The Secession of South Carolina

One hundred fifty years ago today, the state convention called by the legislature of South Carolina after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency voted for secession from the Union. Soon thereafter, it dispatched commissioners to urge the other southern states to follow its example, and in February, 1861 the first set of states to vote for secession formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began in April with the attack on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina.

The legitimacy of secession has been debated ever since. In my view, secession was unlawful. There is provision in the United States constitution for ratification and for the admission of new states into the Union. There is no provision for secession.

It is true, of course, that – in ratifying the Constitution – Virginia specified “that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” But this unilateral assertion on Virginia’s part is not and could not be an assertion of a legal right under the Constitution – which, even if viewed as a contract, recognizes no such right. Rather, it is a reassertion of the natural rights that underpin the right to revolution asserted in the Declaration of Independence, and it applies to the people of the United States and not to the state of Virginia or even the people of the state of Virginia as such.

These natural rights are, of course, individual rights; and, in practice, they can only be defended by collective action. Moreover, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans were intent on setting slavery on the road to extinction, and they were perfectly willing to use “the powers granted under the Constitution” to this end. To be precise, they hoped to restrict the interstate slave trade; they intended to use the resources of the federal government to encourage manumission by way of offering slaveowners just compensation for their property; and, over time, they hoped to attract the non-slaveowning majorities in each of the southern states into a political coalition dedicated to the gradual elimination of slavery – as had already happened in a number of states in the North.

Whether this would have amounted to a perversion of “the powers granted under the Constitution” to the “injury or oppression” of the people of the South is, of course, a matter for judgment. That the transition would have been a serious inconvenience for the plantation-owning minority in that region is, of course, perfectly clear. In the end, however, one’s adjudication of this issue must turn on the question whether slavery itself – when viewed from the perspective of the natural rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence – amounted to “injury” and “oppression.”

Those who instigated secession understood what was at stake. In public documents, devised for northern audiences, they may have appealed to states rights under the Constitution. In their own deliberations, however, they emphasized the institution of slavery. It was on this basis that the commissioners dispatched by South Carolina made their pitch. On this matter, no one was more candid than Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia. After the formation of the Confederate States of American, when he had been elected Vice-President of the Confederacy to serve alongside its President, Thomas Jefferson Davis, Stephens returned to Savannah to address the George convention on 21 March 1861, and this is what he said:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us; the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—sub-ordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics.

All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind—from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just—but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern states, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed and that he and his associates in this crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo—it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him admitted them. Now they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?

It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been  founded upon the principle of the sub-ordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Sub-ordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material—the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The sub-stratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner”—the real “corner-stone”—in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.

What Stephens not only recognized but publicly acknowledged was that one could not justify secession as a revolutionary act (which it was) if one could not establish the justice of slavery – and this required a repudiation of the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and of the stipulations included in the act by which the convention in Virginia had ratified the Constitution. It says much about the radical alteration in sentiments that had taken place in the South in the decades preceding secession that, in 1861, a Democrat named after Thomas Jefferson joined hands with a Whig named after Alexander Hamilton in rejecting the cornerstone on which the United States of America had been constructed by their namesakes and other like-minded patriots. They were, however, in agreement with Abraham Lincoln on one crucial point: A house divided against itself cannot stand.

  1. Lady Kurobara

    The Federal Government has consistently refused to enforce its own laws regarding immigration, putting at risk the lives of thousands of Americans who live near the southern border.  Out of simple desperation, Arizona has enacted a law giving  itself the right to enforce federal immigration laws.  Their message to Washington is plain and understandable: “If you will not do it, fine; we will.”

    But the Federal Government, still refusing to do its job, has moved to stymie Arizona’s attempt to protect its own citizens.  This is an intolerable situation and creates what Mark Steyn refers to as “pre-revolutionary conditions.”

    Even worse, the Federal Government has invited foreign nations to bring suit against Arizona.  This is beyond outrageous.  In my opinion, it is nothing less than rank treason by a national government against one of its own regional governments, and begs for actual Revolution.

    My question to you, Dr. Rahe, is this:

    Under the conditions I have stated, is Arizona legally entitled to secede from the union?  If not, what alternative do they have (short of Revolution)?

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    As the Declaration of Independence suggests, prudence has to govern the defense of natural rights. The immediate task for Arizona and the people of Arizona is to fight the federal government in the courts — which they are doing. And I believe that they will succeed in this endeavor.

