The Irrelevance of the Debate over Secession’s Constitutionality

In the comments section to a recent post one can find a spirited debate over the constitutionality of secession. I find such arguments tiresome and ultimately futile in terms of historical understanding (as opposed to, say, an argument over whether secession is constitutional today … much, it seems, depends on the process to be defined).


Simple. What we know is that people at the time of the Civil War disagreed over whether secession was constitutional. Pretending to arrive at a “correct” answer doesn’t change that fact; nor would a conclusive determination, one way or another, change anything that happened some 150 years or so ago. There would be no retrospective alteration of the outcome. Saying “Whoops! Guess we were wrong!” doesn’t get us anywhere … and it will be a long time before we get agreement on that score, anyway … if ever.

Once can examine the various arguments concerning secession (pro and con) to learn much about what Americans in the first hundred years of the republic thought about nationhood, the Constitution, political institutions, and the like. One will find that the argument for or against secession rests upon particular constructions of particular clauses of the Constitution as well as other evidence. That people spent so much time debating over the notion of secession as a right when it was freely conceded that a right of revolution existed tells us a great deal about the ways in which the language and concept of constitutionalism shaped political discourse, because in the end what advocates of secession really wanted was their opponents to concede that they were seeking recourse in a process that was legitimate and thus acceptable. Once that concession was made, the reasoning went, then there could be no legitimate resistance to secession. However, the concession was never secured.  Render secession illegitimate as a process and one could make a claim that it was legitimate to resist it.

Most interesting to me, however, is the fact that many of the same people who argue for the rightness of secession (as in “we were right … and you were wrong”) deplore the same sort of judgmental approach when it comes to slavery.  Then it is always a case of crying “political correctness” or some such nonsense, or seeking to highlight racism (and even slavery) in the North as if somehow that absolves the South of any culpability or responsibility for slavery. I’d say that argument is also flawed, resting as it does on argument as moral indictment, but then some people are more interested in declaring who was right and who was wrong as opposed to understanding what happened and why. We see the same inconsistency (and even hypocrisy) in people who whine about “evilizing the South” while doing their best to “evilize” the North as well as people they don’t like (or in speculations on who hates who, a rather clear case of projection in several instances).  In these cases, moreover, people confuse understanding the past with pointing fingers in the present.

Oh, I know … this won’t stop those discussions. Just understand that I don’t put too much stock in them. I think the contours of the discussion tell us a great deal about the people who engage in such discussions (now as then), but they don’t bring us closer to a final determination as to the constitutionality of secession.