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What if Lincoln had allowed the South to secede?

On this date, a century and a half ago, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The Confederate States of America asserted not only their right to secede but also to claim federal property within their borders. The newly inaugurated U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, rejected both claims and refused to evacuate Sumter.

"Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln had said in his somber inaugural address a month earlier. “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."

The Civil War, to Lincoln, was never technically a “war” but an illegal and unconstitutional rebellion and a fight to put down the rebellion. The details of the events leading to the firing on Fort Sumter have much to do with this attitude and with his total rejection of the possibility of secession.

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

By attempting to resupply Sumter, Lincoln succeeded in forcing the Confederacy to fire the first shots. Lincoln had to accept the loss of Sumter soon after. But he was successful, so to speak, in forcing the other side to start the shooting. Lincoln believed that justified the military actions that he subsequently ordered to put down the rebellion.

What the Constitution says
The U.S. Constitution does, explicitly, empower the federal government (the Congress, actually, Article 1, Sec. 8) to “suppress insurrections.”

The question of whether this was an insurrection or a valid “secession” is much more difficult. In case you’re not up on such matters, you should know that the seceding Southern states left the union by the perfect reversal of the process by which they got in. They held elections (open to white male voters only, of course) to choose delegates to state conventions at which the original decision to ratify the Constitution (also at state conventions with elected delegates) was made.

Lincoln’s position was that these unratifications were impossible and therefore nullities.

But, so far as I know, he had no constitutional language on which to base that position. All he had was his belief that secession was impossible because if states were free to get in and out of the union, a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality could not “long endure,” as he put it years later at Gettysburg.

I’ve discussed this problem before, but recently found a new fact I’ll gladly share with you. Here it is:

The Articles of Confederation was the document that established the weak national government during the Revolution. It was replaced by the Constitution in 1789. The Articles of Confederation did contain a statement that the “the Union shall be perpetual” (see Article XIII).

But the framers of the Constitution, in their wisdom, did not say anything about whether states, after ratifying the Constitution and joining the new arrangement, had the option of changing their minds and getting out. The Constitution simply does not address the question. One could argue that by failing to pick up the perpetuity language from the Articles of Confederation, the framers implicitly left the door open to secession. Lincoln didn’t agree.

Leaving aside this annoying constitutional problem (which I seem unable to leave aside) most of us (at least us northerners) were brainwashed at an early age to believe in the legality and the nobility of Lincoln’s stand.

The fundamental premise
A lot of that is caught up in the slavery piece of the story. Lord knows I don’t want to be taken as being on the wrong side of that one. But how about the fundamental premise about secession?

Many, many nations have broken up since then. The Soviet Union became 15 separate republics. Yugoslavia became seven. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia.

The United States has opposed some, favored others, and been on both sides of some. The United States, via NATO, helped Kosovo secede from Serbia. For its purposes (canal), the U.S. fomented the secession of Panama from the nation of Colombia. Just this year, a new nation (still considering what it’s long-term name will be) was created out of what had been the southern portion of Sudan.

Most, but not all, of the secessions involved bloodshed. The most peaceful secession of the 1990s was the separation of Slovakia from what had been Czechoslovakia. The Slovaks felt dominated and mistreated. The Czechs said: If you don’t like the union, take a vote and we will respect it. They did and the two countries remain reasonably good neighbors.

What if Lincoln had said the same? It’s a wild counterfactual. Of course, hundreds of thousands who died over the next five years would have lived to die some other, presumably less violent, way. How long would slavery has lasted in the CSA? Would the South ever have reconsidered and tried to get back together with the North? Might the two countries have fought over ownership of the southwestern territories? Or might the two have become friends and allies?

There were very few blacks in the antebellum north. The subsequent northern migration of millions of freed slaves has had huge impacts on culture, politics and economy, especially of the big northern cities. Would that migration have occurred if the migrants had been immigrants who had to cross a national boundary?

The rest of the world little realized at the time what a stake it had in the question. The U.S. was a rising power in the world but Europe still dominated. How would 20th century history have been different if the colossal U.S. superpower had been two smaller powers? Would World Wars I and II have turned out differently? The Cold War — the organizing event of the second half of the 20th century — is hard to picture. What of the current one superpower world?

