Tag Archives: Secession

No Right To Secede

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has publicly stated that according to his reading of the Constitution a state does not have the right to secede.

If there was any Constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.  (Hence in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation indivisible”).

Read the story and Scalia’s letter here.

Commemorating Secession Without Asking Why

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is hoping to erect a monument commemorating the 170 South Carolinians who signed the ordnance of secession in December 1860.  The South Carolina division is proposing to install an 11 1/2-foot-tall stone memorial as the centerpiece of a 40-foot by 40-foot landscaped plaza at Patriots Point.  According to the news article:

The name of each of the signers and the wording of the secession document would be among the text and images engraved on each side of the monument.  Albert Jackson, chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ monument committee, called the secession debate and the subsequent unanimous approval of the ordinance “a significant action” for South Carolina. Most people are not aware of the history behind it, he said.

Mr. Jackson is no doubt correct that “most people are not aware of the history behind” South Carolina’s decision to secede from the Union within weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s election.  Here is South Carolina’s Ordnance of Secession:

AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the “United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

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Deep Thoughts By H.W. Crocker III (2)

It’s a pretty miserable day here in central Virginia.  On top of the rain I am strung out on the couch watching college football and dealing with a cold and sore throat.  Since it looks like I will not get anything serious done today I thought I might offer you the second installment of my examination of Crocker’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.  The following is titled “We’re All Confederates Now” and asks the reader to imagine the following:

Put yourself in Robert E. Lee’s shoes.  If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the proper response would be for the federal government to send tanks over the bridges spanning the Potomac into Virginia, to blockade Southern ports and carpet bomb Southern cities?  If we don’t, it’s because we see the United States as the Confederacy saw it, as a voluntary union.  The idea that we have to keep California, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Maine together by force would probably strike us as ridiculous.  And if it came to that, it would probably strike us as horrendous and wrong. (p. 33)

First, why do we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Lee?  Does he have some kind of privileged position that would steer us to the correct answer as to what would be considered a proper response by the federal government in case of a modern day secession?  To show how absurd this little thought experiment is, why not put ourselves in the shoes of Winfield Scott, George Thomas or any other Southern graduate of West Point who took part in the invasion of their own homes.  Scott himself outlined the invasion of much of the South in his Anaconda Plan. More importantly, we now know that the generation of Southern West Point cadets that graduated in the 1830s did not resign their commissions in 1861.   In the end, it is irrelevant what we would countenance as a legitimate response.  What we do know is that plenty of white Southerners in 1861 believed that “invasion” was the only response to the actions of most of the Southern states.

There is plenty more where this comes from.

“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

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The Most Important Primary Source on Secession

My students thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing the article by Charles Dew along with the letter by Stephen Hale who served as a secessionist commissioner to Kentucky.  Students picked up on a number of points about secession between the Dew article and another piece by James McPherson, which takes a much broader view of the events leading to Lincoln’s election.  One of the things McPherson does is briefly survey how others have answered the question of what caused secession, including those subscribing to the Lost Cause view as well as the Progressive and Revisionist schools of thought.  My students were particularly interested in the Lost Cause view and seemed to understand the need for those like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to distance their cause from race and slavery following the end of the war.  The long-term influence of the Lost Cause could easily be identified as we read through Dew’s own brief autobiography in which he admits to growing up in Florida with a glorified view of the cause only to be confronted with a less than pleasant picture through careful study.

Our close analysis of the Stephen Hale letter led to a very engaging and spirited class discussion.  Actually, once I introduced a few questions at the beginning of the class I said very little and instead allowed the students to engage one another.  They commented on the close linking between the states rights argument and the strong desire to preserve slavery.  In other words, they can now answer the question that McPherson posed in his article, which is, “States rights for what?”  Some of the students struggled with the strong racial references and at times questioned whether this apocalyptic vision that Hale was suggesting was a function of real fear or hyperbole.  They also discussed the importance of linking together slave and non-slaveowners:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.

By far the most difficult parts to consider were where references to God and Christianity were used as justification for the preservation of slavery:

But, it is said, there are many Constitutional, conservative men at the North, who sympathize with and battle for us. That is true; but they are utterly powerless, as the late Presidential election unequivocally shows, to breast the tide of fanaticism that threatens to roll over and crush us. With them it is a question of principle, and we award to them all honor for their loyalty to the Constitution of our Fathers. But their defeat is not their ruin. With us it is a question of self-preservation– our lives, our property, the safety of our homes and our hearthstones– all that men hold dear on earth, is involved in the issue. If we triumph, vindicate our rights and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies beforeus. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside– an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other.  If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.

One of my students noted that the Hale letter makes it is much easier to see why Lost Cause writers chose to ignore the role that slavery played in the decision to secede.  I find that my students do one of two things when grappling with difficult passages such as this.  Either they dismiss the writer as a “moral monster” or question whether the author could have believed such a thing at all.  In the case of both positions I tell my students that there job is not to judge, but to understand; no doubt this takes time and a willingness to consider the perspectives of those with whom we seem to have little in common with, but it is a crucial step in introducing basic historical skills.  What needs to be carefully considered is not that they believed this, but how white southerners came to subscribe to this particular view of their religion or how Christian doctrine come to be used to prop up the institution of slavery and white supremacy?  It is also important to remind students that the analysis of primary sources is not about them.  Moral judgments about the past have their place, but in the hands of students who are being introduced to various topics the net effect is a distancing rather than an intellectual embracing of the historical subject.

Charles Dew contends that the speeches of the secessionist commissioners are the most helpful and insightful sources in trying to better understand what drove whites in the Deep South out of the Union following Lincoln’s election.  At one point he suggests that the speech by Stephen Hale belongs in every classroom and I have to agree with this assessment.

The complete letter by Stephen Hale can be found here.