South Carolina’s secession.

It doesn’t take very long talking about the Civil War with people or reading about it online before one encounters the argument that the southern states had a right to secede. Thus we should not ask why secession took place, but rather why the rest of the nation objected and sought to suppress it. That question has value itself. We should ask it often and intently. It informs a great deal of recent scholarship about the war, in particular the continuing debate over to what extent, how, and when, northern whites understood themselves to fight the war to destroy slavery. The consensus holds that most came to emancipation only reluctantly, only after repeated defeats, and only as a measure necessary to win the war. But giving the question of why the rest of the nation fought the South its due attention should not distract us, as the bad faith debater wishes, from the more important fact that the South seceded to preserve slavery.

All that said, the supposed right of secession deserves some investigation in itself. In Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859, Elizabeth Varon distinguishes secession from disunion. The latter carried overlapping meanings:

Disunion was invoked by Americans, across the political spectrum, in five registers: as a prophecy of national ruin, a threat of withdrawal from the federal compact, an accusation of treasonous plotting, a process of sectional alienation, and a program for regional independence.

We usually, laypeople and historian alike, call all of those secession. Varon thinks we do so wrongly. To her,

Secession referred to a specific mechanism whereby states could leave the Union, and it reflected complex constitutional theories on the boundaries of state and federal power.

Secession, in Varon’s usage, thus describes how one goes about enacting the program of disunion. For the purposes of this post, I intend to broaden the term just slightly to also include how secession’s advocates understood it. One need not go far to find references to succession in antebellum political works, which plays into the notion that everybody in antebellum America agreed that states had a right to secede. Richard Ellis makes this point in The Union At Risk, and points to an important shift in the constitutional thinking along the way:

Prior to the espousal of the doctrine by the South Carolina nullifiers, most assertions of secession had taken the form of rhetorical flourishes, political ploys, and logical extensions of arguments not fully understood or thought out. Moreover, secession before 1828-1833 was not a doctrine that was associated with a particular interest group or section of the country. A number of the more vociferous New England opponents of the War of 1812 had spoken of it, but the moderates who controlled the Hartford Convention rejected the doctrine, and the entire movement was soon disgraced and lost in the nationalist fervor that swept the country after 1815.

New Englanders also floated secession much less famously, and in fewer numbers, against Jefferson’s embargo. A simplistic reading of that would suggest a national consensus that one could secede, just as a similar reading would find a consensus on states’ rights, but note Ellis’ qualifications. Rhetoric, ploy, and arguments taken to their logical extreme do not a program make. Nor does it follow that if they did, they necessarily further amounted to the assertion of secession as a legal process to which a state had a conventional right. If secession did mean those things, then suppressing it should at the very least come only through a conflict between its exercise and other, similarly compelling rights. One can make a very good argument that in 1860-1 other rights did conflict with any such exercise, but unless one takes secession as the ultimate of all rights then such a conflict seems inherent and inevitable. We come back around to calling out the army and the familiar narrative of 1861-5.

This doesn’t render consideration of methods and understandings moot. Antebellum Americans could understand secession as a different kind of right which they understood themselves as entitled to and yet suppress its exercise by another without contradiction. Though that might seem like a stretch, it relied only upon acceptance of the logic of the American founding. The United States arose through an act of treason against the United Kingdom. The founders levied war against the legally constituted government of the land, precisely the act which they would later declare treason in the Constitution. They claimed as their justification the right of revolution, a decidedly unconventional right.

We understand ordinary rights as involving our ability to do something without interference. What we consider interference depends heavily upon our political convictions, usually with a distinction between a right to do something free from government obstruction against a right to engage in the act in and of itself. The right of revolution doesn’t fit easily into either construction. Those who revolt must expect opposition and at least very likely that they will settle the issue by a contest of arms. Thus one doesn’t have an unhindered right to rise up at will, but rather a right that exists only in retrospect. If you win your war, you have the right. Otherwise, you had the right to hang. In this light, we must consider revolution not as a right like speech where suppression in itself would violate expected norms, but rather one its lack would do so.

The understanding secession as not revolution, but rather an orderly constitutional process, came into American discourse through the innovations of the nullifiers. It did not achieve the status of an accepted dogma even in the South until after Nullification came and went, as one can see here (PDF):

The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.

