October 7, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     No topic I write about stirs a more unexpected 
response than secession -- the right of a state to 
withdraw from the United States. You might think the 
issue was settled forever in 1865, when the North crushed 
the South in the Civil War. But many Americans, North and 
South, still like the idea, and many others nearly panic 
at the mere mention of it.

     A few readers think I'm writing with tongue in cheek 
when I propose secession. Well, though I see the humor of 
it, I'm not exactly joking. I know it's unlikely to 
happen, for the time being, but the idea has value as a 
thought-experiment. It can help free our minds of the 
illusion that the present political status quo was, and 
is, "inevitable."

     In history, few things are inevitable. Or rather, 
they become inevitable only after a certain point. At the 
moment when Soviet tanks rolled into Central Europe in 
1945, Soviet rule became inevitable. It hadn't been 
inevitable a year earlier.

     The defeat of secession was by no means inevitable 
in 1860. The North was deeply divided over whether to 
accept it, to compromise, or to go to war. Lincoln 
himself, though he flatly denied the right of secession, 
was undecided about how to cope with it. His tragic 
decision to attack South Carolina after it seized Fort 
Sumter drove the wavering border states, including 
crucial Virginia, to join the Confederacy.

     Lincoln thought secession could be suppressed 
quickly. He miscalculated terribly. The result of his 
decision was a long war, spilling an ocean of blood; and 
though it eventually "saved" the Union, after a fashion, 
it did so in a way he never intended. He had meant to 
save the Union "as of old," as he often put it, with a 
limited federal government and slavery intact. But the 
consequences, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, were the 
opposite of what he had aimed for. The Federal Government 
became powerful enough to overwhelm the states -- North 
as well as South, as the North discovered too late -- and 
he was forced, against his will, to issue the 
Emancipation Proclamation, signaling the end of slavery 
in America.

     The historian James McPherson praises Lincoln for 
achieving "the Second American Revolution." But Lincoln 
would not have coveted or welcomed such praise. The 
essence of tragic action, according to the great 
Shakespeare commentator A.C. Bradley, is that "men may 
start a course of events but can neither calculate nor 
control it." That exactly describes what Lincoln did when 
he chose to oppose secession with military force, 
whatever the cost. And the cost proved incommensurate to 
the very purposes that impelled him to make that choice.

     We tend to forget the sheer instability of the 
situation Lincoln faced in the spring of 1861. Different 
choices would have borne different results, for better or 
worse. Everything was contingent on how he decided to 
react to the Southern challenge. He made what proved the 
most fatal, and bloody, choice available, with results 
neither he nor anyone else could have predicted -- 
results that continue even now.

     History judges Lincoln kindly because one of those 
results was the end of slavery. But Lincoln was against 
sudden emancipation; he wanted gradual emancipation, with 
slaveowners compensated and ex-slaves resettled outside 
the United States. The course of the war, however, gave 
him no choice; after two years, the end of slavery on 
other terms became inevitable. He could no longer 
postpone it.

     One of the many ironies of history is that Lincoln 
now gets credit, verging on sanctification, for doing 
what he never wanted to do and for producing a political 
system so radically different from the one he hoped to 
preserve. If, as he said at Gettysburg, the Civil War was 
a test of whether the original American system -- the 
"new nation" of 1776 -- could "long endure," it failed 
the test.

     At one time, our present situation would have seemed 
not only improbable but nearly impossible -- anything but 
inevitable. We are here, and we are what we are, not 
because of inexorable fate, but because of countless 
decisions, errors, accidents, and contingencies that 
combined to produce a world nobody had dreamed of. It 
might have been inconceivably different.


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