Wars have been fought over land or honor. Wars have been fought over soccer in the case of the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador in or even the shooting of a pig in the case of the fighting between the United States and Britain in the San Juan Islands in But the Civil War was largely fought over equally compelling interpretations of the U.
Which side was the Constitution on? The interpretative debate—and ultimately the war—turned on the intent of the framers of the Constitution and the meaning of a single word: sovereignty—which does not actually appear anywhere in the text of the Constitution.
Southern leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis argued that the Constitution was essentially a contract between sovereign states—with the contracting parties retaining the inherent authority to withdraw from the agreement. Northern leaders like Abraham Lincoln insisted the Constitution was neither a contract nor an agreement between sovereign states. It was an agreement with the people, and once a state enters the Union, it cannot leave the Union. It is a touchstone of American constitutional law that this is a nation based on federalism—the union of states, which retain all rights not expressly given to the federal government.
Supporting the later view of Lincoln, the perpetuality of the Union was referenced during the Confederation period. His legal case was saved by an 18th-century bait-and-switch. A convention was called in to amend the Articles of Confederation, but several delegates eventually concluded that a new political structure—a federation—was needed.
As they debated what would become the Constitution, the status of the states was a primary concern. The new government forged in Philadelphia would have clear lines of authority for the federal system. The premise of the Constitution, however, was that states would still hold all rights not expressly given to the federal government. In the U. But did Lincoln win by force of arms or force of argument? Calhoun, the powerful South Carolina senator who had long viewed the states as independent sovereign entities.
His election was used as a rallying cry for secession, and he became the head of a country that was falling apart even as he raised his hand to take the oath of office. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it.
One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable [internal] attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion—that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.
Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war—teaching all, the folly of being the beginners of a war. Lincoln implicitly rejected the view of his predecessor, James Buchanan. Buchanan agreed that secession was not allowed under the Constitution, but he also believed the national government could not use force to keep a state in the Union. Notably, however, it was Buchanan who sent troops to protect Fort Sumter six days after South Carolina seceded.
The subsequent seizure of Fort Sumter by rebels would push Lincoln on April 14, , to call for 75, volunteers to restore the Southern states to the Union—a decisive move to war. Lincoln showed his gift as a litigator in the July 4th address, though it should be noted that his scruples did not stop him from clearly violating the Constitution when he suspended habeas corpus in and His argument also rejects the suggestion of people like Calhoun that, if states can change the Constitution under Article V by democratic vote, they can agree to a state leaving the Union.
The South did in fact secede because it was unwilling to accept decisions by a majority in Congress. Moreover, the critical passage of the Constitution may be more important than the status of the states when independence was declared. After the Constitution was ratified, a new government was formed by the consent of the states that clearly established a single national government. While, as Lincoln noted, the states possessed powers not expressly given to the federal government, the federal government had sole power over the defense of its territory and maintenance of the Union.
Instead a faction of radical secessionists called " fire-eaters " manipulated this situation towards their end of leaving the Union. They did so playing on fears of a slave insurrection and the other points listed above, but by winning the political debate they triggered a premature and irrevocable decision. For the Southern elite, seceding in December was akin to a football team walking off of the field because they were behind in the second quarter.
Speculating on alternative history is always problematic, but I believe that it's useful in this case for the purposes of showing just how bad of an idea secession really was for the South in Below are four scenarios that might have occurred had South Carolina and by extension the rest of the eventual Confederacy held tight after Lincoln's election and not withdrawn from the Union.
At a high level the alternatives I outline are as follows: The Democrats regain control of the federal government in or A substantial slave insurrection takes hold somewhere in the Deep South. The Republicans propose an abolition amendment at some point after , but while the nation is still united. Slavery survives until cotton becomes an untenable cash crop, around Now let us examine these in more detail.
The Democrats regain control of the federal government in or Most of Lincoln's agenda would have been thwarted with a strong Democratic opposition. It is unclear whether he could have forced a resolution on the end of slavery in the Western territories. Federal support of the First Transcontinental Railroad would have been obstructed, slowing the development of the West. The increase in tariffs that assisted Northern manufacturers would also not have been possible.
Finally, it's unlikely that any progress towards the abolition of slavery would have been made in the s. Faced with these problems it's conceivable that the Republicans could have been the Party to split into two factions in , strange as that idea may sound.
There were two very distinct groups within the Party during this era. A moderate wing which was mostly concerned with protectionism, a transcontinental railroad, homesteading, and industrial issues. This group wanted the West to be free so that they and not the Southern planters could prosper from it. Ending slavery in the South itself was not a great concern. Lincoln was more from this wing of the party as of An abolitionist wing which obviously placed the greatest emphasis on ending slavery.
