Tariffs and secession: the Australian experience

by John Q on July 20, 2013

The claim that the secession of the Confederate states was driven, in large measure, by economic disputes over tariffs, rather than by the more obvious fact that the US had just elected an anti-slavery president, has come up in comments to Corey’s post. My impression is that this claim has been advanced both by neo-confederates on the right and by Marxisant writers in the tradition of Charles and Mary Beard, but I’ll leave it to those more qualified to set me straight if I’m wrong on this.

I wanted to point interested readers to Australia’s experience with a secessionist movement driven by concerns about tariff policy.

From shortly after Federation in 1901, Australia adopted a protectionist policy which, broadly speaking, benefitted the industrialised eastern states and harmed states dependent on agriculture and mining, most notably Western Australia.

During the Depression, these adverse effects led to the development of a strong secessionist movement in WA. The Nationalist (=conservative)[^1] state government supported secession and held a referendum on the subject timed to coincide with a state election. The result of the election was that the referendum was passed with a large majority but the Nationalists were defeated by the Labor party, which opposed secession.

The new Labor government transmitted the secession referendum result to the British government (still at this time presumed to be the ultimate authority in these matters) with its own recommendation against secession, a view supported by the federal government. The House of Commons sat on the matter for long enough that, by the time it concluded it had no power to act, the economy had improved and everyone had forgotten about secession. Also, around this time, we established the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which is supposed to equalise fiscal resources across the states – WA benefitted from this.

Different countries and different times, of course, but, in the light of Oz experience, I find the idea that anyone would fight a civil war over tariff policy rather implausible.

By the way, there’s lots more important stuff happening in Oz with climate change and asylum policy. I’m working on posts about these issues, but they will take a bit more work than this piece of historical trivia.

[^1]: The fact that a Nationalist party advocated secession is one of those ironies that are commonplace in Oz politics.



hidflect 07.20.13 at 6:47 am

There isn’t even 1 messageboard/forum in Perth for a city of 2.2 million people. Odd state. Although I did get a flyer from someone advocating a Glass-Steagall law be imposed. From the Citizens Electoral Council of Australia..


John Quiggin 07.20.13 at 7:24 am

For the information of non-Oz readers, the Citizens Electoral Council is the local offshoot of the LaRouche organization.


Sancho 07.20.13 at 9:28 am

I love the CEC. The weirdness of Scientology with the zeal of internet libertarianism.


P O'Neill 07.20.13 at 3:37 pm

Another example of where trade policy and comparative advantage contributed to a strong regional questioning of the right political home is Newfoundland’s decades long tug between the options of dominion, union with Canada, or even with the USA.


Random Lurker 07.20.13 at 3:49 pm

“Different countries and different times, of course, but, in the light of Oz experience, I find the idea that anyone would fight a civil war over tariff policy rather implausible.”

Wasn’t the USA indipendence war fought on tariffs?
The famous (in Italy) wars between the Hohenstaufen emperor and the italian comuni were fought on “freedoms” mostly of economic nature such as the freedom to coin their own money, or at least I think I remember this from high school).


Jay 07.20.13 at 5:19 pm

“The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor 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 labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”

Statement of Secession, Adopted December 24, 1860, South Carolina

Lincoln was Inaugurated March 4th 1861, 3 months later, and the War started April 12th, 1861.

None of the States Statements of Secession mention tariffs, they all piss and moan about Slavery not being respected in the North.

Claiming the War was about tariffs is TIDOS, Treason in Defence of Slavery, and is a common defence of the Confederacy.


Paul 07.20.13 at 6:01 pm

What Jay @6 said, more or less. The CSA enshrined the continuation and expansion of slavery in its Constitution. And from the Cornerstone speech [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech]:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.


The true motives behind secession have been whitewashed from the morning of April 9, 1865. The idea that Lincoln could have resolved a conflict 200 years in the making is disproven by the timeline in Jay’s comment.


john in california 07.20.13 at 7:12 pm

” Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.”

Thank you, Paul!
I have been following this thread since yesterday, waiting for someone to state the obvious. The necessary condition for justifying slavery is the proposition ” that the negro is not equal to the white man” , followed by the conclusion, ” that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
The proposition seemed self evident to many in those times, it was the conclusion that separated men like Lincoln from his Southern relatives. But, however most libertarians may feel about that conclusion nowadays, Most that I’ve met seem to think the proposition still holds. They may be too circumspect to voice it but it is at the heart of all white racism. The recent Zimmerman trial was, to me, a perfect exhibit of this attitude. I don’t believe any of those women really valued Treyvon Martin as a human boy the way they would have had he been white. Hhowever academically decorated Randy Barnnet, I think, in his heart, he must share this belief. To me, there is no other way to explain how an intelligent man, could look for excuses for the confederate cause.


