One hundred and fifty years ago this December 24th, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. It was also there that the first shots were fired in anger at Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, starting the Civil War.
President Andrew Jackson had already explained to the authors of South Carolina's Nullification Act in 1832, that a state could not nullify Federal laws or secede from the Union of its own volition: because the United States is a Union and not a League that a state can join or leave at will. Chief Justice John Marshall had made clear in McCullough v. Maryland the reasoning behind this: that the Constitution was a direct Social Contract between the People of the United States as a whole, and the Government of the United States. The States were not intermediaries, and have no real say in this Contract other than, when acting as agents of the People of that particular State: the original thirteen state legislatures ratified the Constitution; a current state legislature ratifies a new Amendment; when a State calls for a Constitutional Convention.
And now South Carolina is planning a Sesquicentennial Ball (according to Countdown With Keith Olbermann ) to celebrate seceding from the Union in 1860. Other former states of the Confederacy are planning similar events. The individuals at this Sesquicentennial Ball are, for modern sensibilities, going to limit themselves to black tie, period civilian clothing, or period militia uniforms at this little soiree; no Confederate Gray permitted. One small problem with this limitation is that most (though not all) standard American militia uniforms in the 1850's were gray.
The big problem is that they are celebrating an act of treason.
Because that's what the Southern states committed by attempting to break away and started the Civil War: treason, pure and simple; no matter how you try to dress it up as some noble undertaking. And it was primarily over the issue of slavery: South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession mentions slavery eighteen times. Not all of the states of the Confederacy gave a reason in their Ordinances of Secession for leaving the Union: only Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas followed South Carolina's lead, and slavery was stated as their underlying reason for secession as well.
I am well aware that most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves, and were fighting for that great, false god of American politics "State's Rights." But their leaders--political and military--asked them to fight and die for the slaves that the Southern aristocracy owned and exploited, in a plantation system that a Roman Senator or Knight owning latifundia would have understood perfectly; except for the fact he could no longer crucify an escaped slave.
Sam Houston--friend and protege of Andrew Jackson and one time President of the Republic of Texas--was removed as Governor of the State of Texas, and spent the last two years of his life essentially under house arrest, because of his fervent opposition to secession. Sam Houston was well aware that secession was unconstitutional. The legally correct answer to the problem would have been for the States to call a Constitutional Convention on the issue of slavery. Unfortunately, it was no longer men such as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, but fire-eaters like Jefferson Davis, Robert Toombs , and Alexander Stephens, who were in control of politics in the Southern states.
After the end of the Civil War, many of the Confederacy's political and military leaders were only saved from retribution at the hands of the Radical Republicans by grants of amnesty from Presidents Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. The compassion and honest justice promised by Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, and carried through by his successors, insured that the scars of the Civil War did not become deeper with the martyrdom of men such as Robert E. Lee. Rarely have the victors in any Rebellion shown such restraint.
The Civil War on both sides I believe should be celebrated for only three reasons: the reunification of the United States of America; the technical end of slavery in this country; and the courage and ability of those who fought it. Celebrating secession is to celebrate treason.
As Wellington said after Waterloo, it was a near run thing. I believe if Stonewall Jackson had not been killed (or seriously wounded) at Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia would probably have won at Gettysburg. I believe that the Confederacy's myopia and overemphasis on the campaign in Northern Virginia blinded them to the Union's long term strategy, set forth by General Winfield Scott at the beginning of the war, which ultimately defeated them. I believe it was the Confederate High Command's lack of appreciation for the modern tools of strategic warfare--the telegraph, the steamboat, and the railroad--that prevented them from using their interior lines of communication to consistently mass numerically superior forces against Union armies on the offensive, and defeat them in detail. But we should not be surprised: the Confederacy was formed to maintain an ancient institution whose time had past, just as their armies slavishly followed a military tradition--that of Napoleon Bonaparte--whose time had also passed.
In the United States today, we unfortunately still have groups of people who are seemingly ignorant in their knowledge of history in general, and the history of our nation and its Constitution in particular. These are the individuals who think that Thomas Jefferson's most radical ideas should be excluded from the history and civics text books in Texas, in favor of disgraced former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his ideas of what the Constitution and governance mean.
We have other people who still believe that all that is required for their state to secede from the Union is an Ordinance of Secession, a matter which was settled by force of arms in 1865, when the Confederacy was forced back into the Union. States have neither the power nor the authority to secede from the Union in such a simplistic and immoral manner. If a state wishes to leave the Union, it must ask the permission of the other states through a Constitutional Amendment, and - of those states must agree. This is the moral as well as the legal conclusion that I draw from Chief Justice Marshall's binding legal opinion in McCullough v. Maryland, supported by President Jackson's reasoning in his letter to the authors of South Carolina's Ordinance of Nullification in 1832.
We don't talk much about morality in political decision making any more, we speak much more about expediency. And because of this, we have fallen into the bad habit of believing that just because we want something, that action is justified morally.
This is the reasoning of a spoiled child.
The Re-Publicans in Congress are demonstrating a similar level of morality in their nihilistic attempt to force President Obama to make the tax cuts for the richest two percent of the American people permanent.