While this group also shared many of the economic concerns, they were driven at heart by abolitionism. Perhaps some legal arrangement would have been worked out granting the South more autonomy within the U.
At the first sign of such overtures, the abolitionists might have withdrawn from the Republicans and formed a new Liberty Party. All of this is speculation, but there is no guarantee that the Republican coalition would have remained stable through the s. Perhaps Stephen A. Douglas would not have caught typhoid in and instead been the standard-bearer.
A Democratic victory in either of those elections would have chastened the abolitionist wing for at least a few years, and the slavery issue might have been suppressed in national conversation until the late s or s. Scenario 3 below will examine this "alternative" late 19th century in more detail. The radical wing descendants of the abolitionists wanted to keep the focus on civil rights for the freedmen.
Eventually the radicals were defeated. This was without a doubt the nightmare scenario for the planter class, and one that was brought to the forefront by John Brown's abortive coup in The confederation government was administered de facto by the Congress under the provisions of the approved final draft of the Articles until they achieved ratification—and de jure status—in early In delegates of five states the Annapolis Convention called for a convention of delegates in Philadelphia to amend the Articles—which would require unanimous consent of the thirteen states.
The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention convened and deliberated from May to September Instead of pursuing their official charge they returned a draft new Constitution , proposed for constructing and administering a new federal—later also known as "national"—government.
They further proposed that the draft Constitution not be submitted to the Congress where it would require unanimous approval of the states ; instead that it be presented directly to the states for ratification in special ratification conventions, and that approval by a minimum of nine state conventions would suffice to adopt the new Constitution and initiate the new federal government; and that only those states ratifying the Constitution would be included in the new government.
For a time, eleven of the original states operated under the Constitution without two non-ratifying states, Rhode Island and North Carolina. In effect, the delegates proposed to abandon and replace the Articles of Confederation rather than amend them. Necessity then, rather than legality, was the practical factor in abandoning the Articles. James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York—they who joined together to vigorously promote a new Constitution—urged that renewed stability of the Union government was critically needed to protect property and commerce.
Both founders were strong advocates for a more powerful central government; they published The Federalist Papers to advocate their cause and became known as the federalists. Because of his powerful advocacy Madison was later accorded the honorific "Father of the Constitution".
There was buzz as well that some states planned to abandon the American Union and form a regional confederacy. America, it was said, would go the way of Europe, and ultimately three or four, or more confederacies would spring up. Not only would these confederations be capable of taking steps that were beyond the ability of Congress under the articles, but in private some portrayed such a step in a positive light, in as much as the regional union could adopt constitutions that secured property rights and maintained order.
This as opposed to a consolidated union that "totally annihilated, without any power of revival" the sovereign states. Emerich de Vattel , a recognized authority on international law, wrote at the time that "Treaties contain promises that are perfect and reciprocal. If one of the allies fails in his engagements, the other may George Tucker , a jurist in the early republic era, wrote in And since the seceding states, by establishing a new constitution and form of federal government among themselves, without the consent of the rest, have shown that they consider the right to do so whenever the occasion may, in their opinion require it, we may infer that the right has not been diminished by any new compact which they may since have entered into, since none could be more solemn or explicit than the first, nor more binding upon the contracting partie[s].
Writing in , exactly midway between the fall of the Articles of Confederation and the rise of a second self-described American Confederacy, [Chief Justice John] Marshall summarized the issue nicely: "Reference has been made to the political situation of these states, anterior to [the Constitution's] formation.
It has been said that they were sovereign, were completely independent, and were connected with each other only by a league. This is true. But, when these allied sovereigns converted their league into a government, when they converted their congress of ambassadors, deputed to deliberate on their common concerns, and to recommend measures of general utility, into a legislature, empowered to enact laws on the most interesting subjects, the whole character in which the states appear underwent a change.
Historian Kenneth Stampp explains their view: Lacking an explicit clause in the Constitution with which to establish the Union's perpetuity, the nationalists made their case, first, with a unique interpretation of the history of the country prior to the Philadelphia Convention; second, with inferences drawn from certain passages of the Constitution; and third, with careful selections from the speeches and writings of the Founding Fathers.
The historical case begins with the postulate that the Union is older than the states. It quotes the reference in the Declaration of Independence to "these united colonies", contends that the Second Continental Congress actually called the states into being [i. It may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards and make it more accessible to a general audience. Please discuss this issue on the talk page. February Learn how and when to remove this template message Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar argues that the permanence of the Union of the states changed significantly when the U.
Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. This action "signaled its decisive break with the Articles' regime of state sovereignty". The new text proposed a fundamentally different legal framework. He gave his strong voice to the anti-federalist cause in opposition to the federalists led by Madison and Hamilton. Questioning the nature of the proposed new federal government, Henry asked: The fate Have they made a proposal of a compact between the states?
