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Charlottesville: The Civil War and the Lie of States Rights

Updated on November 11, 2017
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My area of expertise is bringing reason based analysis and clarity to complex issues, something sorely lacking in today's politics.

Unite the Right rally (Charlottesville, VA - August 11-12, 2017) and statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

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Synopsis

The Civil War is a part of our history that has never quite been resolved. At best, people may agree to disagree, but there is a chasm between what we know to be true and the lore many people hold on to. We need to rely on facts. We need to dismiss falsehoods and half-truths. And we need to eliminate the irrelevant noise that surrounds this contentious topic.

We're long overdue to finally settle on some fundamental truths.

The Civil War was about slavery. Period.

The formation of the Confederacy and the murder of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and US citizens was nothing short of treason.

Tell it like it is...the Civil War

For some reason, we talk about the Civil War differently than other military conflicts. The clarity of right and wrong is abandoned, language is softened, and errant observations are largely left unchecked. My intuition is we treat the Civil War differently because it's a lot easier to demonize a foreign enemy than it is a fellow American. But if we view the war like we would a foreign conflict, this softened language and these nuanced opinions quickly reveal their true nature; there was a right side and there was a wrong side and we've been lying to ourselves about an ugly part of our country's history.

Take the following and pretend it was a foreign country instead of the south. An unprovoked military attack was launched against the United States. The attack occurred on sovereign US soil. There was no direct threat by the US to the opposing side. The rationalization for waging war was to consolidate power, perceived to be under threat. Non-military resolutions were not yet exhausted.

"Remember the Maine!" "A date which will live in infamy." Is this being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but it is exponentially closer than the US was denying the south of states rights.

Just the facts...ma'am

Let's gather the facts first, evaluate what is indicated, and then draw a conclusion.

1. Lincoln's 1960 Presidential campaign platform had two policies especially relevant to the south. First, Lincoln advocated new states admitted to the US be free states. Second, Lincoln promised to support trade tariffs, intended to provide protection for the beginning stages of our country's industrialization.

2. Some of the southern states put into writing their grievances with the United States and their reasons for secession.

3. The start of the Civil War was on April 12, 1961 when 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina.

I believe these three facts to be the most material in assessing the rightness or wrongness for armed conflict. We should consider (1) whether grievances cited by the respective parties were deliberate or a natural consequence of a democracy, (2) whether genuine harm was incurred, (3) whether non-military resolutions were available, and (4) whether military force and secession was commensurate with the severity of the political conflict or an escalation of the conflict.

If I overlooked additional facts, I'd welcome the input. My bet is any rebuttal will be an iteration of commonly cited misinformation, of which I will also address.

Did Lincoln becoming President harm pro slavery states or provide valid justification for the south to secede?

The short answer? No and no.

One of the biggest contradictions in US history is the existence of both slavery and the Declaration's "...all men are created equal..."

As noted above, Lincoln's Presidential campaign platform had two very relevant positions when it comes to the Civil War.

First, Lincoln's position on slavery was that only new states admitted to the Union should be free of slavery. There were no plans to end slavery in slave owning states meaning there was no direct harm.

Which leaves the question, what would the impact be of having all new states be free states? Indirectly, slave owning states could see their legislative influence decreased by the addition of free states. For Confederate defenders, this may appear to be a safe fall back position, but there are two problems with saying the indirect effect genuinely harmed the south and provided valid justification for secession.

  • First, states admitted to the US after 1860 were overwhelmingly free states on their own and not because of Lincoln's campaign position.
  • 17 states were admitted to the United States after 1860. For 14 of those states, slave ownership was unlikely largely due to geography (Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii).
  • Second, the 3 states where slavery might have been chosen to be legal were Kansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. The slavery question was a very contentious and bloody conflict for Kansas but ultimately was settled by the voters. A pro-slavery state constitution was rejected by voters in 1858, 11,812 to 1,923. The state eventually adopted a free state constitution after a 1859 referendum vote, 10,421 votes for a free state versus 5,530 against. West Virginia was admitted to the United States as a free state and they fought on the side of the Union. Thus, two of the three states where slavery could have been chosen, were ultimately decided by the voters to be free states. So, Lincoln's position to only admit free states caused no harm, even indirectly. Lastly, the third state, Oklahoma was admitted into the US in 1907, a good 46 years after the start of the Civil War. While its geography places the state near other slave owning states, the time between secession and state admittance really removes this from harming slave owning states.
  • So, of the 17 states admitted to the US after 1860, Lincoln's position on only admitting free states would have arguably resulted in no difference whatsoever with what was going to occur, regardless.

