Did The South Have The Right To Secede ?

The comments that have been generated by this post at my personal blog on Lee-Jackson Day, as well as a comment thread I’ve been involved with in response to a related post at Republitarian, have led me to an interesting question.

Namely, when the Confederacy seceded from the Union in the wake of the 1860 election, did they have the right to do so ? I am not asking whether they had the right under the Constitution, or dealing at this point with the question of whether a right of secession even existed under the Constitution prior to the Civil War, but instead asks this question:

Looking at the secession of the Confederate States as an act of rebellion akin, in some sense, to the American Revolution (although I do not believe the two to be equal in status in any sense), did the political circumstances at the time justify rebellion ?

In the most important part of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth the criteria for when armed rebellion is justified:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — 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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security

In other words, taking up armed rebellion is not something that should be done for light or trivial reasons. Nor it is something that should be done when there are other, less violent methods for effecting political change.

So, how does this apply to the situation that existed in 1860 ?

There were, I think it can be said three specific issues that led to the secession crisis and the American Civil War:

1. The Election of 1860

After a bitterly contested four-way race between Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John Breckinridge. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He got almost no support in the Southern United States and won no states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Southern vote, in the meantime, was split between Breckinridge and Bell, with Douglas winning only Missouri. Ironically, those three candidates won a higher percentage of the popular vote (60%) even though Lincoln won the Electoral College.

It was immediately after the election results were certified, and even before Lincoln took the oath of office, that South Carolina seceded. In fact, the entire Deep South had seceded by February 1861.

So, the question is, does the loss of your preferred candidate in a contested Presidential campaign justify rebellion ? Absent some other contributing factor, the answer clearly is no — when the Constitution was formed, the people agreed that they would accept the results of the elections that took place under it. If South Carolina had a right to secede in 1861 because Lincoln won, does that mean that Massachusetts had a right to secede in 2004 when John Kerry lost ?

The logical answer is, I think, no.

2. Slavery

Lincoln never said during the election that he was going to do anything to the institution of slavery in the South. Since the Missouri Compromise, the only debates concerning slavery concerned the expansion of slavery into the western territories, and the return of fugitive slaves. Therefore, the supposed Southern fear that Lincoln posed a threat to their “peculiar institution” were nothing but fantasy.
As for expansion of slaver since that the institution of slavery is per se illegitmate and immoral, I think the Federal Government had every right to restrict its expansion into territory that was under its control. Yes, I am aware of the fact that slavery was if not protected at least recognized under the Constitution. That is an historical travesty, but it doesn’t mean that the nation had to stand by and do nothing while the territories to the West were turned into slave camps

Finally, if a slave was lucky enough to escape the hell he or she lived in, then they should’ve been allowed to stay free. Dred Scott was a horrid decision, legally and morally.

3. States’ Rights

This was the final argument used by the seceding states, and the one most often cited by supporters today. As I said above, I do not intend today to address the issue of whether the states retained some degree of sovereignty under the Constitution.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that they did. The question is whether there was a sufficient threat to that sovereignty in the wake of the 1860 election to justify rebellion.

For the reasons addressed above, the answer is no. Lincoln had said nothing, and certainly in the months prior to his Inauguration, had done nothing, to indicate that such a threat existed. Moreover, if the South had stayed in the Union and sent its Congressmen and Senators to Washington in 1861, they would have represented a voting bloc large enough that they would have been able to block any legislation they didn’t like, especially in the Senate.

They choose instead to rebel against their nation. For that, while history may not condemn them, it’s clear to me that they should not be honored.

Cross-Posted at Below The Beltway