The implications for 21st century U.S. politics are huge. The South has become the main redoubt of Republican conservatism. (How ironic, since Lincoln was the first Republican president.) The Union states form the base of liberalism and the Dem Party. What would the politics be like in the separate states of our imaginary parallel universe if Lincoln had viewed the Confederacy the way the Czechs viewed the Slovaks?

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Comments (40)

I never bought into Lincoln's argument that the union must be preserved at all costs. People seem to forget that the states created the federal government, not vice versa, and that forcing disgruntled states to remain part of the union wasn't consistent with what the founders envisioned when they wrote the 10th Amendment, for example.

During the Cold War, one of the talking points of why the Soviet Union was morally inferior to the West was that they were holding entire states hostage behind an "iron curtain" that prevented them from seeking their own destiny as free men.

Realizing that Lincoln was guilty of the same thing and actually allowed a million men to die to make his point always seemed counter-intuitive to what a republican would believe.

Any judgement of this sort must cut through a great deal of complexity, but having lived in the South, I am convinced that a Southern state would have allied itself, even if only informally, with the Third Reich. This would have resulted, at least, with the remnant of the United States having to torpedo or intercept ships laden with oil and other commodities bound for Hitler.

Something not generally known, is that Southerners in Congress were informally allied with the Republican party as early as the 1870s. It was remarked on several times in the 1920s.

Let's see. Barring the obvious Harry Turtledove references (series starts with 'How Few Remain', works its way up to world war 2).. likely the Union would have remained a Northeastern bloc, with the Confederacy and the Union competing over the West. The Dakota war of 1862 would likely not have occurred, due to a lack of uppity Texan officers on site.
So... politically.. the Confederates would likely call themselves Democrats (figuring the switch-over in the 1960s wouldn't have happened)and there'd likely be an opposition party of some sort.. expansionists (bring slavery to the West, buy chunks of Mexico) and an isolationist emphasis (forget the world outside, go to church, enjoy the 'good old days' and sip mint juleps?)
The Union, now.. let's see. I don't really see the nascent republican party surviving a successful secession attempt, so.. democrats and.. whigs, perhaps. Maybe we'd have a three or four party system. Either way, politics 150 years after the Secession would be vastly different in issues. We'd probably be back in a Cold War with the South.

I'd think that if they were split, we would have a better social safety net in the North. That said, without economic powerhouses outside the Union-Confederate divide (think Calif., Texas, etc.), neither may have been as powerful enough as to have the effect the whole has had.

It the South had become its own country I think the North would have become more of a social democracy, much like Canada or northern European Countries. The south would have been a very rural, mostly poor, agricultural based economy. All industry would be located in the north. Moving into the 20th Century and if the South had kept slavary it would have become a pariah country, much like the RSA in the later 20th Century. It may have aligned with Hitler but given that it probably would have very little industry or $$$ to help with the war effort, that support would have not been a huge help to the Axis.

I blame Lincoln

I agree with much of this, except that I think the South would not have kept slavery very long. In fact, I think that the whites in the South would have been forced to work out their own accommodation with blacks, without it being imposed on them by the North. The black in the South may have revolted on their own, and there may have been true racial equality in the South a lot earlier, without the resentment imposed by carpetbaggers and Reconstruction. The South would have worked out their own political system and there wouldn't be this terrible race-based political division within the country that we have now. Sad to say, but we are still re-fighting the Civil War 150 years after the fact, and I blame Lincoln.

I think we would have gone to war eventually over something else, and THAT war would probably have been more destructive and far reaching. This was a horrendous war but it did preserve the Union, and a large and wealthy nation. I think Lincoln's instinct's were right.

The south was probably headed towards economic collapse, the slave economy simply wasn't sustainable. Sooner or later it would have been torn apart from within if not from without.

The belief that you can secceed from the "union" of States only works if you believe that States created from territories of the United State have the ability to withdraw from the country.

Once you get outside of the orriginal thirteen colonies the other states are all created from land purchased or stolen by the government of the United States. The Louisiana Territory was never sovereign. So, Louisiana and Arkansas if they were in some way secceeding from the Union, were secceeding to what condition? To be territories again? To go back to France or Spain? No, they were attempting to withdraw from the Union to form a new nation. They were stealing land from the United States that had been paid for by the United States.

So, though maybe Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas could make the arguement that they could leave, they sure as heck were a part of an illeagle act to steal land from the United States government once they tried to take Florida or Tennessee with them.

