Secession: Freedom’s Greatest Ally?
Currently I read reading the book 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask by Thomas Woods (author of recent best-seller Meltdown). In it Woods brings up the Civil War and questions if it was really only or largely about slavery, as is commonly believed and taught in U.S. classrooms. He mentions a letter that Lord Acton, one of the leading figures in the libertarian school of thought, sent to Robert E. Lee in 1866.
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo. – Lord Acton (Emphasis added.)
The more I research and think of the Civil War, the more I recognize that it was not a war about slavery, but a war of central national authority and individual sovereign states. If the South was seceding simply over the issue of slavery, they likely would have fervently supported the Corwin Amendment, which left the issue of slavery up to the states and out of the jurisdiction of Congress:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
The Corwin Amendment was passed by both the House and the Senate on March 2, 1861, two days prior to Lincoln taking office. Lincoln supported the Amendment (which would have been the 13th Amendment) in his First Inaugural Address and mentioned, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
This isn’t about the personal feelings of Lincoln toward slavery, but rather the true meaning of the Civil War. I believe the latter is a viable and important topic that should receive balanced, unbiased discussion, as with any topic in history. There is little doubt that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about preserving the Union through coercion and preventing the peaceful secession of the South. We cannot discount that slavery was a driving issue in Southern secession, but at the same time we cannot discount that there were likely much wiser courses of action to take before the fighting began. It’s curious to me why people are so quick to defend a war that killed more than half a million Americans (not to mention the injured and misplaced individuals, stolen property, and destroyed towns), and disregard possible alternatives to the bloodshed.
The following quote is a portion of a letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley dated August 22, 1862:
The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. (Emphasis added.)
I am not jumping on an anti-Lincoln bandwagon, I am merely suggesting that the typical discussion of the Civil War is a simplistic, unrealistic, and betrayed view of the issues of the day. Today many find the idea of secession immoral and totally unacceptable largely based on what they learn about the Civil War in school. Textbooks and teachers are quick to blast the South’s secession, yet they omit the fact that the U.S. itself exists because we attempted to peacefully secede from Great Britain.
Secession is perhaps the greatest weapon of peace against a tyrannical, centralized authority. Without the possibility of state secession or nullification, what does the federal government have working against its power? As Thomas Jefferson stated, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” How can the states, and the people thereof, possibly resist that “natural progress” of government expansion if they are forcefully bound within a central government that may not serve their interests, and possibly even works against them?
Secession is not a violent term, it is a concept of peaceful withdrawal that represents the most effective method for a free people to “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and recognize the human right that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” This is not language from a radical dictionary of the damned, it is from the Declaration of Independence. As Lord Acton stated in his letter to Robert E. Lee, secession is not the enemy of freedom or the people, it is its greatest ally.