In March of 1861, the United States was anything but “united.” By the time of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, 7 states, all in the Deep South – South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas – had seceded from the United States and formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America. Sectional conflicts over slavery, perceived cultural differences, and a lack of faith that the new government would faithfully enforce existing laws regarding slavery all drove them to leave the Union. It is worth mentioning that some Northerners weren’t exactly shedding any tears at the departure of those 7 states, in fact, some of them actually urged Lincoln not to make any effort to force them back in, to just let the “erring sisters go” in peace.
It was with this in mind that Lincoln would deliver his Inauguration Speech, knowing full well that his speech would be analyzed in both the North and the South for his response to the question of secession. On that cold, windy day, in front of an unfinished Capital, Lincoln responded to both Northern and Southern advocates of secession by saying that the Oath of Office, which included the lines...
“to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,”obligated him to preserve the Union, which he claimed was enshrined in the Constitution. As such, he declared that since the Oath of Office swore him to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” to the best of his ability, any breakup of the Union under his watch would not be tolerated. The Union, ever since the States had agreed to ratify and accept the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land (the Supremacy Clause), is perpetual. As Lincoln stated in his speech,
"In contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual."Throughout his speech, he claimed that when the Founding Fathers established the Constitution and sent it out for ratification, they enshrined within it the right to change the government peacefully through the ballot box, but they did not proved a right to walk away from it. They did this “in order to form a more perfect Union,” in which all states would be investing in the success and well being of the nation as a whole, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
The prospect itself of secession would potentially make the operation of a free government impossible, because the government, and the nation at large, would be held hostage to the demands of a bitter, determined minority. Think of it this way: if a minority could secede every time it disapproved of the outcome of the vote of the majority, the result would be a swift descent into anarchy. There would still be checks on the power of the majority, but secession would not be one of them. To give the minority a permanent veto over the majority, such as the prospect of secession, would be negating self-government completely. And although the founders established a perpetual Union, they also provided for a government that would be of the people, by the people, and for the people – for all the people. Participation in, and engagement with the government, not withdrawal from it (such as secession) is the cornerstone of American Democracy.
If states wanted to ensure whatever rights they had left after they ratified the Constitution and joined the Union were respected, they could look no further than the Constitution itself – Federalism and the 10th Amendment. The 10th Amendment itself states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Here, Lincoln claimed, was all the protection those states needed, and thus, why they needed to stay in the Union, because even if Lincoln wanted to do something about slavery in those states, he couldn’t because of the 10th Amendment. Other obstacles, such as laws and U.S. Supreme Court Precedent (think Dred Scott) also stood in his way. Besides, the Ballot Box always stood at the ready for Southerners to make their voice heard. Secession, in essence, was unneeded.
The South major’s arguments to secede from the Union were the pretext of State’s Rights, and earlier movements in American History that although didn’t directly point to secession, that ultimately went in that direction. Coupled together, the South believed that they had a compelling argument for Secession. First and foremost was their belief in that they simply following in footsteps of those who fought in the American Revolution – they were breaking away from a government that they deemed to be oppressive and unresponsive to their needs. They pointed to the Declaration of Independence, which stated...
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The South viewed the North’s refusal to enforce existing pro-slavery laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act, or abide by Supreme Court Decisions such as Dred Scott, as representative of the oppression directed against them and their way of life. They also resented the tariff, which in their view was just there to protect moneyed Northern Industrial interests, and Lincoln’s refusal to permit the expansion of slavery further West, as a violation and destructive to their rights to property (slaves), and closer to despotism then democracy.
However, they also argued that in their view, the Constitution was merely a compact between the States to unite for the common good and defense, and that at time the compact could be broken if the common good was not provided for. In the South’s point of the view, the federal government established for in the Constitution was, not providing for the common good for them, with all the “unfair” anti-slavery agitation directed towards them from the North. The Federal Government, in not permitting the unrestricted expansion of slavery to the Western territories and only half-heartedly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, was not upholding it’s side of the compact. Thus, when the Federal government does not “faithfully” uphold the compact that led to its creation in the first place, the States have the right to dissolve it by secession. In the South’s view, that is exactly what they were doing – enforcing the compact by seceding when the Federal Government failed to provide for them.
However, this was not the first time that the South, or any state, for that matter threatened to defy the Federal Government. The theory of Nullification, or that of the power of state to declare an act of the Federal Government null and void within it’s borders as unconstitutional, was also used by secessionists. South Carolina, who started the whole secessionist trend, was also a pioneer of Nullification in the 1820’s in the fight against the Tariff of 1828, which imposed a high duty on manufactured goods entering the United States. This was the first tariff explicitly passed to protect the developing industry in the United States, as well as providing funds for internal improvements. Southern opponents of the tariff called it the Tariff of Abominations, for it’s perceived detrimental effects on the Southern economy, which relied mainly on imports for most of it’s manufactured goods. Although Congress lowered it slightly in 1832, South Carolina was still not satisfied, and led by John C. Calhoun (who just happened to be Vice President at the time) published the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, which argued out the theory of Nullification. However, it also spelled out the theory of secession, with Calhoun saying that if worse comes to worse, South Carolina, as a last resort, could secede in order to protect the “liberty and sovereignty” of said state.
I disagree with the prospect that if secession on demand is unacceptable, a Union at all costs is also a “troublesome idea.” First off, a Union at all costs is what the respective states, in ratifying the Constitution before gaining admission to the country, agreed to. The preamble says it all –
“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”In order to provide for the “common defense” and “promote the general welfare,” the States must stay together, in a country, United. To have them potentially secede at will, as Lincoln expounded upon in his inaugural address, would create chaos and a descent to anarchy. If the states, or the people, aren’t satisfied with the way the federal government is treating them, there are several remedies besides ending the Union to gain attention to their problems, either in the Courts or most notably, in the ballot box. If one wants to cause change, one must participate, not withdraw via secession. A Union at all costs is actually, a perpetual Union enshrined within the Constitution, one that provides liberty and justice for all – if, to use Ben Franklin’s words, people can keep it. As Lincoln stated in his address,
“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”
No successful government ever provided for a clause for it’s own termination, thus implying that a Union at all costs it is, for those who signed up for it, for those who now partake in it, for those who now depend on it. A Union at all costs is a small price to stability and peace, in order to provide “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to all it’s citizens.