The South wasn't seeking freedom and self determination. They saw secession as the only way to maintain slavery. Our nation was growing and Licoln wouldn't allow the entry of slave states. The slave owning South's days were numbered and they committed an act of treason 150 years ago today at Fort Sumter.

To compare the brave people of Cold War Poland and Hungary to a cadre of treasonous racists is beyond disgusting, Dennis.

I regularly argue we should have never fought it, considering the grief the South has managed to give this country ever since.

MN Representative writing as "Keith X Hakeen" decades back advocated for separate black and white "nations" in what is now the US. This is back when Rep Ellison was "associated" with the Nation of Islam.

Would a wealthy North build a fence to keep out the Southern undocumented workers? The mind boggles.

I do believe the South did not "just want to be let alone". The fire-eaters were determined on war, and probably financial benefit, and one can't help relating this to the position of the Junkers in Weimar Germany. Remember that Hindenberg dismissed Heinrich Bruening in part because of the pressure to stop the large subsidies to the Junkers' estates, which the last three chancellors before Hitler all supported reducing, even Papen.

I've been wondering about this lately, since there continue to be so many maps of different data that end up looking similar: Political affiliation, attendance of religious services, ratio of money sent/received to/from the federal government, level of poverty, etc.

The South would have been a poor and fragmented yet belligerent nation -- if they could hold themselves together, at least. I'm pretty sure the states of the CSA would have disintegrated into individual countries, and a few would try to re-join the union once they realized the fix they were in.

Slavery would have definitely lasted decades longer. The stream of black refugees from the South would have caused a lot of backlash in the North, and Northerners probably would have been even less accepting of the new arrivals than they were in our actual history. There would be a lot of intense debate about whether freed slaves should be considered citizens or not, and who knows whether an Emancipation Proclamation or similar document would have appeared without Lincoln having to endure the moral dilemmas presented during the war.

California (already a state at that time) and the West would be huge issues. Control over major commercial corridors would have been contentious. The first transcontinental railroad had yet to be built, and much of the Mississippi River would have been in Southern hands. Other questions arise -- would Alaska have been bought by either nation, or would it have remained in Russian hands?

I agree -- if the South could have held together, they probably would have become allies with Germany at some point -- possibly even during World War I. If they tipped the balance for the first war, who knows if the second would have even happened.

I've wondered more than once if America might have had a more peaceful history altogether had Lincoln let the South go.

Subjugated peoples always rise up when they have had enough, as we are seeing in the Middle East and Africa right now. The South's slaves, too, would have reached the point where a leader like Martin Luther King would find ready followers. Or there could have been bloodshed, but I'd guess the numbers of dead would be nowhere near those resulting from the Civil War.

The North, being smaller and less powerful than those European countries with empires, would not have been able (or willing) to declare itself the world's policeman, to maintain a thousand military bases all around the world, to alienate members of other societies until resistance groups like Al-Queda arose, and to generally have a truly mixed record in foreign policy -- supporting dictators and pushing ugly trade policies while talking up democracy, for instance.

All this speculation, of course, does not make Abraham Lincoln a less admirable, heroic and unforgettable person than he was.

Of course, we wouldn't have to worry about being the "world's policeman" since Hitler would have probably won the war. Also, who knows what the Soviet Union would now be with no USA to slow them. Frankly, I'm glad we are one union!

Maybe not

Suppose Lincoln had let the South go.

Would either the CSA or the USA have jumped into the European war of 1914 - 1918?

If not, would the Kaiser have been driven out and Germany so trounced that AH would rise to power?

And without Hitler (and maybe without Stalin!) why would there have been a WW2?

Or a Cold War?

The USA might never have felt strong enough to strut the global stage, and the CSA would not, either.

Likely better for everyone, I suspect.

While I’m not at all sure there’s any practical value to hypotheticals like this, Eric, it’s a thoroughly intriguing one, nonetheless. It’s the sort of question that ought to be asked in history classes with some frequency. To have plausible answers, you’d have to have done your reading, thought about it a little bit, be able to present your argument with at least some minimal level of articulation, and so on.

Chuck Repke has a valid point about the constitutionality of secession – one that I’ve not seen addressed in what I’ve read on the Civil War, though I make no claim to any special expertise. No human could claim to have read all that’s been published about the American Civil War and still have any sort of normal life. For what little it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree that a legal foundation for secession makes much more sense for the Confederate states that were part of the original 13. Those that were themselves created from federal territory owe their existence to the federal government, and by extension to the citizens of the entire nation, so my off-the-top-of-the-head argument there would be that resolutions of secession in those states not part of the original 13 constituted prima facie evidence of treason, with all that that implies.

