The 150th Anniversary of South Carolina’s Secession

At Ricochet, Hillsdale College Professor Paul Rahe has a post on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s vote to secede from the Union. I’m one of the few Americans sympathetic to the general idea of secession who is also unequivocally hostile to the secession effort undertaken by the Confederacy in 1860-61.

In my view, the Constitution doesn’t clearly either forbid secession or permit it. Rahe emphasizes that there is no provision in the Constitution permitting secession. But there is also none banning it. The Constitution conspicuously omitted the section of Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation mandating that the union be “perpetual.”

In practice, the morality of any given secession movement depends critically on the reasons why the secessionists want to form their own state and the likelihood that it will be less unjust than the regime they seek to leave. Some secessions have clearly been defensible on these terms, including the Baltic States’ secession from the USSR, the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Norway’s early 20th century secession from Sweden, and America’s own secession from the British Empire. By contrast, I have argued that the Confederate attempt at secession was indefensible because it was undertaken for the evil purpose of perpetuating and extending the oppressive institution of slavery (see here and here).

In South Carolina’s case, among others, you don’t have to take my word about their motives. The state’s leaders condemned themselves through the South Carolina secession convention’s own official declaration of its reasons for seceding from the union. Here is a relevant excerpt:

The right of property in slaves was recognized by [the Constitution] giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States…..

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 [note by IS: this is a reference to free blacks]; 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 [note by IS: that slavery will be excluded from federal territories in the West], 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….

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved…..

Other parts of the South Carolina declaration try to prove that the southern states had a legal right to secede. But the declaration leaves no doubt that the reason for exercising that supposed right was concern about the future of slavery under a Republican president.

UPDATE: Rahe quotes relevant excerpts from a famous March 1861 speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. It’s worth noting that Stephens was a relative moderate by Confederate standards, not a radical proslavery secessionist “fire-eater.” That’s one of the reasons why he was picked for the job. He had this to say about the causes of southern secession:

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us; the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically…..

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—sub-ordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. [emphasis added].

UPDATE #2: For those who may be interested, I expounded on the theoretical underpinnings of my approach to secession in greater detail in this post.