    The next task is for them to persuade their fellow Americans to replace an administration that refuses to enforce federal law and that interferes with state efforts to enforce federal law. It strikes me that they are well on their way to succeeding in the second of these two efforts. I can easily imagine the new House of Representatives bringing pressure on the Obama administration in this particular, and I would not be surprised were that administration to be replaced in 2012.

    Revolution is always a last resort, and it is unwise to attempt to exercise that right unless one has a very good chance of succeeding. Fortunately, in this country, we have peaceful means by which to achieve the same end: persuasion and the ballot box.

  3. EJHill

    As the Ben Franklin character in the musical 1776 says, “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as ‘our rebellion.’ It is only in the third person – ‘their rebellion’ – that it becomes illegal.”

    No rebellion can be judged by it’s legality. Treason has always been a legal charge as an excuse for the winners to hang the losers.

    It is also hard to judge the legitimacy of a political movement on its morality and intelligence. At that rate, large swaths of Washington DC would have been laid waste decades ago.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Lady Kurobara:

    My question to you, Dr. Rahe, is this:

    Under the conditions I have stated, is Arizona legally entitled to secede from the union?  If not, what alternative do they have (short of Revolution)? · Dec 20 at 6:40am

    Edited on Dec 20 at 06:47 am

    There is no legal entitlement to secession. There is a natural right to revolution — but that right belongs to individuals and not to a state as such. The state might, of course, be an instrument used by individuals to exercise this natural right. But in this regard a state differs not one whit from a private association. A state is, of course, legally entitled to bring law suits and to protest against federal policy. I regret that the states as corporations no longer elect US Senators. But, of course, the people in each state can do that.

  5. Sisyphus

    On the legality of secession, the right of self determination is implicit in the actions and philosophies of the founders, and the Constitution itself admits to an inevitable incompleteness. While the addition of a secession process would have been self-defeating, casting the Constitution as a temporary arrangement with a clearly defined terminus, the absence of explicit process does not itself preclude the authoring of such a process under appropriate circumstances. Were there comity on the point between the Congress and, say, California, it is inconceivable that an orderly secession would be unachievable.

    Otherwise, that kind of English civil war sensibility prevails. Secede, and enforce the secession, and a de facto legitimacy wells up about the act. Secede, and fail to enforce the secession, and be administered as an enemy power under stigma for an illegal act of secession.

    On the plus side, the war put an end to the casual threats of secession from many corners that had been a staple of American politics to that point.

    Lady Kurobara: The alternative is, of course, to adjust the state-federal relationship through Constitutional amendment. Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia Attorney General, is working it with Arizona and many others.

  6. Lady Kurobara
    EJHill: As the Ben Franklin character in the musical 1776 says, “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as ‘our rebellion.’ It is only in the third person – ‘their rebellion’ – that it becomes illegal.”

    As Americans, we have always been very fond of “our” Revolution, but we tend to frown on other revolutions — mainly because they usually follow the wretched French and Bolshevik models instead of the American model.

    The American Revolution, on the whole, was notable for its restraint.  It is true that some individual battles were fought with bitterness, but there was, for example, no bloody purge of the Loyalists during or after the Revolution.  Hessian soldiers were extremely unpopular (as adversaries), but those who deserted were welcomed into the general American population.  Such is the true genius of the American Spirit.

  7. Lady Kurobara
    Paul A. Rahe

    Lady Kurobara:

    My question to you, Dr. Rahe, is this:

    Under the conditions I have stated, is Arizona legally entitled to secede from the union?  If not, what alternative do they have (short of Revolution)?

    There is no legal entitlement to secession. There is a natural right to revolution — but that right belongs to individuals and not to a state as such.

    Thank you, Dr. Rahe.  My question was somewhat provocative, but you answered it gracefully and satisfactorily.  Unless the current political climate improves, similar questions will be asked more frequently.

  8. Lady Kurobara
    Sisyphus: Lady Kurobara: The alternative is, of course, to adjust the state-federal relationship through Constitutional amendment. Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia Attorney General, is working it with Arizona and many others.

    I fervently pray for their success — for the sake of all of us.

    Sisyphus: Were there comity on the point between the Congress and, say, California, it is inconceivable that an orderly secession would be unachievable.

