Saturday, May 12, 2007

Was Secession Revolution?

In an article at the Claremont Institute website, entitled "The Case Against Secession", Mackubin Owens asserts that, "despite claiming to be the true heirs of the American Founding, the seceding states never invoked the right of revolution that Jackson, Webster, Lincoln, and others acknowledged." He finds the answer to the question, "Why not?" in the theory of states' rights and the tensions generated by the institution of slavery:
The main reason was that while the Founders understood the right of revolution to be an inalienable natural right of individuals antecedent to political society, Calhoun, the architect of the theory of State sovereignty used to justify secession expressly repudiated the idea of individual inalienable natural rights. Calhoun dismissed the fundamental idea of the American Founding — that "all men are created equal" — as the "most false and dangerous of all political errors." Given the large slave population of the South, this denial of the inalienable natural rights of individuals, including the right of revolution, was no doubt prudent.

Secession constitutes a repudiation of republican government as understood by the Founders. For Calhoun, sovereignty was not a characteristic of individuals, but of collective political bodies. Individual rights, such as they were, were prescriptive, not natural. If Calhoun was right, then the Founders were wrong.

When I first read Professor Owens' essay, I thought this was an interesting observation, but I wondered whether the premise was correct. Certainly, much secessionist theory dwelt on the right of the states to secede, but was that not intermixed with revolutionary rhetoric urging white men to rise up -- albeit in a way allegedly sanctioned by the Constitution -- and throw off the chains that Lincoln was about to place on them?

I raise this because I recently saw a reference to an old friend -- Judge Eugenius Aristides Nisbet -- who definitely falls outside Professor Owens's paradigm. In a December 1860 speech in Macon, Georgia, Judge Nisbet asserted that he did not believe that secession was a constitutional right. He told his audience that he embraced secession as "revolution." "If [secession] is, as I esteem it, revolution, then I am for it."

Michael P. Johnson, Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1977) at 28, 29n.1.

Thanks to Anonymous for recommending the book. I'm only forty pages in, but I can tell it's a good one.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Glad you are enjoying the book. Please do post more of your thoughts as you read it.


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