the imaginative conservative logo

Douglas C. Minson

There are currently 50 petitions for secession from the United States, one from each state, that have been registered with the federal government. It goes without saying that not one of them has any prospect of being acted upon. It is therefore tempting to dismiss these petitions as expressions of sour grapes on the part of some in response to the outcome of the presidential election: a combination of partisan hostility, impatience with the democratic political process, a failure to make peace with contemporary demographic realities, frustration with the evident limitations of a particular candidate, and an expression of the politics of nostalgia. Seemingly lost amidst all of the needless repudiation of the petitions as fruitless gestures is their expression of a social Cris de Coeur in response to a genuine political dilemma. The secessionist impulse may therefore be instructive, revealing the limitations of the existing responses to that dilemma. What’s more, perhaps lost amidst the understandable lampooning of the impulse is just how inseparable secession is from the American experience itself.

The notion that “not since the Civil War” has this country been as deeply divided as it is today is commonly accepted as a starting point for public discourse, across the American political spectrum—and the media have the dichromatic maps to prove it. Partisan demographics are such that national elections are only meaningfully contested in a mere handful of states. Razor-thin margins determine the outcome of what we are told are incommensurate policy responses to our political challenges—and middle-term and compromise positions have become increasingly implausible. Our political divisions, according to the partisan formulations, reveal fundamental differences among us, and the stakes of our politics are therefore ultimate. Political defeat is tantamount to the loss of pubic recognition and affirmation of our identity.

Accordingly, the spectacle of high-profile celebrities who pledge self-expatriation in response to the prospect of their undesirable candidate of choice being elected is now commonplace, as is the customary reneging on the vow. However deep and widespread the disappointment with political outcomes, it seems clear that few Americans are willing to act as if all really is lost and truly forsake their homes. By contrast, the impulse to secede is an expression of a commitment to home and hearth, and the desire to safeguard them from alien influences; it is not an impulse to jettison and reject, but to protect and preserve. Interestingly, the response appears to cut across partisan lines; it found expression from the Left after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, and now the Right has followed suit in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.

Kirkpatrick Sale is in the secession business. He is director of the Middlebury Institute “for the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination,” and long before the recent secession petitioners registered their acts of protest the Institute helped to organize a nonviolent citizens movement to advance Vermont’s independence. The movement has generated enough enthusiasm for nine Independence Party candidates affiliated with Thomas Naylor’s Second Vermont Republic to have run for state office in 2010.

Sale is a contributor to the recently published Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, a deftly organized collection of articles exploring the anthropological, sociological, political, and historical arguments for a normative scale of politics and the means to revitalize self-government in the United States. Reflecting upon the Aristotelian premise that there is a natural limit to the size of political entities informed by the natural limits of human reason, Sale argues that “a state as large as 305 million is ungovernable.” He martials to his cause an abundance of evidence of bureaucratic fiscal bloat, unmanageable borders, escalating health costs, and failures in education and a host of other unmet social needs—all of which are tied, in some measure by his account, to the size of the country.

Surveying the global political landscape, Sale observes that 58% of the world’s political entities are smaller than Switzerland (7.7 million). In terms of prosperity, Sale notes that 18 of the top 20 nations ranked by per capita GDP are smaller than 5 million. Citing indices of well-being taken from the Wall St. Journal, the Economist, and Freedom House, he offers similar measurements of freedom, civil rights protections, and literacy rates, all of which affirm his argument that smaller states enjoy a relative advantage over very large ones in achieving the conditions for social health and prosperity. For Sale, secession provides a path to the decentralization necessary to sustain meaningful representation and responsible self-government.

The editor of Rethinking the American Union, Donald Livingston, on the other hand suggests that secession is but one way of accomplishing the recovery of vital self-government in the United States. He offers as a model for a federated relationship between political entities Althusius’ account of consociational representative political bodies. As articulated in his influential work Politica, Althusius’ polity is derived from his account of ancient Israel’s covenantal federation rather than the example of Greek democracy or Roman republicanism. As with Sale’s Aristotelian account of the limits of the classical republic, Althusius’ polity is naturally constrained from growing very large (although Althusius is not specific about the limits of size), lest it fall prey to corruption and lose its representative capacity. The theoretical framework itself consists of an account of structural pluralism slightly different, and less hierarchical, than the Catholic social doctrine of Subsidiarity. Each unit of association within Althusius’ federative polity that is capable of sustaining itself is normatively entitled to determine its political relationships with the federation of which it is a part, and is likewise entitled to secede from it. Likening Althusius’ decentralized federated polity to the American constitutional regime consisting of a federal compact of sovereign states is for Livingston irresistible. The structure not only preserves an account of states as jurisdictions of general police powers, but provides an essentially decentralized political order that requires active self-government on the part of the citizens of those states.