The bottom line? Lincoln's position on admitting free states caused no direct harm to the south as it left those states untouched. It also had no indirect effect, as geography and increasing public support for free state status would have rendered the same outcome, regardless.

There was no injury to slave holding states.

Having your cake and eating it too

Much like fearing any potential reduction in legislative power from Lincoln's future free state admittance to the US, the south was no stranger to fighting an invisible war over influence. The 3/5 compromise demonstates this very clearly.

To provide context, let's look at the formation of the US Congress and the compromise that there would be two chambers in the legislative branch. The Senate would have all states represented equally, with two Senators each. The House on the other hand, would apportion Congressmen based on state populations. Small states obviously wanted to have an equal say, thus they supported the Senate. Large states, however, wanted their size and population to be recognized in the legislature giving them more influence than less populated states. The large states supported the House.

As such, a two chamber legislature was one of the first compromises in forming our government. The disagreement was irreconcilable and the only solution was to have both chambers.

This disagreement on how the legislature would be formed extended beyond just the Senate and House of Representatives. Slave owning states wanted their slave population counted in determining the number of seats each state would have in the House. Here's the "wanting to have it both ways." The south considered slaves to be property, not people. And certainly not citizens. So what is the legal basis for wanting slaves to count as part of your population if they aren't people? Or for that matter being counted as 3/5 of a person. While its true that the 3/5 compromise wasn't what the south wanted, I'd argue they should have reaped the consequences of deeming slaves property instead of people, just as they reaped the benefits of that classification, justifying slavery.

Agricultural versus industrialized economies, and tariffs

Lincoln's second campaign position on protective tariffs does actually raise an interesting topic. Prior to the Civil War, America lagged Europe in establishing robust industrial production. In very, very broad strokes, the US was an excess producer of agriculture, especially cotton. This allowed the US to export cotton and in return, import industrial and finished goods from Europe.

The challenge for an emerging economy to establish an industrial sector is the emerging economy's start up businesses have to compete with more developed competitors. Protective tariffs are often used to provide an insulated environment for the emerging economy to build a foundation before competing with advanced economies. One of the problems with tariffs is the other country often places a retaliatory tariff on your goods that they are importing in response. With the flow of cotton to Europe and finished goods to America, a tariff would make European finished goods more expensive, allowing US companies room to establish themselves. The consequence however, is Europe would have likely put a retaliatory tariff on American cotton, thereby making American cotton more expensive in Europe.

It is understandable that southern states, reliant on cotton exports, would not want a retaliatory tariff, but there are two things to consider.

  • First, Europe had no where near the capacity to produce cotton as the US did. Even with a tariff on exporting cotton, the south's economy would have still been prosperous. This would have affected the cotton market, not killed it.
  • Second, as we've seen throughout modern history, countries with a diversified economy (i.e. industrial, agricultural, technology, etc...) fare much better than countries dependent on single sectors (i.e. exporting oil). Building out industrial production and protective tariffs was in the entire country's best long term interests. The U.S. needed to establish industrial production capabilities.

At the heart of this issue is this, are we Americans first and slave states second? Or are we slave states first and Americans second? This question of self-interest versus group interest is still with us to this day. What do we prioritize the highest, conservative/liberal politics? Or is it being a New Yorker or Texan? Is it being a member of the NRA or Greenpeace? Shouldn't we be Americans first?

The South's Own Words: South Carolina and Confederate Secession

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Why is there any debate on why the south seceded?

The Civil War was about slavery. Period.

Don't believe me? Alexander Stephens, Confederate Vice President said so himself.