For all of the states of the Confederacy, of course, the whole “states’ rights” argument was, at best, a charade. The only right that really counted at the time was the right to own a slave, and with Roger Taney’s assistance in the Dred Scott case, to make sure that slaves had no legal rights whatsoever, no matter where they lived. Beyond George Fitzhugh’s assertion that slavery was a “positive good,” I await, 150 years later, some plausible moral justification for a rebellion to preserve a system so odious that even European colonial powers had largely abandoned it.

Carol Flynn asks an interesting question about borders and undocumented workers. I agree – the mind boggles.

Since the Civil War served as the impetus for the Industrial Revolution in the United States, a rather long list of positives and negatives that came about as a result would not be all that difficult to generate. Which side dominated might depend upon whether you’re a million-dollar CEO or an assembly-line worker whose job is about to be shipped overseas.

Also interesting is the question of whether a successfully-seceded Confederacy would have allied itself with Nazi Germany (and presumably with the other Axis Powers, as well) in World War 2. The problem, of course, is that that line of thinking assumes a Nazi Germany and a World War 2.

However, if the Confederacy had been successfully established, would Woodrow Wilson have been able to bring the remaining Union states of the U.S. of A. into World War 1 on the side of Britain and France, and even if he had, would the U.S. have been big enough and powerful enough to have made the difference that it did in terms of “winning” World War 1? If not, then perhaps Hitler never comes to power, there’s no World War II, and a Confederate alliance with Nazi Germany becomes moot.

One incontrovertible result resonates today. The notion that states could decide for themselves which federal laws they’d obey received a .68 caliber musket ball to the forehead. Article VI still says what it says – the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. When Lee handed his sword to Grant at Appomattox, the claims that states’ rights somehow superseded national legislation were surrendered along with the Army of Northern Virginia. “Tenthers” can have all the temper tantrums they want, but the result is the same. Congressional laws take precedence over state laws, and the Constitution of the United States is the final arbiter.

In response to (11),look into the background of the Bacon - Davis Act.

First of all, there is no comparison between the newly emerging nations in Europe and Africa and the confederacy. The confederacy was based on a crude economic system. Other nations—Kosovo, Slovakia, etc.—are based on ethnicity. Ethnicity mattered in the south only insofar as it allowed those of European descent to own Africans as chattel.
Second, if Lincoln had allowed the south to secede, I doubt it would have lasted long enough to be an ally of Hitler. The south was weak, both militarily and economically. Their economy was based almost entirely on agricultural exports, and their infrastructure was a joke (there was no standardized railroad track gauge in the southern states). The men who ran the confederacy were also very bad at their jobs. This weak, ill-run country would have had its economy dominated by foreign interests. Union capital would certainly have been a big part of that, and with the money flowing north, the commercial interests would have been happy (New York City was full of confederate sympathizers for that reason).
It wouldn’t just have been the Yankees, however. Great Britain and France had imperial ambitions that would not have left the south alone. Napoleon invaded Mexico during the war, and he was known to sympathize with the confederacy. If his imperial adventure in Mexico had gone better for him, the south would have had a large, powerful, wealthy, and expansionist ally on its southern flank. Great Britain would also have used its commercial advantages to take its share of southern wealth. Recall that Lord Palmerston wanted to recognize the confederacy as an independent state solely for the economic advantages to Britain. Germany, too, had its overseas ambitions in Africa and later in Mexico. A newly-forged German Empire would certainly have looked away to Dixie for opportunities.
With all of the stronger powers vying for control, the confederacy would not have lasted. Some states would have come crawling back to the Union, which probably would have readmitted them only on the most humiliating terms. Other states may have remained nominally independent, but under the effective control of foreign colonial masters. Perhaps the powers with interests in the south—the US, Britain, France, and Germany—would have reached some agreement amongst themselves on dividing up their influence in the south. That would have been some sweet irony—divvy up the south just like they partitioned Africa. What goes around comes around.