For Livingston, Althusius offers an instructive model suited to meet the political challenges of modern circumstances. He confidently maintains that these remedies have not been tried and found wanting, but too rarely tried. He cites the examples of Canadian federalism, which allows member states to nullify federal civil rights provisions, and the semi-autonomous Swiss Cantons, which have sustained an independent Switzerland for more than seven hundred years, despite being situated in the very heart of a continent afflicted by war in pursuit of innumerable imperial ambitions.

Of course, as those who mock the current petitions do not fail to observe, in the American context any discussion of secession is always identified with the thwarted Southern war for independence in the 1860s. Further reflection suggests that the Civil War is in some sense, however, conspicuous as the failed exception in the American experience. Whether or not secession remains a legitimate recourse to aggrieved member states of the American union, its place in American history cannot be questioned.

Arguably, the primordial act of asserting American identity was itself an act of secession from Great Britain, and one that invited imitation. The language of the Declaration of Independence itself is putatively incomprehensible otherwise: “Whenever any form of government is destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Less well remembered, and incontestable as an act of secession, is the state of Delaware’s separation from Pennsylvania only weeks before the ratification of the Declaration. Having been granted to William Penn as part of his inheritance, despite their independence and tradition of self-government long predating the establishment of Penn’s Woods, the three counties of Delaware were incorporated into Pennsylvania in 1682. In 1704, in recognition of that tradition, and in response to dissatisfaction with Pennsylvania governance, Penn granted those “Lower Three Counties” semi-autonomy, allowing them to maintain an independent legislature. On June 15, 1776, the three counties of Delaware declared themselves separate and independent of both Great Britain and Pennsylvania. In this way, driven by ethnographic, cultural, religious, and economic concerns, Delaware seceded in order to preserve the self-determination of a distinct political community unwilling to be subsumed under a larger and unrepresentative polity. Interestingly, Delaware’s status as the “First State” to ratify the United States Constitution in 1787, despite strong anti-federalist sympathies among her representatives, was in part informed by concern for preserving this independence from Pennsylvania.

Like Delaware, Virginia declared her independence from Great Britain prior to the Continental Congress’ Declaration of Independence. In her constitution of June 29, 1776, it reads that “the government of this country [Virginia], as formerly exercised under the crown of Great Britain, is totally dissolved.” When Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution in June of 1788, she explicitly reaffirmed the right to secede from the union she joined: “The delegates do, in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.” (5 Bulletin of the Bureau of Rolls, 145.) In this stipulation, reserving the right to secede, she was joined by both New York and Rhode Island.

When North Carolina and Rhode Island, the “Wayward Sisters,” declined to ratify the U.S. Constitution despite its having been affirmed by the requisite nine states, and then two more, they did not secede from the coalescing union of states, but clearly asserted their independence from it. George Washington, writing to Gouvernor Morris in October 1789, declared “it is hoped … that the non-acceding States will very soon become members of the Union.” Rhode Island was particularly resistant to joining the United States, rejecting the resolution ratifying the U.S. Constitution many times over nearly three years. During this period of intransigence, the federal representatives of the member states of the union made provisions to treat Rhode Island as a foreign power, including taxing goods imported through Rhode Island and North Carolina as if they were imported from any other foreign state. Similarly, the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 established Federal Courts throughout the member states of the union without making any provisions for North Carolina and Rhode Island, who had not ratified at that time. When George Washington visited New England in October and November of 1789, he omitted Rhode Island from the trip since she had not come into the Union. Upon receiving word that the last of the thirteen Colonies had at last joined the others in ratifying the Constitution in May of 1790, Washington declared: “Since the Bond of Union is now complete, and we once more consider ourselves as one family, it is much to be hoped that reproaches will cease and prejudices be done away.”

