The American Presidents Series, first started by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and now continued by Sean Wilentz, offers readers a series of short, concise biographies of each U.S. president that are accessible to a wide audience. They are wonderful introductions into the character and political outlook of past presidents, and I have a number of these biographies in my library. The latest addition to my collection is historian Jean H. Baker’s biography of James Buchanan, and I can’t recommend it enough.
I learned a lot about Buchanan in this short volume. When past historians have chosen to assess Buchanan’s presidency and the coming of the American Civil War, they often portray him as a weak, ineffective leader who did too little to stop the onslaught of southern secession prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, among other studies, hews to this standard interpretation. While Baker concurs that Buchanan’s response to secession was weak, she instead portrays him overall as an overwhelming figure whose domineering personality, unwillingness to compromise, and inability to take dissent seriously doomed his presidency from the start of his term in 1857. Despite proclaiming himself as the only non-sectional candidate who would promote the interests of the entire country during the 1856 presidential election (a claim that Ulysses S. Grant took seriously when he voted in his first presidential election that year), Buchanan was in fact a pro-South sectional candidate in his own right who downplayed the extent of Northern frustration with Southern proslavery demands. I was particularly struck by this passage:
Buchanan had long since chosen sides. Both physically and politically, he had only one farsighted eye, and it looked southward. Looking to the past and heralding the Democratic party’s eternal principles against the “isms” of free-soilism and anti-slaveryism, the president-elect was blind to what was happening in the North . . . despite his experience in politics, [he] read the opposition party as ephemeral as lighting bugs in August.
In his desire to end division between North and South, the president-elect moved beyond the tradition of permissible institutionalized antagonism between political organizations. The concept of loyal opposition, inherited from Great Britain, sanctioned criticism of administrations and the presentation of alternative policies. What it did not permit was the castigation of another party as disloyal and un-American, as Buchanan held the Republicans. In his years as president, Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 [p. 72].
Perhaps there is something for us to learn in Buchanan’s failure as a president. He was arguably one of the most qualified candidates based on his experience as a politician and diplomat for nearly forty years before his election in 1856, but his lack of leadership, vision, communication skills, or a sense of changing political circumstances in the 1850s doomed his tenure. As more white Northerners desired restrictions for slavery’s westward expansion into new territories, Buchanan came to view such a position as dangerous and an abridgement of constitutional rights. That most Northerners had no intention to touch slavery where it existed and held strong racial prejudices against blacks made no difference to him. Buchanan couldn’t handle differing interpretations of the constitution or dissent from his ideology, which in his mind meant that his enemies were not fellow Americans with a difference of opinion who were still worthy of respect, but traitors whose views had to be obliterated at all costs. The president’s rhetoric damaged any future compromise over slavery since any such agreement would be considered a threat to Southern honor.
And then the war came…
One of the more eclectic works of scholarship in my library was published on the cusp of the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2010 and, as far as I know, has not received the attention I think it deserves. Don Doyle’s edited volume Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements brings together philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, and historians for many useful discussions about secessionist movements around the globe, both past and present. While an entire section of the book is dedicated to the exploration of Confederate secession and the American Civil War, other sections focus on secessionist movements in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, and still another section focuses on the philosophical challenges of developing what we might term an ethics of secession – a set of standards for establishing when and how a separatist group might establish the right of self-determination and be accepted into the global family of nations. For this overview I will mostly focus on a treatment of the essays that discuss the latter philosophical concerns. While discussions of Confederate secession and the causes of the Civil War are of great interest to me and many other scholars, this book’s strength lies in allowing readers a chance to look at secession with a broader focus.
Philosopher Christopher Wellman takes a fairly permissive view towards secession and argues that the sole factor determining when a separatist group can leave an established nation lies in its ability to perform basic political functions. If such a group demonstrates an ability to govern and protect “the human rights of their constituents,” he argues, then that group maintains a fairly solid case for establishing its own sovereignty in a separate state. Significantly, Wellman suggests that any cultural arguments for self-determination based on factors such as a group’s shared language, ethnicity, or religion are irrelevant to the secession process because a group that cannot conduct basic political functions will fail to lay claim to a given territory. This arguments goes against the history of many 19th and 20th century separatist movements that based their claims of self-determination largely on cultural factors, but I think it’s a sound one to make for assessing the political merits of contemporary secessionist movements.
