The Civil War in America’s narrative

by Henry on April 14, 2011

Matthew Yglesias points to research showing that many white Southerners still refuse to concede on the Confederacy.

roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners. […] When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union.

This is perhaps, not entirely surprising. What is more surprising to me is that this version of events is officially accepted by the United States. I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the US civics study guide to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been particularly embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also here) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:

The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.

after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.

This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this was part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative, alongside the expected questions on Martin Luther King, and the origins of slaves in Africa. But perhaps there is a different history of the role of states’ rights in the conflict than the limited one I know (I am obviously not an expert on US history, or on the origins of the Civil War).

{ 190 comments }

1

Mike 04.14.11 at 3:29 am

“But perhaps there is a different history of the role of states’ rights in the conflict than the limited one I know”

Nope, you’ve got the correct story already.

I’ve lived in both the north and the south, albeit briefly, and I was floored that southerners still cared about the Civil War. I was often referred to as a Yankee and I could never fully understand why there was any resentment at all towards northerners. In the end you have a hefty portion of southerners who simply hide their racist views behind the states rights/pro confederacy nonsense.

2

Aaron 04.14.11 at 3:31 am

I thought this Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon had a funny take on how meaningless a response “states’ rights” on its own is.

3

Jacob T Levy 04.14.11 at 3:38 am

As a story about two generations of constitutional debate that has a veneer of truth, but is still basically a lie– federalism and the slave power had opportunistic overlaps, but the slave power was entirely happy to use central power when it could: the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott, postal censorship of abolitionist literature. As an account of secession and tw Civil War proper, it’s entirely a lie.

4

Ben Alpers 04.14.11 at 3:39 am

Anyone who wants to get a sense of what actual Confederates at the time (as opposed to Neoconfederates in more recent decades) believed were the reasons for secession and war ought to read Confederate VP Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia.

As the kids say, read the whole thing, but here’s the key passage:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

5

Ben Alpers 04.14.11 at 3:39 am

That last paragraph was also part of the Cornerstone Speech quote. Don’t know how it escaped my blockquote tag!

6

David 04.14.11 at 3:43 am

Congratulations upon your citizenship. You are, perhaps, rather too well informed to be a citizen but be that as it may. Some of think we should just boot them back out of the union and good riddance.

7

David 04.14.11 at 3:44 am

The Southern States, that is. Not the overly informed citizens.

8

ScentOfViolets 04.14.11 at 3:46 am

I think it’s genetic myself.

9

john b 04.14.11 at 3:47 am

David: …although I’m sure some people think that as well, and also that the group of people who think that is particularly strong in the former Confederacy.

10

Myles 04.14.11 at 4:09 am

Anyone who wants to get a sense of what actual Confederates at the time (as opposed to Neoconfederates in more recent decades) believed were the reasons for secession and war ought to read Confederate VP Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia.

Sorry, but Stephens is not a reliable source on affairs of state. I’m not going to argue that it’s states’ rights (it’s primarily slavery, followed by economics, conceptualized in the form of states’ rights), but Alexander Stephens was a wingnut even by the standards of his own day. IIRC his relationship with the rest of the Jefferson Davis cabinet was so bad that Davis basically tried to keep him as far away from actual political affairs as absolutely possible.

Just from Wikipedia: “In 1862, Stephens first publicly expressed his opposition to the Davis administration.[5] Throughout the war he denounced many oSf the president’s policies, including conscription, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, impressment, various financial and taxation policies, and Davis’ military strategy…As the war continued, and the fortunes of the Confederacy sank lower, Stephens became more outspoken in his opposition to the administration. On March 16, 1864, Stephens delivered a speech to the Georgia legislature that was widely reported both North and South. In it, he excoriated the Davis administration for its support of conscription and suspension of habeas corpus…his relations with Davis, never warm to begin with, turned completely sour.”

Basically, you are looking at a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann. Is Bachmann expressive of the opinion of a section of the U.S. population circa 2011? Yes. But is she a reliable guide as to the causes of actual matters of state? No. The fact that Stephens was VP showed how shambolic Confederate government was, but he was not reflective of any political consensus or broadly held line of reasoning. After all, if you were to accept Stephens as a legitimately office voice of the Confederacy, you would have to also accept Andrew Johnson, who was also originally a VP until Lincoln’s assassination, as a president legitimately representative of Union opinion. Both VP’s had about the same level of claim to representation.

11

Substance McGravitas 04.14.11 at 4:16 am

Jefferson Davis:

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=491

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity—it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us—which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born—to use the language of Mr. Jefferson—booted and spurred, to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal—meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families; but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do, to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the prince to be arraigned for raising up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother-country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable; for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the equality of footing with white men—not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths. So stands the compact which binds us together.

12

Billikin 04.14.11 at 4:17 am

“These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.”

That’s embarrassing. And I’m originally from the South. It makes it sound like the Federal government tried to exercise tyrannical power over the states. It is not only written at a middle school level and oversimplified, it is worse than misleading.

13

jen 04.14.11 at 4:23 am

Re Stephens: this is not my field but I don’t think opposing conscription in the Confederacy was exactly a fringe position. In any case Stephens’ differences with Davis et al. during the war don’t need to be read back onto his justification for secession when the war started. The quote Ben selected is perfectly reasonable as an example of standard Confederate opinion. And yes, the citizenship exam lags considerably behind best historical practices here.

14

Beleck 04.14.11 at 4:29 am

and you just became an American? oh my. that is not something i’d wish on anyone in America in this day and age. America was a really nice place when i was growing up in the ’60s, the promise of a better world was there along side the horrors of Vietnam and all the troubles too.

I live in the South and know the intense hatred for blacks, browns, immigrants, women, gays, and every other minority that isn’t a good old boy. so stay up North if you can.

Southerners will never and have never forgotten nor forgave the North for taking away their right to own slaves, their right to get rich off others’ labor. that is what we see going on today via the Republican party. Watching the Republicans turn back various “progressive” ideas, like voting, community, society and education to keep the poor white folks dumb, i’d say the return to pre-Civil War thinking is succeeding quite well.

using the divide and conquer tactics has obscured the Class war of the Rich upon the rest of American Society.

you are truly a brave man to want to become a citizen of America and be part of such a horrible era. with the Corporate Fascists having complete control of the 3 parts of American Government and Corporations dominating American Society as a whole, i wonder how citizenship can be a “promise” as i would imagine it would have appeared to be to me years ago.

Southerners, as a rule, are quite uneducated and appear to like it that way. otherwise they would have voted for different leaders. keeping ignorant ideas/States right/codewords for “slavery” and valuing lies and falsehoods, like slavey and states right BS, is not something to be proud of. of course, if i remain ignorant of what is wrong, i suppose i wouldn’t know anything is “wrong.”

Being a liberal in the South is not for the weak and demure. but then again, i could never understand how people could live in the North due the extreme cold, so what do i know.

welcome and congratulations on your citizenship status. American needs more like you.

15

Sherri 04.14.11 at 4:30 am

I grew up in the South and my family still lives in the South (though I haven’t for over 25 years.) Yankee is still a pejorative word there, and yes, you will still find people there who will argue that the Civil War was about those Yankees poking their noses into our business, never mind that our business was slavery. Many of these same people would consider themselves very patriotic and Christian, as well, with no sense of irony.

16

Emma in Sydney 04.14.11 at 4:38 am

Myles, just as a historical detail. No government in 1862 anywhere in the world had a shred of claim to representation of ‘the people’. Women, blacks, indigenous people, couldn’t vote or participate. It’s not like these were democracies, either Union or Confederate, American or European. All we have to go on is what members of the ruling classes said they were doing. Seems pretty clear.

17

Ed 04.14.11 at 5:06 am

I’m a Northerner, but the Davis speech makes a stronger argument than it is PC to admit. The United States was formed in 1776-87 by several colonies/ states where slavery was legal, including states north of the Mason-Dixon line (notably my home state of New York). Several of the odder features of the Constitution, exactly the ones that cause the most trouble today, were put in so that slave states would not be penalized politically by the fact that a good portion of their population was not citizens. Both the Electoral College and the Senate originate from this.

If you had told a typical politically informed person at the time that once the Constitution was passed, the federal government would and could abolish slavery, plus that once they signed up to the pact no state could withdraw from it, ever, you would have been viewed as a lunatic. If even a significant minority of people had actually thought this the Constitution would never had come close to ratification. Incidentally, a recent book has argued that most of the people fighting for independence did so less because Jefferson’s appeal to natural rights in the Declaration of Independence, than what they thought were their historical rights as Englishmen.

So for many white, elite Southerners such as Davis, they were being perfectly true to the ideals of the generation of the 1770s and 1780s, they were happy to keep to the terms of the original deal of the time (a decentralized slave republic) but the Northerners were tying to change it. It was only with the postwar amendments that citizenship of the United States was defined in the document as generating from something other than the laws of whichever state you came from. I think the Civil War was far more revolutionary what what Americans call “the Revolutionary War” but for some reason the national mythology keeps insisting otherwise.

And yes, I am arguing that the vision of the Founders really was quite close to that of the current Tea Partiers, but the point is that the Tea Partiers are trying to restore a republic that hasn’t existed for 150 years, and mostly for good reason.

18

CZHA 04.14.11 at 5:08 am

The only state right in question was the right to keep people as property and to exploit their labor. The southern states were entirely happy to have the U.S. government enforce the Fugitive Slave Act against abolitionists or safe havens in free states. Southern states were not willing to extend states rights to new states; the Missouri Compromise guaranteed that the slave owning/non-slave owning states would stay in balance. Moreover, the Dred Scott decision assured the South that non-slave owning states had no rights themselves to offer freedom to escaped slaves.

19

Myles 04.14.11 at 5:09 am

All we have to go on is what members of the ruling classes said they were doing. Seems pretty clear.

In this case, Stephens wasn’t even close to being representative of so limited a franchise as merely the ruling classes. He was just a raving loon. Whom everybody more or less considered the retarded cousin to be kept in the attic as much as possible. His constituency was the contemporary equivalent of the Tea Party.

Look: the Confederacy was premised on slavery. But quoting Stephens proves nothing, because he has not a shred of credibility as speaking for anyone other than himself as a raving loon. This is just not sound historiography, on every level. When future historians look back on our own age, they are not going to analyze momentous acts of state by looking at Sarah Palin or even Paul Ryan. It’s doubtful Stephens ever had even the purchase of Ryan.

20

Myles 04.14.11 at 5:16 am

Incidentally, a recent book has argued that most of the people fighting for independence did so less because Jefferson’s appeal to natural rights in the Declaration of Independence, than what they thought were their historical rights as Englishmen.

This is absolutely correct. I thought this is generally taught in American history?

I think the Civil War was far more revolutionary what what Americans call “the Revolutionary War” but for some reason the national mythology keeps insisting otherwise.

Well, the Civil War changed the entire orientation of American constitutionalism by the power of force. Ex factis jus oritur, one might say. There’s no point going back.

21

nerdbound 04.14.11 at 5:19 am

So, the Civil War was about slavery.

But let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment and say that the “states’ rights as a cause” theory might be justifiable — wrong, still, but justifiable.

I think similar justifiable and yet wrong theories can describe many policy debates. Take, for example, cutting taxes for the very rich. This is a policy that is probably primarily advocated because it will help very rich people. But there is an unproven theory that lowering the taxes on the very rich will lead to more economic growth that will help everyone. So if you asked ‘why did the Bush tax cuts target the very rich?’ and someone said ‘to enhance growth’ or even better ‘because some people at the time believed that it would enhance growth,’ it wouldn’t feel quite right to just score that answer as ‘incorrect’ in a context where you cannot get any further elaboration. It’s wrong, but you might be able to elaborate and make it sensible. “Somebody surely believed those economic growth theories, and maybe if they had not had such theories expounded to them, they would not have supported the relevant policies and the policies would thus have been resoundingly unpopular,” etc.

Similarly, in US history, the idea that the states had freely entered into a treaty with each other that was the US Constitution and thus could legally and unilaterally secede at any time was an untested, unproven legal theory. Jefferson had (arguably, indirectly) claimed that states could unilaterally nullify laws and/or secede in the Kentucky Resolutions. Madison had claimed the same things in the Virginia Resolutions. There was a ‘Nullification Crisis’ in 1833 in which these sorts of issues weren’t really resolved in the legal sense. After the Civil War, the Supreme Court and other branches of government all officially decided that secession was not legal, but it had not heard the issue beforehand.

So, to be rigorous for a sec, let’s construct the appropriate counter-factual. Imagine that U.S. history was exactly as it was, except that throughout, issues of states’ rights, secession, nullification, etc. were definitively decided in the direction of the national government. 1860 rolls around — what happens?

Eh, I’m sick of playing Devil’s Advocate, I’m pretty sure you still get a war. But you can see how the argument runs, anyway: “There were probably a few marginal supporters, particularly among elites, who only supported the secession because the concept of secession had been indirectly supported by Jefferson and Madison. The support of these elites may have been critical to secession’s success.”

If we believe Keynes, we’re all pretty much slaves to the ‘defunct economists’ and theorists of the past. If he’s right, then “states’ rights” is probably an acceptable answer. Which might just show that we are more slaves to the economic structures of today than the defunct economists of yesterday, but at least it’s an open question.

I should add that I’m just writing too many words on this subject for no reason. States’ rights is an answer on these tests to appease the South. I’m just thinking out loud, trying to figure out why this doesn’t seem to me to be quite as evil as some other Southernisms like using Confederate flags as decor or having fond memories of segregation.

22

Jim 04.14.11 at 5:21 am

The South dominated the Union until the election of 1860. Look at the Fugitive Slave act of 1850 which effectively make all Northern Citizens agents of the Southern Slave holders at risk of liberty and savings if they refused to assisted in the capture of escaped slaves, the Dred Scott decision and that slaves were counted in determining representation in the House of Representatives as evidence.

The reason that South succeeded was that they could no longer dominate the union because the massive population increase and wealth increase was in the North.