Ironically, perhaps, the occasion for the expansion of the union was itself an expression of secessions of sorts. The ceding by Virginia of the vast Northwest Territory that would become much of the American Midwestern states prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution demonstrated regard for both the demands of self-governance and manageable republican political scale. Subsequent secession of Virginia’s western counties, which then formed the state of Kentucky, as well as the secession of Maine from Massachusetts and Tennessee from North Carolina, illustrate the historical viability of peaceful acts of secession—albeit acts that resulted in the maintenance of a federated union of the newly formed entities with their mother states. That said, such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson anticipated and were prepared for a pattern of Westward Expansion that would have not have produced a continental union of states, but the emergence of sister republics. Livingston cites Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, who observed that “Jefferson propagandized for an independent Pacific republic, and in the 1820s many leading Americans—including Albert Galatin, James Monroe, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and possibly James Madison—shared the vision.”

The first substantial consideration of division of the United States through secession, of course, was prompted by the War of 1812. New England states openly discussed secession as a response to the Madison administration’s shipping embargo. The Federalists of the Hartford Convention of 1814 seriously entertained the secession of the New England states as a remedy for their grievances with Madison, an opportunity to forge an independent peace wit Great Britain, and a mechanism to address their discontent with the constitutional three-fifths compromise and the impact of the Louisiana Purchase on American identity. Whatever the Federalist misgivings about Jefferson, in this respect they shared his appreciation for recourse to secession as a tool to facilitate meaningful political self-determination and liberty.

Though it may be proposed that such historical observations are without any imaginable practical application, another contributor to Rethinking the American Union, Yuri Maltsev, suggests otherwise. Maltsev, an economist and member of the Soviet economic advisory team that developed Gorbachev’s program for economic reform, offers the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a case study in successful contemporary secessionist efforts. Maltsev’s argument is that the Soviet Union was too big not to fail—an unsustainable empire, crippled by its unmanageable size, breadth, bureaucracy, and statist economic premises.

In his account of the unraveling of the centralized empire, Maltsev observes that as the central authorities began to recognize the conditions of dissolution, they considered the unlikely and ironic mechanism of state nullification as a way of keeping the Soviet Union intact. Nullification would have allowed the individual states and regional authorities with the means to avoid the onerous provisions from Moscow and address their diversity of interests and needs; apart from accommodating such limited autonomy, the only alternative available to those states was to secede. When Moscow refused to extend such provisions for decentralized self-determination, that is precisely what happened. Beginning with Lithuania in the spring of 1990, the Baltic States inaugurated the dissolution. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

Maltsev’s account helpfully complements to insights of Pope John Paul II, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, former Czech playwright and Prime Minister Vaclav Havel, and others who have observed that the Soviet Union collapsed in no small part because of its loss of moral authority. Lacking a coherent and persuasive organizing principle, the leaders of the Soviet Union were unable to provide its people a shared sense of purpose that would justify the sacrifices necessary to maintain any political order. The Soviet disintegration is thus a poignant reminder of the inadequacy of politics as a substitute for culture.

Alasdair MacIntyre has famously remarked that modern politics is civil war carried on by other means. The administration of justice and the effort to coordinate common life together that make up political pursuits require a set of conditions including civility and the possibility of meaningful public discourse about suitable means to the ends of the body politic. Apart from a shared sense of public purpose, such discourse becomes impossible; political interlocutors without shared cultural conceptions of the common good cannot assume that they will be able to escape the proverbial parallel modes of discourse. Columnist Michael Barone joins a chorus of commentators who are now given to describe the United States as “two countries.” More significantly, he offers that those two countries are not on “speaking terms.” However much such rhetoric ought to be attributed to the aftermath of a hotly contested and narrowly desided election, it suggests that there is a deepening rift in the American political landscape, one that is geographically discernible. Even if the contrast is overstated, it is sobering.

So stark is the contrast between “Red” and “Blue” states that each election is declared to be the “most important” living memory, if not in the history of the country. This remarkable and shameless diagnosis reveals the sense that American politics determines not only policy, but that it defines who and what Americans are. It is an extraordinary claim, one premised on the notion that the contest between two fundamentally distinct conceptions of American identity are separated by so slim a margin as has decided recent national elections. It is perhaps even more extraordinary to think that an election could transform the character and cultural identity of the country and bring coherence to it despite the opposition of just under half of her citizens.

