A Grim Sesquicentennial
January 3, 2011
By Bruce Walker
On December 20, 1860, the American Republic changed forever. South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Secession. Abraham Lincoln had been elected president but had not yet assumed his office. Superficially, the reason for secession was slavery. But the clock was tolling on that vice. In 1776, every American state had slavery. In 1789, when the Constitution was adopted, only Pennsylvania and the four New England states had provided for emancipation. (Maine was part of Massachusetts and Vermont was disputed between New Hampshire and New York.) Yet by 1821, every northern state had abolished slavery.
The trajectory was clear: states, on their own, were ending this evil institution. Immigrant populations in the South and in Border States opposed slavery. So did many Southerners. Robert E. Lee, before Lincoln was elected said: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Slavery was increasingly uneconomical. When Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, it made the labor intensive crop, and so slavery, profitable for awhile in the Deep South, but cotton could be grown cheaply in other parts of the world, like Egypt and India . The whole civilized world, not just Northerners, abhorred slavery. Economic reality doomed slavery to the dustbin of history. Its end, blessedly, was sure.
Our nation did not need a Civil War to end slavery in the South. The agony of Civil War, for all parts of America , was almost indescribable. The agony of the South, which not only lost the war but also had to endure occupation by federal troops, was even greater. The South, which had produced many of the great patriots who made our nation, found itself physically destroyed, desperately impoverished, and almost a colony of the North. It was not until 1976 that either of the two major political parties nominated a presidential candidate from the Deep South. The stigma of being Southern was heavy and this stigma bred resentment.
This resentment appeared in many ways. Governor Orval Fabus tried to use the Arkansas National Guard to stop desegregation, and found himself in 1957 facing President Eisenhower who sent in federal troops and nationalized the state guard to compel de jure desegregation. Governor George Wallace brazenly defied attempts to desegregate the University of Alabama. If Southerners themselves had chosen to end slavery, then there would have been no need for federal troops to enforce desegregation. Instead, these Southern states came to be perceived as threats to human rights and Washington came to be perceived as the defender of those rights.
This perception was more myth than truth. Robust state governments protect our liberties better than a remote central government. Why? State official are physically closer to the people. Their children attend the same schools as constituents. They see the same doctors, go to the same groceries, and attend the same churches. Most state legislators are only part-time politicians. They work at a real job. That means state legislators, their customers, and their clients deal with all the government red tape, tax regulations, and laws that everyone else does.
State governments also cannot print money. Whether state politicians want to be fiscally conservative or not, their place in our federal system and their inability to simply create money from thin air makes state governments more responsible than the federal government. The census data shows a steady movement of people away from states that tax and spend too much and into states with more sensible state finances. States cannot keep citizens from leaving if state taxes get too high, if state laws get too onerous, if state government gets too corrupt, or if bigotry makes some groups in a state feel uncomfortable. The right to “vote with your feet” served blacks well in the last century. Millions fled the South for better jobs and civil rights in the North. States’ rights worked well for black people.
When South Carolina seceded from the Union, 150 years ago, the rest of the nation should have bid the Palmetto State a fond farewell. A few states might have followed, but the very recognition of a right of secession would have discouraged states from leaving. Quebec can leave Canada , but it never has. All Canadians grasp that a civil war to keep Quebec, against its will, as part of Canada would be as disastrous as trying to keep the Irish part of the United Kingdom . The union of Quebec with the rest of Canada is consensual, like the union of South Carolina with the United States should have been. We are still paying the price for a disastrous mistake 150 years ago.