Thursday, April 28, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2005: April 29 "Liberal" neo-Confederatism?

Here's a weird sketch of the idea of secession that basically defends neo-Confederate arguments, but puts them in a supposedly liberal context, in today's terms: Long Live Secession! by Christopher Ketcham Salon 01/23/05.  Probably a better link:

I'm not sure if Salon got snookered on this one and didn't realize the writer was making a neo-Confederate analysis in disguise, or whether the writer really is this confused.  In any case, it's the neo-Confederate case, whatever other labels you put on it.

What you will not hear is that secessionism is as old as the states themselves, that it was not always a reviled idea, that it cleaves to the heart of a celebrated but perhaps outmoded American principle -- the rebellion against centralized power -- and that it is a founding American act enshrined in our most revolutionary document. "[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive," counsels the Declaration of Independence, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

Although secessionism today is politically impossible, if tenuously legal, the secession specter has arisen again, waking to the Declaration's call to self-governance. In 2005, it is the blue-state Northerners, bitter from the defeat of Nov. 2, who are, ironically, wearing its robes.

If this article was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it disguised itself very well.  I think the writer was at least intending to be serious.

How can anyone write such drivel about secession?  No, the right of secession is not in the Declaration of Independence.  The natural right of revolution is in the Declaration of Independence.  And, no, secession is not "tenuously legal," it's not the least tiny bit legal.  The Civil War settled that one definitively.

If someone wants to comma-dance on this one, a state could secede if a Constitutional Amendment was approved to allow it.  Secession is not an option at all under the US Constitution without an Amendment.  The article is largely based on an interview with an apparently eccentric former Mississippian, Thomas Naylor, who made a bundle of money with a software company and now lives in Vermont and talks like a secessionist with liberal-to-leftwing ideas.

If the dark comparison holds -- the United States, according to Naylor, enjoys a similar far-flung geography, a one-party political system disguised in multiparty rhetoric, a corporate socialism that defies free markets, and a congressional incumbency as stable as the Politburo -- then Vermont is the antidote. By this, Naylor means the Vermont of small towns, small farms, small businesses, local governance, grass-roots democracy, green activism: Vermont as the gentle Switzerland of North America (but armed to the teeth, as Vermonters enjoy hunting in the woods).

The push for the Second Vermont Republic is no anomaly. Today there are secession movements afoot in Hawaii and Alaska, both complaining, with some validity, that fraud and coercion forced their entrance into the union. In New York, activist and author Jason Flores-Williams, lately best known for his disruptions at the Republican National Convention, plans a New York City secession movement "as much Andy Warhol as it is Tom Paine," he says, predicting his "secession parties" will become "the most happening cultural events in NYC, events that echo up and down the hierarchy."

Good grief!  I can enjoy a little eccentric political goofing-around now and then.  But these people are seriously "unclear on the concept."

The following is an argument that would give any good Jacksonian fits:

The Constitution is silent on the matter of secession -- neither denying nor authorizing -- and up until the Civil War, the silence was the object of tortured interpretation. It was axiomatic among many antebellum constitutional scholars, both North and South, that if the states were once sovereign entities that had acceded to joining the union, then they implicitly retained the right to rescind the treaty and withdraw. In essence, it was argued, the Constitution's silence implied consent to the right of secession.

Uh, no.  This is John C. Calhoun secessionist philosophy straight-up.  And it was certainly not "axiomatic" for legal scholars North and South.  And he apparently swallows Calhoun's phony definition of sovereignty whole.  For most people, sovereignty was and is understood as meaning that a government had a legitimate right to act as a government in its field of authority.  The federal govenment is sovereign in the United States, the state governments are sovereign within the states.  Calhoun elevated sovereignty to be synonomous with final sovereignty and built his secessionist arguments on that.  This Calhounian doctrine was eventually incorporated into Confederate secessionist doctrine.

Andy Jackson had a different concept.

Secession was taught at West Point to young cadets like Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant. Petulant states in the formative years of the republic habitually threatened it, with Yankees, and abolitionists especially, showing an early fondness for cutting loose from a union that increasingly catered to Southern slaveholder interests. In 1804, lawmakers in New England and New York plotted a failed secession movement, and eight years later, during the War of 1812, the threat to New England's trade with English Canada was enough to prompt a second and wider Northeastern cry for departure, resulting in the official complaint of the Hartford Convention of 1815.

This is such a collection of half-baked arguments that I'll just mention the last one.  The Hartfort Convention was pretty much the nail in the coffin of the Federalist Party.  Because of the extreme pro-British and secessionist talk in connection with it, the Party was viewed as accomodating treason.  It was destroyed as a national party in no small part because the country rejected the notions of the Hartford Convention.

Ketcham writes:

We might take a moment to consider the maverick history -- some call it the real history, others denounce it as a blasphemic, spiteful revision -- that places Lincoln as the first of the imperial presidents, an opportunist who in service of a vast expansion of federal power twisted the law in the name of what neoconservatives (who happen to be Lincoln lovers all) call moral clarity.

Actually, the best thing to call it is Lost Cause hokum.

In the next paragraph, he quotes from Thomas DiLorenzo, a favorite author of the neo-Confederate crowd at sites like  And most of the last half of the article is a rehash of stock Confederate-apologist standards.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I don't know whether Ketchum is trying to make a liberal argument using neo-Confederate dogma, or if he's trying to pass off neo-Confederate nonsense as "liberal," or if he's just really confused.

