The U.S. government makes a lot of noise about recognizing people’s right to “self-determination” — people in other countries, anyway. Unfortunately, that right doesn’t extend to people who live under its control. What if you no longer trust the U.S. government? Do you have the right to withdraw from its control?
The right of people to determine what political entity they want to be a part of seems as though it should be pretty obvious. The right of secession for independent entities who join together in a union should be even more obvious. Up until the middle of the 19th century, the American Union was generally referred to in the plural — “the United States are…” — because the states were seen as sovereign individual members of a union. Unfortunately, because of the way history was written starting in the late 19th century, you can’t have a rational discussion of the issue without someone yelling, “slavery,” or, “racism.”
The war that most people call the U.S. Civil War was nothing of the sort, so I generally refuse to call it that. I sometimes jokingly call it the War of Northern Aggression, but a more neutral and accurate label — which used to be heard more often — is the War Between the States. It wasn’t a war between two factions for control of one nation. It was the federal government’s aggressive war to take back member states that had voluntarily withdrawn from the Union.
Let’s get one thing straight about where I’m going with this. I don’t “support” the Confederate states, but I also don’t “support” the Union government which conquered those states when they dared to assert their sovereignty. Abraham Lincoln is now seen as having fought the war in order to free the slaves, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although there’s no question that Lincoln personally opposed slavery and opposed the expansion of slavery into additional states, he openly admitted that he pursued the war to avoid losing the seceding states, not to free slaves. In August of 1862, Lincoln wrote in a letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
The so-called “Great Emancipator” didn’t allow Union generals to free slaves early in the war. Even his Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in seceding states. It didn’t free a single slave that he might have had power to do something about.
So if we can agree that slavery was wrong — both under the Confederate flag and under the U.S. flag for the first 89 years of existence — why do we now associate secession with slavery or racism? I think it’s simply an intellectual shortcut people take to cut off discussion of a legitimate issue, maybe even unconsciously because of the way history books were written about the War Between the States.
Mary Diane Goin sent me an interesting article Monday that discussed the issue of personal secession and “community secession” which led me to start thinking about all of this. Writing at Lew Rockwell’s site, retired college professor Michael S. Rozeff explains quite clearly what the real issues are. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that you can’t even address the issue without dealing with the common objections dealing with slavery in the 19th century. I don’t have any interest in getting involved in debates between neo-Confederates and so-called Progressives. I just want the issue of secession to be looked at in a logical way, not with the emotion that’s normally brought to it.
I’ll say very clearly that I don’t believe secession is going to happen here, at least not as long as the U.S. government is strong and healthy. If things get bad enough that the country experiences social and economic collapse, the government in Washington might very well disintegrate, but in the absence of that, secession is not going to happen. The last time it was tried, the results weren’t very pretty. A government authority doesn’t react well when some of its subjects try to leave its control.
I’m not looking toward secession as an answer, but in a sane and rational world, some form of it would be on the table for many of us. I recommend Rozeff’s article as food for thought.