Yesterday I began my series of responses to philosopher Donald Livingston’s article in the Confederate Veteran magazine. I showed that Americans should never separate the secession of some southern states in 1860-61 from the cause for which they were seceding (e.g. to protect the institution of slavery). Livingston, I think, is aware of this, but he argues in his piece that “the Union had never been happy,” secession was constitutional, that slavery was not the sole cause of the war or the reason the war was fought, and that the “negotiated division” of the country would have led to the peaceful end of slavery. This, he says, would have been preferable to the “total war,” or “ruthless and criminal conquest,” that “Lincoln, Seward, Stanton, Grant and Sherman” perpetrated on the South. Sadly, he maintains, Americans venerate these men, to our moral and political detriment.
On the unhappy Union, here is Livingston:
The Union had never been happy. In 1794, when it was only five years old, Senators Rufus King of New York and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut urged Senator John Taylor of Virginia to support a move to divide the Union. The two senators said the differences were too deep to be settled by the ordinary means of political negotiation. Northerners and Southerners, these Yankees said, “never had and never would think alike.”
By 1861 two quite different countries and identities had emerged from the Constitution that all had judged in 1788 to be an “experiment.” There were two quite different economic systems; profound differences on the nature of the Constitution, the tariff dispute, slavery in the western territories, and theological differences which had already split the churches. The two sections had come to hate each other beyond all reason. Rational discourse had become impossible. The Union, by any standard, was dysfunctional. It simply had failed. All of these difficulties, however, would have disappeared with a peaceful negotiated division.
It seems to me that many Americans, probably the vast majority (excepting, of course, the slaves who were creating wealth for the country and the natives who were being cleared out of their ancestral lands) were very happy with their Union, notwithstanding Livingston’s examples. In fact, even in 1861, the majority of the country did not want the country to break apart. Remember, only seven southern slave states seceded from the Union upon Lincoln’s election (there were fifteen slave states at the time), so in the immediate aftermath of the Republican victory in 1861, the majority of slave states did not want to see the country split up. Or, at the very least, they sought a way to keep it together.
To be sure, Livingston is right that the Union was “an experiment.” But that was precisely what bothered Americans about the potential break-up of the country. Such an eventuality, they believed, would prove that democratic government, or representative government, if you will, was unworkable. That, they thought, would have been an unmitigated disaster for liberty. Added to this, as Edward Pessen has shown (see his essay, How Different Were the North and South From Each Other), the antebellum North and South were more alike in 1860-61 than we think. They were hardly, as Livingston claims, “two quite different countries.” And, I wonder, by 1861, what was the most striking difference between the North and South? The institution of slavery, perhaps?
On secession, here is Livingston:
And it is not as if this option had not occurred to Americans before. From the ratification of the Constitution up to South Carolina’s secession, there was never a time in which a division of the Union was not publicly discussed as a policy option. And the section which most often considered secession was New England: in 1804-1814 over the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s embargo, and the War of 1812; during 1845-48 over the annexation of Texas, and in 1850 over the fugitive slave act. All wanted the Union to work, but all knew it was an artificial corporation created by a compact between the states for their mutual benefit. The Union was not, and had never been, an end in itself. This understanding was alive into the early 20″ century when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts could say that after the Constitution was ratified by the people of the sovereign states: “there was not a man in the country, … who regarded the new system as anything but an experiment entered upon by the states, and from which each and every state had the right peaceably to withdraw, a right which was very likely to be exercised.”
Livingston is absolutely correct that secession had been discussed throughout the nation’s history, but when the Federalists considered it, for example, at the Hartford Convention, they were seen as disloyal to the country for considering such an option. Moreover, there is a big difference between thinking about secession and actually carrying it out, especially when one considers why some white southerners seceded (not everyone in the antebellum South favored secession and approximately 100,000 southerners, Lincoln’s Loyalists historian Richard Current called them, fought for the Union in the Civil War). And, when he writes that “all wanted the Union to work,” he is wrong. By 1850, there were “Fire-Eaters” who were manifestly working to divide the nation. They failed, of course, in 1850, but were more successful, sadly, a decade later.
Nor did “all” know the Union was “an artificial corporation.” As the Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has shown, when ratification of the Constitution was being discussed throughout the country after 1787, “no leading Federalist ever publicly sought to win over states’ rightists by conceding that a state could unilaterally nullify or secede in the event it later came to be dissatisfied. Never did they say, ‘Give the plan a try, and if you don’t like it, your state may always leave.'”James Madison himself thought that ratification of the Constitution was “in toto, for ever.” Or, consider what Andrew Jackson said, “The Constitution of the United States . . . forms a government, not a league”. Given this, Timothy Sandefur rightly maintains in his essay How Libertarians Ought to Think About the Civil War, that no state could unilaterally secede from the Union.
As for the idea that the war was not about slavery, here is part of an interview with the historian Stephen Berry (please read the entire thing):
CWT (Civil War Trust): Is there a particular trend or narrative out there in Civil War scholarship that you disagree with that disturbs you because of its popularity?
SB (Stephen Berry): I wouldn’t call it a trend, per se – I wouldn’t give it enough dignity to be that, but this notion of high numbers of African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy. There are some myths that I think the internet makes un-killable, because the internet has the illusion of authority for some people, and that one can drive me absolutely crazy. Because it props up this notion that the war is somehow not fundamentally about slavery, and I tell my students basically – to be perfectly clear, on day one – if you don’t think that the Civil War is at root about slavery well then there’s the Flat Earth Society, who will be taking members. There’re people who think we faked the moon landing. I just want you to know where you are. I tell them if you want to believe that, and you want to hold onto that, then you don’t want to sit through this class. Because I’m not only right but my argument is going to carry the day at the end of this class, so if you want to keep that illusion you better get out! (emphasis mine)
There’s not a serious scholar in America who thinks any of that. I don’t know if there are other parts of the historiography that I fundamentally disagree with. I do think the question of enslaved African-Americans traveling with the Confederate Army, and the roles – forced roles – that they played. That’s starting to get some good attention, and has needed it, because they’re definitely a military asset for the Confederacy. Glenn Brasher’s book is good on this, and Jaime Martinez has written a book about this. I guess that’s part of my point about how healthy the historiography is. To me, there don’t seem to be these kinds of burning debates now. We’re mostly in agreement on the broad strokes, and having a great deal of fun fleshing out these new areas.
Livingston has been quite clear that he wants to rewrite the historical narrative of the United States and he has, I think, more influence than many people think. Consider, for example, that his Abbeville Institute, is hosting a conference at Liberty University this October/November.
Now, on Livingston’s claim that the peaceful “negotiated division” of the country would have led to the end of slavery, more on that later this week.
UPDATE: 9/2/14 4:30 p.m.
I have provided the link above to the article where Livington labels the cause of the Confederacy was “morally sound.”