Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Secession and the Constitution

Was secession constitutional? This is a sticky question, tackled by many folks over the years. I have no simple answers, but here's my take on the subject:

Since Lincoln admitted his paramount concern was keeping the Union together, determining the legality of secession is extremely important. Answering this question will shed light on the rightness or wrongness of launching the Civil War.

Shortly after Lincoln's inauguration, some senators and representatives made separate proposals to amend the Constitution in a way that would outlaw secession. As Walter Williams asks in his article from December, 2003, why was this necessary, unless secession was legal at the time?

In addition, Williams states:

But there's more evidence. The ratification documents of Virginia, New York and Rhode Island explicitly said that they held the right to resume powers delegated should the federal government become abusive of those powers.

There's more evidence. At the 1787 constitutional convention, a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, rejected it, saying: "A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound."

Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, in his revised "The Real Lincoln," provides abundant evidence in the forms of quotations from our Founders and numerous newspaper accounts that prove that Americans always took the right of secession for granted. Plus, secession was not an idea that had its origins in the South. Infuriated by Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the first secessionist movement started in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and other New England states.
Interesting points, no?

Admittedly, the Constitution allows for putting down insurrections and rebellions, and prohibits states from entering into confederations--but all of these criteria refer to states which still are part of the Union. The Confederate States of America considered themselves no such thing. They left the Union and became a separate country. This distinction must be understood. Rebelling within the framework of the United States of America, or making treaties and entering leagues with other nations while part of that Union, and breaking off from the Union altogether, are separate and very different things.

So an assumption that secession was legal existed up to-- and even after-- Lincoln's inauguration. Proposed amendments prohibiting its legality failed, never making it into the Constitution. From the beginning, the Union of the states, and the entering of those states into the whole, had been voluntary.

Was Lincoln right to wage war against the South and keep the Union together at all costs? Was the Confederacy wrong in seceding? I don't know the answers to these questions. Both are debatable, since we have no alternate timelines to visit for comparisons and contrasts.

But from a strictly Constitutional and legal perspective, I believe Lincoln was wrong in using the federal government's power to preserve the Union forcibly. Put another way, regardless of your view regarding the South's reasons for seceding, its parting with the U.S.A. was lawful and Constitutionally protected.

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