23

Myles 04.14.11 at 5:21 am

And yes, I am arguing that the vision of the Founders really was quite close to that of the current Tea Partiers, but the point is that the Tea Partiers are trying to restore a republic that hasn’t existed for 150 years, and mostly for good reason.

Well, even if it were so, their vision would be no longer constitutional, given the the Reconstruction Amendments to the constitution that solidified and legitimized the results of the Civil War.

24

Substance McGravitas 04.14.11 at 5:27 am

He was just a raving loon. Whom everybody more or less considered the retarded cousin to be kept in the attic as much as possible.

“Everybody” meaning, I guess, everybody who kept voting him into office over and over and over again.

25

Gene O'Grady 04.14.11 at 5:28 am

I really don’t want to get into any sort of war, but it is simply not true that Stephens, an experienced and respected politician, and friend of Abraham Lincoln, was a loon or an equivalent of Michelle Bachman. He was the most talented of the old Whigs in the South, which is why he got the job as vice president, plus there was some hope he might be able to negotiate with his old friends in the North.

It’s common, but a little silly, to go back to the writings of the revolutionary/ constitutional era to explain everything. But they’re essentially useless on slavery given that the form of slavery and the arguments for it were fundamentally altered by the opening of the Southwest to cotton growing on large plantations after Andrew Jackson stole the lands from the Indians. (Why pretend that all America can be explained by the so-called founding fathers when Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Dewitt Clinton and such are both more appealing and more significant?)

And I also question the use of the term elite for Jeff Davis, who was after all the lord of a plantation in a state that hadn’t existed when he was born growing a crop that hadn’t been common when he was born and arguing for slavery in terms that hadn’t been developed when he was born. Not to mention that his plantation was apparently managed (very profitably) by his older brother on Fourierist principles. Unfortunately, contrary to his expectations the slaves ran away when they had the chance.

When I was very young my godfather taught me the words to “Hang Jeff Davis from the sour apple tree” as he had learned them in about 1905.

26

JP Stormcrow 04.14.11 at 5:29 am

He was just a raving loon. Whom everybody more or less considered the retarded cousin to be kept in the attic as much as possible.

Assumes facts not in evidence.

27

Daniel 04.14.11 at 5:54 am

The U.S of A. is still the best country in the whole damned world, isn’t Henry?

28

Billikin 04.14.11 at 6:22 am

Ed: “And yes, I am arguing that the vision of the Founders really was quite close to that of the current Tea Partiers, but the point is that the Tea Partiers are trying to restore a republic that hasn’t existed for 150 years, and mostly for good reason.”

I agree with you that the Confederate constitutional vision was very close to that of the Founders, but not that it was closer than that of the North. After all, the Nullification crisis was a showdown between Southerners. But I fail to see much connection between the modern Tea Partiers and the original participants in the Boston Tea Party. Certainly they are not trying to restore the republic.

29

Myles 04.14.11 at 6:49 am

He was the most talented of the old Whigs in the South, which is why he got the job as vice president, plus there was some hope he might be able to negotiate with his old friends in the North.

The official influence of a VP who’s making speeches against his own president and cabinet can be basically presumed to be nil, whatever his former circumstances.

“Everybody” meaning, I guess, everybody who kept voting him into office over and over and over again.

Look, people voted Bachmann into office again and again too. And VPs in American history have generally been selected not on the basis of mainstream representation but balancing of other interests not already represented. To take but one extreme example, Andrew Johnson. To take another, how representative was Dan Quayle? How representative was Agnew?

Look: the study of history is not a sermon. We make fools of ourselves when we make it so. It’s a hideous American tendency springing from the earliest moments of Puritanism, and I must say I find it regrettable that a fellow Canadian has adopted this least likeable of Americanisms.

30

Phil 04.14.11 at 7:08 am

Just wanted to say that my view on “state’s rights” was formed back on soc.history.what-if, where impassioned advocates of the SR interpretation would occasionally show up armed with sheaves of references to material I’d never even seen… and be handed their hats by advocates of the “war to end slavery” view, backed by even more (and in some cases more obscure) reference material.

In short, yes, it was about the rights of the confederate states; that’s a true statement. But it was mainly about the right of the confederate states to keep slaves.

31

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 7:39 am

What if there was no slaves? Industrial North, agrarian South; plantation labor is done ‘voluntarily’ by undocumented laborers from Mexico (or wherever) for wages barely enough to keep them alive, but above those across the border. The central government gets captured by Northern interests and starts implementing projects and reforms detrimental to the South (or, rather, to the interests of the plantation owners). What would’ve happened, and what would be the narrative?

32

John Quiggin 04.14.11 at 8:09 am

@HV In broad terms, this happened in Australia around 1900. North Queensland plantation owners hired recruiters to contract workers from the Pacific Islands (dispute over how voluntary this was). After Federation, this was stopped by a combination of labor interests (opposed to low-wage workers), racists (for a White Australia) and humanitarian concerns about treatment of the workers, very much analogous to anti-slavery concerns in the US (note that, for a while Lincoln was sympathetic to the Liberian project).

The upshot was a bit of huffing and puffing about a separate state of NQ, which might have led to secession but actually came to nothing.

There was a more serious, and unrelated attempt at secession by Western Australia during the Depression. They had a referendum, voted for secession, and sent it to the King who ignored it. Then everyone forgot about the whole thing.

33

Phil 04.14.11 at 8:10 am

HV – I think in that case we skip straight to the carpetbaggers, or an equally resented group of alt-carpetbaggers coming down from the North (federal employment regulation inspectors?). Incorporation by force of bureaucracy. By the time you get to 2011 there are still two different narratives, still a lot of Southern self-pitypride and resentment of ‘Yankees’, and for all I know the Yankee image has migrated from Rep to Dem the same way it did in OTL (Nixon was many things, but I don’t think he was the Mule).

The difference in this TL is that the Southern narrative is more stroppy and resentful, but with a strong self-critical streak that isn’t there in OTL – they lost their Way of Life and they didn’t even fight for it! (Think “Parcel of Rogues”.) Also, there will be much more of a residual consciousness of the states as separate entities, as this won’t have been tabooed by the experience of war. All this might lead to some interesting & even progressive developments over time; Scottish nationalists were written off for generations as a bunch of cantankerous dreamers weeping into their whisky, and look at ‘em now. Also, in that TL, when a naive student discovers exactly what the Southern Way of Life actually was, hir reaction is more likely to be mild distaste than incredulous disgust; this will probably be good for inter-state understanding.

34

Phil 04.14.11 at 8:13 am

Also in reply to Henri – how do you get to a mid-C19 USA with no slaves? Did the slave trade just not happen?

35

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 8:39 am

I dunno, suppose they all escaped and moved to Brazil in 1850. So, you think: no slaves – no secession, no war?

36

herr doktor bimler 04.14.11 at 10:47 am

When future historians look back on our own age, they are not going to analyze momentous acts of state by looking at Sarah Palin or even Paul Ryan.

Why not?

37

alph 04.14.11 at 11:04 am

Myles, I had not realized that your general reactionary tendencies extended even to minimizing and misdirection on behalf of the white supremacists.

Alexander Stephens was the vice-president of the Confederacy. His cornerstone speech is as good a place as any to find the official ideological underpinnings of the confederacy. Your attempts to apologize for him show a new side to you.

But if, for the sake of argument, you want to continue pretending that Stephens was somehow anomalous within the ideological leadership of the Confederacy, then you should simply look at some other official pronouncements of Confederate leaders, for instance:

The address of the Louisiana Delegation encouraging Texas to succeed:
http://americancivilwar.com/documents/williamson_address.html

with its main message that
“The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy.”

and its stirring final summation:

” With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.”

For more of this, read the articles of secession of Mississippi:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”

That slavery was the cornerstone of Confederate ideology was not an aberrant whim of Stephens’ addled brain. It was the official view of every major Confederate theorist, and every major expression of the Confederate cause.

Keep trying to explain away Stephens. You tell us more and more about what we should associate with the handle “Myles”.

38

Myles 04.14.11 at 11:18 am

That slavery was the cornerstone of Confederate ideology was not an aberrant whim of Stephens’ addled brain.

I actually agree with this whole-heartedly. Just look at my comments above. What I object to is the historiography; Stephens, because he was, as you said, addled in brain, is simply a shoddy basis for any kind of argument about the Confederacy, other than about its generally shambolic governance. The fact that we don’t like the Confederacy is not an excuse to use bad arguments against it. It’s like when people try to justify Sherman; uh, uhm, no. The shoddier the history we do now, the more quickly it will be torn down.

You are arguing against a complete strawman.

Why not?

Because they don’t determine great matters of state.

39

jim 04.14.11 at 12:21 pm

Not enough people are congratulating you. So I will: Congratulations.

It’s become a lot harder and messier to get naturalized than it was when I did it (Thanksgiving ’78). My “test” consisted of two questions: Who was the first president of the United States? Who was the president at the time of the Civil War? (I assume Jefferson Davis would have been the wrong answer).

40

politicalfootball 04.14.11 at 12:33 pm

I think the dominant popular narrative is still that Andrew Johnson, while perhaps a weak president, was the victim of Congressional overreach by the Radical Republicans. And the key historical fact of Grant’s presidency was its corruption.

41

politicalfootball 04.14.11 at 12:34 pm

I’m not going to argue that it’s states’ rights (it’s primarily slavery, followed by economics, conceptualized in the form of states’ rights)

Sorry, but to the extent it was about economics, that, too, was primarily about slavery. It’s turtles all the way down.

42

Andrew 04.14.11 at 12:37 pm

Yglesias misquotes the CNN poll. The actual question seems almost designed to elicit a certain response from southerners:

When you think about the Civil War, if you had to choose, would you say that you sympathize more with the northern states that were part of the Union or the southern states that were part of the Confederacy?

The question is not whether one would sympathize more with the Union or the Confederacy, though it should have been. I suspect the results would have been less newsworthy.

As to states rights and slavery… yes, slavery was the substantive state right at issue, BUT the prevailing ideology in seceding states that the federal government had no legitimate authority to infringe on a state’s right to allow slavery is part of what enabled the war.

The South had to not only want to keep slavery, but also had to believe that an effort by the federal government to abolish slavery would be illegitimate. Remember that this was during a time when the federal government was much smaller, had hugely less regulatory power, and was generally far less relevant to the everyday lives of Americans than it is today.

43

MPAVictoria 04.14.11 at 12:44 pm

Congratulations Henry! Good Luck!

44

PG 04.14.11 at 12:58 pm

Congratulations on becoming a U.S. citizen. However, I’m afraid the failure of this post and comment thread to reference the “Much Apu About Nothing” episode of The Simpsons seriously calls into question whether you’re actually an American. Please see 18:00-20:00.

45

alph 04.14.11 at 1:08 pm

No, Myles, it is not shoddy argument or poor historiography to cite Stephens as representative of the Confederate ideology when he as in fact entirely representative of the Confederate ideology.

He may have been a total loon in other regards. Perhaps he preferred to wear polka-dots while every other Confederate leader dressed in grey. In that case, it would certainly be shoddy argument and poor historiography to cite his dress as typical of Confederate dress.

But that’s not what Ben Alpers did. He cited him as representative of ideology. And he was representative of ideology, as a multitude of other documents shows.

Sorry–you cannot convincingly argue that Stephens is unrepresentative of the ideology. So you cannot argue that it is in any way poor historiography to cite his views as representative. Why you want to remains a question.

46

Walt 04.14.11 at 1:15 pm

The key, alph, is to recognize that Myles’ opinions are simultaneously a) strongly-held and b) random. He just randomly hates Stephens.

47

soru 04.14.11 at 1:24 pm

When future historians look back on our own age, they are not going to analyze momentous acts of state by looking at Sarah Palin or even Paul Ryan.

Firstly, and realistically, if it helps whatever argument they are trying to make, they will. It is a pretty good historian who has a grasp of a particular period’s politics good enough to count as well-informed by the contemporary standards of that period.

Secondly, in the rather unlikely event there did turn out to be a civil war in the USA within the next 5 years, then they would be quite right to do so. A civil war is pretty much never just the result of the actions of sober and serious statespersons making responsible and rational judgements uninfluenced by the rhetoric of loons.

48

alph 04.14.11 at 1:27 pm

Right; a random hatred that just happens to fit in with a long, concerted attempt to explain away the Cornerstone Speech on the part of Southern apologists.

This is exactly what Lost Causers have been doing now for a century or more; every time someone points to the Cornerstone Speech they say, “oh well–that doesn’t count.” And then they come up with some reason or other why that doesn’t count–Stephens was a nutcase, Stephens quarreled with Davis, Stephens himself repudiated it after the war. They will throw anything at it so that they do not have to admit: this was the ideology of the Confederacy. This speech was not an aberration, it was the official orthodoxy.

Attempting to place an asterisk next to Stephens’ name, as Myles does above, is simply making common cause with the Lost Cause.

49

JanieM 04.14.11 at 1:33 pm

As to states rights and slavery… yes, slavery was the substantive state right at issue, BUT the prevailing ideology in seceding states that the federal government had no legitimate authority to infringe on a state’s right to allow slavery is part of what enabled the war.

Someone was writing about this online recently, maybe Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I don’t have time to chase it down: the Southern states were concerned about their own right to make their own choices about slavery, but also determined to make sure that they also had some say in whether new states allowed slavery, regardless of what the residents of those states wanted. So no one had a right to infringe on their right to decide for themselves, but they had a right to infringe on other states’s right to decide for themselves.

Seems like their affection for states’ rights was … could it be … dishonest and self-serving?

50

David Carlton 04.14.11 at 1:35 pm

Just to reinforce a point, Stephens was most definitely not a loon. Not simply for the reasons named above; he was also an eloquent and forceful *opponent* of Georgia’s secession, pointing out [quite rightly] that the federal government had done absolutely nothing to infringe Georgia’s “state rights,” was not likely to do so in the immediate future, and was in fact the great guarantor of slavery. Secession was revolution, and revolutions tend to go badly for conservatives–by pointing this out [like his fellow "loon" James Louis Petigru in SC], he was prescient. He went along with secession, and even justified its creation with the Cornerstone speech, but he was always, er, less than committed to the cause–hence his bizarre behavior during the war. If he was a prima donna, well, so were most Confederate politicians up to and including Davis himself. And in any case, as has already been pointed out, the motives of secessionists can be amply documented without using the Cornerstone speech at all.

