The Southern Secession Reconsidered

A post by The Vociferous Reader, “Lincoln’s War,” prompts me to revisit the issue of secession. The main obstacle to serious consideration of secession is its association with the secession of the Southern States, which was motivated by the issue of slavery. The resulting Civil War had three principle outcomes:

  • reunification of the United States by force (which did not determine the legality of secession)
  • the end of slavery in the reunified nation
  • the persistent myth of the South as especially bigoted and oppressive, despite the North’s undeniable record of racial tension, discrimination, and de facto segregation.

What tends to be forgotten is the South’s pre-Civil War stance with respect to the central government. Southern resistance to the centralization of political power, and to the central government’s unconstitutional exercises of power, long pre-dated the Southern secession and was founded on a valid interpretation of the Constitution.

The Civil War, as a forcible act of reunification, is defensible only insofar as a main result was the end of slavery in the United States. On constitutional grounds, however, the Southern secession was valid and should not have been contested.

I have elsewhere laid out a general case for secession. Here it is, in part:

[S]ome of the people of the Colonies put an end to the union of the Colonies and Great Britain, on the moral principle that no person or people is obliged to remain in an abusive relationship. That moral principle is all the more compelling in the case of the union known as the United States, which — mysticism aside — is nothing more than the creature of the States and the people thereof.

It was only by the grace of nine States that the Constitution took effect, thereby establishing the central government. Those nine States voluntarily created the central government and, at the same time, voluntarily granted certain, limited powers to it. The States understood that the central government would exercise its limited powers for the benefit of the States and their people. Every State subsequently admitted to the union has entered into the same contract with the central government.

But, as outlined above, the central government has breached its trust by exceeding the powers granted to it. In fact, the central government’s abuse of power has been so persistent and egregious that a reasonable remedy on the part of the States — individually or severally — is to declare the Constitution null and void. Each and every State, in other words, has the right to secede from the union and to withdraw from the central government its support and the support of the people.

My argument is buttressed by the pre-Civil War history of the United States, which includes the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, the Nullification Crisis of 1828-33, and the Northern States’ Rights movement, which flourished before the Civil War and was sympathetic to the idea of Southern secession. Some of these events find their way into a review by David Gordon of Kevin R.C. Gutzman‘s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution.

Here are some relevant excerpts of Gordon’s review (page references omitted):

The principal thesis of the book is that the Jeffersonian, states’ rights understanding of America’s founding and the Constitution is correct. When the American colonies assembled in the Continental Congress and adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they did not create a new nation, Abraham Lincoln to the contrary notwithstanding.

…The Declaration said that the colonies were now states, i.e., independent governments. “In the Declaration’s culminating fourth section, Congress declared the colonies to be ‘free and independent states’ and claimed for them the right to do everything that free countries could do.”

Nor did the Articles of Confederation change matters. Each state retained full sovereignty over all matters not “expressly delegated” to the United Sates….

As Gutzman makes clear, some delegates to the Philadelphia Convention certainly wished to change the nature of the American system. Instead of the usual split between nationalists and their opponents, however, Gutzman maintains that there were three parties in the convention: “The first was the monarchist party, the chief exemplar of which was New York’s Alexander Hamilton. The monarchists were intent on wiping the states from the map and substituting one unitary government for the entire continent … The second party consisted of nationalists, people who — without ever avowing admiration for the monarchical form — wanted to push centralization as far as could reasonably be hoped … Finally, there was a cohort in the Convention of members insistent on proposing a reinforcement of the central government while maintaining the primary place of the states in the American polity — a truly federal, rather than national government.”

Gutzman rightly points out that neither of the two nationalist parties got its way. Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, wanted the federal Congress to have the power to veto state legislation, but this proposal was rejected. So far, our author has given a standard account, but now comes his key interpretive move.

He maintains that crucial to understanding the meaning of the Constitution were the intentions of the delegates to the ratifying conventions. These delegates, after all, were the people whose votes established the Constitution as legally binding. Gutzman concentrates on the Virginia convention, and he places great stress on one point.