"Our new government was founded on slavery. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, submission to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

If being the Vice President of the Confederacy doesn't qualify someone to definitively state the cause for secession, I'm guessing you're an, "any fact that I don't like is fake news."

If their own words aren't enough for you, let me take away your fall back excuse. The Civil War was not about state's rights. At least, it wasn't about southern states having their rights infringed upon.

In "The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union," South Carolina makes the position on states rights very clear.

States must yield to federal law. Wait, what?

South Carolina's proclamation had two rationale for secession, broadly speaking. There are a total of 27 paragraphs in the proclamation. Two paragraphs are the opening remarks and 4 paragraphs are the closing remarks. Of the remaining 21 paragraphs, 11 were a convoluted argument about the spirit of the country's founding and each states constitutional obligations. And the remaining 10? They were all about how northern states treated runaway slaves.

Let me repeat. There were only 2 subject areas justifying secession. There was a poorly constructed conceptual argument about the Constitution, its ratification, and the spirit underpinning the Declaration of Independence. And there was second area solely discussing the north's treatment of runaway slaves. And that's it.

One...stinking...grievance....period...

And what exactly was South Carolina's one grievance? There were two components. One, the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act, both emanating from the power of federal government, dictated that states must return runaway slaves. Two, northern states had begun to establish their own laws on the treatment runaway slaves found within their own state boundaries.

I say again, the south's argued that federal law was the law of the land, and northern states did not have the right to establish their own laws regarding runaway slaves.

The south argued against states rights.

Surely they had a well crafted and persuasive Constitutional argument...

...and yet...no...no they did not.

Here's the logic for secession, by paragraphs.

  1. The Declaration of Independence (1776) made clear that the 13 colonies were independent states, with a full suite of powers (i.e. war, alliances, etc...)
  2. Also in Declaration of Independence, whenever any "form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government."
  3. The Articles of Confederation were adopted (1778) where a federal government would be formed to perform external operations as an agent for the US with powers designated in the Articles and all remaining powers residing with the states
  4. The British surrendered in 1783. The treaty acknowledged...
  5. Britain acknowledged the US to the 13 free and independent states
  6. Thus, two principles were established; (1) states are free and independent and (2) governments can be abolished, "...when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted."
  7. And finally, South Carolina finally recognizes the Constitution, which was ratified in 1787
  8. Once 9 states ratified the Constitution, the federal government would be formed. Any state who didn't ratify would be left out and considered its own sovereign state
  9. The US Constitution and South Carolina state Constitution reiterated the Articles of Confederation, that, "...powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States..."
  10. Continuance of paragraph 9
  11. In addition to the two principles in paragraph 6, there is a third principle; the law of compact. A compact between 2 parties requires mutual obligation and if one party fails to honor that agreement, the other is released. If there is no arbiter, each party can make their own assessment whether the compact has been broken

There are two things which make this argument absolute nonsense.

  • First, the only relevant document cited is the US Constitution meaning 6 of the 11 paragraphs are irrelevant. The Constitution is the law of the land. These are the rules that everyone agreed upon during ratification. The Articles of Confederation are 100% irrelevant as they were superseded by the Constitution
  • Second, the principles in the Declaration of Independence were misused to support a false conclusion.
  • "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..."
  • The Declaration of Independence was NOT an open ended loophole that anytime someone feels wronged, they have a right to form a new government. In fact, the Declaration and its justification for US independence from Britain went to great lengths on why independence was the absolute last and only resortleft to the colonies. To start, they listed 27 specific grievances with Britain where the colonies were directly wronged by the Crown or British legislature and judiciary. Some of the more recognizable grievances included;
    • (a) refusal for local or royal formation of laws needed for the public good either at all or at least in a timely manner
    • (b) multiple efforts were made to deny the colonists representation in legislative bodies
    • (c) colonists were subject to laws and taxes where they had no legislative representation
    • (d) colonists were deprived of fair trials and trials by peers, and
    • (e) suspension or elimination of existing laws, charters, and necessary local forms of government ignoring their legality
  • In addition to these grievances, the colonists made multiple efforts to resolve the issue within the covenants of British law.
  • Then and only then, because of the severity of 27 specific grievances. Because the appeals for resolving these grievances were ignored or conditions worsened. And because the harm often was the British acting outside of British law. Because of all of these, independence was the last and only option remaining.
  • South Carolina's declaration? They didn't like laws that free states passed regarding the treatment of runaway slaves found on free state sovereign state soil. And...yup...that's it.
  • Let's not ignore that South Carolina's conceptual argument was that a state should have the power to enact their own laws for what happens within that states boundaries. Ironically, that is exactly what the free states were doing. No one was telling South Carolina what its laws should be. So if anyone opposed states rights, it was South Carolina.