We can never know, but Wilson did not want to enter the war. His hand was forced by the torpedoing of US ships, such as, of course, the Lusitania. Operation Michael failed even though the Eastern Front had been eliminated thanks to Lenin and his financial support from the German government (see books on the sealed train, for this). Of course, the German High Command knew that American forces would make a difference in 1919. Hitler might have been stopped at a number of points, he was on the edge of suicide in late 1932. What seems to me pertinent is that the South was and is somewhat different from most of the rest of the United States.

It is not too late to let them go.

If Lincoln had let the south secede there still would have been a war, probably before the end of his term. Besides preserving slavery in their own territory, the south would have wanted to expand west. They would have bumped into a Union army doing the same thing. And they would have been overwhelmingly overconfident and aggressive. But the north would still have had it's advantages of industry and population. End result would have been the same.

The United States is (and was) a lot bigger than Czech-Slovakia. I doubt that the split would have stopped at two entities.
Some other possibilities:

The U.S. would have ceased to exist, with Texas, California and the rest of the SW being annexed by Mexico (voluntarily or otherwise), and the North combining with Canada to join (and dominate) the British Empire.

Or, the U.S. would simply have fragmented into the North East, South East, South West and northwest; and possibly the mid West (starting then at the Hudson).

A lot of possibilities, many which have been discussed in future fiction.

Basic point: all of these fragments would have been larger and resource-richer than most European countries, and politically and economically viable.

Of course, another possibility would have been some sort of Confederation formed for the common defense, which would have left the United States (in a more literal sense) a super power.

Aside from the gratuitous shots at the Southern states....yes its true only White Males 21 or older could vote. The same was true everywhere at the time-yes including Minnesota-and the same had been true in 1776 and 1788 as well and nobody found the ratification thereby defective.

Now as to claims of the certainty of future war between the two...I don't see why that would have been any more likely than the great American-Canadian war. The one which never happened. The original 7 seceding states made no claim on the territories belonging to the US. They only laid claim to the territory within their borders. Without the Lincoln administration's decision to put down secession, the states of the upper South would have remained in the union so we are discussing only the original 7.

I'm not sure many readers are aware that at that time the Southern states had 30% of the population and 30% of the total GDP. They were not poorer than the rest of the country. That only came later as a result of the war and its destruction as well as the crushing Morrill Tariff which was particularly harmful to their economies being the primary export sector and which played a significant role in causing the war to begin with (just read the Address of Robert Barnwell Rhett aka "the father of secession" or the Georgia Declaration of causes or various statements by a range of Southern political leaders if you doubt that.

What would likely have been the outcome for slavery had they been allowed to leave in peace? Once out of the union, they would have been owed no protection under the fugitive slave laws then existing in the US. Take a look at a map. The border from the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina to the western edge of Texas is about 1500 miles long. There is simply no way they could have effectively policed that border. Once slaves crossed, the US would have been under no obligation to return them.

Fugitive slave laws are not only odious in requiring everybody to assist the slaveowner to recover his "property" they are an essential support for the entire system. Without them the costs of the system rise staggeringly as slaves escape routinely taking with them not only the initial investment in their purchase, but any wealth their labor could have generated. It is exactly this, which caused the collapse of the entire system in Brazil in a span of 8 years-and without a bloodbath. Of the 2 dozen western countries which got rid of slavery over the course of 75 years or so during the 19th century, the US is the only one that had a major war associated with it.

of course there was much more going on than just slavery. I have mentioned tariffs-of which the Southern states were paying about 75%. In addition to that, the Northern states were using their Congressional majority to vote themselves 80% of all federal funding for infrastructure as well as receiving subsidies for the fishing, shipping and mining industries among others. The Confederate constitution called for a maximum 10% tariff and this aroused alarm in the Northern states that with their new 34% tariff rate under the Morrill bill, much trade would be diverted to Southern ports. As in all wars, money played a key role though some don't wish to admit it.

I would add two additional points. First, the 'states' did not create the union-the people did. The 'founders' were explicit that conventions representing the people were the enabling and legitimizing process. Can it be reversed though the same process? No, and so to my second point. Reading the constitution in its entirety one can see that it created a strong central albeit federal and limited government but yet with extensive powers. Once created it can not be uncreated-rather like a human being. The whole document is an exercise in decision making and secession was not part of this. Lincoln made this the central thesis of his conflict rationale and by winning ended this discussion.