The Virginia delegates looked on the new Constitution with great skepticism, fearing that it would become a tool for the federal government to crush the states. To placate opponents such as Patrick Henry, the leaders of the pro-ratification forces, who included Governor Edmund Randolph, the proposer of the nationalist Virginia Plan at Philadelphia, had to make a concession. They had to agree that the powers of the new Congress were limited to those “expressly delegated” in the Constitution. The delegates repudiated in advance any move by the new authorities to expand their powers beyond this. Further, they wrote into their ratification statement the right to withdraw from the new government, if it exceeded its proper powers.

Gutzman contends that because this understanding was part of Virginia’s instrument of ratification, no stronger central government can claim Virginia’s authorization. And since it would be senseless to think that the Constitution gives the federal government more power over some states than others, the Virginia restrictions apply to all the states.

This is the Jeffersonian view of the Constitution. Gutzman’s great contribution is to show that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, the key statements of the Jeffersonian position, restated the understanding of the Virginia ratifying convention. Contrary to the Federalist opponents of the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison did not act as innovators in 1798; and their position cannot be dismissed as merely one of several competing interpretations. It was firmly based on the legally valid Virginia ratification instrument.

Gutzman summarizes his main contention in this way:

“Most history and legal textbooks say that Jefferson and Madison invented the idea of state sovereignty. But … they only argued for what the founders had already understood to be true about the sovereign states from the beginning, even if some of the founders(the nationalist and monarchist wings) wanted to change that understanding.”

However sound the Jeffersonian understanding of the Constitution, it of course has not prevailed in subsequent American history. Gutzman assigns federal judges a large share of the responsibility for the transformation of the original understanding; and one judge in particular arouses his critical scorn. The judge in question is the foremost of all federalist judges, Chief Justice John Marshall….

For Gutzman, Marshall’s chief sin is … his repudiation of the Jeffersonian understanding of the limits of federal power. In McCulloch v Maryland, Marshall “wrote that while the Articles of Confederation had specified that Congress had only the powers it was ‘expressly delegated,’ the Constitution included no such language, so no such principle applied to it. This was an extraordinary argument, given that Marshall himself and other Federalists … had assured their ratification colleagues that this very principle of limited federal power … was implicit in the unamended Constitution even before the Tenth Amendment was adopted.” [It was, moreover, clear from the construction of Article I, Section 8, and the discussion of that portion of the Constitution in the The Federalist Papers (e.g., No. 45): ED.]

Given his Jeffersonian views, it comes as no surprise that Gutzman thinks the Southern states acted fully within their rights when they seceded from the Union in 1861. “The Federalists always insisted during the ratification debates — knowing that they had to win support for the Constitution — that the states were individual parties to a federal compact. Spelling out the logic of the compact, three states — Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island — explicitly reserved (in the act of ratifying the Constitution) their right to secede from the Union.”

Gutzman has made a very strong case for his Jeffersonian understanding of the Constitution. A critic might challenge him on the grounds that we need not today care about how the Constitution was understood by its eighteenth century ratifiers. But Gutzman could in response say that this is what was legally enacted; those who favor other views of government should not attempt to attain their goals through misreadings and distortion of the constitutional text.

Just so. There is no point in memorializing an agreement unless that agreement is meant to stand for all time, or until the parties to it agree to revise or revoke it. Legislators, executives, and judges are not parties to the Constitution; they are its sworn caretakers. And they have long failed in their duty.

As for Lincoln, he did his duty as he saw it — which was to preserve the Union. It is hard (for me) to fault the man who ended his first inaugural address with this:

I am loath to close. 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.

P.S. The foregoing makes a legal case for secession. A different case, which I make here, is that secession is valid because the Constitution did not bind the whole of “the people” when it was ratified, and could not have bound future generations.

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See “The Constitution: Myths and Realities“.