What If the North Had Seceded From the South?
There is only a psychological, rather than a logical or truly moral account, of why so many Americans believe that the invasion of the South by northern troops, from 1861 to the end of “reconstruction,” discredited secession as a legally and morally legitimate escape from a government which rejects the rule of law. The explanation finally rests on the power of the government schools to indoctrinate the minds of the uncritical masses in its own paradigm of language as a competing will to power.
The moral confusion is based upon an implicit and unconsidered conflation of any controversial reason for seceding in the first place with the separate issue of whether or not there is a natural right to secede. The moral confusion also rests in the notion that secession, even when it is motivated by the government’s rejection of the rule of law, is itself a rejection of the rule of law. And this confusion in turn relies on the inherently tyrannical principle that only the government itself, in its establishment courts, can define what the rule of law is.
Obviously the people must have the ultimate authority to decide what the rule of law is, or tyranny by the few is inevitable. The people themselves seem to be better motivated and equipped than the few to prevent the tyranny of the few, or of the many, by controlling the language used to describe the rule of law as its proper behaviors. Secession is the ultimate method by which ultimate control over common sense, embodied in ordinary language, is exercised. (Remember that all traditions, all competing paradigms of language are a will to power. This is natural.) It is a declaration of a subculture’s decision that the language of the central authority, and its own language, are incommensurate. Logical contact has become impossible. Once there are two rival, incommensurate traditions (languages), as there were in the North and the South in 1861, pretending that there is just one tradition is moral and political chaos; it is alienation on the huge scale we observe today. Involuntary union is a constant state of war.
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The American tradition, in the past, has stressed the right of the people to abolish their government whenever and for whatever reason they declare. But which people, how many people, and where? If this right is real it cannot be limited by artificial borders, by demanding ahistorical answers to abstract, theoretical questions. This Lincolnian constraint simply eliminates the right. In the meantime the federal government has no rights. Elsewhere, I have supported the libertarian notion that the right of secession reaches down to the individual level, and that the only thing which makes this impractical is the kind of tyranny which inspires secession in the first place.
The contemporary conservative simply does not accept this. He agrees that the federal government does not have rights, in which case he is claiming that Lincoln himself, the Fuhrer, had the right to invade. Again, Lincoln becomes transcendent. The conservative does not understand that we must make way for any democratically dominant motivation driving separation among people within historical, traditional borders, or turn the central authority into God. They would rather turn the central authority into God which is, at best, the greater of two evils. This is why, like Lincoln, they think Lincoln was the instrument of God, where the god in question was Lincoln’s own obscure, belated, and self-serving invention. They are grounded in a competing salvation history in which
Lincoln is the Christ figure. No argument will sway them. They cannot understand how the South might be embarrassed and offended by this alternative, modern salvation history and its strange version of Christ. The South was mesmerized by the blood on Lincoln’s hands and by the transformation of Christ in the northern mind. Christ was being translated into the modern man of power, suffering at the top to bring people together by force. This was a whole new western religious tradition which seemed impossibly silly, and evil, to the Southern consciousness. And for those of us looking back, it was at least as morally contrived and evil as slavery. When someone, like Lincoln, is consumed by ambition, he is ripe to be used. But by whom?
The Lincoln worshipping position starts with the premise that although the modern Enlightenment state was explicitly conceived of as the servant of man, it becomes the servant of God in being so conceived. Conservatives are simply smug in their unconscious alignment with humanism as they align themselves with Lincoln.
Who should decide what is ultimately just based, in due course, on decisions about what is ultimately real? If the answer to this question is that “experts” rather than the people should do so, then totalitarian dictatorship — Lincoln’s Platonic republic — is inevitable. Today, we find the federal government deciding what is ultimately real (implying its own view of the purposes of human life by its actions), and therefore just, without respect for democratic input like state laws prohibiting gay marriage. The conservative is constantly moving in between the authority of the state and the authority of the people. He appeals to one or the other depending upon whether or not he identifies with the language at hand. He does not understand that the authority of the people, while being far from perfect in any theological system, is safer than the authority of the few in office as long as the means of cultural production are not in the hands of the state. The Civil War and the rise of government education, where we find students pledging allegiance to the state, were a coherent, coextensive process. When education, in particular, is privatized, the conservative’s religious tradition can and will dominate ordinary language — all of our language about the nature of justice. The conservative is failing to aim straight at the target, the true nature of democracy. He still aims to use the government Lincoln forced upon us when he can, rather than the Church and education. He chooses a broken tool lying right next to one which is both handsome and extremely effective.