Wellman also takes issue with scholars who simultaneously oppose unilateral secession and advocate for a voting process that allows secession only if a supermajority of voters in an entire territory approve such a measure. He argues that a simple majority in one or multiple elections over a quick period of time is preferable to a supermajority process that can be burdensome and undemocratic, since 51 percent of the population could hypothetically support secession and yet be denied their desire to separate because of the minority’s wishes to maintain the union. Wellman acknowledges that states often posses an amendment process like the one in the U.S. Constitution that requires a supermajority vote before making changes to their governing documents, since such proposals concern the stability and fundamental political concerns of the state. But apparently such a process for secession does not concern the stability of the state in Wellman’s eyes because the root question for him is whether the secessionist group can make the case for its own self-determination. On this point I am not as convinced by Wellman’s arguments.
Historian David Armitage explores the relationship between secession and civil war, and how active separatist movements (especially ones with arms) are frequently accompanied by severe warfare and violence, although that does not always have to be the case. He argues that commonly accepted definitions of secession and civil war today have been largely shaped by how they were defined at the time of the American Civil War, specifically through the legal definitions of lawyer and professor Francis Lieber’s famous “Lieber Code” that attempted to outline acceptable laws of war for pursuing the Union war effort. Armitage points out, however, that many conflicts today that could be considered an act of secession and/or a civil war don’t meet Lieber’s definition of those terms. Moreover, he suggests that a term like “Civil War” is reflective of a Unionist interpretation of a given conflict because it portrays events as a internal war, whereas secessionists would argue that such conflicts are analogous to an international conflict and not necessarily a civil war.
Armitage concludes his essay by arguing that the American Revolution was actually a civil war perpetuated by an act of secession by the American colonies. He asserts that the colonists initially wished to remain in the British empire and that their political concerns against the crown were born out of the perception that their rights as Englishmen were being compromised, not that they were a separate people distinct from the mainland British populace. When those rights were not acknowledged, the colonists presented the Declaration of Independence as an act of secession from the British empire. I personally do not buy most of this argument. While I’m willing to concede that the conflict had characteristics of a civil war, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists were employing their natural right to revolution and not their political right to secession, which did not exist under the British empire. The colonist leaders of the war effort with Britain understood that they were breaking away from the empire through an act of revolution, not secession. Brooks Simpson has a thoughtful explanation of the distinction between revolution and secession here.
Much like the aforementioned two essays, law professor Peter Radan’s essay on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address has points of agreement and disagreement with me. In particular Radan focuses on Lincoln’s arguments that the Union preceded the States, that a state could not secede without the Union’s consent, and that a morally justifiable reason was necessary for Confederate secession to be valid. Radan disagrees with Lincoln’s reasoning in a number of ways by arguing that the States came before the Union, that unilateral secession can be justified if the terms of the political contract are altered (he posits scenarios in which both North and South violated this contract), and that a moral justification for secession is unnecessary for it to succeed and gain international acceptance. I believe Radan might be correct on the last point in that secessions and revolutions often occur regardless of their moral implications, but his other points have problems.
Radan points out, for example, that the Declaration of Independence’s wording states that the colonies were “free and independent States” and that “they [had] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” “This assertion,” argues Radan, “can hardly be said to express the notion that there is a union and no independent states [in 1776].” But Lincoln himself gave a pretty convincing argument in his First Inaugural to suggest that some form of a union did already exist. Lincoln acknowledged the “free and independent states” clause of the Declaration, but argued that “even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwords abundantly show.” Indeed, Virginia, New York, or any other state never assumed the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, or generally function as “free and independent states” as Radan conceives the term. Ultimately neither Radan nor Lincoln are completely correct about whether the States or the Union came first because the documentary evidence is complex and contradictory on this point. Historian Kenneth Stampp is closer to a correct answer when he argues that the question is moot because the 1787 Constitution aimed to “form a more perfect union” that established a clear break with all past forms of governance in the colonies and early nation. Stampp simply describes as the 1787 Constitution as “a new and better one” that completely overthrew the Articles of Confederation. What existed before that point no longer mattered, so perhaps Lincoln’s claims of the Union being older than the states may not hold as much weight as he hoped they would.
