part four of five
I’ve been chatting about secession lately with historian Nathan Hall of Richmond National Battlefield Park. Nathan has been studying the topic deeply for many years and recently spoke on it at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable. I think you’ll enjoy his thoughts, too.
Doug: At what times in pre-Civil War history did the question of secession come up?
Nathan: Because the premise of secession had been considered and essentially tabled, it remained an intriguing “what if” scenario in the early years of the republic. In the decades after ratification, secession was never actually attempted, but the threat of resorting to it was used, periodically, as a political bargaining chip.
Western settlers in Kentucky and Tennessee considered seceding from the U.S. to become Spanish subjects in the 1780s, because of their dependence on the Mississippi River for commerce. In the “Whiskey Rebellion” of the 1790s, Pennsylvanians violently resisted efforts to collect federal taxes, illustrating the difficulty in solving Patrick Henry’s dilemma of whether “the people” or “the states” were the ultimate repositories of sovereignty in the republic.
Outrage over the Alien and Sedition Acts at the end of the 19th century prompted urgent debates over what remedy existed to oppose a law that was unconstitutional. Madison wrote “The Virginia Resolution,” suggesting the state governments, acting collectively, could oppose unconstitutional laws. Thomas Jefferson’s more radical “Kentucky Resolution” claimed that individual states could “nullify” an unconstitutional federal law, without the need to secure the cooperation of other states. It also declared that the federal union was a “compact” of states, rather than a perpetual union. Meaning that it was an agreement from which any of the parties involved could withdraw from at will. No other states ratified the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and a few years later, in 1803, the United States Supreme Court, asserted for the first time that it possessed to sole authority to determine the legitimacy of federal legislation.
For the next thirty years, states occasionally revived Jefferson and Madison’s concepts. New England States tried to oppose the constitutionality of President Jefferson’s Embargo Act in 1807, and considered the path of secession at the Hartford Convention in 1814-15 to escape participation in the War of 1812, but could never muster widespread support.
In the 1830s, South Carolina revived the compact theory and the idea of unilateral nullification, in response to federal tariffs. President Andrew Jackson refused to acknowledge that South Carolina had a legal basis for nullifying federal law, warning them, “They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion, but be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON.” In the face of Jackson’s threats, South Carolina backed down, and the bargaining chip of a secession threat was pocketed once again. On May 1, 1833, Jackson wrote his opinion of what the nullification crisis portended for the future. “The tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.” He then predicted, “The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”
As questions of slavery and its expansion into the western territories grew to dominate political discourse in the 1840s and 50s, talk of secession once again shifted its base to the northeastern United States. There, frustrated antislavery advocates were losing faith in America’s constitutional machinery to effect meaningful change in the direction of abolition. In 1845, William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts sounded the call for disunion thus: “Henceforth, the watchword of every uncompromising abolitionist, of every friend of God and liberty, must be, both in a religious and political sense-‘NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!’” Garrison was a member of the “Worcester Disunion Convention,” which met in 1857, “to consider the practicability, probability, and expediency, of a Separation between the Free and Slave States.” Finally, with Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, secession advocacy returned to the South and swiftly transformed theory to reality.
To be concluded….