51

SaminMpls 04.14.11 at 1:39 pm

Hmm… When Hitchens became a citizen he had Lou Dobbs apply his flag pin for the first time.

What would be appropriate to pin to Henry and who should have the honor of pinning him?

52

Anderson 04.14.11 at 1:43 pm

If Alph hadn’t quoted the Mississippi secession proclamation, I was going to. Quotes from SC and GA, with links, here.

What those statements indicate, esp. SC’s, is how *lame* secession was. The South seceded, not because anything had been done to it, but because it was *afraid* that a Republican president *might* somehow do something against slavery. The comparison to the Tea Party and Birthers is on-point.

And congrats, Henry!

53

William Timberman 04.14.11 at 1:47 pm

Southerners (real or virtual) argue now that the causes of their secession were political and economic. True, but irrelevant. The real issue was slavery, which to a Southerner — then as well as now — was part of the moral order, and forcing Southerners to abandon it was, by their lights, immoral. We shouldn’t forget that slaveholders were aristocrats by inclination, if not in fact, and that they had an aristocrat’s contempt for those who worked with their hands. In their view, slavery was an entirely fit station for those who worked their holdings. It was an unshakeable conviction among them that it was God’s own will that these lesser creatures should be their property.

The attitudes of many on the American right — especially, but not exclusively from the South — have always reflected this degenerate form of aristocratic contempt for the droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l’homme. De Tocqueville, writing 25 years before matters came to a head, made some very eloquent observations on the brewing storm, and dwelt at some length on the attitudes which eventually erupted into war. His insights are still very much worth reading today.

54

JP Stormcrow 04.14.11 at 1:50 pm

It certainly does seem to be true that Stephens’ speech was not “welcomed” by the rest of the Confederate leadership at that particular moment with regards to gaining international support for their cause. So probably a diplomatic faux pas but not unrepresentative.

55

Substance McGravitas 04.14.11 at 1:50 pm

Look, people voted Bachmann into office again and again too.

OMG that must mean “everybody” = “everybody less everybody who voted for that person”! The Confederate Congress voted Stephens Vice President, like it or lump it.

56

PG 04.14.11 at 1:56 pm

No, South Carolina said it was seceding because non-slave states were violating the U.S. Constitution. Article IV, Sec. 2: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

When the Constitution was written, slave states were perfectly aware that it would be a problem for them to join a Union in which slaves could cease to be slaves just be crossing an internal border between slave and non-slave state. The slave states therefore demanded this provision be enshrined in the Constitution. Non-slave states refused to return runaway slaves despite their Constitutional obligation to do so. This is why Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act to empower federal officials to go into non-slave states, hunt down escaped slaves, and return them to their owners. However, the Act was not very effective, and slave states foresaw the possibility of losing ever-larger numbers of slaves due to escape and harbor in non-slave states.

The Civil War unquestionable was fought “about slavery,” but if you care more about the Rule of Law than about Human Rights, the Confederacy had a decent case that it was justified in seceding from the Union because the compact under which those slave states had agreed to join — the U.S. Constitution — had been broken by non-slave states.

57

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 1:59 pm

There were plenty of loons. Stephens was a loon who disagreed with other loons on certain points. “With malice toward none, with charity for all” was a big mistake.

The loons only got 18% of the vote in the 1860 election and were not a majority even in the South, but because they were willing to use violence and fraud and defy the law, they controlled the agenda. After they lost the war the same people, or their heirs, went back to work and used the same methods to regain control. The South has always been ruled by a small minority, the better class of white people, and the Southern model is becoming increasingly dominant in the rest of the US. Michael Lind’s “Made in Texas”, which claims that G W Bush was the heir of the unreconstructed planter class, is more relevant today than it was when it was written. Just throw in a little Leo Strauss and a little Mont Pelerin neoliberalism, and you have the future of America and the world. Congratulations, Henry.

58

MPAVictoria 04.14.11 at 2:01 pm

“The key, alph, is to recognize that Myles’ opinions are simultaneously a) strongly-held and b) random. He just randomly hates Stephens.”

Brilliant! But you forgot c) his hatred of working people.

59

William Timberman 04.14.11 at 2:09 pm

PG @ 55

Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech was an honest acknowledgement of the depth of this conflict between the South’s understanding of the deal they’d made when their representatives agreed to the Constitution, and the North’s abhorrence of slavery. He understood very well that war could be the only outcome, and said so in the face of a good deal of reluctance from the rest of the North to face what was coming.

We should be equally honest today about the gridlock in Washington, which echoes in large part the conflict of 150 years ago, and is as much a part of our heritage as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

60

rea 04.14.11 at 2:12 pm

When you think about the Civil War, if you had to choose, would you say that you sympathize more with the northern states that were part of the Union or the southern states that were part of the Confederacy

The form of this question would have seriously pissed Lincoln off. The southern states were part of the union, too–that was the whole point.

61

rea 04.14.11 at 2:24 pm

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.–Lincoln explains the the role of slavery in causing the war, 2nd Inaugural Address.

62

Bloix 04.14.11 at 2:28 pm

Anyone who wants to argue for states’ rights has to answer this question: why were the people of Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois so much less concerned with the rights of their states than the people of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana? What was different about the two groups of states? Anybody? Anybody?

63

Ben Alpers 04.14.11 at 2:28 pm

The Civil War unquestionable was fought “about slavery,” but if you care more about the Rule of Law than about Human Rights, the Confederacy had a decent case that it was justified in seceding from the Union because the compact under which those slave states had agreed to join—the U.S. Constitution—had been broken by non-slave states.

But it’s important to remember that the Southern secessionists didn’t see this conflict between the rule of law and human rights at all. Many Southerners tended to see what we would call human rights as a bit of eighteenth-century nonsense that sensible, modern people like themselves had left behind. You see this same argument at least as far back as the 1840s in John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government.

Lincoln, for his part, absolutely saw a tension between the rule of law and human rights. And his commitment to the Union as such kept him from being an abolitionist in the strict sense despite his anti-slavery views.

(I suppose one could also throw Frederick Douglass into this mix, as an abolitionist who argued that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document,” opposed to slavery if properly understood and entirely reflective of the values of the Declaration of Independence.)

64

alph 04.14.11 at 2:29 pm

Yeah, it really is a badly worded question, since it asks you how you feel about certain states rather than how you feel about parties to the conflict or their ideologies.

It is being discussed and summarized (in parts of the web) as though it asked whether you sympathized *with the Confederacy* or not, and it simply does not ask that question.

Someone might “sympathize more with the southern states” on account of their climate, culture, or football teams. Someone might do so without any awareness that these states happened to be “states that were part of the Confederacy”.

(It’s a bit like asking “do you prefer to drink the wines of Germany, the home of the Nazis, or of Finland, which resisted Soviet incursions”, and then using that as a guide to political inclinations.)

Now–in fact, no one in the south is that unaware. And I’m not denying that this poll probably reflects, indirectly, an unhealthy lingering sympathy with the white supremacist ideology of the Confederacy.

But, damn, what a badly-worded question for testing the truth of that hypothesis!

65

Ben Alpers 04.14.11 at 2:33 pm

And of course other abolitionists disagreed with Douglass about the Constitution’s essential position on slavery. Garrison called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned it.

66

StevenAttewell 04.14.11 at 2:40 pm

A couple of points:
1. Regarding “the Founders” – whenever anyone discusses “what the Founders believed,” they should always, always qualify their statements by adding “some of the.” The Founders did not agree on what the Constitution meant or should mean, and early American politics flowed from that. A Hamilton would not agree to the right of secession, nor would Adams, neither would have Madison during the Constitutional Convention although he changed his mind about that. Washington sent Federal troops to quell resistance to Federal taxation – hardly in line with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The Republicans of 1865 were absolutely drawing on the Founders for their constitutional theory, but like the fire-eaters of 1865, they were drawing on a particular subset that aligned with their pre-existing beliefs on slavery.
2. Regarding state’s rights – it’s important to note that the South seceded despite being able to filibuster in the Senate and having a majority in the Supreme Court which had just ruled unconstitutional any Congressional restriction on the individual’s right to own slaves, despite the Fugitive Slave Act, etc. The Federal government put troops onto streets of Boston to enforce it. The fire-eaters wanted a separate nation for the same reason they had wanted one for thirty years: the maintenance of planter rule and the unlimited expansion of slavery. Their fear was not Republican policies, but the decline in slavery in the Upper South that would eventually lead to a constitutional amendment banning slavery.
3. Regarding South Carolina – as stated above, South Carolina faced no immediate danger due to high institutional barriers to any attack on slavery. The number of slaves who actually escaped the South’s internal police state was never more than 1,000 a year – when stacked up against a total slave population of 4 million. And Constitutionally, the “Compact Theory” was not accepted by the Supreme Court on sound grounds; it also wouldn’t explain the right of secession by Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee which had never been independent states but rather U.S property.
4. Another point that should be mentioned is the South’s rejection of majority rule in any situation that it couldn’t control the majority. Keep in mind that the South had systematically tried to filibuster the inclusion of any new free state, the building of a trans-continental railroad, and the establishment of land grant colleges. Even if slavery had never existed, treason in defense of the veto rights of the planter class over the will of the people would still be odious.

67

alph 04.14.11 at 2:47 pm

“treason in defense of the veto rights of the planter class over the will of the people would still be odious.”

Nice! It doesn’t really trip off the tongue, but it has the advantage of being true.

68

LFC 04.14.11 at 2:52 pm

Have only skimmed the thread (sorry), but I for one am a bit surprised that that paragraph about states’ rights is in the U.S. citizenship study guide. It might be interesting to know who writes the guide and when it was last revised.

Fwiw, there was a segment with three historians — Walter Edgar, Drew Faust, Edna Medford — on PBS NewsHour a couple of days ago, and on the causes of the war and a polling question that posed slavery vs. states’ rights as different possible answers, they all said it was “pretty decisively” (Faust’s words) settled among historians that slavery was the underlying cause. Edgar (Univ. of South Carolina) referred iirc to ‘the Cornerstone Speech,’ quoted upthread.

69

Mark Field 04.14.11 at 3:06 pm

After the first round of secession, the states which had “left” sent commissioners to the remaining southern states in an effort to convince them to join the secession. The arguments made by those commissioners — obviously, arguments which they thought would be persuasive — can be found here. There’s also a book about this incident by Charles Dew.

If you read those speeches, along with the secession ordinances already linked, it’s impossible to deny that slavery was the cause for secession.

70

Shelley 04.14.11 at 3:24 pm

I wonder if the study guide brings up the way that the wealthy class encouraged the black/white divide below them to keep working class people busy fighting each other rather than looking at the inequity that was (is) really keeping them down.

71

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 3:28 pm

The piece at this link emphasizes the thinness of support for the Confederacy and slavery even within the South, and the degree to which the planter minority succeeded in dominating the other whites nonetheless. I am not able to critique it but as it stands, it makes a compelling case.

http://www.correntewire.com/truth_about_confederacy

72

Mr. Grey 04.14.11 at 3:29 pm

As many other commentators have pointed out, the contemporary causes of the war are plain to see. Most of the seceding states and leading Southern statesmen explicitly cite slavery as the reason for secession, and any claims to states rights fall apart in the face of the Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott

The discussion of the “true cause” of the ACW is very much a result of a conscious historiography constructed by the losing team. Concepts such as state’s rights, the Lost Cause, and whole lot of the other mythology regarding the Confederacy was constructed by Southerners after they got their clocks cleaned by the North. The result of this historical re-writing is that subsequent generations have been left with a muddied and confusing account.

The UVA historian Gary Gallagher is very good on this stuff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gMHz_FitTk

What’s fascinating about the South, in my opinion, is not why they fought, but the odd and conflicted relationship they have had with the United States as a result. On the one hand they claim to be “Real Americans TM” and on the other they threaten secession and a revisit of the Civil War whenever it looks like the North is in charge again (e.g. Gov. Perry in Texas).

It’s a curious mix of the post-1870 bitterness of revanchist France and the aggressive exuberance of Imperial Germany.

NB: this last observation is not mine, but can be found in this book: http://www.amazon.com/America-Right-Wrong-American-Nationalism/dp/0195168402

73

Mr. Grey 04.14.11 at 3:30 pm

Oops. Didn’t quite use the italicize function correctly. Ah, well; you get the point.

74

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 3:32 pm

The above link relies on four books :

“Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War”, David Williams, 2008

“The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy”, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, 2009.

William W. Freehling, 2001, “The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War”

Richard Nelson Current, 1972 , “Lincoln’s Loyalists: Union Soldiers From the Confederacy”.

75

Matt McIrvin 04.14.11 at 3:45 pm

I am astonished that the fraction of Confederate sympathizers among white Southerners is that low. I think things have changed down there since I was a kid.

76

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 3:54 pm

It’s also bleeding North. Minnesota was so Yankee that the Democratic Party didn’t get anywhere until 1948 or so, but you see Confederate regalia here and there now.

“Making Minnesota Liberal”, Jennifer Delton, tells how Humphrey’s 1948 civil rights speech was the price he had to pay to convince the Farmer-Laborites that he wasn’t a cracker like all the other Democrats.

77

nick 04.14.11 at 4:16 pm

growing up, in the Canadian school system, I recall feeling encouraged to argue (as I did!) by a jr. high school teacher that “state’s rights” were the primary cause of the Civil War…this, ahem, peculiar educational perspective deriving, I think, not from a pro-Confederacy or otherwise racist stance but rather, a from generalized cynicism about America’s myths of its own virtuousness (a very Canadian perspective, imo)

78

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 4:27 pm

As I understand, until the 1960s the consensus among American history teachers and especially in English departments, North and South, was that the Civil War was unfortunate, it wasn’t really about slavery, and if anyone was to blame it was the Abolitionists. A friend of mine at Boston College ca. 1965 was horrified at what he was taught.