Radan’s arguments against Lincoln’s position on the illegality of unilateral secession are rooted in the belief that the union is (or was) a compact between states, what James Madison described as the assumption that “every party to a compact, has a right to take for granted, that its construction is the infallible one, and to act upon it against the construction of all others, having an equal right to expound the instrument.” In other words, the states are fully sovereign and can unilaterally break away from the compact at will. But is the Union really a compact of states that can be broken at will by any one of the states, or is it a nation whose powers are vested in the people of the states working in concert as a unified body? Madison himself pioneered the idea of dual sovereignty–that various forms of sovereignty could exist at both the national and state level–but concluded towards the end of his life that a state could not unilaterally nullify a federal law or break away from the Union. In an 1830 letter to Nicholas Trist he commented that “no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect. It will hardly be contended that there is anything in the terms or nature of the compact, authorizing a party to dissolve it at pleasure.” This is not to suggest that Madison is the last word on the subject, but only to suggest that the idea of the constitution granting the right of unilateral secession to the states would have been a surprise to many of the people who played a role in the writing of that very constitution.
Finally, there are two essays by Bruno Coppieters and Aleksander Pavkovic that are worth briefly mentioning. Coppieters focuses on recent separatist movements in Europe and how the European Union has addressed these conflicts within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Slovenia. He demonstrates how the EU has distinguished between separatist movements based on just cause (that the state has committed a wrongdoing against a specific group of people) and movements based on choice theory (that a group should have the right to self-determination simply because they choose to do so, and not based on any moral considerations or wrongdoings). Coppieters concludes that the EU has attempted to mediate secessionist crises in the interest of maintaining peace and has more often supported separatist movements with specific grievances and wrongdoings committed against them rather than movements based solely on choice theory. He suggests that the EU should establish a clearer “institutional framework within which conflict transformation and resolution may take place” for maintaining peace and orderly transitions for new nations when secession is viewed as a viable solution.
Pavkovic offers what is perhaps my favorite and most provocative essay of the book by criticizing all nationalist ideologies because they “privilege, on no justifiable grounds, one group against all other groups and individuals.” He rightly points out that both the anti-secessionist state AND secessionist separatist groups run the risk of committing immoral acts of violence against unarmed civilians and opposition groups in the name of nationalism. Pavkovic wades into territory the other essays leave untouched by asking if “the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession is justified on moral grounds” and whether or not, in the case of warfare, “independent statehood is worth the sacrifice of human lives and misery that attends any military conflict.” Whereas Wellman is primarily concerned about the ability of separatist groups to demonstrate political self-determination and Radan seemingly discredits any moral implications of secession and its potential for prolonged violence, Pavkovic challenges readers to face the moral implications of secession head on and consider whether or not the national allegiances we hold are worth killing and dying for.
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and I’ve barely touched the surface on what this great book has to offer. Go out and buy it!
The historian Sean Wilentz wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a while back asking if the United States Constitution recognized slavery in national law prior to the Civil War. Wilentz answers “No,” and other academic historians have responded with a flurry of blog posts, articles, and tweets. There are too many to link here, but thankfully Al Mackey has already done the work of collecting most of the worthy responses on his website. The latest response to Wilentz comes from Daniel W. Crofts at the History News Network, and Dr. Crofts’ response now provokes a response from me.
Crofts focuses his essay on a second contention from Wilentz: that disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution were “the rock that split the Union in 1860-61.” Crofts counters this argument by asserting that constitutional disagreements between Northerners and Southerners only played a small role in explaining the outbreak of Civil War. Instead, he contends, the very act of Confederate secession itself was responsible for the start of the war. Most Unionists who actively supported a forceful response to secession did so not because of their anti-slavery convictions (if they had any), but because they viewed the idea of a state or states unilaterally leaving the country because their preferred candidate lost an election was a direct affront to the principles of popular government and republican rule of law. Secession set a bad precedent and imperiled the future of the United States, and these concerns largely explain the motivations underlying Unionists’ military response to the Confederacy following the firing of Fort Sumter.
