Ron Paul, secession, and twisting history

Posted on December 5, 2012. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Yesterday on the radio show Talk of the Nation (click that to see the transcript we’re working from) Republican Representative Ron Paul was a guest, along with independent Senator Joe Lieberman, talking about what lies ahead after their respective retirements from Congress next year. The host of the show brought up comments Paul made about secession after President Obama’s re-election in November. Some Texans have been talking about their state seceding from the union as a result of this election, and Paul joined in to confirm the right of any state to secede, comparing it, as people defending secession so often have, to the Revolutionary War. Paul made the comments the show was referring to on Fox News’ Cavuto program on December 1 (the lead-in for which was a host saying “Well, President Obama’s in, now more states want out”—surely an exaggeration, given that the number of people signing secession petitions in all of the states involved but Texas range in the low ten-thousands out of populations of millions). Paul began by saying he did not support secession, but averred that secession is allowed in the U.S. He couldn’t say it’s constitutional, of course, because secession is not provided for there, but called upon those ever-flexible Founders to say that secession is a non-extreme idea that they would have supported.

The states which have residents signing petitions are strangely familiar as a group: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South and North Carolina (and Arizona, the odd man out here).  

On Talk of the Nation, Paul offered this bizarre scenario when asked about his statements: “What if today, Greece, seceded from the European Union? The European Union got together, invaded Greece and killed about 50,000 people? We would frown on that.” One can only extrapolate that Paul is comparing the U.S. Civil War to this EU scenario, and criticizing the U.S. decision to fight the Civil War against the Confederacy (though one can’t figure out where the 50,000 number comes from).

Paul went on to say: “I think the freedom to leave is the description of whether or not you’re free. The Soviet system was so bad you could not leave. If you left, you got shot. So you have to have the right to leave. In secession, leaving—coming together is voluntary, so once you can’t leave, you lose your right of independence and self-determination becomes a very bad situation.”

This is a constant argument that Americans touting the right of secession use and, except for the Soviet reference, of course, the argument proslavery southerners made before the Civil War. The idea is that the United States are united by choice, not force, and therefore are free to leave the union whenever they want. This is simply untrue. Joining was voluntary; continued participation in the union is not. There is no protocol in the Constitution for states to leave the union, because if any state could leave at any time, it would be impossible to maintain a functioning nation. The only attempt by states to leave the union was answered by war. Being required to continue within the union is not equivalent to being imprisoned in a police state. The difference between the Soviet Union and the United States is that citizens of the states are able to participate in politics and create the change they desire.

Referring to the Revolution is also invalid, because the situation of colonies within an empire is not the same as states within the U.S. Colonies are goverened as satellites, without full rights as citizens. Colonies that break away from an empire know they must fight a war to do so, because they have no representation within the government of the empire, and are controlled for profit alone, a profit the empire will not want to lose. The states of the U.S. are not in that situation, as the American colonies once were, and so secession since the War is not the same as fighting for independence from an imperial government.

So far in the radio interview, Paul had only toed the usual misinformed line on secession that aligns it with the Founders and 1776, just as proslavery secessionists did in the late antebellum period. But then he veered into even more myth, claiming that during the War of 1812, New England tried to secede: “If you study history carefully, I think you’ll recognize that it was well accepted and recognized north – the New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was, you know, early on in the 19th century.”

Unfortunately, host Neal Conant affirmed this myth. The facts, however, are that during the War of 1812, which, like the Revolution, hit New England harder than other regions of the country, some New England Federalists threatened to call a convention to discuss secession. Like all Americans who call for secession, they claimed that they were “defending the true principles of the Constitution and of the nation itself” (Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, by Elizabeth Varon, 37). This Federalist fringe was immediately attacked by Democratic Republicans north and south, and by the time of the Hartford Convention in December 1814, any support New England secessionists had had withered away to almost nothing, and attendees of the Convention did not even discuss secession. Southerners, however, would hold the Convention over New England’s head for decades, at first chastising the region for its treason, and, in the 1850s, using the incident as proof that secession was legal (Ibid., 38-9 – for more on the changing nature of secession talk between 1787 and 1861, see Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War).