In the effort to meet the challenges posed by the new things (rerum novarum) of modernity while safeguarding its promise, Catholic Social Thought and the Protestant heirs of Althusius articulated political frameworks that were devoted to sustaining structural social pluralism. Such frameworks abandon neither the liberal democratic ideal of liberty nor the need for communities of cultural commonality. By decentralizing the locus of cultural identification, and sharply limiting the scope of centralized political responsibility, both subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty attempt to provide an alternative to the homogenizing and totalizing impulses of the bureaucratic state. In the American context, this would closely resemble a robust form of federalism, in which the “unum exists for the sake of the plures,” as the late Richard John Neuhaus proposed in his Naked Public Square.

Nurturing the kind of rich, decentralized cultural life necessary to ask less of the national government, and require more of self-governing communities would require a recovery of the kind of habits of the heart Tocqueville famously identified with American character almost 200 years ago. Such a cultural and political rehabilitation might well obviate the perceived appeal of secession. Yet to allow for meaningful political representation of a genuinely diverse citizenry would also require a restraint on the part of the national political authorities that runs counter to the current centralizing trajectory of American politics. That said, the alternative may very well be increasingly insistent petitions for secession until they are not so easily dismissed.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


Thomas Naylor, Downsizing the USA (Eerdmans)

Donald Livingston (ed.), Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century,

Bill Kauffman, Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and the Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map
Althusius, Politica

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

Pope John Paul II, Centisimus Annus:

D. Jonathan White, “The Wayward Sisters: North Carolina and Rhode Island”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
21 replies to this post
  1. An excellent article to which my brief response is not exhaustive:
    1) There is a vast difference between the right of secession and the right of revolution. The Declaration of Independence defends the latter practice, not the former.
    2) The Declaration of Independence is signed by representatives of both the people and the soveriegn states, both of which together compose what Aristotle would call the politeae, the regime, the constitution understood as character of a political body rather than written document.
    3) To pit one or many states against the American people or the American people against one or many states is to act against the politeae.
    4) Revolution is an American tradition, succession is not. To be an American tradition, an action must be integral to the character or politeae of America. Yet no American sucession has ever taken place, and certainly not on the grounds of the Declaration of Indepence. Succession is an alien act instigated by people calling themselves confederates. Their "cornerstone" was not the Declaration but rather an interpretation of evolutionary biology according to which a political order ought to be built on the inferiority of the negro via the white man. This is explicitly stated by the vice President of the Confederate States of America and is at odds with the definition of American character.
    5) Aristotle's teaching regarding the size of a polity is wise, and Montesquieu wisely reasserted it in his Spirit of the Laws via its' more sutble exposition in Plato's Laws and Republic. The anti-federalists attempted to use this argument against the Constitution, but as Madison demonstrated in Federalist 9 and 10, they misunderstood it. Montesquieu did not take from Plato the notion that only small republics were possible, but rather the notion that republics were only possible where political virtue was present, and political virtue was easier to maintain in small cities. The key was virtue, not size, which was a mere method rather than an end unto itself. Another method, not at all inconsistent with polotical virtue and its condition (small size), was confederation to protect republicanism. This Montesquieu taught explicitly, and Madison repeated in a lengthy quote. The Federal Constitution was to be a remedy for the limits of republican virtue in small areas, not an abolition and consolidation of states and cities into a unitary monolith. Americans do not understand this anymore, which is no reason to make yet another constitutional blunder – sucession – but rather to reassert the constitution.
    6) The argument of the esteemed Mr. Maltzev strike me as wrong, for lack of a better term. It would not have mattered had the Soviet Union granted vast rights of self-determination to the Baltic Soviet Republics, because there never were any Baltic Soviet Republics. There were three conquered nation states living under foriegn occupation, whose intellectual and spiritual component had been systematically purged for over half a century. Hardly analgous to Virginia.

