Slavery aside: did the Confederate States have a point about secession?

The purpose of this thread is not to argue about the true causes of the American Civil War. I believe the South’s purpose in seceding was patently the preserveration of the evil institution of chattel slavery, but I’m sure others disagree. But you can argue about that elsewhere if you don’t mind.

My question is this: Is it fair to say that the original thirteen states (to say nothing of states admitted later) would have believed, at the time of the formation of the Union, that they had the right to sever political ties with the larger nation if they so chose later? If yes, why? If not, why not?

No. The constitution was a compact. There’s no need to spell out that a party cannot unilaterally leave a compact; it has to be mutual agreement.

James Madison wrote as much when SC threatened to leave during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Nobody can speak with authority about the meaning of the constitution like James Madison.

Edit period elapsed, but I misremembered - it was not threat of secession, but an assertion by SC that a state could nullify federal law within its boundaries.

Still, it seems to follow that if you can’t nullify federal law, you can’t secede without agreement.

I’m not sure it does. Saying that all parts of the Union must be bound by the same laws is not the same as saying that the Union is eternal for every section, regardless of hte wishes of that section’s populace.

I’d say yes, before the Civil War it was generally assumed that a state could secceed. The situation was analogous to the European Union. If, say, Great Britian says “Screw This” and seceeds from the EU, nobody is going to make them stay.

The experience of the Revolutionary War might just as well have imparted an understanding that to dissolve political bonds, one had better be prepared to fight.

But the constitution itself is federal law, correct? Belonging to the union is a federal law. When a new state joins, it becomes *law *that that state is part of the United States.

I don’t believe the right to quit is listed in the Constitution, but niether does it day you can’t quit if you so desire. The guys with my old car insurance don’t think I should be able to quit them, either. :slight_smile:

I think the South had the right to succeed. But once said succession occurred, the North had the right of a sovereign nation to honorably invade and conquer another sovereign nation.

I wonder what would have happened had the southern hotheads held their fire at Sumter. Lincoln went to some effort to try to convince them that he was sending a resupply ship, not a war ship. Would an uneasy truce have lasted decades and finally become a fait accompli?

But to get back to the question at hand. I think that the clause that says something like, "This constitution and the laws passed pursuant thereto [I think there was something about treaties] are the supreme law of the land kind of precludes secession. On the other hand, all 13 states seceded from the Articles of Confederation without a by your leave. And Cesar Rodney rode from Philadelphia to Dover at top speed to make sure Delaware was the first state to ratify. On the other hand, the articles probably lacked a supremacy clause.

Yes, but they just didn’t have the *gumption *to succeed. And you can’t let a bunch of failures go start their own country.

I said yes after the Declaration of Independence as I can only assume that any new nation forming as a breakaway republic from England would feel that it was conceivable things might not go as planned among the thirteen colonies and that there might be reason to think they would split from each other. But of course I haven’t read the Declaration or the Constitution in quite some time, so I don’t know if there is any language in there that might imply that. I’m guessing not because I’m sure it could be used against them even if they felt that way by some other invading nation in the future who could argue that some of the colonies wanted to ‘break away’ from the Union and become part of France, etc. (under duress/gunpoint).

I think that, aside from slavery, the Confederates had a basically reasonable point - quite aside from the wording of the Constitution, there just isn’t a strong moral case, in general, for imposing one’s rule on a people who have decided freely and fairly that they don’t want it. If the people of Virginia say, “We have resolved, after much deliberation, that we’d rather not be governed by Washington - we’d rather be an independent nation,” it’s hard to see an argument for killing people to stop this. The EU isn’t a good example, but some states within the EU have certainly thought that way, and I think that’s the trend - the breakup of Czechoslovokia was peaceful, for example. And if Belgium breaks up, no one expects war (though there might be laughter).

This being said, you can’t ignore slavery in the CSA’s case. Think of it this way: If you’re hanging with a group of your friends at the bar, and one of your friends angrily declares he’s going home, you might try to convince him to stay, but you let him go. On the other hand - if he says he’s going home to beat his wife, he’s not leaving.

I do not believe there was a valid reason to believe succession was a right recognized by the original principles of the United States.

The revolution was justified because a people were denied representation in the government they were under the rule of. This is the fundamental reason they had the right to sever the contract of governance. The southern states on the other had representation in the government as spelled out in the law of the day. They had recourse to address their grievances. That fact that the matter was not resolved to their liking does not change that. Likewise states cannot secede because they don’t like the current stand on Roe Vs Wade, SSM, or a myriad of other issues. The mechanism for addressing those grievances exists – that does not means you get your way even if your opinion is in the minority. Furthermore succession puts the country as a whole at risk and no minority has the right to jeopardize the whole.

Now if the Southern States had enough support to bring the issue to a vote and through whatever the correct route would be (constitutional amendment? I’m not sure) won that vote then I would have to say they should pretty much get to go.

One problem is where to draw the line. What if 100 zealots on a compound in the middle of nowhere say the same thing? And whereas the vote among the Virginians may be something like 60-40, meaning that a lot of people there would be swept up in a secession that they didn’t want, the vote among the zealots might be unanimous. Is the objection to the 100 people seceding purely practical – they’re too small to secede – or is there a moral difference?

**Slavery aside: did the Confederate States have a point about secession? **

“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
No, they did not. That point was proven at Appomatox.

A legal mechanism for secession is a good idea on its face.

There’s another reason you can’t ignore slavery in this: they were people too, and they weren’t asked whether they wanted to leave the Union any more than they were asked if they wanted slavery. And the existence of slavery in the South renders any argument they made based on any assertion of a right to free choice ridiculously hypocritical on the face of it. They built their society around the denial of freedom.

I wrote in the OP that slavery was an undeniable evil and that the South was in the wrong. I would say that claims to the contrary are at best naive parrotings of revisionist propoganda, or outright lies. But the reason I included the qualification slavery aside in the thread title is that I wanted to discuss the ethics of secession in and of itself.

Consider this. Abraham Lincoln said that the division between the free North and slave South was inherently unstable; that eventually America would have to choose to either prohibit slavery everywhere or allow it everywhere. Suppose he was right, and at some point in US history, there’d been some national law saying that no state could deny white people the “right” to enslave blacks. Suppose further that after this was decided, thew New England States had said, “You know something? Fuck that shit. You guys are all corrupt, and we’re forming our out nation. You wanna stop us, you’re gonna have to bring an army and do it by force.”

Would that have been wrong? Why or why not?

If the majority of the populace - as opposed to a tiny slaveowning class - was making that decision, and doing so to oppose tyranny instead of to preserve it, then I’d say they were justified. And that the situation would be entirely different. Demanding that you make a free choice of association while supporting such a freedom for others, isn’t the same as demanding a free choice of association when you oppose it for others. Nor in such a case does the federal government have a case that it is acting to protect people.