Alex 07.20.13 at 9:58 pm

This idea is especially ridiculous given that slavers wrote the 1846 and 1857 tariffs. It’s pretty implausible that civil war would be the logical outcome of tax policy, but it’s total clownshoes nonsense that people would rebel over the tax policy that they themselves had written.

The 1861 tariff was much higher, and the slaver apologists in Britain tried to use it as a justification, but in fact it only passed because most of the South (and their congressmen) had left by that point. Or, to quote Marx again, “Naturally, in America everyone knew that from 1846 to 1861 a free trade system prevailed, and that Representative Morrill carried his protectionist tariff through Congress only in 1861, after the rebellion had already broken out. Secession, therefore, did not take place because the Morrill tariff had gone through Congress, but, at most, the Morrill tariff went through Congress because secession had taken place.”


David Carlton 07.20.13 at 10:10 pm

Since Jay quotes from the SC “Declaration of Immediate Causes,” the debate over that Declaration is quite illuminating. One delegate objected that the document failed to mention the Tariff. In response, a leading secessionist, Rep. Ellison Keitt, made these points: (1) the tariff in place at the time of the Convention was the Tariff of 1857. This tariff was a Democratic (i.e. low) tariff, drafted by a southern Democratic Senator, and received the votes of every southern Democrat in Congress, including the entire SC delegation. To make a tariff they supported the justification for secession would make secessionists look ridiculous. (2) Whigs were pro-tariff, and the remaining southern Whigs (there were quite a few) had to be won over to secession. This was particularly the case with Louisiana, whose sugar planters benefitted from tariff protection. (3) “Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it.”

TBS, there was a proposal for a much higher tariff, the Morrill Tariff, since the Tariff of 1857 had proven inadequate to finance the federal government. Indeed, the Morrill Tariff was enacted over the winter of 1861. However, it was enacted only after the mass resignation of southern congressmen, and would not have passed had they remained in office. Some who attempt the tariff-not-slavery argument attempt to use the Morrill Tariff as evidence, but clearly its passage was an effect, not a cause,/i>, of secession. This dog simply won’t hunt.


StevenAttewell 07.21.13 at 6:06 am

I would also add, as a rather ancillary point, that having tariffs be the cause of secession doesn’t make things any better for the Confederate cause than the nebulous cause of “state’s rights” which are used as a smokescreen for slavery.

The U.S Constitution clearly gives the Federal Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises” – rebelling because a tariff had been enacted would have been no more legitimate than rebelling over hypothetical injuries to non-existent rights.


John Quiggin 07.21.13 at 10:47 am

“having tariffs be the cause of secession doesn’t make things any better for the Confederate cause”

Only if you regard the US Constitution, three-fifths clause and all, as having the same moral status as the view that slavery is evil. Rebelling over the tariff would have been silly and unconstitutional, and any war over a silly cause is evil, but it’s still very different from a war in defence of slavery.


Mao Cheng Ji 07.21.13 at 1:08 pm

Is the assumption here that a secession (‘rebellion’) is the equivalent of fighting a war?

A member state secedes, for whatever reason, and this could be the end of it. Usually, if not always, it’s the rulers of the confederation who initiate hostilities, in response. But they are not forced by laws of nature.


Ogden Wernstrom 07.21.13 at 2:44 pm

Is the assumption here that a secession (‘rebellion’) is the equivalent of fighting a war?

No. I suspect you are referring to the US Civil War, since the given example of WA did not lead to war (and WA never really declared that it had seceded). Please do not fall for the spin contained in the misnomer, “War of Northern Aggression”.

Laying siege to a Federal fort is the equivalent of fighting a war.

You make secession sound a simple matter – but it betrays/violates/invalidates many customs/compacts/contracts that existed as part of the union that went before it.


Mao Cheng Ji 07.21.13 at 3:07 pm

I was referring to comment 12, where it sounds like secession=rebellion=war.

As for complexities of it: of course it’s not simple. But the same is true about divorces, and yet people divorce all the time. What’s so sacred about a federation?