    The problem with the Soviet Union was not that it was a centralized federation that failed to respect local autonomy. The problem was that it was an ideological empire attempting to whipe out natural popular and ethnic political bodies and replace them with Soviet bodies. Gorbachev's attempt to save the Union via pierestroika was doomed to fail because there was never any Union in the first place. To even draw an analogy between the American and Soviet Unions on the basis of a flaw in size is to ignore the greater flaw in the Soviet system: that it was created by several acts of conquest. If someone would like to raise the point that the United States was, if not created, then at least preserved by an act of conquest in the case of Lincolm's actions, then I suggest they do not understand the difference between tyranny and liberty, and see only the common means employed by both when fighting for their political survival.

  2. And the United States is not an ideological empire dedicated to the proposition "that all men are created equal"? This is not the equality before the law, as intended by Jefferson.

  3. Peter Strzelecki Rieth offers up the lame argument so dear to anti-confederalists and anti-secessionists, which is that according to American political philosophy revolution is justifiable but secession (a word Mr. Rieth only manages to correctly spell once in his reply) is not. Clearly, that is a distinction without a difference. The American Revolution was both that, a revolution, AND an act of secession. Likewise, the acts of secession on the part of the Southern states that became the Confederate States of America was essentially a revolution against a flawed federal order. So the point remains, if one condemns the Confederates for their "treason" against the "Union", one must likewise condemn the Revolutionary Generation for its "treason" against the crown.

  4. I concede the point on spelling, but nothing else. To answer all points:
    America is not an ideological empire. The Declaration teaches one thing in two parts on the subject of revolution. First, that when a government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. Second that light and transcient causes are not sufficient reason for overthrowing governments long-established. Combined, these two notions give us what we may call a kind of prudent idealism. This is not ideology, for which nothing qualifies as light and transient and the ends justify all means.
    Revolition is turning the politics on its head, which is what America did by deciding the people are soveriegns over government rather than government over the people. Sucession is withdrawing from an established order to guard existing institutions said order threatened. The confederates withdrew from a Union within which slavery was on a course to ultimate extinction to preserve it as their cornerstone. They did not attempt a revolution because they were not interested in changing America (which they were free to do through elections), only in protecting slavery from change.
    Speaking of lame argument, Lincoln rightly pointed out that proponents of popular soveriegnty and later the right of secession, had no case because popular soveriegnty rests on human equality. No one can rule another without consent. How could the South claim a right to self government based on equality that it denied to the negro? Douglas's argument thus collapsed leaving only one justification for thr confederates: inequality, the superiority of the white race, which their vice President explicitly called their cornerstone. The Founders' treason was praiseworthy because they broke the civil law to restore its divine foundations. The confederate treason is blameworthy because they broke a civil law rooted in the laws of Nature and Natures' God to preserve a political evil that, while tolerable when limited could not be tolerated as the cornerstone of a regime.

  5. Very well, you concede nothing. And I maintain that your attempt to distinguish revolution and secession is, in the final analysis, a distinction without a difference. I smell Harry Jaffa and Claremont here, whose legerdemain on this issue is patently designed to obscure the fact that the colonies in fact *seceded* from the British Empire, a fact that you've yet to address.

    I've debated Claremontistas before, and as an apparent Claremontista yourself, you do not disappoint. You raise the same point raised by my former opponents: the secession of the Southern states was illegitimate as those states seceded in order to preserve the immoral institution of slavery. Forget about the fact that slavery was *legal*. Forget about the fact that, though legal, the institution was doomed, and that in all likelihood the Confederacy would have abolished itself by the turn of the century. Forget about the fact that Lincoln's *real* concern wasn't the abolition of slavery, but the preservation of the union, so he invented some wild political theory about how "the people" as a sovereign entity antedated the states, which theory was taken up and developed by said Jaffians and Claremontistas. Forget about the fact that the Declaration of Independence is *not* an egalitarian manifesto at all, but was drafted and signed by slaveholding republicans. And forget about the fact that Lincoln's assault on the Confederacy was patently *illegal*. It's amazing what you ask us to believe in light of these facts, Peter.

    I for one will have none of it, and what's more, I marvel at the blindness evinced by so-called "conservatives" in their adulation of our American Caesar. As fusionist philsopher Frank Meyer noted, "Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today." Lincoln, and later the Radical Republicans, were the engineers of the centralized state conservatives say they oppose. Conservatives of an earlier day knew this.

  6. How many more millions of unborn children have to die for Union while a few worry about legalizing human trafficking?

  7. The amount of anti-Lincoln diatribing on this site is a continual sadness to me, but I know there is no possibility of having a reasonable discussion about him. Vastly too much passion is committed to hating him, and probably too much to loving him.