After about 1900 the Democratic Party was hard-core white supremacist, and Republican resistance to white supremacy dwindled. The Southern Republican Party, which had had its areas of strength (e.g. North Carolina) almost disappeared (often because if murder and intimidation), and the rump parties that remained redefined themselves as “lily white”.

So there was no one to care but the Communists, and Southerners hate Communists to this day. For example, Obama.

79

john c. halasz 04.14.11 at 4:36 pm

Umm…isn’t the persistence of the “states’ rights” myth due to it’s being a code word for the maintenance of segregation?

OTOH the Civil War was not fought by the Union initially with the aim of abolishing slavery, (which arose initially from military necessity), but rather to preserve the Union. So wouldn’t “states’ rights” be the obverse of that, as a constitutional claim to secession? (Given base and superstructure, etc.)

80

PSP 04.14.11 at 5:20 pm

Since the question is on a citizenship test intended to verify familiarity with American history, doesn’t the fact that states rights is a commonly argued view of the causes of the Civil War trump the fact that it is an incorrect view?

81

Antonio Conselheiro 04.14.11 at 5:25 pm

It’s sort of a performative, helping keep the incorrect view respectable.

82

Matthew 04.14.11 at 6:01 pm

There is a division to the defense of secession at the time and the defense now by southern sympathizers. At the time many institutions were grasping to defend their seperation decisions and the defense of slavery. The southern baptists, splitting from the northern baptists, argued at the time that northern abolition arguments went against the church’s strict separation of church and state. It was a defense of the churches position on slavery and thier congregants slave-owning ways. I’ll try to find a good quote from an online source, but I’ve only found this from sermon excerpts in church history books.

83

Salient 04.14.11 at 6:17 pm

I like Bloix’s characterization and would add — State’s rights is a completely valid argument argument to make, providing one openly admits to feeling that state’s rights trump human rights. Whenever state’s rights are widely cited (e.g. to deny access to reproductive health care for women), it’s because those state’s rights conflict with human rights.

84

bianca steele 04.14.11 at 6:27 pm

Bloix @ 61
Why? Because the northern states felt sure that their will was going to be implemented by Washington (in spite of the fact that it wasn’t), so they didn’t feel any need to build up the idea that they had a separate culture from the dominant one in the United States; and they felt equally sure that Southerners and their agents would not be invading their own home states to interfere with local laws and customs there (which was also not quite the case).

85

bianca steele 04.14.11 at 6:32 pm

William Timberman @ 52: that slaveholders were aristocrats by inclination

In fact, many slaveholders were small landowners and even professionals. The former tended not to have white hired men and so on. As for the latter, where in England a few decades later, a professional man could show that he’d “made it” by buying up gilt-edged bonds, in the South at the time, he did so by buying his way into the class of slaveowners.

86

Bruce Baugh 04.14.11 at 6:32 pm

Bianca, a lot of abolitionists and a lot of less passionately anti-slavery folks felt nothing of the sort. A recurring theme in abolitionist literature of the ’40s and ’50s is in fact whether they might end up having to break with the Union because of how thoroughly it had been captured by the slave power. They had the example of the Mexican-American War handing the South some fresh opportunities and the rise of Southern dominance in the military, along with the Fugitive Slave Act and such – plenty of good reasons for pessimism, and plenty of pessimism felt.

Yes, some northerners felt sure that the tide of history and American governance was on their side. Many others didn’t.

87

Bloix 04.14.11 at 6:37 pm

“their will was going to be implemented by Washington”

Their will about what issue, Bianca? Internal improvements? Construction of a transcontinental railroad? Tariffs? Aid to manufactures? Indian policy? A national bank? What shared “will” did Arkansas and Virginia have that was opposed to a “will” shared by Minnesota and New York?

88

Bruce Baugh 04.14.11 at 6:40 pm

Unless, of course, once again I’ve completely failed to understand something Bianca was trying to say. Which I sort of expect.

89

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 6:43 pm

State’s rights is a completely valid argument argument to make, providing one openly admits to feeling that state’s rights trump human rights.

Oh, come on. States rights is a completely valid argument argument to make, period.

Should states have the right to institute gay marriage? Should Vermont be able to institute a single payer health care system? More to the point, should states have the right to secede?

90

bianca steele 04.14.11 at 6:48 pm

Bruce, thanks for the clarification. If you’ve misunderstood me, I don’t see where.

Bloix, the answer to your question is slavery, of course. Wasn’t that the implied answer to your rhetorical question earlier? But by 1860 a certain part of the South had convinced itself that the reason they were challenged in cases like Dred Scott was disrespect for states rights, and to some extent they felt this went farther than the question of slavery. (I don’t remember whether the economic questions involved things like tariffs that might have benefited regions unequally.) They were certain that Lincoln was going to commit abominations and were surely sincere in their belief that it was their “way of life” that was threatened, existentially.

91

Bruce Baugh 04.14.11 at 7:09 pm

Southern extremists had much less ground in actual reality for their fears. But they’d worked themselves into what turns out to be a very characteristic state in American right-wing extremism: the conviction that they’re being oppressed unless they’re being actively cheered on and materially supported by everyone else. Coexistence won’t do it. Legal protection won’t do it. If they know that others dislike them, that’s oppression to them, just as it is to their heirs in the modern Republican Party.

92

bianca steele 04.14.11 at 7:13 pm

HV:
There are different parts to states rights: One says that rights traditionally the domain of the states shouldn’t be interfered with by the federal government. Another, for example, says that valid federal laws can be selectively nullified by the legislatures of the various states. It is certainly a valid theory that US states should be states rather than what they are; that’s just not law in the US.

93

rea 04.14.11 at 7:21 pm

It was never a matter of “state’s rights”–it was a dispute over who would be able to use the power of the federal government to override state preferences. The Fugitive Slave law was a huge violation of state’s rights–the Constitution required states to enforce the return of fugitive slaves, but the South insisted that enforcement be done by the federal government, on the grounds that some states weren’t sufficiently enthused about carrying out their Constitutional duties. The South wanted to expand slavery to the West, and by annexing big chunks of Latin American and the Caribbean. The election of Lincoln brought about the war, not because the South thought he would abolish slavery, but because his election showed that the South was not going to win the battle for control of the federal government.

In this context, it makes perfect sense to say that the was was caused by slavery, even though abolition of slavery was no part of the initial war aim of the federal government. Indeed, the only way the president had the constitutional power to issue an Emancipation Proclamation was in his role as Commander-in-Chief, as a war-making measure

94

Western Dave 04.14.11 at 7:27 pm

Look folks, the Civil War is about slavery… in the territories. Lincoln offended the South because he flat out refused to allow the expansion of slavery beyond where it already existed. Many southerners, having already seen slavery diminished in Virginia and moved South and West knew this meant an eventual end to slavery unless they went their own way. Hence secession. The North contested session more because they knew they would have to fight the South eventually over western territory (who would get New Mexico?) so they may as well fight them now before they get too well established. (The Fort Sumter question, after all, was about who did federal territory belong to? That question had deep implications for western territories.)

Thus, we see again, the contempt for the East Coast media elite (North and South) for flyover country.

95

sean matthews 04.14.11 at 7:31 pm

Given this, what on earth possessed you to want to become an American?

96

andrew 04.14.11 at 7:39 pm

the southern inability to accept the truth of the Civil War’s origins reminds me of the inability of Japanese right-wingers and nationalists to accept the truth of the “comfort women” history.

to be fair, I would say that americans in general dislike hearing about the role that the U.S. had in the history of the Philippines and Haiti.

97

Rick Geissal 04.14.11 at 7:41 pm

One – admittedly lesser – cause of secession was Southern hurt feelings that Northerners, generally, and abolitionists, specifically, looked down on Southerners. I have lived in several Southern states, as well as slave-holding Missouri, for most of my life; often, I have heard Southerners express their bitterness at Yankee condescension towards them.

98

Kenny Easwaran 04.14.11 at 7:44 pm

It seems surprising to me that an insurrection in one part of a country still has a substantial minority of sympathizers 150 years later – it points to a very incomplete victory in the war. Do people still identify with different sides in the English Civil War? Are there any sympathizers with the Ancien Regime from the French Revolution? I can’t think of any other comparable revolutions from around that time frame that were unsuccessful (both then and later) that could be used as relevant comparisons.

99

Salient 04.14.11 at 7:56 pm

Should states have the right to institute gay marriage?

States shouldn’t have the right to prohibit gay marriage. In fact, this is an example of “state’s rights” to prohibit gay marriage currently trumping the human right to marry one’s life partner and derive the social benefits this country affords to that partnership. That’s morally wrong. Gay rights are human rights, which ought to come before the interests of the state.

Should Vermont be able to institute a single payer health care system?

I’ve never heard anyone argue that Vermont shouldn’t be able to institute a single-payer health care system on anti-federalist grounds. A “state’s rights” argument is much more specific than “states have the right to do stuff.” A “state’s rights” argument specifically puts forth that a state has the right to take away the rights of its populace (rights = rights as recognized under federal law), and that the federal government cannot act to countermand that state-level restriction except by Constitutional amendment (and perhaps not even that). It’s not “states have rights,” it’s “states have the specific right to overrule the rights that have been granted to their populace by federal law.”

More to the point, should states have the right to secede?

No, they shouldn’t and don’t, except perhaps by national referendum.

100

Salient 04.14.11 at 7:57 pm

(Also, I’ll second what bianca said at #88)

101

Kenny Easwaran 04.14.11 at 8:02 pm

Salient – I think your answers make some unwarranted assumptions about the federal government. Should states have the right to permit or forbid certain types of marriages?

One alternative view is that the federal government should have the right to permit or forbid marriages and the states should have no involvement. On that view, given that the DOMA is still law, same-sex marriages would be forbidden nationwide for all purposes, not just federally.

Another alternative is the view that no government should be involved in permitting or forbidding marriages. But this view by its nature only talks about a certain type of marriage (namely, one that comes with no legal benefits) that is already available to same-sex couples in virtually all jurisdictions. (Perhaps some countries governed by religious law forbid even the non-legal marriages, as the military code has.)

As for single-payer health care – I believe the question is related to the fact that the healthcare reform act signed by Obama requires every state to have a certain composition of exchange, and that single-payer insurance systems violate this rule. There’s a proposal to allow states to institute alternative plans as long as they provide coverage to a high enough percentage of the population, which reinstates a certain kind of right to the state. But you’re right, it’s rarely phrased that way in terms of “states rights”, except in response to the rightist uses of the term.

102

CBrinton 04.14.11 at 8:15 pm

It’s often asserted that a legal right of secession was generally accepted before the civil war, and that calling secession unconstitutional was just a matter of the victors imposing their own views.

This is false. In 1851, a convention of elected representatives of the voters of Mississippi adopted the following resolution, by a vote of 73-71:

“4th. Resolved, further, That, in the opinion of this Convention, the asserted right of secession from the Union on the part of a State or States is utterly unsanctioned by the Federal Constitution, which was framed to ‘establish’ and not to destroy the Union of the States, and that no secession, can, in fact, take place without a subversion of the Union established, and which will not virtually amount in its effects and consequences to a civil revolution.”

For the full text see the Google Books version (the above is on p. 47-48, with the vote total on p. 33), available at

http://books.google.com/books?id=zTAMAQAAMAAJ

103

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 8:23 pm

Salient, the “states rights” argument is about the rights of the state governments vis-a-vis those of the central government. Therefore your “States shouldn’t have the right to prohibit gay marriage.” and all the stuff that follows is a non sequitur; you are not addressing the issue.

A “state’s rights” argument specifically puts forth that a state has the right to take away the rights of its populace

Seriously? Whose definition is that?

104

Salient 04.14.11 at 8:26 pm

I think your answers make some unwarranted assumptions about the federal government.

Nah, because I put human rights above nation’s rights too. I thought of various examples myself — for example, the nation requiring all documents of all state governments to be printed only in English. (Actually that one seems trickier to respond to than HV’s examples.) Anyway, here’s a more specific reply:

One alternative view is that the federal government should have the right to permit or forbid marriages and the states should have no involvement. On that view, given that the DOMA is still law, same-sex marriages would be forbidden nationwide for all purposes, not just federally.

Indeed, the law of the nation is currently in violation of human rights. Human rights presumably ought to trump “nation’s rights” as well as “state’s rights” so I see no reason for this to come into conflict with my statement. States (as well as individuals) who act to undermine the federal law ought to be given credit for putting human rights above nation’s rights. Probably the technical/legal arguments required to sustain that undermining would be rank sophistry, but I figure being a hack shilling for human rights is better than being a hack for whatever else.

I guess maybe states should have the right to undermine nation’s rights the same way the nation should have the right to undermine state’s rights, if the purpose is to defend human rights. But I feel like that’s a logical consequence of putting human rights above nation/state rights.

Another alternative is the view that no government should be involved in permitting or forbidding marriages.

Well, I guess a state/nation could devise some alternative system of recognizing and supporting families (in the general sense of the word). I suppose the right-to-marry is better expressed as right-to-form-a-socially-acknowledged-and-protected-family-unit. And maybe this is badly expressed too, as there’s probably some way to abstractly generalize the human right to something that doesn’t specifically reference the idea of family.

The marriage-as-human-right is rather technically tricky. I’m not the best person to ask for a spirited philosophical defense of it. But arguing about whether marriage is a human right is very different from arguing about whether state’s rights (or nation’s rights) ought to trump a given human right.

A good question to ask me (and a hard one to answer) would be whether human privilege as granted by a state ought to be overruleable by the nation, and whether human privilege as granted by a nation ought to be overruleable by states/precincts/etc. That’s a very tricky thing to assess (but [thankfully] it’s quite different from the “state’s rights” arguments that actually appear in political discourse).

