More Than a Slogan
December 19, 2002
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 South.
To this day,
Southerners can never grovel enough to satisfy some Northerners, who
insist on attaching dark meanings to Southern symbols. The Confederate
flag cant just be a symbol of regional pride; no, it stands for
slavery. States rights cant 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 its true
that some Southern Democrats used to invoke the principle of
states rights only to protect segregation, while
supporting Franklin Roosevelts New Deal in its assault on the
Constitution. But the abuse of a good principle doesnt nullify the
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
didnt 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 didnt
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
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:
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, its obvious that secession
was recognized as a legitimate option of any state.
objected that the Constitution doesnt 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 couldnt 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 cant
forbid them to quit the club; in which case the rules cease to bind them.
Some opponents of the
Constitution warned that ratification would lead to the loss of the
states sovereignty. But they didnt argue that the
Constitution denied that sovereignty; only that this would probably be the
practical result of ratifying it. If they were here today, theyd
surely claim that history has proved them right.
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
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.