    However, I don't suppose anyone would think that Lincoln put these words into Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone speech praising the Confederate constitution of 1861:

    "But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new 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."

    And did Lincoln make him say: "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 subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. "

    And: "This stone which was rejected by the first builders 'is become the chief of the corner' the real 'corner-stone' in our new edifice."

    I think the difference between secession and revolution lies in this: secession can happen whether a government has become tyrannical or not. If the UN ceases to serve our interests, we withdraw. But a revolution can only be legitimate if the ruler has proven himself a tyrant. Most of the Declaration is devoted to showing that King George has become a tyrant. The Southern states receded primarily because of the fear of what Lincoln, in spite of his protestations, might do. In spite of the fact that the Democrats still controlled the Senate in 1861. Not a proven tyranny, but one that the Southern states believed would no longer serve their interests.

  8. I am not blind to the negative effects of Lincoln's Presidency, and to the negative side effects of too much energy in the executive. The matter of FDR, I think, has more to do with Woodrow Wilson and progressivism, which itself is an extension of the Cornerstone speech's rejection of natural right in favor of evolutionary biology (read Wilson's 'New Freedom'). Slavery was indeed a legal institution, although it seems to me the Founders did everything possible to put it on a course towards peaceful extinction. That course was interrupted by the Dredd Scott decision which made slavery effectively the law of the land rather than a matter left up to the states and by the controversy surrounding the vast territories and whether they would be slave or free. Lincoln prioritized saving the Union because only the Constitution could guarantee the peaceful extinction of slavery; this is why he was not an abolitionist. He also opposed popular soveriegnty excluding black men because he was trying to build a political religion to perpetuate constitutional republicanism. The war was started by the Confederates, and it was they who decided that not popular soveriegnty, not Union, but slavery was the most important issue. It is exceeedingly poor political judgement to lament the welfare state and defend the slave state. The article praises local self rule, it could do so by way of the American tradition of Federalism and the 10th amendment. Instead it suggests that secession, not federalism, is an American tradition. Given how sensitive conservatives are to history, would it not be wise to heed history and avoid praising secession given its obvious relation to what Marx rightly called the first rebellion to put "slavery!" rather than "liberty!" on its banner? As for Dr. Jaffa, I think he and his associates have many faults, as do we all, but Lincoln scholarship is not one of them.

  9. Wow! Another reference to Stephen's "Cornerstone Speech". This is the primary hook upon which hang the arguments used to demonize the CSA. Most of the CSA leadership opposed slavery. For example, one will search in vain for statements from Lee claiming that slavery was a positive good or that it was the “cornerstone of the Confederacy.” The majority of Lee’s men were not slaveholders, including many of his officers. General A. P. Hill, a case in point, was intensely anti-slavery. When recommending General Hill for promotion on May 20, 1863, Lee wrote that Hill “is the best soldier of his grade with me.” In 1850, Hill learned that an angry mob in his hometown of Culpeper lynched a black man that was accused of killing a white man. Hill was very angry and wrote to his brother, "Shame, shame upon you all good citizens. Virginia must crawl unless you vindicate good order or discipline and hang every son of a bitch connected with the outrage.”

  10. Stephens was just expressing a widely held view among Southern political and intellectual leaders that slavery was a positive good and the proper foundation for civilization, as Calhoun had argued forcefully in the 1830's:

    "Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world."

    I believe that Alexander Stephens' speech brought down the house in Georgia, and he was well-received in Virginia as well, where he promoted the same doctrine, at conventions of the leaders of the Confederacy. Was there any backlash from popular opinion against Stephens, or political leaders who said, "We want to make clear that the Confederacy is not founded on slavery!"? I don't know, and open to any one who can present them.