I believe the question is related to the fact that the healthcare reform act signed by Obama requires every state to have a certain composition of exchange, and that single-payer insurance systems violate this rule.

Wait, what? I wasn’t aware of this. Single-payer is now de facto illegal? Or is it just that such systems don’t qualify as a substitute for the exchange, so states are required to offer both? That would make that part of ACA a very bad law in either case, I think, but on financial waste/redundancy grounds, not on “state’s rights” grounds.

105

Dave W. 04.14.11 at 8:29 pm

I wrote up a summary of evidence about the Southern leaders’ views on succession back in 2002, at http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.bridge/browse_thread/thread/44d148e4113650dc/4ce7a59bae894055?q=Jefferson+Davis+author:NOSPAMdave%40sebastian9.com#4ce7a59bae894055 .

Here is the key stuff, with updated links, since Epperson’s web site has moved in the mean time:

Lincoln was not initially proposing to end slavery in the
states where it currently existed. What he *was* proposing to do was to
prevent the further expansion of slavery to the territories that
were not yet states, and the new states that would be carved
from those territories. Politicians on both sides understood
that this policy, if carried out and not reversed, would mean a gradual
decline in the political power of slaveholding states, followed by
the *eventual* end of slavery in the US. The prospect terrified Southern
politicians so much that they turned to sucession to try to prevent it, which
brought on the war. While there were other issues, slavery was by
far the biggest issue, and the only one that could not be satisfactorily
addressed through the normal political process.

If you doubt that slavery was the primary cause of the war, I recommend
reading what leading Southern politicians had to say about
the issue on the eve of the war. You can find many of these documents
online at James F. Epperson’s “Causes of the Civil War” site
(http://civilwarcauses.org).

For starters, there are the Declarations of Causes for Secession
passed by four of the secession conventions in order to explain
their actions to the rest of the world:
(http://civilwarcauses.org/plat.htm).

Although a few other issues do get mentioned in one or two of the
declarations, the vast majority of the grievances cited have to do
with slavery. Then there is the Crittenden Compromise, which was
proposed by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky in December 1860
in a last minute effort to resolve the crisis:
(http://civilwarcauses.org/cc.htm). Note that each part of
his proposal had to do with ensuring the continuation of slavery – he
certainly seems to have thought that slavery was the primary issue.

There were other proposals to resolve the crisis,
(http://civilwarcauses.org/comp.htm), including one by Jefferson
Davis, who was soon to become the President of the Confederacy:

Resolved, That it shall be declared, by amendment of the Constitution,
that property in slaves, recognized as such by the local law of any of
the States of the Union, shall stand on the same footing in all
constitutional and federal relations as any other species of property
so recognized; and, like other property, shall not be subject to be
divested or impaired by the local law of any other State, either in
escape thereto or of transit or sojourn of the owner therein; and in
no case whatever shall such property be subject to be divested or
impaired by any legislative act of the United States, or of any of
the Territories thereof.

It certainly seems that Jefferson Davis thought the primary issue was
slavery.

Next, one can read the open letter from Georgia governor Joe Brown to the
citizens of his state http://civilwarcauses.org/jbrown.htm).
In his analysis of the consequences of Lincoln’s election, it certainly
seems that Governor Brown thought that the future of slavery was the main
issue. Governor Moore of Alabama seems to have felt similarly
(http://civilwarcauses.org/govmoore.htm). There is the First
Message of Governor Isham Harris to the Tennessee Assembly
(http://civilwarcauses.org/harris.htm), in which he provides
his analysis of the crisis, and endorses the Crittenden Compromise as
a condition on which the slave states could remain in the Union.
Virginia Governor John Letcher also proposed conditions for resolving
the crisis (http://civilwarcauses.org/letcher.htm), all
concerning slavery.

Finally, one may refer to the “Cornerstone Speech”
of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy and chair
of the committee that drafted the CSA Constitution, of which the
key segment is at: http://civilwarcauses.org/corner.htm.
He refers to the question of slavery and the status of African-Americans
as “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Reading his comments may be enlightening in understanding the
reasoning behind the post-Reconstruction “Jim Crow” laws in the south.
Now if all these Southern leaders were convinced that slavery was
the primary cause of the crisis, I’m not going to disagree.
Yes, there were other issues involved, but slavery was by far
the biggest, and the only one that could no longer be compromised away.
Any historian who thinks otherwise is either ignoring this documented
record, or attributing ulterior motives to the speakers.

106

Salient 04.14.11 at 8:32 pm

Salient, the “states rights” argument is about the rights of the state governments vis-a-vis those of the central government.

No. It’s not. People may pretend that’s what the argument is about, for the rhetorical advantages that obfuscation confers, but that’s not what the argument is actually about.

Seriously?

Yes, seriously. Why do you think people put scare quotes around “state’s rights” here? Can you point to a case where “state’s rights” advocates are arguing for anything other than the state’s right to violate the human rights of its citizens? In the examples you put forth, “state’s rights” arguments are not being made. The only times this argument comes up (that I can think of anyway — feel free to add some) are

* slavery, then Jim Crow laws, segregation, etc

* right of a state to restrict marriage to straight individuals

* restricting access to women’s reproductive health care and choice

All of these are cases where the old guard are trying to protect or reimplement their historical privilege to violate or undermine the human rights of others.

107

SamChevre 04.14.11 at 8:32 pm

State’s rights is a completely valid argument argument to make, providing one openly admits to feeling that state’s rights trump human rights.

Right; and this is a basic standard premise of everyone who is not an anarchist–the state has the right to do things that individuals cannot do.

108

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 8:40 pm

That would make that part of ACA a very bad law in either case, I think, but on financial waste/redundancy grounds, not on “state’s rights” grounds.

No, it’s bad because it’s a federal law that prohibits states (Vermont, in this case) from instituting its own model of a health care system. It’s a states rights issue, pure and simple.

None of this has anything whatsoever to do with human rights, it’s all about autonomy.

109

Salient 04.14.11 at 8:40 pm

Right; and this is a basic standard premise of everyone who is not an anarchist—the state has the right to do things that individuals cannot do.

Yeah, I guess I really should have explicitly acknowledged that in some cases it’s a perfectly sane and good thing to argue, and that one is not thereby compelled to argue that state’s rights trump all human rights or that state’s rights always trump human rights. The human right to not be imprisoned is a pretty clear example of such a human right.

What “state’s rights” advocates get away with is avoiding the hard work of directly arguing that a state ought to have the right to violate some set of human rights of its citizens: they sidestep that by instead arguing about some technical right of the state to contravene national law.

It’s kind of like an ambassador arguing that international legal authorities have no right to prevent the abmassador’s nation from slaughter its elderly citizens, because international law has no right to overrule a nation’s rights. They might be technically/legally correct according to whatever specific laws they reference, but it’s kind of morally moot. What they’re actually arguing is that their nation has the right to slaughter its elderly, and we shouldn’t allow them that rhetorical slight of hand!

110

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.14.11 at 8:47 pm

Salient, if you’re against laws violating human rights, why call them “states rights”? Why not call them, say, “laws violating human rights”? And you make it even more confusing by calling it “state’s rights”, which sounds like something that has nothing to do with federalism at all.

111

geo 04.14.11 at 8:56 pm

Yes, the Civil War was about slavery, but it was not therefore about human rights. Most Northerners didn’t care enough about blacks to go to war in order to liberate them. But the prospective expansion of slave labor west and south from an independent Confederacy undermined the economic prospects of both capital and labor, as well as white small farmers.

Also, as noted above, white planters had to dragoon much of the non- or small-slaveholding Southern white population into the war. There’s a good recent book about this: Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War by David Williams.

112

john c. halasz 04.14.11 at 8:57 pm

HV:

The VT legislature is currently drafting a single payer law, the new Dem. governor’s prime campaign promise, with a waiver granted for a 2015 rather than a 2017 start. So it’s not absolutely prohibited by ACA.

113

PG 04.14.11 at 9:04 pm

Salient,

Actual “states’ rights” arguments (more often called “federalist arguments” precisely because of the association of the phrase “states’ rights” with slavery) that have been made recently in the U.S. Supreme Court:

That the state of California has the right to allow its citizens access to medical marijuana, and this right overrides the federal law prohibiting the growth, distribution, use and possession of marijuana (Raich v. Ashcroft);

That the state of Massachusetts has the right to institute a boycott of Burma due to that regime’s gross violations of human rights, and this right overrides the federal government’s Constitutional power to conduct foreign policy (Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council);

That the state of Georgia has the right to regulate and punish predatory lending more strictly than the federal government does (Watters v. Wachovia).

Do you really believe that in all of these cases, the right of the state is in *opposition* to human rights?

114

ScentOfViolets 04.14.11 at 9:27 pm

What “state’s rights” advocates get away with is avoiding the hard work of directly arguing that a state ought to have the right to violate some set of human rights of its citizens: they sidestep that by instead arguing about some technical right of the state to contravene national law.

That seems to be the nub of it right there. I’d add that there’s the other side of the inequality (in some circumstances at least) so that human rights<states rights<rights of the Federal government<human rights. Which makes it a bit tricky, and why you have to be explicit rather than relying on rhetoric to do the heavy lifting.

115

StevenAttewell 04.14.11 at 9:28 pm

CBrinton at 91 is quite correct. There was a long anti-state’s rights tradition in the U.S, emerging out of Federalist nationalism, but also influenced by the Nullification Crisis, a href=”" http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/union-and-liberty-why-progressives-should-resist-secession/“”>”Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” etc.

Henri – regarding “human rights,” it absolutely is the case that “state’s rights” post-14th Amendment are absolutely about the right to violate people’s rights, namely the civil rights of black people in the South. The 13-15th amendments are relatively unique in that not only do they recognize human rights and enshrine them in law, but go on to explicitly empower the Federal government to act against states that violate them.

And while we’re on the subject – the 14th Amendment is also the lodestone for the establishment of equal rights for gays into law, through the Equal Protection clause.

Geo – the right to majority rule through the franchise is a human right.

Regarding state’s rights and health care: autonomy cuts both ways. The ACA limits state’s rights to deny people living within 133% of poverty access to Medicaid as well as requiring an exchange open to private plans that pass muster with exchange regulations, and offers a waiver. The point is that as it stands, a state’s rights argument for complete autonomy on health care might empower Vermont to go single-payer, but poor people in Mississippi and Alabama would suffer for it. Far better to have negotiated autonomy, where the Federal government has the leeway to offer exemptions, so that the Federal requirements become a floor not a ceiling.

116

Billikin 04.14.11 at 9:29 pm

Kenny Easwaran: “It seems surprising to me that an insurrection in one part of a country still has a substantial minority of sympathizers 150 years later – it points to a very incomplete victory in the war.”

Yes. The first failure of US nation building was in the South after the Civil War. The terrorists won.

117

ScentOfViolets 04.14.11 at 9:30 pm

We don’t have a lot of html codes to choose from do we? Let me try again:

What “state’s rights” advocates get away with is avoiding the hard work of directly arguing that a state ought to have the right to violate some set of human rights of its citizens: they sidestep that by instead arguing about some technical right of the state to contravene national law.

That seems to be the nub of it right there. I’d add that there’s the other side of the inequality (in some circumstances at least) so that human rights are trumped by states rights are trumped by Federal rights are trumped by human rights. Rather tricky, and why these sorts of assumptions have to be made explicit rather than letting rhetoric do the heavy lifting.

118

Billikin 04.14.11 at 9:52 pm

Salient: “Can you point to a case where “state’s rights” advocates are arguing for anything other than the state’s right to violate the human rights of its citizens?”

Medical marijuana.

119

John Quiggin 04.14.11 at 10:02 pm

It’s true that in the century or so after the Civil War, nearly all claims for State rights argued for violations of human rights. But that’s a contingent fact, as the examples above show.

What is true and is relevant to the post is that hardly anyone cares more about state rights (for or against) than about the outcome of the particular issue in question. If the supporters of medical marijuana (for example) could get the Federal government to legalise it nationally, their support for states rights would disappear overnight, and vice versa for the opponents.

120

StevenAttewell 04.14.11 at 10:10 pm

Quiggan – I don’t entirely agree. There are plenty of folks, fringe to be sure, who want the states’ rights as part of a larger project of political power. Think the “constitution in exile” legal associations. For them, any win is a thin end of the wedge.

Likewise, the procedural is not separable from the content issues. Given what we know about the exercise of state autonomy since the Civil War, we know that in any situation where states have authority, a particular subset of states will use that authority to abuse parts of their population. This isn’t just about de facto segregation – Southern states have also wanted autonomy from minimum wage laws, child labor laws, union rights laws, workplace safety laws, payroll taxes, obligations to provide minimum standards of welfare or Unemployment Insurance or Medicaid, etc.

So I think there is a real stumbling block here: given that state autonomy will lead to an attack on America’s greatest concentration of poor and racial autonomies, can progressives support states’ rights? I believe not.

121

StevenAttewell 04.14.11 at 10:11 pm

* racial minorities.

122

Colin Danby 04.14.11 at 10:23 pm

“surprising to me that an insurrection in one part of a country still has a substantial minority of sympathizers 150 years later “

Defeat sticks in the mind longer than victory. Billikin is right about the failure of Reconstruction, but how much would a successful Reconstruction have changed the structure of resentment? 150 years is not a long time.

Have Scots forgotten the Jacobite rising? Mexico’s Cristero revolt might be another case in comparison.

123

roy belmont 04.14.11 at 10:25 pm

It’s very important to keep the slavery conversation focused on the racist justifications for it. That way we can pretend we’re done with it. Because we’re no longer overtly racist in our social institutions generally.
So we’re not racist, and slavery is racist, and so therefore, there is no slavery, here.
Letting the “market” set the value of labor, when there is a surplus of laborers such as we’re soon headed for, is tantamount to allowing slavery back in the house; but since slavery’s now by definition racist, and we’re no longer are a racist society….
This as distinct from the current Publican +250K$ no-taxes, let the unproductive bottom-dwellers pay for their own entitlements sort of jackassery.
Which is not slavery, nor is it racist.
What it is is the same crap that gave us the Civil War at the get.
Inhuman chancers rigging the system any way they can, regardless who or what suffers as a consequence. Which is what slavery’s really all about, isn’t it?