TJ Jones (#15) --

Our compulsion to keep increasing the size of our military, to establish bases everywhere, and to consider that only we can keep the world safe arose after World War II. So Hitler would have been gone no matter what (which IS a good thing).

As to the constitutionality of secession, the states individually were recognized as sovereign in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Three states (NY, RI and VA) ratified the constitution with the express proviso that they retained a right to withdraw and nobody held their ratifications to be defective on account of that. Under the Comity principle, all states understood themselves to have this right at the time.

As has been pointed out, the Founders deliberately left out the "perpetual union" phrase from the Articles of Confederation...which ironically ended when all the member states seceded from it by ratifying the Constitution. Here are some statements as to what the Founders thought of the new union and what the various state legislatures agreed to when ratifying it.

“...the act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a majority of the people of the Union, nor from that of a majority of the States.... Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act” (Federalist 39).' James Madison

“To coerce the states is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. Can any reasonable man be well disposed toward a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself, a government that can only exist by the sword?" Alexander Hamilton

"The future inhabitants of [both] the Atlantic and Mississippi states will be our sons. We think we see their happiness in their union, and we wish it. Events may prove otherwise; and if they see their interest in separating why should we take sides? God bless them both, and keep them in union if it be for their good, but separate them if it be better." – Thomas Jefferson

"If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation" over "union," "I have no hesitation in saying, 'let us separate.'" Thomas Jefferson

This from the Declaration of Independence:
“…… That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson

[The most important safeguard for the liberties of the people is] "the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies." Thomas Jefferson

Madison again
'It is indeed true that the term "states" ... means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity.... it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal, above their authority, to decide, in the last resort, whether the compact made by them be violated; and consequently, that, as the parties to it, they must themselves decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition Report on the Virginia Resolutions written by James Madison

Several constitutional scholars, presidents and indeed a majority of the population believed secession to be perfectly constitutional and legal for the first 70+ years of the Republic, including this guy:

“Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right - a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.” Abraham Lincoln January 12, 1848 in a speech in the US House of Representatives.

Very interesting an thoughtful piece, Eric. From a legal perspective, the Civil War presents quite a conundrum. On the one hand hand, a too strong federal government was one of the Founders major concerns. A lot of the document is placing limits on federal power (either overtly, or using checks and balances to keep any one arm from being so strong). The idea that a federal occupying army would one day march into the states would have been enough to prevent adoption of the document.

On the other hand, as you point out, the Founders provided no mechanism to dissolve the Union. The States chose to ratify a document without an "out" clause, so I think it's difficult to say legally they have one anyway when there are no procedures to do it legitimately. There would be a workaround -- and that would be to amend the constitution to allow for state succession. But that would require all the safeguards and procedures the Founders put in place for constitutional amendments be followed. A single state or a small, or even mid-sized group of states could not unilaterally decide to disrupt the entire Union by succeeding unilaterally. For example, what if the succeeding state had oil reserves the rest of the Union depended upon, etc.?

I think Lincoln's interpretation was an intelligent way of looking at the problem. If the states had no constitutional power to succeed, then those in control of a state who claimed that the state had succeeded were acting illegally. Lincoln looked at it like the federal government was liberating those states from radical elements who were illegally converting the power and property of the state to their own illicit purposes. The analogy today might be of police pursuing and seizing a stolen vehicle. The police don't want to keep or control the stolen car, they just want to return it to the hands of the lawful owner and operator.

If the South had been allowed to secede, probably the North and the South would have stayed neutral in WWI to avoid entering on opposite sides in that war.

Germany, France and England would have collapsed from exhaustion and a true armistice would have resulted with no punitive damages assessed against Germany. Poland nor Central European nations remain under German and A-H control.

Menshevik Revolution in Russia much weaker bordering a strong Germany and Austria- Hungary ruled by monarchs. Certainly no Hitler and Nazism. No WWII.

No Holocaust and no Israel. Middle East remains English and French colonies with Europe in control of oil.

Ray, I think you are probably right. It is America's entry into WWI which tipped the balance in favor of the Entente Powers. The Versailles Treaty which trampled on the first 13 of Wilson's 14 points led to widespread disgust with the Europeans in America and a feeling that the country had been duped into sacrificing the lives of 116,000 American boys for nothing....the Europeans would just continue playing their same old power politics games.

