Why the South Was Wrong on State Rights and the Role of the Federal Government
I have been enjoying Allen Guelzo’s new book Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012).
The book’s description gives a nice overview of its distinctiveness: “In Fateful Lightning, two-time Lincoln Prize-winning historian Allen C. Guelzo offers a marvelous portrait of the Civil War and its era, covering not only the major figures and epic battles, but also politics, religion, gender, race, diplomacy, and technology. And unlike other surveys of the Civil War era, it extends the reader’s vista to include the postwar Reconstruction period and discusses the modern-day legacy of the Civil War in American literature and popular culture. Guelzo also puts the conflict in a global perspective, underscoring Americans’ acute sense of the vulnerability of their republic in a world of monarchies. He examines the strategy, the tactics, and especially the logistics of the Civil War and brings the most recent historical thinking to bear on emancipation, the presidency and the war powers, the blockade and international law, and the role of intellectuals, North and South.”
Here was an interesting exchange from their conversation on whether or not the South or the North had better arguments (apart from slavery) regarding the relationship between state rights and federalism.
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Mohler: Who had the better argument in that particular debate? Not in terms of what the preferred outcome might have been in terms of the war and its aftermath, but just in terms of the argument about the essence of the American system of a republican government going back to the early nineteenth century into the early constitutional era. Did the Southerners have the better argument or did the North?
Guelzo: I don’t think the southerners did. I think that the American union as a federation of states was intended to be equipoise between entirely sovereign entities and an entirely centralized homogenous government. The idea being that the states were one more example of a system of checks and balances that were worked into the constitution. A check and a balance is supposed to be existing in relationship with another entity, which in this case was to be the federal government. It was not supposed to be something that led to the very destruction and break-up of the government, and I think that is illustrated in a number of ways in the constitution itself.
One is that the constitution contains no reversion clause. There is no description within the constitution about what to do in case of disaster, catastrophe, or flood or something else. There is no little glass to break marked, “Secession: This is how you terminate the constitution.” It is just not there.
The other thing that is in the very warp and woof of the constitution is the way that the powers of the states are described with relationship to the federal government in Article 1, Section 10, in which the states, the constitution makes very clear, do not have the power to coin money, the power to keep permanent standing armies and navies, to conduct diplomatic relations. By the time you get down to the end of that list, we are not talking about the kind of sovereignty residing in the states, that is the same kind of sovereignty that an independent country has where a member of an existing state has, coming into a federation with others. It was a very different kind of federation than let’s say, the European Union today.
Now, beyond that, there are at least two other considerations that mitigate against the southerner’s argument.
One is the fact that the federal government itself, while it was composed in 1787 of representatives of various states, most of the states that were in existence at the time of the Civil War, had in fact been creations of the federal government. In other words, they were the states carved out of western territories that had been acquired by the United States. Those states didn’t have a prior independent existence, so to claim that they had in fact a level of sovereignty that permitted them to become independent was really begging most of the question that was involved in the secession.
Then the other thing was the practical sense that, suppose the southerners did secede. Where would they go exactly? There would still be southerners looking across the Ohio River at northerners or across the Potomac River, and what would be the result of that? Well, they would beggar each other through trade wars, and up and down the Mississippi, there would be trade wars even more violent. If that was the case, then why? Why secede at all? Because you would only be making yourself poorer in the process. There was no practical way that southerners could simply take their bat and ball and go someplace else.