Some Comments on Secession by Seth Barrett Tillman

Seth Barrett Tillman writes in to add these points to our discussion of secession and the Confederacy.

First, we do not have good evidence that even a majority of the adult white males in each rebel state supported secession at the time purported state conventions issued their ordinances of secession. The secession conventions were hardly models of transparency or one-(white)-man-one-(white)-vote equality in terms of fair representation. See, e.g., Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography 354 (2005) (explaining—in model clarity—that “state-secession votes occurred in assemblies skewed by state-law variants of the federal three-fifths clause—laws that gave plantation belts undue weight in the ultimate outcome”). I am in Ireland now, and so, I do not have easy access to much American material, but (as I remember) there is good authority for the view that a majority of the adult white males in Georgia did not support secession in 1861.

Second, if secession were/is a valid political principle, even absent concrete and substantial wrongdoing by the government from which one is seceding, then it does not stop with states seceding from the federal government. Many Southern states had counties and large regions where the white population was overwhelmingly loyal to the Union. E.g., Northern Alabama and Mississippi, western Virginia (prior to recognition of West Virginia statehood as the legitimate successor to rebel Virginia). Likewise, every rebel state (South Carolina excepted) produced organized loyalist regiments, and even South Carolina sent many white men who enlisted in Union regiments. Those loyalist counties and regions also produced active pro-Union militias in their home states. At no time did any rebel assembly or governor allow these counties and regions to remain in the Union or secede from the rebel state. The rebel position was never secession pure and simple, but secession in the context of organic, fixed, immutable states—against all. Secession was something rebels could do to others (based on a whim and fear of future wrongdoing at the hands of the newly elected Lincoln administration), but not which others could do to them (to the extent that rebels murdered Unionists, exiled them, and had their homes burned to the ground merely because loyalists continued to express political sympathy for the flag their fathers and grandfathers fought and bled for).

Third, the rebel cause was inherently violent and a threat to America’s internal peace and its peace with its neighbors and the world. To prove that, one does not have to look to Preston Brook’s cowardly attack in the U.S. Senate on a seated Charles Sumner; or to a pro-slavery mob’s murdering Reverend Lovejoy and burning his and other free-soil newspapers to the ground, even when located in Free States. Instead, one only has to consider that at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference (1865), the rebel commissioners proposed domestic reunification if the United States made war: on France & what was, in effect its colony, Mexico, or on Haiti, or on some central American state—so slavery could expand yet again. The Confederacy was not fighting for independence, it was fighting to bring new lands under slavery’s spell. It was inherently aggressive and violent.