The law of compact?

This really shouldn't be overlooked, as it was the third of three three driving principles. To recap...

  1. Principle 1 - the right to abolish and form a new government. The above shows South Carolina's list of one grievance wasn't remotely comparable to the Declaration of Independence, nor were their efforts to resolve the issue through available legislative, executive, and judicial channels.
  2. Principle 2 - free and independent states. Ironically, South Carolina was arguing against this.
  3. Principle 3 - the law of compact. To quote the proclamation, "We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences."

Here's the question. Was the formation of the US, that is, each state ratifying the Constitution empowering the formation of a federal government to act as an agent for all 13 colonies for external matters, is that a collection of contracts between each and every state to one another (state A to B, A to C, and so on) or is it contract between each state and the Constitution / federal government?

This is an interesting distinction. If South Carolina was objecting to the actions of a specific free state for not returning slaves, wouldn't that mean they would be absolved only of their obligations to that other state? By this logic, for South Carolina to be absolved of its obligation to the Constitution / federal government, the federal government would have to fail to honor its obligations. These are two very different contractual obligations and the South Carolina's declaration plays it pretty fast and loose on applying this "law of compact" by citing a single state's actions but holding the Constitution / federal government accountable.

Fort Sumter

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And if you really want to get technical on what our founding documents actually said...

By ratifying the US Constitution, South Carolina made a commitment to the United States. Their actions and choice to secede were deliberate and in violation of the commitment made by the state. So let's look at the Constitution. It is, after all, what defines the government of the United States.

  • Article I, Section 10. "No State shall, without the Consent of Congress...enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay."
  • Article III, Section 3. "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

Which takes us to...

South Carolina initiating the attack on Fort Sumter and the formation of the Confederate government were acts of treason and in clear violation of the two articles above.

Let me ask you, what was the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma considered? It was considered the worst terrorist attack to take place on US soil until 9/11. What about the 2009 Fort Hood shooting?

In the very very very best possible light, Confederates were "just" domestic terrorists. The harsher truth? They were traitors who killed hundreds of thousands of US soldiers. Period.

One side always has to lose in a Democracy

Isn't it an assumed outcome that the democratic process will yield winners and losers? The legislature and President are elected officials. They are the manifestation of the will of the voters. If a democratic process is followed and change is decided upon, it's just that. Things change. The only way a change would be undemocratic is some manufactured condition, like a military coup or emergence of a dictator, acting outside of the will of the voters.

Consider this, the Constitution was ratified in 1787 and South Carolina's declaration was published in 1852, 65 years later. Losing an election and having your agenda beaten does not mean you've been wronged. It means more people disagree with you than agree with you and its very likely because you're holding on the past and are choosing to ignore societal change.

To put 65 years into context, the Civil Rights Act, ending separate but equal, was in 1964, 53 years ago. Re-evaluating slavery for newly admitted states 65 years after ratification is hardly a bait and switch.

What did supporters say they liked about Trump? He tells it like it is?

As I said at the start, softened language has no place here.

1. The Civil War was about slavery. Even the discussion about tariffs is fundamentally a discussion about slavery.

2. The murder of US soldiers and US citizens was at best, domestic terrorism, but truth be told, it was outright treason.

3. To do anything celebrating or honoring the south's secession and formation of a Confederate Government, is to celebrate and honor slavery and treason against the US. There was nothing noble in the south's actions. It is a black mark on our country, like the Trail of Tears or Japanese internment camps. It is not something to celebrate or honor.

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