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Slavery, No; Secession, Yes

January 16, 2001

Two Bush cabinet nominees are being accused of a thought crime: being on the side of history’s 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 was wrong).

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 doesn’t 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 slaves.

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 doesn’t prohibit the states from seceding, so that power remains with them. The fact that the North won the Civil War doesn’t 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.

[Breaker quote: The 
constitutional right to secede]Since the Constitution doesn’t 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 Taney’s 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 Lincoln’s idea of “preserving the Constitution” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

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 Lincoln’s intention, but it is the reason many of his champions praise him. James McPherson celebrates Lincoln’s “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, Lincoln’s 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 wasn’t 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.

It’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

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