124

Salient 04.14.11 at 10:30 pm

Ok, those are good points all… and I feel like JQ said in the second paragraph more or less what I should have been trying to say, but wasn’t, because I hadn’t thought it through well enough. Counterexamples and correction accepted, with gratitude.

It still feels like I was brushing up against some kind of good and somewhat important point in #105 though. There’s a weird rhetorical trick going on when people argue for states’ rights: it permits them to sidestep arguing for a policy on its merits. And that’s generally the purpose of a states’ rights argument, I think, at least in practice. It’s not just that “states’ rights” advocates care more about their pet policy than they do about state’s rights: it’s also that they’re using a “states’ rights” argument to try to get what they want on technicality, to convince people who oppose a policy to nonetheless support it on technical grounds. I still don’t know quite how to formulate or articulate the precise idea, though.

Salient, if you’re against laws violating human rights, why call them “states rights”?

Well, usually I don’t. More specifically, I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue for or against any particular policy on states’ rights grounds. (And ok, my apostrophe was in the wrong place, too: states’ rights versus state’s rights — but isn’t “states rights” equally ungrammatical?)

It occurs to me (especially after reading PG’s list) that the examples in my own mind are of people who are not in positions of power or authority, arguing points to each other, not to a judge. That means I’m focused on arguments that are intended to be moral arguments, in the general sense of what ought to be true about the nation we inhabit, instead of legal arguments, about how to interpret the balance of authority as it currently exists (that is, a legal argument would focus on what is true, whereas a moral argument focuses on what ought to be true — and I’ve been thinking only about examples of the latter case, in the popular discourse).

125

John Quiggin 04.15.11 at 12:00 am

If you want a legitimate argument for what “states rights” is supposed to cover, it’s much better expressed in terms of subsidiarity, that is, if its possible for people in different states (or whatever) to make different decisions, without adversely affecting each other then that’s what should happen. That doesn’t say that the state qua state has any particular rights (I’d extend this to nation-states, but my black helicopters are still in the shop)>

For example, there’s no good reason why every state should have the same educational curriculum or testing procedures. Drug laws are trickier. Prohibition in one state is presumably made more difficult by legalisation in another, but it seems reasonable to say that medical marijuana doesn’t have much of a spillover effect,.

126

rpl 04.15.11 at 12:10 am

It seems that only a few of you have touched on the origins of the Civil War as I see it. Or perhaps I read the wrong historians when I studied this. From the Lincoln-Douglas debates up to the secession, the main issue was not slavery in the existing slave states of the South, it was about the extension of slavery to the Western territories as they sought statehood. The rural agriculturally centered south (cotton interests in particular) clashed with the rapidly industrializing North primarily over the future of slavery, not over it’s existence. Lincoln did not set out to free the slaves. Emancipation was a result of the Civil War and not Lincoln’s original aim.

127

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 12:21 am

Hang on, Southern states providing lower welfare or UI or Medicaid benefits doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone outside that state – but it’s still wrong.

128

middleten 04.15.11 at 12:29 am

I am a white southerner–eligible to join the Sons of the Confederacy if I wanted–and I think it obvious that the Civil War was about slavery. The South wanted its expansion and thought it a positive good, the North didn’t agree with either, and this ultimately led to the war. It’s embarrassing that any educated person thinks otherwise.
But why has the discussion has broken down into white-southerners-think-they-should-won versus northerners-don’t-agree divide? In the poll Yglesias cites, six in ten white southerners say they don’t sympathize more with the South than the North, which pleasantly surprised me and is a major sign of change over the last few decades. It’s especially surprising considering how the question was framed — I can see people who intellectually know the South was wrong still admit to sympathizing more with the Southern side, simply from family ties and culture. Is it that some people don’t want to admit how much the South has changed, and are more comfortable with identifying racism as a “Southern” problem rather than an American one?

129

William Timberman 04.15.11 at 12:34 am

bianca steele @ 82

Precisely. The culture of a slaveholding aristocracy, fabricated out of whole cloth though it largely was, corrupted the entire South. You should have seen the Beaux Arts balls and cotillions of my youth, where the belle of the ball might well have been no grander in fact than the daughter of the county’s largest Chevy dealer.

What we aspire to marks us as indelibly as what we are, and nowhere was this more true than among the white folk in the South, whatever their true station.

130

Antonio Conselheiro 04.15.11 at 12:34 am

Have Scots forgotten the Jacobite rising?

Wiki: Of the total 3,471 prisoners recorded nothing is known of the fate of 648. The high ranking “rebel lords” were executed on Tower Hill in London. It was for Cumberland’s insistence that these aristocrats should not be pardoned, rather than for his actions in Scotland, that he was nicknamed “Butcher” by some.

Scotland was never a problem again. “With malice toward none” was an enormous mistake.

131

Different John 04.15.11 at 12:42 am

State’s rights actually referred to just one right: the right to secede from the Union legally. If you read the South Carolina statement of secession, the first state to secede, this is laid out explicitly over several paragraphs at the beginning of the document. The whole, entire, and complete point of the state’s rights argument was that they were not rebelling against the U.S., they were legitimately exercising their Constitutional right to secede as a state, a right granted implicitly by the way in which the Constitution had been adopted, and consequently any attack or other retaliation by the North would be an unwarranted aggression against an independent country. Playing to the European audience to some extent, of course, but also to the people of the North – after all, they didn’t really want war with the North, when it came right down to it – and the South – waverers be reassured! This is completely legal!

It had nothing to do with slavery, nullification, state – vs – federal laws, etc. That’s all post-war stuff stuck onto the admittedly rather neat phrase “state’s rights”. Doesn’t mean there can’t be some interesting discussions about the modern definition and its implications, though.

132

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 12:51 am

Well, regarding the failure of Reconstruction – I think the issue is equally a matter of land as it is the proper enforcement of civil rights. Successful nation-building after/during a civil war is as much about creating a majority coalition in favor of the regime than it is about eliminating hardliners. Hence the biens nationeaux during the French Revolution, but the failure of Thaddeus Stevens’ H.R 29 (1867) that would have “out of the lands thus seized and confiscated, the slaves who have been liberated …shall have distributed to them…40 acres” and sold the remainder as homesteads to loyal whites, which would have united poor whites and freedmen in being absolutely opposed to the return to power of the planter class.

133

ScentOfViolets 04.15.11 at 12:52 am

It’s true that in the century or so after the Civil War, nearly all claims for State rights argued for violations of human rights. But that’s a contingent fact, as the examples above show.

I’m not following you on this one. Could you explain what you mean by a “contingent fact” in these circumstances? AFAICT, just about everyone already agrees that the various “rights” are not absolute rights. Presumably this applies not only at the individual level, but at the state and federal level as well.

What is true and is relevant to the post is that hardly anyone cares more about state rights (for or against) than about the outcome of the particular issue in question. If the supporters of medical marijuana (for example) could get the Federal government to legalise it nationally, their support for states rights would disappear overnight, and vice versa for the opponents.

Hmmm. I don’t know too many people like that. They tend to argue like an old-school libertarian circa 1976 that nobody has any business regulating the growth, sale, and use of marijuana. Substitute tomatoes for marijuana in these arguments and you’ll see why; nobody argues that the federal government doesn’t have a preemptive stake in the sale and traffic of genuinely dangerous drugs. But could the government extend this sort of control to tomatoes simply by choosing to classify them as a dangerous drug? Of course not, any more than calling a tail a leg means that dogs have five legs.

134

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 12:54 am

DifferentJohn – bushwah. In addition to Lincoln’s famous rebuttal (relying on the “more perfect” clause and the natural law of state immortality), there’s the issue that Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee never existed outside of the U.S and therefore could not appeal to the same principle.

135

SamChevre 04.15.11 at 12:59 am

Geo – the right to majority rule through the franchise is a human right.

But accepting that, you promptly get back to the underlying subsidiarity and rights questions.

So, majority rule through the franchise:
1) At what level of aggregation? The majority of voters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the USA would disagree on a large number of policies.
2) On what subjects? Can the majority decide to confiscate your land and build a road?

A consistent states-rights view (more generally, a subsidiarist view) rates the ability to have more preferences reflected locally more highly than a consistent nationalist.

136

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 1:10 am

SamChevre:
1. At the level of the nation state. The majority in a subset of a nation bows to the majority of the whole, or the nation state begins an unstoppable slide into smaller and smaller sub-units. As Lincoln noted at the time.
2. On all subjects, limited by agreed upon constitutional limits. Property is and always has been recognized as a social right, limited by the principles of salus populi, the inherent plenary power of the state, sic utero tuo, and the state’s interest in damnum absque injuria.

I would point out that the states-rights view even at its core did not include the right of slaves to have their preferences reflected on a local level.

137

Different John 04.15.11 at 1:15 am

Steven – Of course they could; the principle for them was that the people of those territories had joined they Union voluntarily, becoming sovereign states in the process, and could choose to leave voluntarily too. And there was even an amendment to cite, albeit for a different line of argument but with the same conclusion: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” includes the right to secede, since it wasn’t explicitly prohibited.

It’s been a couple of years since I read it, though, so I left some stuff out. The justification for seceding was actually an appeal to contract law:

“By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On the 23d May , 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her People, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof. “

Blah slavery blah slavery, slavery slavery blah blah blah, summarized by “you broke the contract, so we get to leave.”

138

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 1:22 am

DifferentJohn – still bushwah. Joining the U.S government did not alienate those lands formerly held as U.S public property – lands were granted to the state by Act of Congress, and other lands held back as public lands to be distributed by other means (homesteads, railroad subsidies, etc.).

Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee were won by Northern as well as Southern arms in the Revolutionary War and paid for by Northern as well as Southern taxes in the Louisiana Purchase.

139

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 1:23 am

* and Alabama, don’t know why I left that out.

140

Different John 04.15.11 at 1:31 am

Steven – are you arguing with me or with some long-dead people in the South 150 years ago? If the former, don’t bother – I’m not trying to defend the position, just clarify how the term “State’s rights” was used at the time by observing what right was actually referred to in the context of “State’s rights.”

I can’t resist observing, though, that the 10th amendment, if interpreted as it was in the document I quoted, would decisively refute your position. I am not going to attempt to defend such an interpretation, however.

141

Different John 04.15.11 at 1:36 am

Steven – I struggled mightily against my baser instincts, but can resist no longer… must type…

I can think of several reasons to leave Alabama out, but it’s in now, so it’s too late.

No hurt feelings, I hope!

142

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 1:38 am

Different John – I see myself as arguing against those who would continue this line of argument today, not yourself. They’re out there in the Tea Party and fringes beyond.

And the key thing there is “as interpreted.” The Supreme Court has not upheld such an interpretation.

I’m a New Yorker, so I have no attachment to Alabama.

143

Charles Peterson 04.15.11 at 1:39 am

I think the endurance of the wasnt-about-slavery thing actually has little to do with the past. It has to do with the present. The lines are slightly different, OK you could say very different because now all the neo-Confederates *are* Republicans.

And what do Republicans want? The things that center around reducing taxes (or any sort of regulations) on rich people to zero (and eliminating all regulation of what they can do with “their” money). That’s also the most direct path to aristocracy, and basically we’re already here.

If you were to insist on historical consistency, you might say it’s been all about aristocracy all along. Aristocracy for a few, slavery for the rest.

144

Martin Bento 04.15.11 at 2:31 am

nerdbound, there is a difference between saying there is an argument for a secession option and saying secession was the true issue in the civil war. The South did not just secede for the hell of it. And the more general states rights argument was BS, as others have stated, since the South used the power of the Federal government to enforce slaveholders claims in free states. In terms of governance, the underlying lesson of the Civil War, ISTM, is that basic questions of rights cannot be state matters, because it makes the ethical system of the country incoherent. A man could have the right to be free in one state, but be a slave in another? Nonsense, and a fundamentally unstable compromise. Likewise, I would say for Roe v. Wade. Prior to Roe, abortion was already legal in some states, which created the absurdity that a pregnant woman could be legally murdering and resurrecting people just by dancing back and forth across a state border. This is why I think the court had to take up Roe, and why Roe, therefore, did not constitute judicial activism. There had to be a standard for the whole country on what constituted a human being, and either way the Court went was going to override some state laws.

145

ScentOfViolets 04.15.11 at 2:59 am

A consistent states-rights view (more generally, a subsidiarist view) rates the ability to have more preferences reflected locally more highly than a consistent nationalist.

Taking this progression to it’s logical conclusion, you end up with the individual uber alles.

Well, that’s certainly a different road to libertarianism; or at least, not one I’m familiar with.

146

StevenAttewell 04.15.11 at 3:38 am

SOV:

It’s not a new road to libertarian outcomes. Vide:

From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy a year or two hence arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it? All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this.
Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new union as to produce harmony only and prevent renewed secession?
Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

147

LFC 04.15.11 at 4:48 am

Several people in this thread have mentioned Lincoln’s opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories where it did not yet exist, adding that many Southerners realized such a position probably meant an eventual end of slavery altogether since geographical expansion was necessary for its long-term survival, but that Lincoln did not have the emancipation of the slaves as an initial war aim. Well, yes. All this is, AFAIK, accepted and uncontroversial. But to say that the war was “about slavery” is not to deny any of this. Obviously there were deep divisions within both North and South — at least one author (probably a lot more than one) has remarked that there was a ‘civil war’ within the North between abolitionists and unionists before there was a civil war between North and South. But these internal divisions do not negate the point that the war was ‘about slavery’; to say it was about slavery is not to say it was initially about freeing the slaves (except in the minds of abolitionists who, though significant in many ways, were a minority of the population), and no one, AFAIK, is saying that.

148

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.15.11 at 7:11 am

@119: What is true and is relevant to the post is that hardly anyone cares more about state rights (for or against) than about the outcome of the particular issue in question.

