More Than a Slogan
December 19, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     This week Trent Lott has been on the covers of more 
magazines than Halle Berry. The absurd flap is only the 
latest of many in the endless campaign to stigmatize the 

     To this day, Southerners can never grovel enough to 
satisfy some Northerners, who insist on attaching dark 
meanings to Southern symbols. The Confederate flag can't 
just be a symbol of regional pride; no, it stands for 
slavery. "States' rights" can't just mean states' rights; 
no, it means racial segregation. Whatever evils 
Northerners choose to associate with these things are 
supposed to be their "real" meanings, no matter what 
Southerners intend.

     Now it's true that some Southern Democrats used to 
invoke the principle of "states' rights" only to protect 
segregation, while supporting Franklin Roosevelt's New 
Deal in its assault on the Constitution. But the abuse of 
a good principle doesn't nullify the principle.

     "States' rights" should be more than a Southern 
slogan. In the Civil War, the Northern states were 
fighting not only against the South, but, though they 
didn't realize it, against their own rights. So they won 
the war and lost their rights.

     The Northerners who did see what was at stake, and 
preferred to let the Southern states secede peacefully, 
were derisively nicknamed "Copperheads." The Lincoln 
administration jailed thousands of them and shut down 
many of their newspapers. "A new birth of freedom"?

     The Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that 
the original 13 colonies "are, and of right ought to be, 
free and independent states." It didn't say anything 
about "a new nation" or a monolithic "Union." This meant 
that each of the colonies was claiming full statehood. 
Rhode Island and South Carolina were now sovereign 
states, just as much as France or Russia. But who today 
would call them "free and independent states"? Does that 
phrase describe your state?

     Shortly afterward, as the Revolutionary War still 
raged, the Articles of Confederation were adopted. Its 
first principle was that "each state retains its 
sovereignty, freedom, and independence." In the Treaty of 
Paris of 1783, which concluded the war, Great Britain 
recognized not the American monolith, but those same 13 
"free, sovereign, and independent states."

     Did the states surrender their hard-won and 
jealously preserved independence -- that is, their 
statehood -- when they ratified the Constitution? Not at 
all. The Constitution continues to call them states, not 
colonies or provinces. It even speaks of "the United 
States" in the plural: "them."

     Several states ratified the Constitution on the 
express condition that they retained the right to secede 
later. Nobody objected. How could they? The states were 
still states, in the full sense, and it went without 
saying that a state could withdraw from a mere federation 
of states. Nor could a state bind its descendants to 
remain in a federation forever. Since these conditional 
ratifications were accepted as valid, it's obvious that 
secession was recognized as a legitimate option of any 

     It's sometimes objected that the Constitution 
doesn't speak of a right of secession. True enough, but 
to say this is to get things backwards. Given the nature 
and the very definition of a state, the Constitution 
couldn't forbid secession. Nor does it give the Federal 
Government any power to prevent it. A social club may 
have strict rules for members, but it can't forbid them 
to quit the club; in which case the rules cease to bind 

     Some opponents of the Constitution warned that 
ratification would lead to the loss of the states' 
sovereignty. But they didn't argue that the Constitution 
denied that sovereignty; only that this would probably be 
the practical result of ratifying it. If they were here 
today, they'd surely claim that history has proved them 

     Hoping to justify war on the seceding states, 
Lincoln offered the weird and ahistorical assertion that 
"the Union" was older than the Constitution, older even 
than the Declaration, so that no state could rightfully 
secede. According to his logic, then, the states had 
never been "free," "sovereign," and "independent" -- even 
when everyone agreed that they were!

     In order to win the war, Lincoln had to violate the 
Constitution again and again. He had to arrest 
dissenters, elected public officials, even a congressman; 
he had to set up puppet governments in the conquered 
South. So much for self-government.

     Today the United States have become a single 
monstrous monolith. If the signers of the Declaration 
could see it, they would demand, "We staked our lives, 
our fortunes, and our sacred honor to bequeath you free 
and independent states. What on earth have you done with 
them?" At least the South tried to preserve them.


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