The Debate over Secession, Continued

I can’t say that I’m surprised that a post about the issue of secession’s constitutionality in historical context sparked a debate about whether people today think secession was or was not constitutional (as well as other perspectives on the nature of secession). That discussion sheds more light on us than it does on this secession debate during the early republic, especially when it comes to twisting past meanings and misrepresenting past documents and actions to fit a preconceived narrative crafted to serve one’s own ends.  The same goes for the debate over secession versus revolution when it comes to the American Revolution. There I’m surprised that people have concentrated on the Declaration of Independence while ignoring the acts of colonial/representative bodies at the colony/state level.

There remain interesting questions, of course. One is how the concept of secession’s constitutionality evolved over time as its proponents explored various ways to define the right and the process through which it might be exercised. Another is to note that what happened in 1860-61 did not quite fit the procedures outlined, although there were attempts to spin what had happened to fit various modes of proceeding. Several of the declarations of secession listed a long train of abuses, but the fact is that those abuses had taken place before Lincoln’s election: it was the fact of Lincoln’s election that spurred the secessionists to complete the act they had been conspiring to take for some time. Moreover, discussion of what happened in 1860-61 must distinguish between the original seven seceding states (and their failure to recognize the right of secession in the Confederacy), the four states that joined the Confederacy after April 12, and the events in the remaining four slave states.

I don’t place much stock in proud declarations about self-determination and the rights of the governed when it comes to listening to proponents of secession or Confederate romantics. Let’s set aside the fact that the very institution secessionists sought to protect was a denial of self-determination and basic human rights. To say that there was racism in the North or offer other excuses is simply absurd as an effective argument, akin to saying that because someone else did something wrong, the secessionists and Confederates (who are not always one and the same) are off the hook. That has more to do with the desire of present-day defenders of the Confederacy to identify all too closely with “the cause” to the point that they convince themselves that they are actual Confederates who don’t want to accept certain aspects of the Confederate experience lest it seem to reflect on their own beliefs. What I find equally interesting is the idea that Confederates denied the right of self-determination to southern white Unionists. So much for consent of the governed.

What people might want to explore instead is how the language and theory of constitutionalism, including the debate over secession as a right , shaped political thought and discourse during the years 1776-1877. That’s a more interesting historical question, as people sought to balance the language of the Declaration of Independence with the desire for legitimacy inherent in establishing constitutional regimes and worked to frame a language of constitutionalism within a context of evolving theories of American nationalism and identity.  That takes a different reading list, one featuring Michael Kammen and not Shelby Foote. However, one cannot understand either secessionists or Confederates unless one understands that they, too, were Americans, and that their thought evolved in this context.

That’s something most people don’t realize. You see it in the claim that the United States flag flew over slavery far longer than did the Confederate flag (which is one of the most wonderful pieces of nonsense I’ve ever heard …after all, there wasn’t a day that the Confederate flag did not fly over slavery during 1861-1865 (contrary to someone who claims that slavery ended in the Confederacy in 1864). After all, white southerners were part of that United States and worked hard to make sure that that United States continued to protect and promote slavery. Why some Confederate romantics and other Confederate apologists overlook this is best left for someone else to explain.

Maybe it’s time to understand the past on its own terms rather than try to justify present beliefs or provide warm and comfy thoughts for one’s personal preferences. Try it: you might be surprised at what you learn.