12 April 2011

150 Years Since the End of the Union

The Union, that is, that was freely agreed to by the sovereign States in the wake of independence from Great Britain. 

Today marks the beginning of the doomed-to-fail war for Southern independence, a war in which the federal government ordered the invasion of the Southern States to prevent them from seceding from the voluntary union which they had joined.  It was ruthless and unconstitutional.  More than 600,000 Americans died, including more than 50,000 deliberately-targeted civilians.

If you ever want to read one of the most brilliant, yet most inapposite, speeches ever penned by guilty man, read the Gettysburg Address.  It states the most laudable aspirations, evokes the most powerful emotions, stirs the love of country embedded in every human heart-- and then applies these notions to the combatants dedicated, knowingly or not, to destroying them.

The evil of slavery did not justify the actions of the North.  Lincoln had no desire to launch a crusade to end it, nor was there popular support to do so, nor did the Constitution he had sworn to protect and defend allow it.  There was no attempt to end slavery in any Northern state where it was legal.  And Lincoln wanted to colonize African-Americans back to Africa when all was done.  A few distubing quotes from the Great Emancipator can give you an idea:

"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."  (Letter to Horace Greeley, 1862)

"I am not now, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man."  (from a speech given by Lincoln in 1858)

"I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization." (Message to Congress, December 1, 1862)

Not the picture most are given about Lincoln. Yet, even if we accept the sanitized version of history, even if ending slavery were his only motive, it could not have justified the launching and conduct of the war.  Yes, slavery was a grave evil, yet are we to accept a purely utilitarian ethic if the good one wishes to accomplish is good enough? 

And when one considers that nearly every nation in the West that had allowed slavery, other than the United States and Haiti, also ended it peacefully before the end of the nineteenth century, without causing the death of more than 600,000 people, it should give serious pause.  The percentage of the population killed, if you were to apply it to the population of the United States today, would yield more that 6 million dead

Considerations of whether the country merited such a painful chastisement because of its deeds are worthy ones, but they do not change the morality of the decision to inflict it.

A free and voluntary union was replaced with a permanent and servile one, to be enforced by the bayonet.  You can see the logical conclusion of this union at the airport, groping 6-year-olds in a security line in the name of safety.


Athelstane said...

Going down *this* rabbit hole today, Timman? :-)

Bradley Watson was in town for an ISI "Conservatism On Tap" talk here (Washington, DC) not long ago, and he made some laudatory comments about Lincoln as a kind of originalist that...weren't well received by at least a few folks in the audience. One of them confronted him about it in Q&A: What about the suspension of habeas corpus and all that? Watson shrugged it off, arguing that Lincoln simply "did what he had to do" to preserve the union. It proved to be an interesting look at one of the often-overlooked fissures in the conservative movement.

Lincoln has proved to be all too easy to canonize (we have a nice temple to him here on the Mall) or, alternately, demonize. He proved (as Shelby Foote famously observed) to be a rare genius produced by the war, certainly in ways that Jefferson Davis, for all his virtues, was not. But if blame is to be parcelled out - and I think Lincoln must take a great deal of it both for triggering the war and for brutalizing it - I think it must also be said that the Southern fire eaters must take some share too, being too willing to take the secessionist plunge the moment they lost their first election. The union had been a pretty good deal for them up to that point. It proved to be a tragedy that they did not even attempt to fight it out in the political system first. Southerners were no longer in the majority but they had at their disposal ample constitutional and parliamentary weapons to resist radical Republican initiatives...perhaps even for long enough until attitudes on slavery to evolve as they had in Britain and Latin America.

Ultimately, however, I think arguments about Lincoln and his secessionist opponents are a sideshow to the larger argument about how much the Civil War settlement really altered the original compact - how much it really contributed to the centralized bureaucratic state. That debate will go on and on and on, I suspect.

thetimman said...


Insightful, measured and well-reasoned comment.

You have no future as a blogger.

Anonymous said...

Given the high temperature and relative wackiness of certain wings of both parties, I wonder if we are headed toward a secessionist period in American history. I suspect that the country is too tied together economically for it to ever happen, but I can see Texas, or California, or New England talking seriously about secession. Or maybe Texas/California/Arizona/New Mexico thanks to the immigration issue which has those states not particularly aligned with the federal government.

Anonymous said...

Secession was first considered not by the South but by several New England states during the War of 1812.

I like the name War of Southern Secession for the name of the conflict between 1861-1865.It was not a civil war nor a war between the states.

There is no provision in the US constitution for secession. Nor is there any mention of the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ. Vatican II came early to the US.

The US was the only country to recognize the Confederacy. Lincoln called for a blockade of southern ports.One blockades the ports of a foreign entity. One closes the ports of insurrectionists.

The southern states had to be readmitted to the union. After the most deaths suffered in any American war the south was proved right.A state could secede from the union.
Tom Lozier

Louis E. said...

Read the furious defenses of slavery in the "Declarations of Causes of the Seceding States" before you absolve the South of bad motives for secession.The War of the Rebellion was a just war that suppressed an evil and the side in the right won.