    Your statement contains a double negative, so I may be misinterpreting it, but it sounds almost as if you are half-hoping that it might be possible for California to secede — thereby removing its malignant, disproportionate influence on American national politics.

    Wishful thinking?

  9. James Poulos
    C

    Well, Dr. Rahe, this is one of my favorite political-philosophical footballs. It strikes me that the one wrinkle in your account is to be found in the double wave of secession. Had Lincoln et. al. let the Deep South go, or even refrained from mustering an army to recover it, the Upper South would have stayed put. True?

  10. Sisyphus

     

    Lady Kurobara

    Your statement contains a double negative, so I may be misinterpreting it, but it sounds almost as if you are half-hoping that it might be possible for California to secede — thereby removing its malignant, disproportionate influence on American national politics.

    Wishful thinking? · Dec 20 at 8:04am

    Intended as a hypothetical example, but with some subtext in other Ricochet conversations since the elections. My first preference would be that California get better, but the sensible people are leaving. And while Peter and Rob, as mobile urban professionals would undoubtedly choose liberty, VDH is a national treasure firmly rooted to his farm. The affect of secession in this case would be tragic, both for the Republic and for the Hanson family, and therefore I conceive this secession purely as a hypothetical. And Reagan would not want us to give it up so easily.

    Of course, the minute the Hanson family finds satisfaction in a move to the rolling, verdant fields of old Virginia, I will consider the matter open again and update agendas accordingly.

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    James Poulos, Ed.: Well, Dr. Rahe, this is one of my favorite political-philosophical footballs. It strikes me that the one wrinkle in your account is to be found in the double wave of secession. Had Lincoln et. al. let the Deep South go, or even refrained from mustering an army to recover it, the Upper South would have stayed put. True? · Dec 20 at 8:18am

    Not, I think, for long. Slavery would have remained a problem. The Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches had splintered over the question. So had the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. Northern and southern courts were denying one another comity. It is hard for a country to stay together when the institutions in one part embody one idea of justice and those in another part embody another.

  12. Aaron Miller
    EJHill:

    No rebellion can be judged by it’s legality. Treason has always been a legal charge as an excuse for the winners to hang the losers.

    Exactly. Secession laws are always just empty words. If the federal government has the power to hold onto the seceding state(s), it will use that power. Non-violent secessions only occur when federal governments are too weak to object.

    When one argues that natural rights justify secession, it is only to justify one’s own treason by tracing it to a higher loyalty, as well as to seek recognition of legitimacy from other nations. “Should one secede?” is a question of conscience. “Can one secede?” has nothing to do with law and everything to do with non-theoretical power.

    The same goes for struggles over legal authority within a unified nation, like the struggle Lady K cites between our federal government and Arizona. Authority will ultimately be decided by power, rather than principle. If the federal government has the power, with or without the Constitution, to refuse its own responsibilities and to deny local authorities, it can exercise that power as long as it has the will to do so.

  13. raycon and lindacon

    I find a real soul mate in Lady Kurobara

    Lady Kurobara

    Paul A. Rahe

    Lady Kurobara:

    My question to you, Dr. Rahe, is this:

    Under the conditions I have stated, is Arizona legally entitled to secede from the union?  If not, what alternative do they have (short of Revolution)?

    There is no legal entitlement to secession. There is a natural right to revolution — but that right belongs to individuals and not to a state as such.
    Thank you, Dr. Rahe.  My question was somewhat provocative, but you answered it gracefully and satisfactorily.  Unless the current political climate improves, similar questions will be asked more frequently. · Dec 20 at 7:54am

    You often make the observations and ask the questions that I want to, but with a degree of restraint that I am challenged to approach.  And, most importantly, get the kind of response from Dr. Rahe that makes this whole Ricochet blog an adventure in working through our beliefs.  Thanks!

  14. Michael Tee
    Paul A. Rahe

    There is no legal entitlement to secession.

    Not since Lincoln abrogated the Constitution to wage total war against the citizens of his own country (from his perspective)  Secession was not only contemplated by Southerners. Indeed, Northern Abolitionists favored Northern secession at the Hartford Convention as early as 1814-1815.

    Let’s not pretend the War of Northern Aggression was fought over slavery. Lincoln himself defended the practice from his support of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Even if it were, why was a war fought to end it, when throughout most of world, slavery ended peacefully, if not at the end of a cannon from the West Africa Squadron?

    Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the states chooses to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disapprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right.” 

  15. Freeven

    Just to make sure I understand: The argument is that it is illegal for states to secede simply because the Constitution doesn’t say they can? Doesn’t that suggest that any state action that is not specifically granted by the Constitution is illegal?

  16. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Michael Tee is correct about the Hartford Convention, but he is wrong to think that those in attendance were abolitionists and wrong to suppose that secession was allowed by the Constitution. As my colleague Robert Eden reminded me earlier today, Henry Adams in discussing the Hartford Convention in his book on the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison “points out that Article I. Section 10, contains two clauses that go further than” my  “omission argument. The first rules out a State joining any confederation, period. The third clause permits a State to enter into an agreement or compact with another State, but only with the consent of Congress.” Does Mr. Tee believe that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would have tolerated secession on the part of New England? Andrew Jackson was prepared to send troops against South Carolina in 1832. Lincoln did not abrogate the Constitution; he enforced its terms. He fought for the Union and not against slavery as such. He honored the compromise over that issue embedded in the Constitution. Slavery was the motive for secession, however — as the commissioners from South Carolina understood and as the Vice-President of the Confederacy made clear.

  17. Jaydee_007

     I will take a contrary view on the right to Seceed.

    Unfortunatly I do not have the room here to provide my support,

    See;

    http://www.jaydee007.net/Alabama4/Causes_Part_1.htm

    http://www.jaydee007.net/Alabama4/Causes_Part_2.htm

    Particularly Murray’s Article written before the war regarding the attitude of states at the time of ratification of the Constitution.

  18. Good Berean

    I am not an attorney but I have some limited understanding of the legal principles underlying the laws of contract. As I see it, the Constitution is a contract between the citzens of the several states granting limited sovereignty to a national government to regulate specific aspects of the national life necessary to the goals and objectives stated in the preamble (the purpose of the corporation) and the Declaration of Independance (the “articles of incorporation). Under contract law, if there is no provision for the dissolution of the contractual relationship. the principle that applies is mutual agreement to the terms of dissolution. Under no circumstances would a unilateral withdrawl from the union be considered legal. It would be a breach of contract. There being not impartial arbiter of this disagreement, war (trial by combat) was the only solution. The fact that the “union” chose to wage an ungodly form of war (total war) against the ‘south”, does not negate the rightousness of the act of war itself.

  19. Lady Kurobara
    RAYCON: I find a real soul mate in Lady Kurobara

    Lady Kurobara

    Paul A. Rahe

    Lady Kurobara:

    My question to you, Dr. Rahe, is this:

    Under the conditions I have stated, is Arizona legally entitled to secede from the union?  If not, what alternative do they have (short of Revolution)?

    There is no legal entitlement to secession. There is a natural right to revolution — but that right belongs to individuals and not to a state as such.

    Thank you, Dr. Rahe.  My question was somewhat provocative, but you answered it gracefully and satisfactorily.  Unless the current political climate improves, similar questions will be asked more frequently.

    You often make the observations and ask the questions that I want to, but with a degree of restraint that I am challenged to approach.  And, most importantly, get the kind of response from Dr. Rahe that makes this whole Ricochet blog an adventure in working through our beliefs.  Thanks!

    You are very welcome, RAYCON.  Frankly, the “restraint” does not come easily.  I am quite fiery by nature, but Ricochet is a “forum of decorum,” so I strive to be gracious and levelheaded (not always successfully), if only for the sake of good manners.

  20. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Jaydee_007:  I will take a contrary view on the right to Seceed.

    Unfortunatly I do not have the room here to provide my support,

    See;

    http://www.jaydee007.net/Alabama4/Causes_Part_1.htm

    http://www.jaydee007.net/Alabama4/Causes_Part_2.htm

    Particularly Murray’s Article written before the war regarding the attitude of states at the time of ratification of the Constitution. · Dec 20 at 9:56am

    Maury errs in two particulars. First, he claims that “these thirteen powers … were” before the ratification of the Constitution “as independent of each other as France is of Spain, or Brazil is of Peru, or as any other nation can be of another” — when, in fact, in declaring independence, they had described themselves as “one People” dissolving “the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and: assuming the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” and when, in fact, they were united in a “perpetual union” under the Articles of Confederation.