Ogden Wernstrom 07.21.13 at 5:54 pm

The way we legally define “divorce” does not include a unilateral decision that one is no longer married and that’s the end of it.

However, firing 3000 rounds at one’s spouse (or one’s spouse’s fort) might be a tactic designed to get that agreement.


StevenAttewell 07.21.13 at 7:22 pm

John Quiggin – I meant in the legal sense. Ultimately, the moral question is still the same, because the issue would still have been slavery. Ironically, even a died-in-the-wool racist like Andrew Jackson realized this (regarding the Nullification Crisis of 1833):

“the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”


Mao Cheng Ji 07.21.13 at 8:58 pm

OW, I just wanted to make a general point, because the events you keep talking about seem to be controversial and emotional. But since you keep bringing it up: are you saying that the American civil war was all about fort Sumter? If so, that must’ve been the silliest war of that scale ever, and the easiest to avoid.


between4walls 07.21.13 at 10:14 pm

“Only if you regard the US Constitution, three-fifths clause and all”

The reference to the three-fifths clause as particularly awful confuses me- that provision was designed to lessen the power of the slave states. If slaves had been counted as whole people, the slave states would have had even more seats in the House despite slaves not being able to vote.


Jim Henley 07.21.13 at 10:26 pm

@Mao: Just as nobody in Western Europe in 1914 set out to have four years of grinding trench warfare to settle the question of justice in the matter of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, nobody in North America set out to have its precursor* over the shelling of a coastal fort. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Each side expects the other to fold quickly; it turns out everyone hates to lose; things feed on themselves.

The southern militia and politicians who fired on Fort Sumter expected a humiliated North would immediately sue for peace. The Northern soldiers, and their commanders, who marched on Bull Run expected to put paid to the rebellion in a single battle. The southern soldiers who won that battle expected the North – its politicians and/or its citizens – to decide they’d bitten off more than they could chew. By this time, since war stokes the passions, both sides were in a fighting mood. And the North knew it could win (the Anaconda Plan), and the southern military elite was invested in Napoleonic notions of elan that hadn’t even worked out well for Napoleon in the end.

So for neither the first time nor the last, two sides set out to fight a quick war and fought a long one instead.

* In terms of military history, the trench warfare of 1864-65 was a huge Clue early 20th-Century Europe failed to pick up on.


Ogden Wernstrom 07.22.13 at 12:15 am

The seige at Fort Sumpter was when it became war.

It appears that you keep trivializing the nature of secession.

A member state secedes, for whatever reason, and this could be the end of it.

This is one time.

Usually, if not always, it’s the rulers of the confederation who initiate hostilities, in response.

I have not studied secessions enough to have any basis for complaining about the word “Usually”. But I think you are aware of the example that makes it not always.

But they are not forced by laws of nature.

However, one’s oath to uphold a constitution might lead one to oppose a violation of said constitution. If you will read The Constitution of the United States of America, to which each state agreed, “…no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Am I to understand that you oppose human laws and/or actions that are not based upon the laws of nature?

…it’s not simple. But the same is true about divorces, and yet people divorce all the time.

This is the 2nd item that appears to be an attempt to trivialize.

…are you saying that the American civil war was all about fort Sumter?

I count three. So far. In this thread.

What’s so sacred about a federation?

While I appreciate your implication that contracts are not sacred, I would characterize the post-Constitution US as a nation, rather than a federation.


Mao Cheng Ji 07.22.13 at 7:39 am

Why is it wrong to trivialize this, the concept of splitting a political entity into two? It has been understood, since the age of enlightenment, as trivial enough: there are no nations ‘under God, indivisible’, not really. So yes, I trivialize.

As for the fort Sumter incident: you brought it up twice, and I was just curious why; what the significance of it is. But never mind: this is not important, and irrelevant to the general point.


ajay 07.22.13 at 1:42 pm

However, one’s oath to uphold a constitution might lead one to oppose a violation of said constitution. If you will read The Constitution of the United States of America, to which each state agreed, “…no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

But that’s about setting up new states within the union, not about secession. It’s saying: hey, Maryland, no fair splitting yourself in two and setting up the new state of East Maryland, unless we all agree. No merging with Virginia either unless we give you the OK. And no fair splitting off east Maryland and combining it with a tiny bit of northern Virginia to form the new state of Maryginia, either. Not unless we all agree. “State”, in this context, is: one of the United States. It doesn’t mean “nation-state”.