I work hard, as we all must on the right, to disabuse people of their blind faith in the purported righteousness of Lincoln’s war and, therefore, of the Federal Government of the United States. It is crucial to undermine the official state line. The Civil War tragically established the federal government, in the minds of the uncritical, and with the help of the “progressives,” as the servant of God — as the righteous judge of any other political unit which would defy it for any reason. This was not an uncomfortable suggestion for Edmund Burke. And yet conservatives complain about this on a regular basis today. Lincoln took advantage of the abolitionist notion, which has ironically enslaved us all, that the government could be, and was, the righteous arm of God himself, transcending the constitution and the rule of law. This is the essence of what Jefferson Davis is claiming in his writings after the war. He is pointing out that, no matter how abhorrent the South’s devotion to slavery may have been, Lincoln had twisted the federal government into an equally abhorrent, and even more effective and dangerous enemy of human freedom. Evil justifies itself with artificially righteous motivations. All it had to find was a man as ambitious as Lincoln.
The post-war positioning of the states as corrupt children needing to be punished by an all-powerful, angry, and coercive federal government, was the establishment of a new American religion; of the state as our new official church. Lincoln explicitly consecrates the war in his bizarre speech at Gettysburg, and tells us that his soldiers’ blood has consecrated the battlefield, turning it into a religious object; transforming his war of subjugation into a religious crusade blessed by God. He is the angry god in question. His temper, his ambition, and his ego was well known despite his puerile adoption of the bumpkin role designed to conceal it. It was an age which tended to believe that God was, in any event, on the side of the victor. But for all we know God was disgusted with both sides and many more battles will be lost before God wins.
With exceptions like Lysander Spooner, it was the goal of the abolitionists to turn the federal government, i.e. Lincoln, into an angry and avenging god, as opposed to simply preaching the Gospel. The government, rather than the church, was the medium by which some abolitionists exercised their will to power. And this was, of course, the Southern critique of them. The abolitionist’s final solution, born out of anger and frustration with people who did not recognize their prophetic status, was total war — a morally lazy strategy equal if not superior in its tyranny to slavery. The transformation of the federal government into the righteous arm of God is precisely what the South considered a self-deluded dictatorship; a political philosophy which could only lead to the progressive and total destruction of freedom and order. Whether the foundation of the state’s divine right is to be found in scripture, or pure reason, human beings will turn it to their own ends. We are now suffering the consequences of making the government the final authority on what the rule of law and justice really is after allowing it to teach our children that it has the right to visit violence on those who are truly different (as opposed to pretentiously “diverse”) and sincerely wish to leave.
The theological reconstruction of the federal government into the instrument of an avenging god begins with the notion that the cause of the federal government’s anger is identical with the supposed cause of the war which necessarily exploded the government’s power. The cause of the war had to be transformed in order to justify the federal government’s anger, tyrannical expansion, and terror. The cause had to become the South’s infuriating insistence on the perpetuation of the constitution which perpetuated slavery. Insofar as the constitution recognized slavery, Lincoln was free to trample on it. And anyone who would not trample with the government, would be righteously trampled by the government. But again, this was a reconstruction after the fact (exactly what the North accused the South of), for the original sources make it embarrassingly clear that the North and its leader were not actually angry about slavery; that slavery was not the cause of the war.
In order to strip the federal government of the right to anger and total war, bestowed upon it by historians who cannot distinguish between the cause of the Southern secession and the cause of the war, all we have to do is think a little more clearly than these state journalists.
Propositions P1 and P2 are logically and contingently (historically) consistent with one another.
- P1 The South seceded in order to preserve slavery as the cornerstone of its economy.
- P2 The “Civil War” was caused by the fact that Lincoln did not agree with the South that states are sovereign and therefore have the right to secede.
Because P1 and P2 are both logically and practically consistent with one another we cannot conclude that the war was fought over slavery. Lincoln never claimed that it was initiated to end slavery. In fact he explicitly claimed that it was not initiated to end slavery. If Lincoln had believed in one or more of the following propositions the war never would have occurred.
- P3 States have the legal right to secede, no matter what their motivation.