Confederate leaders at this early date thought that the North would not fight to preserve the Union. But the provisional government nevertheless began purchasing arms and munitions, and seceded states started to equip and train their militias.
State and Confederate government authorities seized federal forts, arsenals, and other national property within their jurisdiction. Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.
Lincoln himself in his inaugural address pledged only to hold federal property that was in the possession of the Union on March 4, The provisional Confederacy likewise sought vigorously to stimulate secession sentiment in the border states.
Had all the border slave states thrown in their lot with one or the other government, there might not have been a war, or conversely, separation might well have become an accomplished fact. As it was, however, the prompt action of the Lincoln administration after the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter secured Maryland and Delaware for the Union.
Kentucky proclaimed its neutrality but eventually remained loyal to the Union. Once the war was joined, waves of patriotic sentiment swept over North and South. Vocal political opposition would exist on both sides, but it was never strong enough to overthrow either government.
Secession as revolution, an early theme in southern rhetoric, was not emphasized after the formation of the Confederacy. A nation could not have been formed, nor a war fought, if the states were wholly independent of any central authority. Behind it all, of course, was the unity of a minority geographical section defending a distinct set of institutions that were thought to be under attack. The original federal Union that shared the exercise of power with the states strengthened the concept of secession.
It also supplied a pretext for southern leaders to seize the initiative and form a separate nation. Eric Foner and John A.Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. Baltimore, Chief Justice Salmon P. Anti-federalists dominated the Poughkeepsie Convention that would ratify the Constitution.
Would they have been deported en masse to Liberia as some free blacks had earlier been? But the provisional government nevertheless began purchasing arms and munitions, and seceded states started to equip and train their militias. Channing, Steven. This action "signaled its decisive break with the Articles' regime of state sovereignty".
Ericson, David. This did not necessarily have to mean Civil War, but few in the north were prepared to readily see the Union dismembered. It was only then that the economic and political interests throughout the North began looking for a new cause to agitate: All these classes saw this and felt it and cast about for new allies. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive those who are willing to assert a right, but would pause before they made a revolution, or incur the penalties consequent upon a failure. After the Constitution was ratified, a new government was formed by the consent of the states that clearly established a single national government. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis argued that the Constitution was essentially a contract between sovereign states—with the contracting parties retaining the inherent authority to withdraw from the agreement.
The climate of the North was similar to that of England, so the land was suitable for a variety of uses.
Tellingly, on the matter of whether states retained a right to unilaterally secede from the United States, the federalists made it clear that no such right would exist under the Constitution.
Each of these groups had different fundamental interests. Plantation owners would make less money since most of the people working on the plantations would have to be paid. This argument can be seen to have parallels with the demands for independence from Britain. But the issue of black servitude provided cohesion for the white bloc and contributed greatly to a patriarchal system wherein the masses of the whites still looked to a planter-professional elite for political and social guidance. First Calls for Secession Following ratification by 11 of the 13 states, the government began operation under the new U. They created the Fugitive slave act to keep all of their slaves.
The Union was understandably prepared to fight for its own existence. With the election in of Abraham Lincoln , who ran on a message of containing slavery to where it currently existed, and the success of the Republican Party to which he belonged — the first entirely regional party in US history — in that election, South Carolina seceded on December 20, , the first state to ever officially secede from the United States. Buchanan agreed that secession was not allowed under the Constitution, but he also believed the national government could not use force to keep a state in the Union.
Therefore it is in conflict to suggest that citizens could find themselves separated from the country as a whole by a seceding state. Not only would these confederations be capable of taking steps that were beyond the ability of Congress under the articles, but in private some portrayed such a step in a positive light, in as much as the regional union could adopt constitutions that secured property rights and maintained order. It was an agreement with the people, and once a state enters the Union, it cannot leave the Union. It has been said that they were sovereign, were completely independent, and were connected with each other only by a league. Brazil was the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, doing so in
The original federal Union that shared the exercise of power with the states strengthened the concept of secession. Cotton remained a highly in-demand crop in the North and in Great Britain. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. Separation from a Union perceived to be under the control of a tyrannical power that would destroy southern institutions was the objective.
Fifty years have passed since the centennial. Eaton, Clement.
In , the Nashville Convention met from June 3 to June 12 "to devise and adopt some mode of resistance to northern aggression.
The Articles of Confederation explicitly state the Union is "perpetual"; the U. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. Channing, Steven. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question. The secession of the southern states would cause the bloodiest war in American history. A nation could not have been formed, nor a war fought, if the states were wholly independent of any central authority.