Ronan(rf) 07.22.13 at 2:11 pm

Out of curiosity, were there any recent strong secessionist movements by the indigenous populations in Australia, and did the treatment of those populations ever lead to broad social upheaval in the same way as the treatment of African Americans did in the US?


gavinf 07.23.13 at 5:14 am

@8 In Australia the governments achieved a similar position to the US Secessionists by judicial reasoning that the laws of the first inhabitants were not of equal standing to those of the Crown – R v Murrell and Bummaree (1836). This quickly hardened into the doctrine of terra nullius, which allowed the colonies to avoid native citizenship and ownership of property. Equally as insidious as the Secession, but our colonies didn’t fight a war about it, because they all agreed with it.


gavinf 07.23.13 at 5:36 am

@24 There are active secessionist movements, and attempted secessions, right now. There was a long history of armed resistance by Aboriginal nations (see: The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, the very fine 1978 film by Fred Schepisi based on the Booker nominated novel by Thomas Keneally).


maidhc 07.23.13 at 7:24 am

Fort Sumter and the other Federal forts in southern harbors were there to make sure that import tariffs were collected. They would have also played a role in enforcing the ban on importing slaves, which commenced in 1808. Their existence was hated by Southerners.

For that reason, firing on Fort Sumter was a powerful symbolic exercise to the South. It was also a valuable legal point to Lincoln. It might be debatable whether states could unilaterally vote to secede. However, firing on a federal fort was a clear act of rebellion, which freed him to act with force.

I have always read, at least in the last few decades, that the real underlying cause of the Civil War was the huge increase in territory after the Mexican-American War. Before that, North and South existed in an uneasy equilibrium. With all that new land the question was would it all remain free soil (there was no slavery in Mexico), thus outnumbering the slave states in Congress, or would the Mason-Dixon line be extended to the Pacific? The first place this came to a head was Bloody Kansas, which was basically a rehearsal for the Civil War.


ajay 07.23.13 at 8:59 am

I have always read, at least in the last few decades, that the real underlying cause of the Civil War was the huge increase in territory after the Mexican-American War.

Well, yes, in the sense that (as you say) that made it much more likely that there would be a war about slavery. Without slavery, expansion wouldn’t have led to a civil war.


Peter T 07.23.13 at 12:16 pm

The aboriginal issue in Australia most closely parallels the American Indian one in the US. But there is an interesting nexus between tariffs, slavery and democracy in Australia. When plantation agriculture became profitable in tropical Australia in the mid 19th century, there was some push by planters to bring in indentured labour from the Pacific Islands. This was blocked by labour interests, who eventually pushed through a set of national policies that maintained a high tariff, centralised wage-fixing, industrial policy and white immigration – these all tied together to maintain labour power.


Ronan(rf) 07.23.13 at 1:22 pm

Do you know was the white immigration policy driven primarily by racism or to prevent wages being undercut? If there was centralised wage-fixing I assume that wages being undercut wouldnt have been as much of an issue?


Peter T 07.23.13 at 1:51 pm


There was a race element, but there was also an explicit desire that Australia not become another Fiji, Mauritius or American South – a country with a wealthy landowning class and a mass of unfree or semi-free labour competing with a poor white class. Tied in with having a lot of Irish (and English lower classes). Tariffs were the usual tussle between the industrial states and the agricultural ones; immigration policy was partly race, partly fear of Asian neighbours, and partly the class issue. Centralised wage fixing came as a response to class conflict – and I think a sense of being far away from friends and too close to Asia lowered the tolerance for unrest. John Quiggin may have a better informed view – my reading has been unsystematic.


Ronan(rf) 07.23.13 at 2:27 pm

Thanks Peter


John Quiggin 07.23.13 at 8:03 pm

“Do you know was the white immigration policy driven primarily by racism or to prevent wages being undercut?”

This was hotly debated at the time, and still is. Racism was clearly an important factor, but the majority view, from my reading of the historical literature (also unsystematic) is that the desire to maintain high wages was more significant.


Stephen 07.23.13 at 8:22 pm

Out of curiosity: imagine an alternative USA, 1860ish, in which slavery is not an issue. Suppose (frantic handwaving) there is no significant Abolitionist movement, or no slavery in the South, or equal slavery everywhere (do I have to stress I would regard the first and last as immensely undesirable?)