While I think there’s a certain risk in arguing that secession was responsible for the war’s outbreak without also understanding how political disagreements over slavery and the constitution made secession a viable option to future Confederates in 1860-61, I believe Crofts is correct in this argument. It also lines up nicely with similar arguments made by Gary Gallagher in his book The Union War, a book I consider to be one of the finest works of scholarship published during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
I believe Crofts takes his thesis too far, however, by embracing a common argument about secession–most recently made elsewhere by Jon Grinspan–that I call the Confederate Insanity Plea. To wit:
Blind to abundant historical evidence that war had the potential to disrupt slavery, secessionists sleepwalked heedlessly into catastrophe. The Republican Party posed no danger to slavery. But war did. Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, observed retrospectively that white Southerners had fallen victim to collective “insanity.” Had they stayed in the Union, they might have kept slavery “for many years to come.” No party or public feeling in the North “could ever have hoped” to touch it.
This conclusion strikes me as odd – just as odd as Wilentz’s assertion that the majority of Unionists enlisted in the U.S. military to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. Of course the Republican party posted a danger to slavery. How else do you explain the coming of Confederate secession in the first place?
Although Crofts apparently also takes issue with James Oakes‘ explanation for the coming of war, I agree with Oakes. The leading Southern advocates for disunion considered secession a better option for protecting their slave property than living under a Republican government opposed to the further westward expansion of slavery. It made no difference to them that Lincoln had never advocated the complete and immediate abolition of slavery or embraced the support of radical abolitionists during his candidacy. It made no difference to them that Republicans took pains to disavow any intentions of abolishing slavery where it already existed. And it made no difference that Republicans had previously expressed their wish to maintain their Union with slaveholders. To the Fire Eaters these distinctions were meaningless because the Republicans, by preventing the westward expansion of slavery, had hoped to establish a “Cordon of Freedom” that would limit slavery’s growth and, in due time, hasten its eventual demise. Whether a Northerner proclaimed himself a Republican or an abolitionist was meaningless to secession advocates because the end goal for both was the same: the eventual end of slavery in the United States.
Although his scholarship in now dated, Allan Nevins succinctly captured one fundamental issue for secessionists about the Republicans: “Was the Negro to be allowed, as a result of the shift of power signalized by Lincoln’s election, to take the first step toward an ultimate position of general economic, political, and social equality with the white man? Or was he to be held immobile in a degraded, servile position?” (470-471)
The first state to secede following the 1860 election was South Carolina, and their Declaration of Secession clearly views the Republican party as a threat to slavery:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
To simply attribute the concerns of leading secessionists to the machinations of “insanity” is flawed. The insanity argument is an exercise in excuse-making that denies agency to leading Confederates in the choice for disunion, and it minimizes the importance of their own words in Declarations of Secession such as the one above. Secession was not the result of insane reasoning but deliberate, calculated thinking that matured over years of sectional conflict over slavery and the nature of the Union. Actions occur only when you first perceive that action is necessary, and whether or not secessionist perceptions of the Republican party were truly accurate is not so important as understanding that those perceptions led to calculated actions with deadly consequences.
Finally, while scholars today looking back in hindsight can agree with Crofts by seeing secession’s failure as hastening slavery’s destruction, we might choose to qualify that statement by stressing that few people at the outbreak of the war could have predicted that such an outcome would enact so much change in four years. Secession did not automatically guarantee slavery’s demise because the end results of secession could have played out in any number of ways. A successful Confederate effort would have perpetuated slavery indefinitely, and even an unsuccessful effort could have maintained slavery; had George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 succeeded in ending the rebellion, slavery could have arguably continued where it already existed and been protected under the Lincoln administration (see Glenn David Brasher’s recent work on African Americans and the Peninsula Campaign for further discussion). Changing circumstances on the battlefield and the ever-evolving views of the Republican party towards slavery, however, contributed to the institution’s destruction. That the Lincoln administration eventually embraced emancipation as a war aim and passed the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery, both with the popular support of loyal Unionists, must also be considered as crucial factors in the end of slavery in addition to the act of secession itself.
So, to recap, repeat, and TL,DR: Crofts is correct in asserting that the act of secession motivated Unionists to enlist in the U.S. military in 1861 more so than any sort of antislavery conviction or constitutional interpretation, but I think he errs in dismissing Confederate secession as an act of insanity and asserting that the Republican party posed no threat to slavery because they had promised to protect it where it had already existed.