But the degree of federalism is the issue of its own, and it’s definitely more important than medical marijuana or trade with Burma.

What is true is that in politics it’s often used opportunistically and hypocritically. For example, the Republicans, proponents of states rights supposedly, recently suggested (and indeed made it the centerpiece of their proposal) that states should be banned from imposing their own standards on medical insurance policies. And the Democrats, when something they consider a universal human right is not feasible on the federal level, will resort to “this is better left to the states”. But hey, that’s politics.

149

Jack Strocchi 04.15.11 at 9:21 am

rpl @ #126 said:

It seems that only a few of you have touched on the origins of the Civil War as I see it. Or perhaps I read the wrong historians when I studied this. From the Lincoln-Douglas debates up to the secession, the main issue was not slavery in the existing slave states of the South, it was about the extension of slavery to the Western territories as they sought statehood. The rural agriculturally centered south (cotton interests in particular) clashed with the rapidly industrializing North primarily over the future of slavery, not over it’s existence. Lincoln did not set out to free the slaves. Emancipation was a result of the Civil War and not Lincoln’s original aim.

That is correct. The adulterated Civics course and the Crooked Timber CW are both wrong , or at least beside the point, about the causes of the Civil War.

The South went to war because it feared being overwhelmed, politically and economically, by the relentless expansion of the Yankee Manifest Destiny. The Civil War was essentially a last ditch stand waged by Southern aristocrats against the encroaching power of Northern industrialists.

The only way the South could maintain its relative power was to maintain the institution of slavery to the new states of the union. It wanted the “state’s right” to extend slavery to the new Western territories, and to territories conquered in the Mexican wars.

The South’s demand for an extension of slavery was unfair, unreasonable, even ridiculous, in the context of world-history, when even the Tsar was emancipating the serfs. But they could not stand the thought of being bossed around by those “damned Yankees’. The only thing worse would be “uppity n*****s” in their midst.

The North bent over back-wards to accommodate the South’s attachment to this peculiar institution, with an endless series of compromises and provisos to fob off Southern reactionaries. But the Southerners were driven to desperation by the their untenable political situation.

The South really had no one to blame but itself for the situation it put the union into. But they can’t bring themselves to admit their fault which is why they are always trying to re-write the history books putting themselves as poor, woebegone under-dogs.

150

Myles 04.15.11 at 9:56 am

Shorter this thread:

Tom: The Civil War was a war of a primarily moral dimension. Slavery.
Dick: No it wasn’t. Manifest Destiny. Free-soil. Jeffersonian constitution.
& Harry: It was all about the moral dimension. Always. All the time. Oh yeah, the moral dimension, the moral dimension, let me tell you more about the moral dimension.

(Chorus:
The moral dimension, the moral dimension,
Such broad moral dimensions!

& Harry:
Let me tell you about the moral dimension!
Let us reminiscence of such moral dimensions!

Chorus:
The moral dimension, the moral dimension,
Such broad moral dimensions!

All:
The moral dimension, the moral dimension,
Cano mores virumque!

The only conclusion I can derive is that some people are overly fond of the moral dimension.

151

Emma in Sydney 04.15.11 at 10:06 am

But not you, Myles. Morals are so awfully vulgar. Really not quite the thing. No, on the whole, a chap ought to set things on a rational basis, and work out what makes the most money, eh what?

152

Myles 04.15.11 at 10:10 am

No, on the whole, a chap ought to set things on a rational basis, and work out what makes the most money, eh what?

I was hoping more along the lines that you’d be entertained by my post. Laughing at and laughing with both works.

153

Walt 04.15.11 at 10:27 am

I’m comfortable pleading guilty to the charge that when it comes to slavery, I’m mainly concerned with the moral dimension.

154

John Quiggin 04.15.11 at 10:58 am

Myles, there’s a general view among the CT crew that you are commenting too much and derailing the threads. I suggest you confine yourself to one comment per thread per day.

155

Phil 04.15.11 at 11:04 am

Tom: The Civil War was a war of a primarily moral dimension. Slavery.
Dick: No it wasn’t. Manifest Destiny. Free-soil. Jeffersonian constitution.

What on earth are you talking about? The word ‘moral’ has been used in this context by only one commenter (Salient). As for poor drowned-out ‘Dick’, the idea of the right to secede as a Jeffersonian constitutional principle has been mentioned by one poster, nerdbound @21, whose argument was that
the “states’ rights as a cause” theory might be justifiable—wrong, still, but justifiable.
Manifest Destiny has also been mentioned once, by Jack Strocchi @149, who wrote
The only way the South could maintain its relative power was to maintain the institution of slavery to the new states of the union. It wanted the “state’s right” to extend slavery to the new Western territories, and to territories conquered in the Mexican wars.
And nobody’s mentioned ‘free soil’ at all.

Any chance of engaging with this discussion rather than the one that’s apparently raging in your head?

156

Myles 04.15.11 at 11:06 am

Myles, there’s a general view among the CT crew that you are commenting too much and derailing the threads.

Got it.

157

philofra 04.15.11 at 12:01 pm

Slaver was an abdominal, cruel think. But I sometimes wonder what if it had never happened. The world would have remained a segregate place and probably a more dangerous place. Perhaps it was the only way to integrate the world, because the white world would not have accepted the black race any other way.

Without American blacks and the struggle they experienced there would never have been Jazz.

158

LFC 04.15.11 at 1:38 pm

Jack Strocchi @149 quotes rpl @126 and then proceeds to say that rpl is right and that “the adulterated Civics course and the Crooked Timber CW are both wrong, or at least beside the point, about the causes of the Civil War.”

Strocchi’s remark makes no sense since, unless I have missed something, no one in this thread has, e.g., said that emancipation was Lincoln’s original war aim. It was not. I’ll repeat what I wrote @147: to say the Civil War was about slavery is not to say it was initially about freeing the slaves (except in the minds of abolitionists who, though significant in many ways, were a minority of the population).

The war was about slavery. It was not (at least not to begin with) about emancipation. No one here (unless I have missed something) has said anything to the contrary, Strocchi and rpl notwithstanding.

159

Ross Leatham 04.15.11 at 3:16 pm

LFC, many here have claimed that the civil War was about State’s rights. I agree with you that it was about slavery. And the speculative rights of states that did not yet exist. Lincoln hadn’t challenged the right of South Carolina to keep it’s slaves when the Civil War began.

160

Steve LaBonne 04.15.11 at 3:43 pm

Congratulations on your citizenship. You do us great honor by acquiring it.

And what Charles Peterson said @ 143.

161

ScentOfViolets 04.15.11 at 5:14 pm

The South’s demand for an extension of slavery was unfair, unreasonable, even ridiculous, in the context of world-history, when even the Tsar was emancipating the serfs. But they could not stand the thought of being bossed around by those “damned Yankees’. The only thing worse would be “uppity n*****s” in their midst.

This is what I was half-seriously referring to as genetic in an earlier post. It seems that there is a certain person who will find all sorts of weird excuses for not doing the right thing, with one of the big guns being the “you’re not the boss of me” card. A few years back we had one of our relatives hit another one’s car and then refuse to pay up on the strength of that one. “This isn’t about me refusing to pay damages, this is about you thinking you’re the boss of me. Well, you’re not . . . and to show it, I’m not going to pay one nickel.”

Right up there with the “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you” that so many marriage counselors here day in and day out, and also another favorite of that crowd.

162

Billikin 04.15.11 at 5:31 pm

Colin Danby: “how much would a successful Reconstruction have changed the structure of resentment?”

If Reconstruction had succeeded, wouldn’t the myth of Negro inferiority have largely disappeared in the US by the turn of the 20th century, since many prominent Southerners would have been Black? Wouldn’t that have made a huge difference in US society and governance? Would movies like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” been thinkable? Perhaps Booker T. Washington would have been the president of the University of Alabama, and Martin Luther King just another Southern preacher. In such a society, how could the Old South have been romanticized and glorified?

163

Billikin 04.15.11 at 5:50 pm

Jack Strocchi: “The only way the South could maintain its relative power was to maintain the institution of slavery to the new states of the union.”

That implies that Southern politicians identified the South with slavery, “our peculiar institution.” California might be geographically southern, but it was not Southern without slavery, in their view. The Confederacy was based upon slavery, lock, stock, and barrel. The war could not but be about slavery.

164

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.15.11 at 6:33 pm

The Confederacy was based upon slavery, lock, stock, and barrel. The war could not but be about slavery.

Sure, ‘the war was about slavery’ is a reasonable statement, but you need two steps to get there. The Confederacy was all about slavery, and the war was all about secession.

165

parse 04.15.11 at 8:47 pm

There’s a weird rhetorical trick going on when people argue for states’ rights: it permits them to sidestep arguing for a policy on its merits. And that’s generally the purpose of a states’ rights argument, I think, at least in practice.

I don’t think this is the case of Californians arguing about medical marijuana. By their lights, they’ve already argued for the policy on its merits, and they won–that’s how the state law regulating the distribution of marijuana on medical grounds was passed. The states rights argument is used because they don’t want to argue the merits of the policy with people outside the state.

166

Frank in midtown 04.15.11 at 11:26 pm

Bigotry is part of the human condition, racism is ubiquitous , and at this point in history this is more like a sporting rivalry, the big Blue vs Grey game (complete with wait til next year hopes,) than a serious issue. To me state’s rights had a lot to do with it. The southern states were very angry that the northern states kept expressing their “state’s rights” by ignoring federal laws about returning run-away slaves. The war was proceeded by a failed compromise and this was a big part of that failure.

167

jfxgillis 04.16.11 at 1:29 am

Henry:

I read Ernst Renan’s famous dictum “Forgetting … historical error … is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” this week in light of the contempraneous and simultaneous Fort Sumter editorials in the NY Times and Richmond Dispatch.

We FORGET that the North said it wasn’t about slavery but the South said it was. That’s the price we pay for the nation we created afterwards.

168

jafd 04.16.11 at 1:43 am

If I might bring up the ‘economics’ of the situation.

Cotton makes clothes and other stuff which are very nice to have. People wanted cotton, and a major part of the US economy was (and still is) devoted to the raising and processing of it. Even into the 1930′s, raw and semifinished cotton made up over a third of the value of US exports. (1)

Much of the borrowing from Europe that financed the growth of industry in the North was possible because the lenders knew that the proceeds of repayments could be used to purchase cotton and ship it to Manchester or Lille.

Growing cotton – plowing, planting, weeding – or “chopping” – (and a lot of weeds can grow in a Dixie summer) and picking – in the age before tractors and herbicides – is brutally hard and hot work. Hard to find people who will do it if they have _any_ alternatives. Keeping an uneducated mass rural proletariat at these tasks – call them ‘slaves’ or ‘sharecroppers’ or ‘po’ white trash’ – took legal, social, and economic pressure.

Finally, after WWII, mechanical and chemical technology made this ‘agricultural labor force’ redundant, and sent them north to the Rust Belt, with little education and no experience of urban life, last in the line of ‘immigrants off the farms’.

Unfortunately, this was the point when the ‘smokestack industries’ that took my ancestors ‘off the boat’, employed them productively, and enabled them to raise their children as part of The Great American Middle Class, began to fade away.

Certainly, part of the blame for our current interlinked problems of race / poverty / education / productivity goes to those who fashioned and profited from the system of slavery, and left their land devastated by the war they fought to keep it. But not all the blame, perhaps not even the largest part.

Were they evil, or just unable to see any alternatives but bad and worse ?

(1) It should be noted that in the days when the Southern economy was more dependent on the international cotton trade, Dixie was more ‘aware of the world’ than much of the rest of the US. America First never held a rally in the old Confederacy, and George C Marshall immediately followed his Harvard address on the Marshall Plan with one to the Delta Council in Greenville, Mississippi.(2)

(2) It is my favorite irony of history that the first World Series game to be played in the Confederacy had Jane Fonda sitting in the owner’s box.

169

john c. halasz 04.16.11 at 3:42 am

Yes, I thought that anyone who wasn’t a self-righteously moralizing liberal understood the economic underpinnings. The notional market value of slaves was overwhelmingly the largest part of the “capital” stock of the Antebellum U.S., which means that not only was it crucial to finance, as providing the collateral for borrowing, but also crucial for the international balance of payments, whereby the export of the produce of slaves counter-balanced the import (and swindling) of British capital to develop the country. So both Northern and Southern elites, despite their differences, were joined at the hip vis-a-vis their interests in slavery. Further, there was something of a bubble aspect, since the import of slaves had been banned, in that the breeding of slaves yielded higher returns than the actual direct product of slaves. Hence the drive to expand its territory, (even though the new territories would not have provided likely fertile soils for its implementation). The opposition was between the “slave power” and “free labor”: i.e. it was a dispute over (the terms of) land tenure and the distribution of agricultural surpluses, (since the Bourbons and their slaves would have seized once again the best lands and the productive surpluses accruing to them, at the expense of white free holders and land speculators). Though the economic situation belongs to the cause(s) and not the Cause(s) of the Civil War. But what’s for sure is that the dispute over the White Man’s Republic remained thoroughly White supremacist/racist, and scarcely anyone really gave a damn about amending the condition of the blacks, except as an after-thought.

Another cliche is that it was the overwhelming industrial might of the North that crushed and foredoomed the South. And there’s a grain of truth there, especially since the main industrial cities of the South, such as St. Louis and Baltimore, remained with the Union. But the most proximate cause of the defeat of the C.S.A. was the huge rate of desertion from the Confederate Army. It seems that poor whites had a limited willingness to die for the cause of their “betters”, even as they would nurture ample resentments ever after.

170

Blondell Molton 04.16.11 at 4:47 am

I have posted http://crookedtimber.org/2011/04/14/the-civil-war-in-americas-narrative at Digg.com so my co-workers can see it as well. I simply used The Civil War in America’s narrative — Crooked Timber as the link title in my bookmark, as I figured it would be a good way to promote this cool post. Please email me back at Remele3166@gmail.com if there is anything else I can do to help.