So secession was never “well accepted and recognized” in the north, nor is it true that “New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was”. New England was shamed and humiliated for decades afterward by its brief and very partial interest in threatening to secede, and most of that shame and humiliation was heaped on by the south—until the south wanted to defend secession as patriotic, at which point it praised New England for its early bandwagoning.

Paul went on to add to his misinterpretation of history by saying, “they recognized that it wasn’t like – it wasn’t evil, that they weren’t evil people because they wanted to separate themselves”. But of course New Englanders were made to feel evil because of the actions of a small fringe group, and New England in general did not want to separate itself.

Paul then wrapped up by dragging out the tired horse of states’ rights, saying “just having the right to secede or nullify would restrain, you know, the advancement of the central state. Now, if you lean towards saying, well, no, we need a stronger, more centralized control, then, of course, you don’t want that. But those of us who are strict constitutionalists and libertarians and all, we want government, local and at home, and not at the central level because we don’t believe in the central economic planning, whether it’s social planning or economic planning.”

The idea here is that if all the states were individual, not bound in a federal union, each would just have its state government, and we would not be subject to the horrors of big federal government. How “strict constitutionalists” could hold this position,which is clearly not part of the U.S. constitution, is unclear. But the idea that state governments are all good and pure, and would never trample the rights of state citizens like the federal government, and that the states are locked in an eternal battle with the evil empire in Washington, is not only an old one but one that is patently false. If the complaint against the federal government is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so states must strip the federal government of its power, what happens when states have all the power? Then each absolute state government will become absolutely as corrupted as the federal government is believed to be, because each will be the only government for its citizens. If the idea is that a state government is more responsive to its constituents because it is closer to them, and answers only to the people of its own state, that would surely be undone if the state government became the only government, with absolute power, and no outside, federal power to monitor its fairness.

The moral of the interview is: follow whatever political course you like—that’s the premise of the United States. But get the details right, and don’t ignore, or remain ignorant of, historical facts that interfere with your preferred world view. …and if you’re going to advocate “studying history carefully”, make sure you lead by example.

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The Logic of Southern Secession, 1860-1

Posted on December 10, 2009. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often historians talking about the secession of southern states after Lincoln’s election to the presidency will stop to wonder just why it even happened. Not all the states were on board with secession after Lincoln’s win—the major southern states, including North Carolina and Virginia, were against it. There had been secession scares before, and most southerners believed the hysteria would blow over and they would go back to doing what they had always done: fighting for slavery in Congress and the courts. They had been very successful at this, and there was no reason to suppose that would change. In fact, with Lincoln in the White House and Republicans in the Congress, the south would have to fight harder and even more cleverly to protect and spread slavery, and that was a challenge most southern legislators were likely up for.

So the immediate secessions of the seven Lower South states was no guaranty at all that the rest of the south would go, and southern public opinion was divided, to say the least. So why did it happen? Why did the dominoes fall?

It’s a good question. In fact, it’s been pondered over in a completely different arena: World War I.

The similarities are striking: one nation declares war over an act of violence, the other side declares war back; a tense waiting period in which frantic diplomacy is employed to defuse the situation; the majority of the public against war, or at least neutral; and then the rest of the dominoes fall. Ever since the summer of 1914, people have been asking how this happened when it was so far from being inevitable and there was so much to lose on all sides by going to war.

I don’t have the answer, of course; I’m just noting, for the first time that I know of, the similarity of the two situations. I suppose there’s something always to be said for the human desire to act, and to react in kind. If one country or leader is violent, it/he can expect a violent reaction. And there’s always the need to be part of your group: if your ally declares war, you will likely follow suit, no matter what misgivings you have, because the relationship impacts your honor, your sense of yourself, and your public image. And then it’s just easy to go to war; when a situation is difficult, maybe impossible to untangle, you can always run a sword through it. Last, a declaration of war is a powerfully emotional moment that it is very easy to get swept up in: an unthinking, heady, exciting, join-or-die, shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later moment.

If anyone has a good idea of how to answer the question of 1861 and 1914, let us know!

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Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war

Posted on April 20, 2008. Filed under: Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Final post of my series showing how slavery caused the Civil War, and we start with secession.

 

The whole south didn’t leave at once. It was the seven states of the lower south—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—that seceded almost instantaneously after they heard Lincoln won the election. South Carolina went out on December 20, 1860, and the rest followed by February 1, 1861.

 

But the other slaveholding states, most notably the powerhouses of North Carolina and Virginia, did not secede with them, and indeed seemed likely to stay in the Union. The lower south had to get those key states, as well as all the other slaveholding states, out of the Union and into the Confederacy.

 

So the lower south states sent out secession commissioners to those states. And here we come, once again, to the real truth of secession and war. Because while the seceding states publicly framed their reasons for leaving the Union in political terms (states’ rights), privately, they stated quite clearly that they were seceding to keep their slaves.

 

Secession commissioners were sent out from the lower south to the slaveholding states that had not seceded, with orders to convince those states to join the Confederacy. These commissioners gave impassioned speeches to the people and their state governments, and wrote to key state government officials, imploring them to join the Confederacy. Charles Dew unearthed and studied these speeches and letters, and wrote the invaluable book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War about them. Dew found that “what is most striking about them is their amazing openness and frankness. [They are] white Southerners talking to fellow Southerners with no need to hold back out of deference to outside sensibilities. These men infused their speeches and letters with …a powerful ‘Let’s cut to the chase’ analysis that reveals, better than any other source I know, what was really driving the Deep South states toward disunion.” [Dew 21]

 

And what was driving secession? Fear of losing slavery. Plain and simple. The secessionist commissioners went to the men of the south and said, We are seceding to protect slavery. If you want to protect slavery, you must secede.

 

And was slavery worth seceding over? Well, it was if you didn’t want your daughters to be raped and murdered by black men, according to the secession commissioners. They harped on the usual strings of race fear: black people will be our equals, black people will make our laws, we’ll have to eat in restaurants with black people, our children will be forced to marry black people, and we all know that black people are savages who can never be anything but savages, so all of those things are worse than death.

 

William Harris, commissioner to Georgia, put the choice before the south squarely in the context of preserving slavery: “[Either] this new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes, either, to molest us.” [Dew 29] 

 

 

Jacob Thompson, sent to persuade North Carolina, said Lincoln’s election put power in the hands of “a majority trained from infancy to hate our people and their institutions,” who would soon be saying that “slavery is overthrown.” Judge Alexander Handy, commissioner to Maryland, stated that “The first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the Territories, the District [of Columbia], the arsenals and forts, by the action of the federal government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin… The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” [Dew, 33]

 

All of the quotes here are repulsive, but they have to be aired so we can know the truth, which is that the lower south seceded strictly over slavery, and convinced many people in the other slaveholding states to do the same.

 

Dew asks an important question at the end of his book: “Did these men really believe these things? Did they honestly think that secession was necessary in order to stay the frenzied hand of the Republican abolitionist, preserve racial purity and racial supremacy, and save their women and children from rape and slaughter at the hands of “half-civilized Africans”? They made these statements, and used the appropriate code words, too many times in too many places with too much fervor and raw emotion to leave much room for doubt. They knew these things in the marrow of their bones, and they destroyed a political union because of what they believed and what they foresaw.” [Dew, 80]

 

So it was indeed slavery that caused the Civil War. The two-party system broke down under the strain of dealing with slavery in the new territories of the United States, first with the parties becoming more regional than national, then with the Whigs dissolving and the Democrats splitting. The Republican party was formed with the express intent of keeping slavery out of the west, and once they were in office, the south believed the Republicans would eradicate all slavery, everywhere in the country, and so the south seceded, and the Civil War began.

 

So it was slavery indeed that caused the Civil War. The Union was not immediately fighting to end slavery, that would come later in the war. But it was always fighting to curb slavery, to keep it in an ever-smaller part of the nation as that nation expanded. The war wasn’t about tarriffs or states’ rights. It was about slavery.

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