Part­ing com­pany

The Covington News - - THE SECOND OPINION - Wal­ter E. Wil­liams is a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity. To find out more about Wal­ter E. Wil­liams, visit cre­

For decades, it has been ob­vi­ous that there are ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences be­tween Amer­i­cans who want to con­trol the lives of oth­ers and those who wish to be left alone. Which is the more peace­ful so­lu­tion: Amer­i­cans us­ing the brute force of government to beat lib­erty-minded peo­ple into submission or sim­ply part­ing com­pany? In a mar­riage, where vows are ig­nored and bro­ken, di­vorce is the most peace­ful so­lu­tion.

Sim­i­larly, our Con­sti­tu­tional and hu­man rights have been in­creas­ingly vi­o­lated by a government in­sti­tuted to pro­tect them. Amer­i­cans who sup­port con­sti­tu­tional ab­ro­ga­tion have no in­ten­tion of mend­ing their ways.

Since Barack Obama’s re-elec­tion, hun­dreds of thou­sands of pe­ti­tions for se­ces­sion have reached the White House. Some peo­ple have ar­gued that se­ces­sion is un­con­sti­tu­tional, but there’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing in the Con­sti­tu­tion that pro­hibits it. What stops se­ces­sion is the prospect of brute force by a mighty fed­eral government, as wit­nessed by the costly War of 1861. Let’s look at the se­ces­sion is­sue.

At the 1787 con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion, a pro­posal was made to al­low the fed­eral government to sup­press a se­ced­ing state. James Madi­son, the ac­knowl­edged fa­ther of our Con­sti­tu­tion, re­jected it, say­ing: “A Union of the States con­tain­ing such an in­gre­di­ent seemed to pro­vide for its own de­struc­tion. The use of force against a State would look more like a dec­la­ra­tion of war than an in­flic­tion of pun­ish­ment and would prob­a­bly be con­sid­ered by the party at­tacked as a dis­so­lu­tion of all pre­vi­ous com­pacts by which it might be bound.”

On March 2, 1861, af­ter seven states had se­ceded and two days be­fore Abra­ham Lin­coln’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wis­con­sin pro­posed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that said, “No State or any part thereof, hereto­fore ad­mit­ted or here­after ad­mit­ted into the Union, shall have the power to with­draw from the ju­ris­dic­tion of the United States.”

Sev­eral months ear­lier, Reps. Daniel E. Sick­les of New York, Thomas B. Florence of Penn­syl­va­nia and Otis S. Ferry of Con­necti­cut pro­posed a con- sti­tu­tional amend­ment to pro­hibit se­ces­sion. Here’s my no-brainer ques­tion: Would there have been any point to of­fer­ing th­ese amend­ments if se­ces­sion were al­ready un­con­sti­tu­tional?

On the eve of the War of 1861, even union­ist politi­cians saw se­ces­sion as a right of states. Rep. Ja­cob M. Kunkel of Mary­land said, “Any at­tempt to pre­serve the Union be­tween the States of this Con­fed­er­acy by force would be im­prac­ti­cal, and de­struc­tive of repub­li­can lib­erty.”

The North­ern Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can par­ties fa­vored al­low­ing the South to se­cede in peace. Just about ev­ery ma­jor North­ern news­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­al­ized in fa­vor of the South’s right to se­cede. New York Tri­bune (Feb. 5, 1860): “If tyranny and despo­tism jus­ti­fied the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1776, then we do not see why it would not jus­tify the se­ces­sion of Five Mil­lions of Southrons from the Fed­eral Union in 1861.” Detroit Free Press (Feb. 19, 1861): “An at­tempt to sub­ju­gate the se­ceded States, even if suc­cess­ful, could pro­duce noth­ing but evil — evil un­mit­i­gated in char­ac­ter and ap­palling in con­tent.” The New York Times (March 21, 1861): “There is grow­ing sen­ti­ment through­out the North in fa­vor of let­ting the Gulf States go.”

There’s more ev­i­dence seen at the time our Con­sti­tu­tion was rat­i­fied. The rat­i­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments of Vir­ginia, New York and Rhode Is­land ex­plic­itly said that they held the right to re­sume pow­ers del­e­gated, should the fed­eral government be­come abu­sive of those pow­ers.

The Con­sti­tu­tion would have never been rat­i­fied if states thought that they could not main­tain their sovereignty.

The War of 1861 set­tled the is­sue of se­ces­sion through brute force that cost 600,000 Amer­i­can lives. Amer­i­cans cel­e­brate Abra­ham Lin­coln’s Get­tys­burg Ad­dress, but H.L. Mencken cor­rectly eval­u­ated the speech, “It is po­etry, not logic; beauty, not sense.” Lin­coln said that the sol­diers sac­ri­ficed their lives “to the cause of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion — that government of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple should not per­ish from the earth.” Mencken says: “It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any­thing more un­true. The Union sol­diers in the bat­tle ac­tu­ally fought against self-de­ter­mi­na­tion; it was the Con­fed­er­ates who fought for the right of peo­ple to gov­ern them­selves.”


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