Here we have an impressive collection of statements. The author deems the South an “aggrieved” victim of Yankee “aggression.” He wants redress. But he loathes the thought of disunion. He distinguishes between constitutional means of the redress he hopes for and secession, which he calls revolution. He doesn’t leave matters there, though. He further writes:

The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

That, if not the earlier statements about the South’s suffering, sounds like something Lincoln would say. Robert E. Lee wrote it all to his son in late January, 1861. One can argue that Lee doesn’t make for much of a constitutional thinker. Whatever their abilities, military men have other priorities. Nor does his embrace of the Confederacy later on involve a clear contradiction. Lee would have noticed his fighting the war and in doing so he acted consistently with his understanding of secession as revolution.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

At least rhetorically, however, many secessionists did claim they had a legal process. Some might have believed it. During the Secession Winter, they did rather more than make the traditional threats. They employed a method along the general lines that Calhoun laid down in Nullification times. The states, through special conventions, had ratified the Constitution. To Calhoun, this meant that a state convention exercised ultimate sovereignty and could thus un-ratify the Constitution. The Union consisted only and entirely of the Constitution, legally speaking, so by exercising its sovereignty in this way, a state could take itself out of the Union. Other thinkers held that states could do this through ordinary legislation, but Calhoun’s state convention method generally prevailed. Calhoun only had to ignore where the Constitution located sovereignty to manage all this. One can’t blame him for missing it, though. Who reads the first sentence of a document?

Secessionists also differed, even in South Carolina, over whether they should secede unilaterally or not. Many held that secession would come more easily and more defensibly from a convention of the southern states acting in concert. Opponents damned them as secret unionists, pointing to the failure of the Nashville Convention to achieve secession a decade prior. Why would one adopt a method known to fail, unless one wanted the effort to fail too? Some might have done just that, but as a practical matter even while considering unilateral secession South Carolina’s leadership took a very keen interest in what other states planned to do. They had gone out on a limb before and learned that the rest of the South would not follow. That didn’t quite make the first secession a cooperative affair in the mode that the advocates of it wanted, with the whole South going out together, but they both expected and had some informal assurances that other states would follow.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

All the secession methods suggested in the antebellum agreed on one point: secession must proceed unilaterally in another way. A state had the power, either through revolution or constitutional process, to secede on its own. The consent of other states or the national government did not enter into it. They might engage in consultation. It might make for better politics for states to go out in a group. But when a state wanted to go, it had gone. This would always invoke the familiar storm of controversy. However, an uncontroversial process for secession exists in principle: the Constitution allows for amendments. If a state could secure the passage of an amendment authorizing secession, either for itself alone or for states in general, that would almost certainly meet constitutional muster. (The Reconstruction Amendments offer a clear case where the text of the Constitution did not, but such direct and obvious counterexamples don’t come up very often.) Somewhat more remotely, states could convene to write an entirely new constitution which would permit secession. Those legal roads exist, but the advocates of secession never seem very interested in them. Rather they want to leave, take the real estate with them, and demand that everyone else smile and wave as they depart.

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.

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.

Burning the Fire-Eaters

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, failed secessionist, or “resister,” candidate for governor

I mentioned yesterday that fire-eaters and Northern onlookers alike took lessons from the abortive secession movement of 1850-51. They had good reason to. Northerners might castigate the Southern radicals, but their neighbors made them pay more than just the lost chance at revolution.

Georgia replaced Towns with Howell Cobb. William W. Freehling describes Cobb’s platform:

Rebellion […] could never be lawful and could only be justifiable when natural rights were horribly violated.

The Georgia legislature sent Robert Toombs to the Senate. In more radical Mississippi, Jefferson Davis ran for governor as the radical and lost to Unionist Henry S. Foote. Even in South Carolina, where the political spectrum stretched from immediate secession even if it meant going alone to secession when they had other states to accompany them, Georgia’s early rebuke and Mississippi’s delays gave the cooperative state secessionists enough sway to ensure that the legislature set no date for its planned secession convention and commitment to the all-South convention they knew would never meet.

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis for the governorship

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis

After much storm and stress, the would-be secession winter that commenced in September lost its head of steam with Georgia’s electoral rebuke in November and then received a broad rejection by the voters in its key states. As late as 1851, after years of turmoil and many insults it insisted it would never bear, a majority of the South accepted the Armistice.

It would appear that as late as 1850, after four long years of shouting, threats, and duels, Southern Unionism had weathered its greatest stresses and come out the clear victor. It required suppression not from the foreign North, but Southerners themselves. They weighed the value of the Union, as the secessionists always threatened, but the South as a whole weighed it opposite of the way the fire-eaters hoped. Southerners remained Americans, despite a few malcontents.

Ten years later the Republicans remembered well that Southern radicals always threatened disunion and always backed down themselves or got put in their places by a Unionist majority. If South Carolina, always eager to make trouble, polished off with a new rhetorical flourish in 1860 then that meant only that they wanted to convince the nation this time they really meant it while crossing their fingers behind their backs.

It didn’t work out that way, but reading about this in detail has helped me understand why the Republicans had such firm convictions that it would during the secession winter that finally came. Of course the Republicans also lacked Southern party members who could warn them about the differences. If they had warnings from Democrats, the other party had waxed in the South as it waned in the North. Its Northern caucus could do little to resist the proslavery demands of the party’s larger, Southern contingent. Without the benefit of hindsight, how would anybody outside the party know for sure that those Northern Democrat warnings came in earnest instead of as the latest in their endless career as stooges for the Slave Power?

