Thursday, April 19, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Week 2012, April 19: Secessionism then and now

Glenn LaFantasie takes a look at present-day neo-Confederate ideology in How the South rationalizes secession Salon 12/19/2010:

... if you think that all this secession bluster is only a symptom of some peculiar Texas Tea Party madness, you need only Google the word “secession” to find that the radical right believes, apparently in growing numbers, that the Constitution does not prohibit secession and that states can leave the federal union whenever they want. Worse, a Middlebury Institute/Zogby Poll taken in 2008 found that 22 percent of Americans believe that “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic.” That’s an astounding statistic, one that means that nearly a quarter of Americans don’t know about the Civil War and its outcome. Sadly, it also means that for 1 out of every 4 Americans, the 620,000 of their countrymen who died during the Civil War gave their lives in vain.

He deals with the intriguing question of whether the Confederacy was a revolution or a counterrevolution, a question which I won't go into here. LaFantasie goes with the revolution description. But here he summarizes some of the major conceptual and historical background for the arguments over secession:

More to the point, Confederate Vice President Stephens plainly asserted in March 1861 that the “present revolution,” which had brought about the creation of the Confederate States of America, “is founded … on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination 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.” Other Confederates cringed at the persistent description of their revolution as a revolution (but not at the admission that the preservation of slavery was their primary motive for seceding) and turned instead to defending their actions by arguing that secession was, in fact, legal and not revolutionary at all. Harking back to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in response to the Federalist Party’s enactment of the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts, Southerners advanced the idea that the Union under the Constitution consisted of simply a compact among the states and that any state, by means of its retained sovereignty, could divorce itself from the Union if it ever desired to do so. Confederates also based their rationalization of secession on John C. Calhoun’s notion of nullification, which held that a state could declare a federal law null and void. But Calhoun — a South Carolinian who had served in Congress, as secretary of war under Monroe, as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and later as the South’s most famous (or infamous) senator — went further in his states’ rights arguments than Jefferson or Madison had ever done. In his view, states were not only sovereign, they were virtually independent; thus states were simultaneously in the Union and out of it. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson, a fellow Southerner, forced South Carolina to nullify its nullification of a federal tariff. Instead of reinforcing the idea of a perpetual Union, the nullification crisis simply laid the groundwork for the South’s later secession. [my emphasis]
It's nice that he gives Old Hickory credit for squelching South Carolina's treasonous effort in the nullification controversy. But I would disagree with his suggestion that Jackson's victory was a failure in "reinforcing the idea of a perpetual Union". On the contrary, it was very effective in doing so. But in the decade leading up to the Civil War, the South wasn't asserting "states rights". They were insisting on using the power of the federal government to override the rights of the free states and their citizens in the matter of slavery. Only after Lincoln's election didn't they revert to a "states rights" position. The Slave Power's goal and principle was defending slavery. All the rest of the Constitutional arguments this way or that way were window-dressing to them.

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