Slavery, No; Secession, Yes
January 16, 2001
Two Bush cabinet nominees are being
accused of a thought crime: being on the side of historys losers. John Ashcroft,
prospective attorney general, and Gale Norton, prospective secretary of the interior,
have said favorable words about the Confederacy (while taking care to say that slavery
What both Ashcroft and Miss Norton said was
that the South stood for states rights and resistance to an all-powerful federal
government. Yes, it was also defending slavery, but that doesnt negate the
good principles it fought for, any more than the American Revolution is discredited by
the fact that Washington, Jefferson, and many other revolutionaries owned
Unfortunately, many Northerners insist on
equating the perfectly constitutional principle of states rights more
properly, the powers reserved to the states with slavery and segregation.
You can (and should) be pro-secession without
being pro-slavery, as in fact many Americans, North and South, were. The right of
secession was affirmed by two Northern states, New York and Rhode Island, when
they ratified the Constitution.
As a friend of mine points out, the Tenth
Amendment implies the right of secession, since it reserves to the states and the
people the powers not delegated to the United States [i.e., the federal
government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States. The
Constitution doesnt prohibit the states from seceding, so that power remains
with them. The fact that the North won the Civil War doesnt alter the principle,
unless might makes right.
During the debate over ratification of the
Constitution, opponents of ratification made many dark predictions: the Constitution
would enable the federal government to impose tyranny, it would lead to
consolidated centralized and monolithic government,
and so forth. But nobody complained that the Constitution would prevent the states
from reclaiming their independence, as they certainly would have done if the
Constitution had been understood to rule out secession. After all, the Declaration of
Independence had established the right of the people to alter or abolish
any form of government that injures their rights.
Constitution doesnt forbid the states to secede, the North found it necessary to
violate the Constitution in order to suppress Southern independence. Lincoln was
forced to usurp legislative powers by raising troops and money and by suspending
the writ of habeas corpus; when Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled such acts
unconstitutional, Lincoln wrote an order for Taneys arrest! He never followed
through on that, but he did illegally arrest 31 antiwar members of the Maryland
legislature and install a puppet government. He went on to crush freedom of speech
and press throughout the North. Such was Lincolns idea of preserving
the Constitution and government of the people, by the people, for the
The notion that Lincoln saved the
Union is as naive as the notion that he freed the slaves. The
Union he saved was not the one he set out to save. The Civil War destroyed the
balance of powers between the states and the federal government
which he had promised to protect in his 1861 inaugural address.
This was not Lincolns intention, but it is
the reason many of his champions praise him. James McPherson celebrates
Lincolns second American Revolution; Garry Wills exults that
Lincoln changed America with the Gettysburg Address, which he
admits was a swindle (albeit a benign one).
In other words, Lincolns war destroyed
the original constitutional relation between the states and the federal government. His
own defenders say so in spite of his explicit, clear, and consistent professed
intent to preserve that relation.
The Civil War wasnt just a victory of North
over South; it was a victory for centralized government over the states and federalism.
It destroyed the ability of the states to protect themselves against the destruction of
their reserved powers.
Must we all be happy about this? Lincoln himself
the real Lincoln, that is would have deprecated the unintended results
of the war. Though he sometimes resorted to dictatorial methods, he never meant to
create a totalitarian state.
Its tragic that slavery was intertwined with
a good cause, and scandalous that those who defend that cause today should be
smeared as partisans of slavery. But the verdict of history must not be left to the
simple-minded and the demagogic.
Archive Table of Contents
Return to the
SOBRANS home page