  11. If we must reduce American history to a non-discussion of who "diatribes" Lincoln and who does not, or whether the Confederacy was "founded on slavery," I would suggest that we have little to talk about. Dr. Kirk, in fact, admired much about Lincoln, as have many conservatives. I am ambivalent about him, as I am about Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and many other significant leaders in the nation-state phase of our history. Lincoln's war (it was nobody else's!) resulted in the modernization of the US, and offered up a remarkable fiction, expressed so unbelievably concisely in the Gettysburg Address, that underlies much of the progressivism we have labored under ever since. The Confederate alternative, utterly conservative (as was most of the nation, by the way) was erased by bullets and not by arguments. I have no more sympathy with those who argue that the Confederacy was not about slavery than I do with those who think that Lincoln's fiction was even close to a description of the republic whose revolution he "completed." Nor do I think that proof-texting from a few speeches, however satisfying that is to all kinds of fundamentalists, advances good discussion in any way. I used to ask my students to name the war of 1861-65, and to defend the name they used. Genesis shows us the power of naming, but, absent God's permission, that power usually devolves to winners in the games of power. It at least got them to think about things bigger than the Cornerstone Speech or the Gettysburg Address.

  12. I looked up the etymology of the word, "diatribe", thinking it might bear some connection to the English word, "tribe". I found out that the English word first meant "the serious occupation of time in discourse, lecture, and debate". The modern meaning, "a bitter criticism", came into English from French in the 19th century.

    "Lincoln's war", "Lincoln's fiction", "proof-texting", "fundamentalists", all fit with the modern meaning.

    I am interested in hearing serious discourse about the claim that "it was nobody else's!" That immediately seems absurd. I suppose I could mention that Stephen Douglas completely supported Lincoln in maintaining the Union, and that Lincoln's war was fought entirely by volunteers at least through 1862. However, I am sure you have substance to back up your claim and look forward to seeing it.

  13. Mr. Seeley, you used the word "diatribing," I didn't, and now you try, sadly, to turn it back on me. Tut, tut. You are also the one who tries to proof-text (which is the essence of fundamentalism), and who claims that the Confederacy started the war (at best a specious claim), who keeps repeating the old saw about slavery being the cause of everything, and who will not explain anything that is asserted regarding your very narrow insistence that this site is filled with anti-Lincoln "diatribing," and yet you want ME to provide you with "substance." Try that tactic on someone who has not heard it a thousand times.
    And please, if you are going to disagree, tell me what you disagree with. I am always ready to discuss, if there is something to discuss. Would you argue, for example, that the Gettysburg Address was a reasonable and accurate description of what the revolutionary generation was trying to do? As I tried to say above, I am ambivalent about Lincoln.

  14. OK, fine. Who was it that called up troops to start the war? And please don't give any of our intelligent readers the old argument about Sumpter. I'm sure you've heard of the Gulf of Tonkin. It's really very simple. If Lincoln had let the Confederacy go for a while, and not pontificated about the "Union," and not given in to the ideological abolitionists, much could have been avoided. Do you think that the seceded states would have invaded the north in 1861? Or 1871? Lincoln made the decisions, nobody else did. He just thought, like so many thoughtless people, that the southerners were not all that determined. And let me go one step more. If you think that slavery was the cause of the tragedy (do you even consider it a tragedy?) then why did that particular moral issue cause a war and not the many other moral issues the republic faced and even today faces? I find it sadly amusing that many of my ideological friends consider slavery a cause for which they would be willing to sacrifice about 650,000 Americans and consider it good, and yet would recoil in horror if I suggested that they might want to attack the centers of abortion perpetrators, even though it is a much more horrific moral crisis than slavery was. We slide along, condemning the Confederacy for one of our republics sins, and ignore all others.

  15. I want to check on a few things before responding the Gulf of Tonklin comparison.

    Certainly Lincoln decided to defend the Federal properties in the Southern states even at the cost of war, and ordered the armed forces to enforce the
    Constitution. Yet, the North, including Democrats, was strongly united behind him in the beginning of the war, and even re-elected him to finish the job in 1864. If the Congress had refused to support Lincoln, or volunteers had refused to come forward, he would have quickly acquiesced (at least by resigning) in the dissolution of the Union.

    A honest (not rhetorical) question — are you simply dismissing the importance he laid on upholding his oath: "You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it.'"

    Given that no one seemed to think the war would last very long, you can't blame Lincoln for not thinking, "Are 650,000 lives worth the end of slavery?"