Freehling and Potter really deepened my appreciation of that dynamic. I only wish I read Potter first to give me the overview into which I could slot Freehling’s more detailed narrative of Southern politics. My blogfather deserves a special thanks too because I probably would not have read either in such detail and put it together quite as much without this empty screen to fill five days a week.

The Shrinking South

Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, firer of one of the first shots on Fort Sumter and the first Confederate to enter it, was a prominent fire-eater. He shot himself three months after Appomattox.

The division of 1860 and the resulting Secession Winter did not come ex nihilo. In the decade before the war, radical disunionist voices gained increasing sway in the Southern political class and their position that any restriction on slavery in the territories both unconstitutionally violated the property rights of Southern planters and posed an existential threat to the Southern way of life became received wisdom. The North’s supposedly moderate compromises could only then mask abolitionist fervor. To countenance them would allow a kind of backdoor abolition that would reduce the white South to poverty or even destroy it in a race war.

The South’s shrinking clout, at its nadir in 1860, gave this defensiveness at least a patina of reasonability in itself, but the decade prior to the war fueled the fire-eating disunionists’ bellies with more than trend lines:

  • A free state extending south of the Missouri Compromise line
  • Outlawing the slave trade, if not slavery, in the District of Columbia
  • Seeking in part to redress the Senate imbalance that California’s statehood created, Southerners flocked into Kansas to ensure it became a slave state. Antislavery Northerners responded in kind and guerrilla war erupted.
  • While militias and governments dueled in Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon came in as free states and balance in the Senate became officially a thing of the past.
  • A Yankee abolitionist and veteran of Bleeding Kansas went south to seize arms and stage an insurrection.
  • A political party grew with the express purpose of limiting slavery and, in 1856, nearly won the presidency. In 1860, that party elected Lincoln.

It would be very hard to look at all of these events and dismiss the fire-eaters’ case even as a disinterested observer. The Southern elite, by definition, could not be disinterested. Even leaving aside how deeply slavery informed their culture, personal identities, and their hierarchical concept of freedom, their literal investment in slave property boggles the mind. David Blight explains:

But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars–that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

All of that value, especially when held by the political class itself, could not go undefended. In the lead-up to the war, the Southern political class came to fear what they called the Shrinking South: The slave population would continue to increase. At present, they had lands in the West open to use those surplus slaves so demand could keep up with supply. But were the West closed to slavery, the natural increase of the slave population would not stop. More slaves in the face of static or declining demand would erode the value of those slaves already held, bringing financial ruin on a scale many of them probably could not imagine.

Lincoln’s firm campaign promises, his party platform, and his steadfast insistence on not compromising on slavery in the territories meant the arrival of that nightmare. They had to go or be ruined. They got to go and be ruined.

What Lincoln Did Not Mean

Last post I talked about how the slave state dominance of American politics was coming to an end and Lincoln’s election put their power at its lowest ebb to date. From that one might get the impression that Honest Abe went to Washington with a machete he named Abolition, planning to set to with the kind of glee rarely found outside slasher films. But the Lincoln who came to Washington in 1860 was not, strictly speaking, an abolitionist. He hated slavery and wished it gone but the platform he campaigned on, and in those days party platforms really meant something, called only for the prohibition of slavery in the territories. It also denounced, without quite naming it, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

It can be hard to understand a century and a half later, especially considering how quickly things changed, but diehard abolitionists formed a distinct minority even in the North. (In the South, anything but support of slavery’s indefinite expansion could get one branded a dangerous radical or tarred and feathered, the latter literally.) The party favorite in 1860 was William H. Seward, but his perceived abolitionist sentiments helped decide the party against him. That sort of extremism might alienate voters in the lower North (those states bordering on slave states) and the appeal it had in the upper North mattered less, as the party expected those states to support the Republican candidate regardless.

But even had Lincoln come to Washington with a machete named Abolition and a slasher’s grin on his face, he and his party lacked the power to do anything dramatic about it. The voters of 1860 gave the Republicans 29 seats in the Senate and 108 in the House. Those Republicans would face 37 other Senators and 129 opposition Representatives. Lincoln’s party formed the plurality in both chambers, but Democrats and Constitutional Unionists united outnumbered them. The 37th  Congress hardly seemed a friendly place for radicals aspirations.

Perhaps the Republicans could have cobbled together a working majority with northern Democrats to embark on a major change in direction on slavery, but by the time Lincoln took office any chance of that had passed. With seven states of the Deep South proclaiming themselves independent, their seats stood vacant. By the end of May, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed them. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee remained despite his state’s departure, as did a few Representatives, but the Secession Winter removed the core of any opposition to the Republicans and delivered them a majority. Disunionists thus abetted the reverses disunion aimed to prevent.