171

maidhc 04.16.11 at 8:22 am

I’m a little surprised that with all these smart people commenting on the Civil War (and I’m not being sarcastic), no one has mentioned Bleeding Kansas, the rehearsal for the Civil War.

Also not mentioned is that the Articles of Confederation explicitly prohibited secession, but government under the Articles was broken up when all the states except Rhode Island effectively seceded by nullifying the Articles and signing the Constitution. (The Articles allowed nullification, which was one of the reasons it came to be considered “less perfect”.)

The Articles were more than a little inspiration to the Confederate constitution, which I’ve heard it said is why they are not usually taught in school history curricula.

Also, during the Civil War, West Virginia seceded from Virginia, and it still remains seceded today.

Based on that, there was a movement for the northern counties of California and the southern counties of Oregon to secede from their respective states and form a new state called Jefferson. The movement peaked immediately before Pearl Harbor, at which point it was abandoned, so the question of whether that would be permissible was not fully determined. But the people who live in that region certainly have not forgotten about it.

Lincoln did not launch the Civil War on the issue of secession, but on the bombardment of Fort Sumter, on which he had a much better legal case as a clear act of rebellion. The right of the government to put down rebellions by force had already been established by putting down previous much smaller rebellions. Thus Lincoln did not have to base his actions on whether secession was or was not permitted by the Constitution, although this was obviously the underlying cause.

172

bad Jim 04.16.11 at 8:47 am

It’s always a mistake to suppose that people have thought through the sorts of things they cling to. You’ll rarely find someone who’s gone through the trouble. Nearly no one actually experiences anxiety from cognitive dissonance, they simply slide to an alternative narrative. No problem!

The South loves the Lost Cause, not because they like to think of themselves as losers or because they mourn the loss of slavery, but because it’s their heritage, it defines them, for good or ill. It’s integral to “The Southern Way of Life”, which is, as such, good.

Disparaging it disparages them, no matter how little sense it makes otherwise. Compare to Jacobitism, another cause for which it could be said that it was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” but yet promotes Drambuie, “a link with the 45″

173

Jack Strocchi 04.16.11 at 11:19 am

#158 said

Strocchi’s remark makes no sense since, unless I have missed something, no one in this thread has, e.g., said that emancipation was Lincoln’s original war aim. It was not…The war was about slavery. It was not (at least not to begin with) about emancipation. No one here (unless I have missed something) has said anything to the contrary, Strocchi and rpl notwithstanding.

Most posters on this thread, and in CT in general, have missed the point about the causes of the Civil War in their instinctive attempt to lump Red State folks into the red-neck mould. CT’ers always want to visit the sins of the Southern fathers onto their sons.

There are plenty of good reasons to criticise the Old South. But lets take aim before letting them have it with both barrels.

Saying that “the Civil War was about slavery” is true enough as far as it goes. But it does not go far beyond “truism”. Its like saying that Middle East conflict is “about oil” in some way. You don’t say.

The burning question is the way in which slavery became an issue worth splitting the union. rpl, Western Dave and I have argued that it was the South’s attempt to extend slavery which was the caused the North dig its heels in. Up till then the North had tried all kinds of ways to appease and fob off Southern reactionaries.

But the South’s attempt to make California a slave state was a bridge too far. Its not so much that Southerners wanted to lord it over the black man, although that was a strain in their culture.

Southerners do not want to be lorded over by rich Yankees. The ante-bellum South was haunted by the fear of economic ruin, echoes of which were so well captured by writers like Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor and Tennesee Williams. And of course the Carpetbaggers confirmed the South’s worst nightmares.

The only way they could prevent this was to increase the number of Southern slave states. But the North would not allow this. So secession seemed the only option.

The idea that the Southern gentleman could simply abolish slavery and actually work for a living did not occur to them.

174

Andrew 04.16.11 at 12:54 pm

Regarding states’ rights…

If we were having this discussion in the Lochner era, many of the commenters here might have different opinions on the general subject of states’ rights arguments.

During that period, decades after the Civil War, the Supreme Court regularly struck down state labor laws and protections, on the ground that they conflicted with the “liberty” aspect of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Eventually of course Lochner was overruled.

Pivoting on that point, various persons have argued that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe, Casey, and others exemplify a new era of Lochner. Today, those persons argue, the Court has revived Locher not in defense of economic liberty, but in defense of other aspects of liberty.

Most recently and notably, views of the rights of states and the limits of federal power clashed over the health care reform.

So states’ rights arguments aren’t dead (though the secessionist argument certainly is), and they were not always used to retard progressive legislation. (Brandeis’s famous and eloquent dissent in New State Ice is a good antidote to the view that states’ rights is always a conservative argument.)

Now, as to the continuing debate as to “the cause” of the Civil War, the quick answer is that there is no single cause. Yes, the South wanted to keep slavery, but why did they believe that the federal government had no right to take it? Why did the South care about slavery at all? Why did Jefferson describe the Missouri Compromise’s fateful inscribing of the country’s moral and economic divisions over slavery into a geographic line as jarringly disturbing to him as a fire bell in the night?

All of the answers on that civics exam are correct insofar as they are seeking one aspect of the entire story.

175

LFC 04.16.11 at 2:12 pm

From the original post:
Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two).

After a bit more reflection on this, I think that there is nothing especially wrong with this framing itself, i.e., states rights — considered as a shorthand for the general issue of federal-state relations — as one issue that led to the war. The problem arises when people say — as in some comments received by T-N Coates in one of the posts Henry links to — that slavery had nothing to do with it, that it was all or only about states rights. The statement that the war did have to do with slavery may be a ‘truism’, as Strocchi @173 calls it, but there are apparently still people (see the comments reported by Coates) who deny it.

That’s why it’s apparently still necessary to repeat this ‘truism,’ and why Strocchi, in addition to being exercised by CTers who “want to visit the sins of the Southern fathers on their sons,” should also be concerned about those people who persist in claiming that the secessionists were only fighting for what they saw as “freedom from the coercive powers of a centralized government” and not also for “the right to own slaves [and] the liberty to take this property into the territories.” (Quotes from McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p.241)

176

Martin Bento 04.16.11 at 11:48 pm

maidhc, if the secession was legitimate, so was the bombardment of Sumter. The notion that a simple estate in real property gives a country a right to station troops in another country contrary to the latter’s will is absurd. By that light, China has the right to station troops in Long Beach today.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments for secession itself. If the South thinks we fought the war to keep them from seceding, let them secede now (I’d miss New Orleans, though. I hope we can visit). I think it should require a two third majority popular vote in any state to secede, as something so dramatic and irreversible should have a direct popular mandate and strong supermajority, but I would certainly encourage all the hard core conservatives to concentrate their numbers in one or two states in hopes of leaving, and I wish them well when they go. Conversely, if their ideology becomes so dominant that there is no way within the country to change it, I will be looking for a way to secede myself. Sometimes we can’t just all get along.

177

Tom Hyland 04.17.11 at 12:51 am

The two best books that I have ever read about the causes that led to the Civil War were by the Johns Hopkins University professor William H. Freeling in the last decade:

“The Road to Disunion: Secessionists At Bay” Vol.I, and
“The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumph” Vol. II.

Freehling widely quotes the actual debates in the Southern states’ legislatures from 1776 to 1861. Long, complicated, but good!

178

StevenAttewell 04.17.11 at 1:15 am

Strocchi- fear of ruin? Hardly. Even a quick read through of Bruce Catonsville shows that, if anything, planter society was marked by the hubristic belief that King Cotton would enable the South to pull an Opec and force European intervention.

Andrew – in the Lochner era, progressives were instead calling for the Supreme Court to be overruled and it’s members to be replaced by men not in thrall to the monied interests. Indeed, it’s odd that you choose this era as evidence, given that it was the era in which the American left created a popular nationalism: the People’s Party didn’t call for state’s rights but rather for the Federal government to nationalize the railroads, create the national subtreasury, and in general to bring the power of the national state to bear against the corporation.

179

StevenAttewell 04.17.11 at 1:16 am

* Caton. Stupid auto-correct.

180

maidhc 04.17.11 at 8:31 am

Mark Twain said that the problem with the South was that excessive reading of the novels of Sir Walter Scott had convinced everyone that they really deserved to be aristocrats.

181

Andrew 04.17.11 at 12:26 pm

Steven, I agree that the Progressives were calling upon the federal government to do many things.

However, they also called upon the Supreme Court to allow the states greater latitude in experimenting with new social and economic laws.

The point of course is that this is an example of a request for greater states rights for the purpose of progressive programs. So the use of a states rights argument has not been entirely for the cause of conservative programs, or simply in opposition to civil rights. There have been significant occasions where arguments for states rights have been deployed on the other side.

182

LFC 04.17.11 at 4:45 pm

@178 re the Southern economy: some Southerners were concerned about Northern dominance in manufacturing/finance and Southern overreliance on agriculture, but those concerns receded somewhat and got less traction when cotton prices went back up in the 1850s. A separate question, to which I don’t know the answer, is to what extent the insistence on the ‘right’ to expand slavery into the territories had an economic motivation (in addition to the political/cultural impetus).

183

Main Street Muse 04.17.11 at 4:45 pm

The narrative of America has never flowed seamlessly and the issue of states rights vs federal power has long been debated in this country. And the issue of slavery fell into the domain of states rights.

As I’m sure Henry learned in his civics classes leading up to his citizenship, the first government of the United States, established in 1777, was a confederation of states, one that operated with a weak federal government and granted more power to the individual states. It was a failure, and in 1787, the country abandoned the Articles of Confederacy in favor of the US Constitution, which strengthened federal powers and diminished certain states rights.

That did not put an end to the issue of states rights, and the early work of the Supreme Court is filled with cases that attempt to define the parameters and boundaries of states rights vs federal power. [We still see this tug and pull today, as in 2007, when Indiana and the feds were going to grant BP the right to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan and the surrounding states protested.]

In the south, slaves were considered property that also happened to provide free labor for their owners. Employers today tend to react negatively to the suggestion of an increase in the minimum wage; the abolishment of slavery was going add significant labor expense to the operations of a cotton plantation.

The issue of slavery was not just moral, as defined by abolitionists; for the South, it was an economic issue too. That the federal government was seeking to seize their property was obviously a hot button topic in antebellum America, one that led to the most divisive war in our history.

I think Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary said it best. The Civil War transformed us from a nation consisting of a plurality of states – “The United States are…” to one nation – “The United States is…” But up until the Civil War, the US was an “are” – not an “is.”

[Another interesting challenge to the American narrative is that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, which celebrated the equality of all men, owed his wealthy lifestyle to slaves and debt, using both assets to prop up the never-ending renovation of Monticello. When he died, he was so deeply in debt that his family could not afford to free the slaves,as George Washington had done upon his death. Though he did free a handful of slaves related to Sally Hemmings.]

184

StevenAttewell 04.17.11 at 8:12 pm

Andrew – when you compare and contrast, I don’t see the Brandeis brief overwhelming both the entire thrust of T.R’s New Nationalism, LaFollette’s 1912 campaign, and Wilson’s more moderate but no less Federal-focused program.

185

Andrew 04.18.11 at 3:01 am

I understand Steven, and I agree with you. My point isn’t that Progressivism was a set of policy initiatives more heavily weighted towards states rights than federal power or programs. Rather, my much more modest point is simply that arguments for states rights have at times been deployed in the name of progressive causes. The struggle with the Lochner court, which used the 14th Amendment to destroy various progressive laws at the state level, is simply one example.

I chose Brandeis’s dissent in New State Ice as an especially eloquent statement of the progressive case for allowing the states the latitude and freedom to experiment with different laws and policies – not as evidence that Progressivism was really, really about states rights all along.

186

StevenAttewell 04.18.11 at 3:40 am

Understood, I just think that in the long run, the game’s not worth the candle. No amount of leeway in the progressive states outweighs the sheer tonnage of damage done in the South.

187

Gene O'Grady 04.18.11 at 3:41 am

I believe it is worth noting, as well as accurate, that (a) the original national flare-up over states rights had to do with enabling Georgia and some other Southern states to take over Indian lands in defiance of valid treaties with the Federal government, many signed while the land in question (not in Georgia, obviously) was still territorial rather than state land and (b) white supremacy in the first half of the nineteenth century, and often since, was not a moral failing or a case of bad manners or political incorrectness, it was an economic theory and practice.

188

Western Dave 04.18.11 at 1:05 pm

@LFC Economic motivation for slavery expansion? Yes there was. Most cotton planters were keenly aware that cotton used up the soil and that after a generation or so, most expected their cotton plantations to go bust. They counted on opening new lands for cotton so as to have a market for their slaves, much as Virginia planters had relied on what we now call the old Southwest as a market for their “excess slaves.” Part of the logic of the founders had been that slavery would die off because tobacco used up the soil and nobody would risk buying slaves for farms that weren’t productive enough to support that many people. In the face of such risk, the market for slaves would dry-up and states would move towards orderly gradual abolition (which is pretty much what happened until the invention of the cotton gin).

So the question of the territories isn’t just cultural, it’s economically vital.

Two of my favorite titles on the coming of the Civil War

James Hietala – Manifest Design (covers racial and economic ideology)
Lacy Ford – Origins of Southern Radicalism

189

LFC 04.18.11 at 9:02 pm

@Western Dave – thanks

190

George Mitrovich 04.20.11 at 10:36 pm

Yes, the truth is out: The South is not happy with the way the Civil War ended. Yes, they are sorry to have lost their slaves; it just isn’t right black people are free.

One can write of the economics of slavery, or attempt to explain it by other causes, but unless it is understood in a moral context, as a great and consuming evil, all explanations and theories fail – as fail they should.

Lord Thomas, writing of the slave trade, said 12 million blacks were shipped from Africa to the west (North and South America), and of that 12 million two million were lost at sea!

If you see that as other than a great evil you need pause and weigh your understanding of moral values.

I have few illusions about human nature, but it stills amazes me that so long after the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox there are those who still believe in the Ways of the South. Sorry, but the “Ways of the South” were immoral.

Comments on this entry are closed.