    I wasn't asking about whether slavery was a cause of the tragedy (I will try not resent that your question about whether I think it a tragedy — you must know people who think it was not?), but a major difference between slavery and abortion is that slavery marked out a geographically-connected region and defined a way of life peculiar to that portion of the country. This meant that the hostile acts on both sides were acts of peoples, not individuals taking justice into their own hands. If Louisiana wanted to use their militia to defend their right to outlaw abortion, I would be all for it. But I am not for vigilante justice.

  16. To your honest question: One of the reasons I am ambivalent about Lincoln is that he took such obligations seriously. But as to the "no one seemed to think the war would last very long," how long did it take any serious person to see what a horror we had unleashed? A righteous cause, of course, has no boundaries, and the righteousness on both sides never ceases to inspire and to disgust me. Let me pose another "if" history question. If most of those who think the slaughter of the unborn is justifiable happened to live in one section of the country, and those who are convinced that life is sacred at all stages lived in another, do you suppose we would remain one nation for very long? And if a separation were to occur, which side would be more likely to attack the other to impose its will? The war of 1861-65 is entirely explainable if all one does is to examine the confrontation between Charles Sumner and Prescott Brooks on the floor of the Senate or to read Lincoln's second inaugural (which I think is as bloodthirsty and blasphemous as the Battle Hymn of the Republic). it is hard to say that most leaders were not willing to sacrifice 650,000 lives for one purpose or another, unless you try to figure out why those thousands of southern farm boys were willing to walk into the withering fire from northern farm boys at Gettysburg. To me, it's a much harder question and a much deeper moral question than what Lincoln said at Gettysburg a couple of months later.

  17. Here are my attempts to address some of the points in your last two posts:

    1) I agree that the decision to defend Ft. Sumter was Lincoln’s, against many of his advisors. Yet, unlike the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Lincoln did not move the Fort into a provoking position on the borders of the South; the Fort was federal territory before secession. He did make it clear to the South that he was willing to use force to defend federal territory. The South made it clear that they would use force to expel the Union. The North made it clear that the use of force by the South was a reason for war. Calling it “Lincoln’s war” still seems more disingenuous to me than saying the Southerners fired the first shot.

    2) As a child, my mother wanted to divorce my father. My father fought tooth and nail to prevent it. I didn’t want the divorce, but I realized at the time (I was 10) that he was only making her more bitter and thought he ought to let her go if he really hoped for a reconciliation. I now realize that he could not achieve reconciliation either by letting her go or by fighting tooth and nail. She was determined to leave. Only the external force of the law could have kept their marriage together.

    I wish it had been there. On the basis of such experiences, the laws have gradually done away any hindrances to divorce. Why should anyone be forced to stay in a marriage where they are unhappy? Because, if you know you are bound together, you know you have to work things out. And it is better for the children. I think it would have been better for me. I know it would have better for my mom.

    I doubt that letting the South go would have brought about reconciliation, nor would it likely have avoided war. As long as public opinion in the North condemned slavery as a great moral evil, conflict was likely inevitable. I can think of two reasons immediately. Slaves escaping to the North, especially if they were encouraged and aided by Abolitionists, would be a continual source of tension. Have some Southerners cross into Northern territory to forcefully recapture the slaves. Then throw in some Abolitionists crossing into Confederate territory to foment the escapes, with Northern public opinion supporting and Southern opinion outraged. Second would be the secession of places like West Virginia, with their desiring admittance to the North and a North gleefully accepting them.

    3) I am sure that a sense of righteousness (I am justified in killing you because you did such and such to me) was involved in the continued commitment on both sides to kill each other. I have always admired Lincoln precisely because he didn’t say, “The bastard Southerners deserve everything they’re getting and more.” He usually said, “I understand why they are doing what they are doing; I might do the same in their situation.” I think it safe to say that his sense of righteousness did not keep him committed to the war; it was his commitment to the good he saw worth fighting for – the real, continued existence of the United States. For the most part, I have had a very blessed life in nation that he preserved. So I am grateful to him, and to all those who gave their lives and the lives of their loved ones to preserve it.

  18. In the interest of not carrying on a discussion that has for over 152 years been unresolved, let me say just two things. One, I like your analogy. The divorce problem is never to be solved as long as there is original sin. Two, Lincoln did say in the 2nd inaugural, "The Almighty has His own purposes…If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'" This could only be said by a man who would have me shot, and cast my wife and children into poverty and oblivion, if I were to disagree. And Sherman was his avenging angel.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: