« PreviousContinue »
were lacking in the North. But this provincial loyalty was not in the same sense a natural growth in States like Alabama or Mississippi. These, no less than Indiana and Illinois, were the creatures of the Federal Congress, set up within the memory of living men, with arbitrary boundaries that cut across any old lines of division. There was, in fact, no spontaneous feeling of allegiance attaching to these political units, and the doctrine of their sovereignty had no use except as a screen for the interest in slavery which the Southern States had in common.
But Calhoun, in a manner characteristic of his peculiar and dangerous type of intellect, had early seen in a view of State sovereignty, which would otherwise have been obsolete, the most serviceable weapon for the joint interests of the Southern States. In a society where intellectual life was restricted, his ascendency had been great, though his disciples had, reasonably enough, thrown aside the qualifications which his subtle mind had attached to the right of secession. Thus in the Southern States generally, even among men most strongly opposed to the actual proposal to secede, the real or alleged constitutional right of a State to secede if it chose now passed unquestioned and was even regarded as a precious liberty
It is impossible to avoid asking whether on this ques. tion of constitutional law the Northern opinion or the Southern opinion was correct. (The question was indeed an important question in determining the proper course of procedure for a President when confronted with secession, but it must be protested that the moral right and political wisdom of neither party in the war depended mainly, if at all, upon this legal point. It was a question of the construction which a court of law should put upon a document which was not drawn up with any view to determining this point.) If we go behind the Constitution, which was then and is now in force, to the original document of which it took the place, we shall find it entitled “ Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," but we shall not find any such provisions as men desirous of creating a stable and permanent federal government might have been expected to frame. If we read the actual Constitution we shall find no word distinctly implying that a State could or could not secede. As to the real intention of its chief authors, there can be no doubt that they hoped and trusted the Union would prove indissoluble, and equally little doubt that they did not wish to obtrude upon those whom they asked to enter into it the thought that this step would be irrevocable. For the view taken in the South there is one really powerful argument, on which Jefferson Davis insisted passionately in the argumentative memoirs with which he solaced himself in old age. It is that in several of the States, when the Constitution was accepted, public declarations were made to the citizens of those States by their own representatives that a State might withdraw from the Union. But this is far from conclusive. No man gets rid of the obligation of a bond by telling a witness that he does not mean to be bound; the question is not what he means, but what the party with whom he deals must naturally take him to mean. Now the Constitution of the United States upon the face of it purports to create a government able to take its place among the other governments of the world, able if it declares war to wield the whole force of its country in that war, and able if it makes peace to impose that peace upon all its subjects. This seems to imply that the authority of that gov. ernment over part of the country should be legally indefeasible. It would have been ridiculous if, during a war with Great Britain, States on the Canadian border should have had the legal right to secede, and set up a neutral government with a view to subsequent reunion with Great Britain. The sound legal view of this matter would seem to be: that the doctrine of secession is so repugnant to the primary intention with which the national instrument of government was framed that it could only have been supported by an express reservation of the right to secede in the Constitution itself.
The Duke of Argyll, one of the few British statesmen of the time who followed this struggle with intelligent interest, briefly summed up the question thus: “I know of no government in the world that could possibly have admitted the right of secession from its own allegiance. Oddly enough, President Buchanan, in his Message to Congress on December 4, put the same point not less forcibly.
But to say-as in a legal sense we may—that the Southern States rebelled is not necessarily to say that they were wrong. The deliberate endeavour of a people to separate themselves from the political sovereignty under which they live and set up a new political community, in which their national life shall develop itself more fully or more securely, must always command a certain respect. Whether it is entitled further to the full sympathy and to the support or at least acquiescence of others is a question which in particular cases involves considerations such as cannot be foreseen in any abstract discussion of political theory. But, speaking very generally, it is a question in the main of the worth which we attribute on the one hand to the common life to which it is sought to give freer scope, and on the other hand to the common life which may thereby be weakened or broken up. It sometimes seems to be held that when a decided majority of the people whose voices can be heard, in a more or less defined area, elect to live for the future under a particular government, all enlightened men elsewhere would wish them to have their way. If any such principle could be accepted without qualification, few movements for independence would ever have been more completely justified than the secession of the Southern States. If we set aside the highland region of which mention has already been made, in the six cotton-growing States which first seceded, and in several of those which followed as soon as it was clear that secession would be resisted, the preponderance of opinion in favour of the movement was overwhelming. This was not only so among the educated and governing portions of society, which were interested in slavery. While the negroes themselves were unorganised and dumb and made no stir for freedom, the poorer class of white people, to whom the institution of slavery was in reality oppressive, were quite unconscious of this; the enslavement of the negro appeared to them a tribute to their own dignity, and their indiscriminating spirit of independence responded enthusiastically to the appeal that they should assert themselves against the real or fancied pretensions of the North. So large a statement would require some qualification if we were here concerned with the life of a Southern leader; and there was of course a brief space, to be dealt with in this chapter, in which the question of secession hung in the balance, and it is true in this, as in every case, that the men who gave the initial push were few. But, broadly speaking, it is certain that the movement for secession was begun with at least as general an enthusiasm and maintained with at least as loyal a devotion as any national movement with which it can be compared. And yet to-day, just fifty-one years after the consummation of its failure, it may be doubted whether one soul among the people concerned regrets that it failed.
English people from that time to this have found the statement incredible; but the fact is that this imposing movement, in which rich and poor, gentle and simple, astute men of state and pious clergymen, went hand in hand to the verge of ruin and beyond, was undertaken simply and solely in behalf of slavery. Northern writers of the time found it so surprising that they took refuge in the theory of conspiracy, alleging that a handful of schemers succeeded, by the help of fictitious popular clamour and intimidation of their opponents, in launching the South upon a course to which the real mind of the people was averse. Later and calmer historical survey of the facts has completely dispelled this view; and the English suspicion, that there must have been some cause beyond and above slavery for desiring independence, never had any facts to support it. Since 1830 no exponent of Southern views had ever hinted a secession on any other ground than slavery; every Southern leader de. clared with undoubted truth that on every other ground he prized the Union; outside South Carolina every Southern leader made an earnest attempt before he surrendered the Union cause to secure the guarantees he thought sufficient for slavery within the Union. The Southern statesman (for the soldiers were not statesmen) whose character most attracts sympathy now was Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy, and though he was the man who persisted longest in the view that slavery could be adequately secured without secession, he was none the less entitled to speak for the South in his remarkable words on the Constitution adopted by the Southern Confederacy: "The new Constitution has put at rest for ever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. The prevailing ideas entertained by Jefferson and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was wrong in principle socially, morally, and politically. 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 the equal of the white man; that slavery-subordination to the white man-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. The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to the Creator's laws and decrees.” Equally explicit and void of shame was the Convention of the State of Mississippi. tion,” they declared, “is thoroughly identified with slavery.”
It is common to reproach the Southern leaders with reckless folly. They tried to destroy the Union, which they really valued, for the sake of slavery, which they valued more; they in fact destroyed slavery; and they did this, it is said, in alarm at an imaginary danger. This is not a true ground of reproach to them. It is true