Then suppose that, because of intolerable tariffs, the South wish to secede.

Would the correct view be: No slavery involved, let them go peacefully?

Or would it be: no, we have a Union, eternally indivisible, better a war with hundreds of thousands of dead and much of the country devastated, rather than the Union be violated?


Mao Cheng Ji 07.23.13 at 9:06 pm

They would’ve made a deal, on tariffs. They tried various compromises on slavery too, but in the end it didn’t work out.


Ronan(rf) 07.23.13 at 10:29 pm

gavinf @26, I’ve only seen your comment now, thanks for the recommendations I’ll check them out


Bruce Wilder 07.23.13 at 11:01 pm

There actually was a deal on tariffs, famous known as the American System of the Whig, Henry Clay, hero of Abraham Lincoln and many of the northern and border-state Whigs, who became a mainstay of the Republican Party.

Basically, Clay’s American System tied the interest of industrializing regions in the East in protectionist tariffs to the need of the West for development, by tying the revenues from the tariff to Western development projects, mainly transportation improvements to facilitate long-distant trade for cash crop farming and industrial manufacturing. The agricultural West wanted the development, but wasn’t wild about paying more for industrial goods; commercial and financial interests in the East favored a tariff, because it tended to act to transfer margins from English and French manufacturers to American investors in manufacturing.

The people, who didn’t like Clay’s American System were the Southern planters. Plantation agriculture, like manorial agriculture, is an autarkic scheme, which depends for its economic logic, on restricting trade to extraction from a bottom, which apart from a few market cash crops, is otherwise engaged in subsistence farming and hand manufacture, and from that extraction, an exchange at the top of commodities for luxuries. Development and increasing the scope of the money/market economy — the development of a mass economy in manufactured goods for the masses, founded on a revolution in transportation and communication — is the enemy of a plantation system. The planters wanted minor improvements to river navigation, the better to get cotton to Europe, but they did not want free homesteading in the West, or land-grant colleges or railroads or public education or banks or manufacturing. The southern nationalists, who would promote commercial, financial and industrial progress in the South, did so in vain, as the planters invested in nothing but land and slaves, to produce more cotton.

So, yes, a counterfactual compromise on the tariff was perfectly logical, because such an accommodation had already been proposed and, partly, adopted. Calhoun was throwing a spanner into Henry Clay’s American System, when he provoked the Nullification Crisis, supposedly over the tariff, as well as setting the faultlines of the constitutional crisis to come, by establishing secession as the South’s ace card.


John Quiggin 07.24.13 at 9:41 am

@Stephen I think it’s obvious some kind of accommodation would have been reached. No one in 1860 would have died for free trade, or for protection. And, in the absence of slavery, the South would not have been as radically different in economic terms anyway.


Mao Cheng Ji 07.24.13 at 10:38 am

Very different in economic terms, but also culturally, even though normally I don’t like cultural explanations. Northern upper-class people are pragmatic and business-like (except for a few crazy new-englanders), while their Southern counterparts seem highly idealistic; not too flexible. People for whom “better dead than red” is not just a funny rhyme. They’ll compromise on tariffs, but anything related to their ‘honor’ and ‘the way of life’ is off the table.


Peter T 07.24.13 at 11:01 am

We ran Stephen’s experiment in reverse in Australia. The main point of difficulty in federation was the tariff issue – industrial Victoria favoured a high tariff, more agricultural NSW and Queensland a low one. Yet, after several tries, federate we did. And Queenslanders are reputed to be nearly as mad as Southerners.


Stephen 07.24.13 at 7:50 pm

Agreed, it is highly probable that if there were a dispute about tariffs, some sort of compromise would in reality have been agreed.

But my question was: suppose no agreement were possible?

The point of that question is: I would suppose that in those circumstances, given that the question of slavery did not arise, the North would almost certainly have said to the South: Oh all right, if you really feel you must secede, go ahead, we’ll manage without you, it isn’t worth the bloodshed and misery and devastation that would happen in a war even if we won it.

If that were so (and I welcome arguments as to why it would not be so) then we have to conclude that all the rhetoric about the Union, one and eternal and indivisible, was just so much humbug and nonsense poured out to disguise that the Civil War was really about slavery and nothing else.


Jay 07.24.13 at 9:18 pm

But my question was: suppose no agreement were possible?

