Recently a vocal defender of Confederate heritage declared:
Rights endowed by the Creator trump those secured by the Constitution, so people have the right to secession whether there’s a Constitutional amendment or not.
This statement’s problematic. Let’s see what those problems might be …
I note that our commenter chooses to channel William Henry Seward, who spoke in 1850 of a higher law than the Constitution. She evidently concedes in this declaration that one need not look for a constitutional right of secession: it is to be found in “rights endowed by the Creator.”
It’s worth pointing out that advocates of secession in the American South would have rejected this reasoning at the time. They spent much time arguing that secession was indeed a constitutional right. They stayed far way from a nature right of revolution as the justification for their action, and with good reason: because the rights Jefferson enumerated were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” all of which are compromised by slavery. Indeed, what’s she’s done is to set the table for an argument that the United States was simply acting to achieve the promise of the Declaration of Independence when it sought to secure the rights of enslaved blacks to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” through military conflict. Several recent scholars would support that notion, notably James Oakes, who has argued for the fundamentally antislavery nature of the United States war effort.
Moreover, secession is not understood as a natural right. That’s reserved to the right of revolution. The commenter does violence to Revolutionary political thought to claim otherwise. Moreover, we’ve heard many times that the secessionists did not wish to alter or to destroy the United States: they just wanted to leave it, and then be left alone (although I doubt that sentiment would have persisted had fugitive slaves continued to flow northward, for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 covered the United States, not foreign countries).
In short, our commenter thus embraces the moral right of the United States to wage a war to secure the promise of the Declaration of Independence (isn’t freedom a God-given right?) and rejects arguments about the constitutionality of secession by saying that such claims are unnecessary. She does not seem to understand (and thus proceeds ahistorically) from the fact that those who advocated secession in 1860-61 explicitly claimed it was a constitutional right. If anything, she finds them wrong-headed.
In the end, therefore, our commentator finds common ground not only with William Henry Seward but also the president under whom he served as secretary of state. As Abraham Lincoln said on March 4, 1861 (in an address reviewed by Seward before its delivery):
This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow it.
Lincoln understood the difference between secession and revolution. It is only because our commenter does not that she’s led astray into a land of confusion.
Otherwise they are in perfect agreement. And we’re glad to see that. It isn’t every day that we see a defender of Confederate heritage (and an advocate of southern independence) embrace the thinking of William Henry Seward and Abraham Lincoln.
Cherish the thought.