But the secessionist philosophy wasn't "liberal" in the days of Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun.  And its not "liberal" or even "left" in the era of John Kerry and George W. Bush.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

[12/28/05: See this post by Edward Sebesta for more on Naylor: Vermont Secession, Thomas Naylor ... Anti-Neo-Confederate blog 12/28/05.]


amkpantera said...

"To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation."  

That pretty much sums up my opinion as well on this matter.  And this also applies to cities (why are they trying to take my NYC out of the Union? I wonder) as well as states?

purcellneil said...

I am not sure about secession.  

The United States was formed by a negotiated agreement among the states.  There was no provision for any state to withdraw from the Union; however, the Constitution did not dissolve the states, and treated them as very significant entities in the allocation of government powers.  In looking back today, we are influenced greatly by the growth in the size and scope of our federal government (ironically enough, a growth that took off during the Civil War).

The question has since been settled by force of arms, if not by any compelling legal argument, but seen from the perspective of the 1850's I think the question is not so easily dismissed.  As you point out, extremists on both sides of the slavery issue thought secession a valid option for their states at one time or another.  

Today, in view of the nature of our modern nation and complex union, I believe that secession is not an option to be unilaterally chosen by a state government.  It seems to me that such an action today would indeed be treason.

But in 1861?  I think the arguments on both sides are not unreasonable.  I am not sure that the states that wished to secede should have been prevented by force from doing so.  

Whether secession was legal or not, if Northeners had known the ultimate cost of the war that followed, would they have tried to stop the Southern states from leaving the Union?  Was the Civil War worth it?

Lincoln believed that the Union had to be preserved in order to preserve the last best hope of man for freedom and self-government and the attainment of the promises of life. liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Maybe he was right, but if I had known the incredible cost in blood, I might have voted to let the South leave in peace.

Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


bmiller224 said...


Secession in 1860-61 was not a question that can be dealt with in the abstract.  It took place in very particular circumstances.  The notion that the Southern states just wanted to leave in peace is not consistent with their own actions or with the practical logic of the situation.

This might be a good thing to take up in a 2006 Confederate "Heritage" Month series.  Here I'll just give a version short enough for the Comments section.  (Well, two Comments entries, anyway.)

But in the 1850s, the South had insisted on the use of federal power to compel even antislavery to join slave patrols to return human property to its owners by means of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  If the US became a separate country from the CSA, the free states of the US would have not been compelled to return fugitive slaves, and the Slave Power would have had to demand the right to send armed patrols into the separate nation of the US to recover fugitive slaves.  In addition, the Mississippi River was an absolutely critical route of commerce for the Midwest.  Control of the Mississippi would have given the CSA a powerful weapons to compel Midwestern states to leave the Union.

The Confederacy's military strategy was also an aggressive one of attacking on enemy territory.  And in the times they seized Northern territory, they also seized blacks to be sold into slavery.

By 1860, slavery had become an all-or-nothing proposition.  It's a "what if" of history, and those are always tricky.  But the idea of a free US long existing side-by-side with a slave CSA is hard to conceive.  At best, the US would have been reduced to a minor, rump nation alongside the CSA, one much smaller than the Union of states that fought the war. (cont)

bmiller224 said...

(cont. from last post)

American nationalism is a subject that would be hard to discuss without working through concepts like Lincoln's famous "mystic chords of memory."

For the vast majority of Americans, there was more that should have bound them together than should have made them separate nations.  In the end as in the beginning, the war was not really about sectional "character" or an abstract right of secession.  It was whether the whole United States would continue to develop democracy or recede into the backwaters of history as a slave republic.

The reason Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has proved of such enduring appeal is that it is a brief but brilliant enunciation of democratic American nationalism. - Bruce

statesovereignty said...

Here the writer states that "secession is not "tenuously legal," it's not the least tiny bit legal.  The Civil War settled that one definitively."

Excuse me, but how does the use of of force by government, "settle" the LEGALITY of that use of force? Last I checked, the law only considers the original intent of the written law; even Lincoln stated, in authorizing the use of force to prohibit secession, that "the intent of the lawgiver, is the law." By doing so, he thus bound himself to such intent.

Are you seriously suggesting, that abuses of power by government, are legally self-justifying? If a police officer shoots an innocent person and claims self-defense, is this "settled" since the person is dead?

I'm afraid this is a monstrous, Machiavellian concept, which is wholly unacceptable in a society which pretends to carry the title of "free--" but which yields to totalitarian suppression regarding the purported meaning of the laws.
On the contrary, if secession was legal prior to the Civil War, then it's legal now; it's unfathomable to imagine that the state-- which is charged with upholding the law-- can change the law, by VIOLATING it-- at least while CLAIMING to uphold it. This stands logic and reason on its head, implying that the state-- i.e. the union-- can do no wrong... regardless of any contradictions or atrocities it commits in defiance of recognized agreements or rights.


bmiller224 said...

To "statesovereignty": You're posing questions on such a high level of abstraction (or obscurity) that any answer would be pretty much meaningless.

As far as the case of America and American Constitutional law, it is indeed a settled question: no state can secede from the Union on its own accord.  A Constitutional amendment would be required to do such a thing legally. - Bruce