Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A former AOL-J'er blogs about Civil War history

Some AOL-J'ers may have been wondering what happened to FDTate (Duane Tate) of the Progressive Musings blog, whose postings mysteriously ceased in July.  Well, he hasn't been sent to Guantanamo.  (Yet.)  And he's blogging now at two different locations at Blogspot:  Sotto Voce USA is his new political blog, and Civil War Meanderings is his blog about, well, the Civil War.

In his 12/28/04 post on Secession, the familiar name of Andrew Jackson jumped out at me.  He discusses some of the issues about the secession of states from the United States that Gary Wills raises in his book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999).  I haven't read Wills' book.  But I was intrigued seeing some of the observations that Duane summarizes from it, mostly in his own words rather than by direct quotes.

For instance, this is an important point:

There are some who would argue that the Civil War was not about slavery, but was about freedom from an oppressive federal government. Given the choice between freedom and slavery, Southerners chose slavery.

This is exactly the argument that the post-Civil War Lost Cause ideology made about secession being about states rights, opposing the oppressive federal government.  It became a favorite of Southern conservatives up to this day.  It's recently had a rise in its political "stock" as the Republican Party seeks to pander to the neo-Confederates, e.g., Mississippi current Republican Governor Haley Barbour (former head of the national Party) and his willingness to have to extremist/neo-Confederate White Citizens Council group openly support him in last year's election.

But as that quote observes, the choice that (white) Southerners made was a choice for the institution of slavery.  And, while I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that antebellum Southern whites should be primarily seen as victims, Duane rightly points out how severely freedom for whites was restricted in the slave states:

Loss ofslavery had become unthinkable to the South to the point that any arguments for that loss were forbidden. "Gag laws" forbidding printing and distribution of anti-slavery materials took away freedom from whites. The South even gagged the federal government by blocking the Senate's reception of constituents' petitions to abolish slavery -- a violation of the constitutional protections of free speech, the right to petition, and the right of free debate in Congress. Between 1830 and 1860, there were 300 Southern lynchings of whites suspected of abolitionist sympathies. Others were whipped, tarred-and-feathered, and/or driven out of town.

I should note that Andrew Jackson as president made a conscious decision to look away as Southern postmasters illegally destroyed suspected abolitionist material being conveyed through the mail.

Wills' book apparently contains a good analysis of the governmental problems of the Confederacy, many of which were severely complicated by the "states rights" ideology included in their constitution.

Antebellum debates over secession

The "Secession" post has a summary of Lincoln's arguments in his first inaugural address against secession, which was by then all but an accomplished fact.  And he mentions some of the varied discussions of secession as a possibility prior to the Civil War, and not just by slavery defenders.

I would add a couple of considerations here.  Wills apparently makes a distinction between a "mystical" position in favor of the Union and against secession, as opposed to a "legal" position.  I'm not sure that's a very helpful way to see it.  The political positions represented by the various proponents of the right of secession over the years is more critical to understand what developed.

The most famous early arguments tending toward secession were those made by Jefferson and Madison in the famous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-99.  The defenders of the Slave Power would later refer to those as precedents for their own threats to seceed over slavery.  But nothing could have been farther from the intent of Jefferson and Madison, who proposed in those resolutions to use state authority to interfere with the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts passed under the first Adams administration.

The political aim of those resolutions was to defend freedom of speech and the press.  As the quotation above reminds us, the slave states in the years leading up to secession were as militant as any s1upporters of the Alien and Sedition Acts in trying to suppress freedom of speech and the press among even white Southern citizens.  And Jefferson's career and political thought can't be understood without taking into account his hatred of the institution of slavery and his efforts to end it.

But I also wouldn't want to imply that Jefferson's view of the Union was the same as Jackson's or Lincoln's.  It wasn't.  In the later years of life, Jefferson expressed concern that the Compromise of 1820 set a dangerous precedent by restricting the rights of states too much.  In fact, it was an important victory for slavery and the Slave Power, one of many to come.

The secession rumblings in New England during the War of 1812 involved what was essentially a traitorous movement of wealthy Federalists who sympathized with Britain.  John Quincy Adams left the Federalist Party and joined Jefferson's Republicans (today's Democratic Party) because of the Federalists' stand on the war.  It was public outrage over the Federalists' actions during that war that effectively destroyed the Federalist Party, though its national presence survived for a while in the form of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster.

I always try to keep the political content of these secession ideas in mind, because its a trick of neo-Confederate pseudohistory and Lost Cause ideology to talk about them in an abstract, legalistic way apart from their politics and historical context.

The Calhounian notion of sovereignty

John C. Calhoun was the slave states' leading theorist of "states rights," which the Confederate states asserted in seceeding from the Union.  He is often mentioned as one of the greatest and most original American political theorists.  I think the mainstream view considerably overrates him in that regard.  He was a formidable political strategist, which led historian Richard Hofstadter to describe him as "the Karl Marx of the master class."  But the only real point in his political theory was a defense of slavery.  All the rest was basically fluff.

But Calhoun's idea of state sovereignty cast a long shadow.  From Duane's summary, it appears that Gary Wills may have been standing partiallyin its shadow:

Southerners believed then (and many believe even now)that states are sovereign entities that have the right of secession, and that secession failed only because Lincoln had a mystical (not a legal) attachment to the Union and the physical means to prevent it.

Prior to Calhoun, the notion of "sovereignty" means what it still means in the general usage today: the legitimate power of a government to make laws and enforce them within the range of its authority.  A state is a sovereign entity, and the federal government is a sovereign entity; in matters where their authorities overlap, as they often do, the federal power overrides the state's.

Calhoun interpreted "sovereignty" to mean solely ultimate state authority.  In other words, if a state was "sovereign," it could always overrule the federal government.  If the federal government had the authority to overrule the state on any matter, that meant that the state was not sovereign at all.  It was a quirky innovation of Calhoun's, and it survived in the postwar period among the hardcore advocates of states rights.

Calhoun was the moving spirit behind South Carolina's attempt at "nullification," thus incurring the lasting displeasure of President Jackson.

But Calhoun's ideas of states rights weren't much in favor among slavery advocates in the 1950s, the years immediately preceding secession.  The defenders of slavery scarcely hesitated to use national power to override that of the states when defending slavery was the issue at hand.  The very controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was an imposition of federal power over the states at the insistence of the Southern champions of slavery.

After Lincoln was elected, the Slave Power saw new value in the old states rights arguments.

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