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 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 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?

[Breaker quote: What happened to those "Free and Independent States"?]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 state.

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 them.

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 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 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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