What Lincoln Meant

Most elections do not represent the dawn of something new in a nation’s politics. Lincoln’s election did. None of the fifteen men to hold the presidency before Lincoln had been a Republican. But Lincoln brought more to the table than the first win for his party.

Of the fifteen men who preceded Lincoln in the nation’s highest office, nine (60%) owned slaves.

Together those nine gave the United States a slaveholding president for fifty of its seventy-two (69%) years under the Constitution.

Furthermore, no man won the presidency without the support of at least one slave state’s electoral votes.*

The waves of immigration that followed Washington’s day came largely to the free states. Most immigrants started out as cheap labor and the slave states had ample reserves of that. Their growing populations swelled their influence in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. That trend appears in the election results:

Of the five men elected to the presidency and six who held it without owning slaves, half (Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan) came in a streak immediately before Lincoln’s election. All three were doughfaces, northerners who skewed southern on policy.

No man had ever been president, elected or otherwise, who had not been born in the thirteen original states or the colonies that preceded them.

Of those who moved west, none save William Henry Harrison hailed from a free state. Harrison was born in Virginia and moved to the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) where he served as territorial governor and got Congress to suspend the Territory’s ban on slavery for ten years, 1803-1813. He went further and tried to institute slavery, twice.

The other men who moved west and established careers there before becoming president all moved to slave territories and slave states: Jackson and Polk to Tennessee, Taylor to Louisiana.

We must resist the temptation to take this as trivia, like how Lincoln was the first man to take the oath of office wearing a beard. These facts tell the story of where power lay in the United States and how it moved. For the nation’s entire history, the South had been the dominant bloc and any man who sought the presidency had to court it or at least make himself acceptable to southern interests.

Lincoln, though born in Kentucky, was not from the South. He declared himself against its most paramount interest: the expansion of slavery. He won without a single southern electoral vote, not even appearing on the ballot in any state that would later join the Confederacy, save Virginia. In the four slave states that kept to the Union, he came in fourth of four in all save Delaware. (There he managed third.) But Lincoln swept the north, carrying every free state’s electoral votes save for the smaller fraction of New Jersey’s split vote. Lincoln won enough electoral votes to defeat his three opponents even united in a single ticket against him.

Whatever Lincoln said about slavery, in the territories or elsewhere, his election marked a new nadir in southern influence. To the men who built their self-image as a class around their dominance of the nation, lean times had come.

*NB: I am treating the elections of Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives as surrogate electoral votes for the purposes of simplicity, as the effect is the same.

The Mystic Chords of an Inaugural Post

A photograph of Lincoln's first inauguration

Lincoln’s inauguration in front of the Capitol building and its unfinished dome.

On Tuesday, November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States and everything changed. On March 4 of the following year, Lincoln gave his first inaugural address. Over the Secession Winter between those dates, seven states of the Deep South declared their secession from the Union and came together to form the Confederate States of America. They seized Federal assets of all kinds, most famously military forts and arsenals but also customs houses and other property.

And why did a section of the nation embark on a quest to overthrow and sunder the entire constitutional order? What prompted those men to unmake over the winter of 1860-1861 what their revered founding fathers made in the summer of 1787? In the most immediate sense, the election of the tall, homely man from Illinois who stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol drove them. Their very way of life stood imperiled by his election.

Lincoln closed his speech with these famous words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s hope here must go with his declaration that “[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say” at Gettysburg, whilst giving one of the most celebrated political speeches in American history. Those mystic chords of memory did not bring the South back to Union, but four long years of new battlefields and  graves did and became a part of the American epics.

I don’t mean to glorify this war, but one cannot deny that it is still with us. The fault lines in American culture and politics that yawned so wide in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the work, both that done and that left unfinished, are still with us. The war brought the first federal social welfare program in its wake. It brought the income tax and the draft. Like no period before it sense, the Civil War era demonstrated that freedom is a word shared by all Americans, but which bears on its back many different meanings and conjures to mind many different Americas.

The war is long passed, but still with us as we are with it. Whether we know the pedigrees of our notions or come to them innocently, the era’s stories are our stories and resonate in our own lives even at a century and a half removed.

We come from the past and we are going to the past. Its actors died long ago, but the same will be said of us in time. Their mystic chords stretch not just from the graves and battlefields, but from the ideas that drove people of all races and sexes to those battles and others waged in Congresses, in the newspapers,  and on the streets. We share those legacies, but we are not just passive recipients. In our own ways we carry on some and spurn others as we write our chapters of the unfinished stories of all our Americas.

This blog is an attempt to explore those stories and how they connect us to our shared, and not-so-shared, national pasts.