There would have been no CSA, Louisanna as a State and economic Class for example, profitted by the Whig Tariff Compromise, while South Carolina did not. The tariff system split States beyond simple lines of Slavery/Industry. Maine for example.

Overtime like any internal economic redistribution and economic development system, compromises would be gamed to the point where most would accept the compromises.

“Iron and Steel at 4.5% and Cotton for Free” is a hard ideal to rally the troops around.


John Quiggin 07.24.13 at 9:54 pm

@Stephen Sure, it was humbug, although those spouting it probably believed it at the time. The real issue was always slavery, though it suited both sides to deny it on occasion, and it still suits the neo-confederates to deny it.


Bruce Wilder 07.25.13 at 1:05 am

Stephen @ 41

The constitutional problem posed by the doctrine of States’ Rights and a supposed unilateral right of State secession arose in logical, (but, of course, not substantive) independence from the controversy over slavery.

Advocates of a States’ Rights interpretation of the American constitution (small-c), held the individual States each had an unilateral right to secede on their own motion, without the consent of other States or the corporate bodies of the Federal government. The act of secession, it was asserted, automagically disestablished the Federal government of the United States in the territory of the seceding State.

In the event, this theory ran aground on the lack of institutional mechanism. There’s no provision in the Constitution for unilateral State secession, and the administrative structure laid out by the Constitution, makes the States and the U.S. federal government, operationally separate creatures, with their own authorities, officials, public property and fiscal regimes. The States’ Rights theory held that a State could secede by its own motion, disestablishing the Federal government by mere notice of that motion. In the event, getting the Federal government to take notice proved to be problematic, as logically it must. It was on this point that Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy made resort to a contest of arms, to compel the U.S.A. to recognize the C.S.A. as a sovereign state.

Stephen asks whether the North might not have consented to secession, if sought on some less inflammatory ground than the cause of defending slavery as an institution. But, that is the wrong question: the right question would be: can we imagine the South asking the consent of the Federal government for a separation of their region from the rest, if the impetus were from some lesser issue? Can we imagine the Southern representatives remaining in place in the Federal government to form the nucleus of a party or faction favoring separation, and seeking allies from other regions, interested in negotiating an agreed separation?

In the event, by some tellings at least, the Confederates almost got their automagic result. Popular feeling and betrayals by local officials and military officers “going South” at the critical moment, left few Federal installations south of the Mason-Dixon line in Federal hands, by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861. But, one of those facilities was Fort Sumter, in the heart of secession, and we know how the Confederate bombardment galvanized the conflict into war. But, why did Jefferson Davis choose a dramatic bombardment, when he knew full well that the garrison was about to surrender for lack of provisions?

It is too easy to ask only why the Union would persist, and refuse to let the southern Confederacy go in peace. One must also ask, why did the Confederacy insist on trying to compel by force of arms, the acquiescence of the Union to separation? Why not ask consent to separation? Surely, some of the northern and western grievances would be well-satisfied by separation. The Fugitive Slave Act would be a dead letter, in relation to a foreign country; shorn of the agrarian plantation economy of the South, the Union could pursue the Industrial Revolution unhindered. And, with Southern representatives still in office in Washington, vigorous action by a Lincoln Administration to suppress the Confederacy would have been impossible.

The mentality that stood behind the political calculus of compulsion, as a means to independent nationhood, played havoc with the Confederate efforts to formulate a workable grand strategy, on the field of battle, in foreign policy and diplomacy, even in espionage. The Confederates tried to compel Britain and France to intervene, by withholding cotton, which only aided the Northern blockade for the year before that blockade could be put into practical effect. Later in the war, Jefferson Davis tried to subvert the peace party at the North into violent insurrections — apparently unaware of the nature of a “peace” party. Robert E. Lee sought, in his own words, a “Cannae” — a grand and dramatic battlefield victory, with no obvious connection to the goal of gaining Union consent to separation. Near the end, Lincoln and others feared that the Confederates might sue for peace, and bring the war to an untimely end, leaving slavery still alive as a legal institution.

It may be that the southern aspiration to become an independent nation simply could not survive without the patriotic fervor of war. A routine and peaceful politics of negotiation and coalition building would smother it in the crib. We cannot run that experiment. We can observe, though, the event, and in the event, the withdrawal of the Confederates unleashed an extraordinarily vigorous state, able to marshal its vast resources systematically and effectively in the long-run, against a belligerent, which started strong, but could not find a workable grand strategy for negotiating its life in the world.

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