One of the questions that was asked of Bill Blair and I on Saturday at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop was how, during the Civil War, people in Massachusetts could call secession treason given that they themselves had publicly contemplated it themselves (six times, I think the questioner claimed).
Bill’s response was simply that people often contradict themselves (think Walt Whitman here) and it really is as simple as that. I agreed with Bill and added that I think offering secession as a threat, rhetorical or otherwise, is not quite the same thing as actually carrying it out as a program. Plus, one can never forget why the Confederacy seceded: to preserve slavery forever. Of course, Lincoln’s opponents today often say that secession was a constitutional right of the states and that if they had seceded it would have led, for various reasons, to the erosion of slavery in the Confederacy. Thus, the Confederacy’s cause was, in the words of philosopher Donald Livingston, “morally sound.”
This seems to me, and to many others, a rather dubious point (especially because the Supreme Court of the United States in 1875 settled the matter), but I wanted to posit that something else is at work here. The use of secession as a rhetorical tactic is, I think, what Randall Kennedy recently called in a piece in Harper’s on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a law that Lincoln critics such as Ron Paul and Thomas DiLorenzo still oppose), part of a “vocabulary of obstruction that remains very much with us today, a lexicon that relies strongly on claims to liberty (as opposed to equality) and states’ rights (as opposed bo federal regulation) and freedom of association (as opposed to inclusiveness).” I think Kennedy has a good point, and I’ve written about this previously and its rather unfortunate consequences for the United States here.