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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.