- P4 States have the moral (natural) right to secede, no matter what their motivation.
- P5 There is no authority bestowed upon the federal government, by the constitution, to invade a seceding state.
Doubt arises about the “Lost Cause” — state’s rights under constitutional government — being the South’s primary motivation and therefore the true, immediate, and proximate cause of the war because P1 is true as well as P2. Mississippi’s declaration of secession, for example, makes it quite clear that it was seceding in order to preserve an economy based, for the time being, on slavery. We therefore have a tendency to arrive at the non-sequitor which is taught to almost all of the school children in America — that the overwhelming and primary controversy which caused the military conflict between North and South in 1861 was the South’s jealousy of its slaves. But the constitution had explicitly accepted slavery in the slave states which ratified it and the vast majority of the South’s fighting men owned no slaves. If the South had abolished slavery when Massachusetts ended it, because it was no longer economically relevant in the north, and had nevertheless seceded in 1861 over cultural and economic conflict with the North (as a competing, incommensurate tradition), the same immediate, proximate cause of the war would have obtained — the disagreement about whether or not states had the right, in the first place, to secede. The motive for seceding and the immediate and primary cause of the war are two different things. The true cause of the war must be the one which, if it were removed, would have obviated the war. This cause, with perfect clarity, is the issue of state sovereignty.
The imprecision with which historians think about this is based on their moral judgment of the South, imagining that no subculture with an economy based on slavery could possibly have the integrity to fight, first and foremost, for its natural political rights. But this is just a strange, even ideological bias; a competing will to power. This bias is the North’s cupidity and envy projected onto the South. According to Lincoln, in his first inaugural, the North could not legally invade the South to free any slaves. The Emancipation did not free slaves in federally controlled territory. The North fought to preserve its economic exploitation of the South, to end an economic insurrection. The cynicism of the North and its historians is not evidence that Southern states did not fight, when the fighting came, for their rights first and foremost. It has always been difficult to imagine why the average Southern soldier would put his life on the line for the economic privilege of the slave holders. He died, en masse, because he saw the North as an alien, invading tyrant. This is the very same reason why some slaves fought for the South.
What if the North, in 1861, had decided to end its complacency by seceding from the South? Imagine the North growing weary of accumulating guilt, initiated by its “deal with the devil” — a national constitution which authorized the South’s peculiar institution; a foundation which made the North complicit in what it now considered a crime? What if Northern secession had been the abolitionist’s primary strategy? And imagine, furthermore, that the South refused to accept this secession, and invaded the North to prosecute a bloody war with no intention of reestablishing slavery in the north, any more than the North, in real history, started out with the intention of ending slavery in the South. The South’s announced and exclusive program in this vision is to restore the all-powerful union. The historians would have consistently condemned the South for not recognizing the North’s natural right to secede for its relative cause. The southern historians would have replied that the Southern States were putting down an insurrection. The northern historians would have replied that there was no insurrection; no one was trying to overthrow any state government in the North and no northern army was trying to overthrow the federal government still embraced by the South. The southern historians would have replied that it was still insurrection. In that case, the northern historians would have replied, insurrection, following on the example of the Founding Fathers, is a good thing.
Conservatives and Progressives do not understand, or otherwise will not accept, the postmodern point that deciding whether or not there is any authority in the constitution for forcibly ending secession relies on a rival paradigm of language; competing rules for using terms like “insurrection” correctly. These paradigms of language are just competing wills to power which is not to say that one or the other will not be more satisfying morally in the long run. Given our present condition it is not unreasonable to suppose that what would have been morally satisfying in the long run, and what may be morally satisfying in the future, is respect for the natural right of secession. Secession is either a natural right or any amount of tyranny is authorized. If the North had been willing in the long run, as it was in the short, to separate the issue of secession from the issue of slavery, and therefore remember its own endorsements of state sovereignty, it is hardly unreasonable to suppose that slavery would have ended without total war, 1.2 million casualties, and the occupation of the South as a conquered and alien nation. As history stands today it is reasonable to question whether Lincoln’s war, in fact, liberated any slaves, rather than making their slavery, in very important regards, continuous.
In large part because of Lincoln and the Civil War, and confusion about its immediate cause, we have all become subject to a government which plays God for both liberals and conservatives. Therefore, we must continue to demythologize the whole bloody business.
*Article by Tom Dahlberg