01 July, 2011

To clarify:

The structure of the argument in the below-mentioned document is unclear from my quotations. Hence, who knows whether I might not be taking that (quite clear) statement out of context.

To ward off any possible suspicions of such faulty arguing, here's their argument, in brief:

  1. They do start, admittedly, with a basic states' rights claim. Interpreting the original U.S. Constitution as that of a compact-style government, they claimed that the right to secede is inherent in the country's foundation. Cool. I don't disagree. What's interesting here is that they too assume the Lockean understanding of secession that I have always believed in: i.e., secession is justified if, and only if the government fails to fulfill its obligations to its citizens. Clearly then, if they are to justify secession, they must, as I have always argued, be capable of proving that the U.S. government was failing in its basic responsibilities to the state of South Carolina.
  2. Their first claim is multipartite. They bring up the fact that not all U.S. states were cooperating in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Okay, legally that might be a problem, despite the immorality of the act. However, individual states, and not the national government, were responsible for this lack of cooperation; while it might have been the duty (again, only legally) for the national government to interfere, this is a pretty minor complaint on which to base secession from the union. Almost like claiming "injustice" on the part of the federal government on a technicality. Just consider what that same horrible, oppressive government would have needed to use to enforce that law, anyway: ummm...army, anyone? So, basically, because the federal government was a monster because it wasn't invading a few uncooperative (but non-secessionist) northern states. But it was also an evil monster for invading states that claimed secession.
  3. It also complained that the government was trying to end slavery. Maybe so (though that would hurt the "Civil War wasn't about slavery" issue), but even so, it was using legal methods. So you get outvoted in the most recent election. So you might lose your slaves. Does that seriously mean you're being tyrannized and having your sacrosanct rights taken away?
  4. The most laughable claim? They admit that they've lived with these problems for 25 years. Why is the situation unacceptable now? Simple: the election of a president who was "planning"  to abolish slavery. Despite Lincoln's promises to work entirely within the bounds of the Constituion, they were convinced that he might pull a fast one on them and take away their God-given right to own other human beings. How can one even take this argument seriously? Preemptive secession? So now it's constitutional to secede simply because you think one of your leaders might someday do something unconstitutional?

2 comments:

turinhurinson said...

Some ramblings on this subject, which I don't necessarily agree with, but which I think make a somewhat compelling case:

Perhaps the principle at work here--not that the southern states would have admitted it--is that slavery is an all-or-nothing institution. It's impossible to have a union of states some of which permit slavery, some of which don't; it can exist for the short term, but it's inherently unstable, and results in absurdities like Dred Scott, fugitive slave act, etc. It's an unstable system that can come to rest in three different ways: slavery has to be abolished, it has to be allowed everywhere, or the union has to fracture. The first outcome was unacceptable to the southern states because they believed it violated their right to property. The second outcome was preferred, but the third they would have accepted.

Now, you're saying secession is unacceptable unless the government has failed to fulfill its obligations to its citizens. I'm not sure that kind of contract theory is the best way to approach political conflicts, but even within it, I'd suggest that the government had already failed in its duties to the states, because success was impossible within this inherently unstable framework. (Now here I begin to sound dangerously close to a southern William Lloyd Garrison, saying the constitution is inherently evil...but I would just say it's inherently unstable, like all man-made documents.)

In this view, Lincoln's election wasn't the tipping point that made it acceptable for them to secede--it had always been acceptable. It was the tipping point that made it the best option--because it signaled the impossibility of the only other acceptable outcome.

Therese said...

That might be so; I haven't really thought of it from that perspective. Thus far I've been working on the assumption that the agreement of all states to the terms of the original constitution validate it as well as anything can be validated. Now, if the illegitimacy of the government was inherent in its creation, simply because of the contradictions involved in trying to maintain a slave-holding democratic republic, then we have to go back and reimagine the entirety of US history. That would certainly undermine the legitimacy of many governmental actions up to that point.

I'd be a bit shy, however, of going that far. I'm a strong believer when it comes to government of the power of precedent. The United States had been acting as a single country up to that point, and one's conception of history becomes terribly anarchical as one proceeds up that road.