The Versailles Treaty paved the way for Hitler to rise to power in Germany, created an enormous power vacuum in Central Europe by destroying the Hapsburg Empire and disgust with it caused America to swing toward isolationism which removed the United States as a counterweight to Hitler. IMO, no American involvement in WWI = no Hitler and no WWII.

Whether the USA would have gotten involved in WWI or not I cannot say. Many companies and banks were heavily invested in France and especially Britain. I find it impossible to believe the CSA would have gotten involved and without the resources, money and population of the Southern States, the USA would have had much less military power and thus much less temptation to get involved.

"Now as to claims of the certainty of future war between the two...I don't see why that would have been any more likely than the great American-Canadian war."

There is the little matter of the Ohio/Mississippi/Missouri Rivers where access to the Gulf was critical to the development of the West. This was clear to the western states at the time. They saw clearly the dangers of their only access to the sea being controlled by a foreign country.

Then there was the plan among some Confederates to establish a Caribbean slave empire. Such an empire would be highly tenuous if any slave could be free by simply fleeing to the United States. This would have likely lead to major conflicts between the two countries. The response of the confederate slaveholders to any northern conspiracies along the lines of John Browns would likely be war.

Finally there is the fact that Canada was not a sovereign country, but a British colony. Had it been left to Canadians, there likely would have been a war over the Oregon Territory. Britain had other concerns.

It ought to be obvious that the right of a minority to secede made the idea of democratic rule impossible. The likelihood of further balkanization was very high. The articles of confederation did declare a Union in perpetuity and I don't think there was any notion by the creators of the new constitution to change that.

The requirement for only nine states to ratify was, in fact, a means to coerce any minority of states into accepting the constitution as written. The demands for Amendments were eventually met, but had the constitution not been already adopted that process would have been a lot more difficult, if possible at all.

"of course there was much more going on than just slavery. I have mentioned tariffs-of which the Southern states were paying ..."

Tariffs were not mentioned by the confederates at the time, they were all clear that slavery was the only issue. Tariffs had actually declined leading up to the civil war. It was slavery and the expansion of slavery that lead the confederates to commit treason, not stale arguments over tariffs.

"..yes its true only White Males 21 or older could vote. The same was true everywhere at the time..."

This was not true at the time of the civil war. And to be clear, the majority of the people of South Carolina were slaves. The confederates were a minority even in the south, they just had the power. And they reasserted that power after the war with a 100 year reign of terror, rape and murder against their fellow citizens to keep it.

http://www.nps.gov/nhl/themes/VotingRightsThemeStudy.pdf

"Before emancipation, blacks residing in five New England states could vote. Maine,
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, which contained only 6 percent of the northern black population, had extended the right to vote to blacks. In New York, blacks owning $250 in freehold property could also cast a ballot; however, the same property qualification did not apply to whites. In the South, where the overwhelming number of African Americans labored as slaves, the right to vote was limited to whites."

"Three states (NY, RI and VA) ratified the constitution with the express proviso that they retained a right to withdraw and nobody held their ratifications to be defective on account of that."

This is flat out false:

Here is a link:

http://gathkinsons.net/sesqui/?p=1386

Here is James Madison in response to Alexander Hamilton:

"Compacts must be reciprocal; this principle would not in such case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and FOREVER. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short, any condition whatever must vitiate the ratification."

In short, not only was the question of states retaining the right of secession considered, it was firmly rejected.

Here is a link to the ratification passed by Virginia.

http://www.usconstitution.net/rat_va.html

Nowhere does it say a state may secede. I suspect that is a fanciful interpretation of this statement:

"DO in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression..."

Madison notes in the link above, Virginia had rejected making their ratification contingent on the right of secession.

"Treason never prospers. For if it prospers, none dare call it treason." The problem we face is that treason was allowed to prosper for a over 100 years and there are a lot of people who learned their history from the traitors and their descendents.

You wrote, Mr. Black, this: "[S]o far as I know, [Lincoln] had no constitutional language on which to base [the] position ['these unratifications were impossible and therefore nullities']."

Lincoln had a constitutional position that overrode the claims of secessionists. He mentioned it last in his address to Congress in special session on the Fourth of July, 1861:

"The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that "the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government." But if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out is an indispensable means to the end of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory the indispensable means to it are also lawful and obligatory."

It may be weak tea, ideologically speaking, but it formed the core of his legal defense of the nation's obligation and right to prevent secession. Without language there is no law, and there it is in the words of the document. There's no reason to assume that it won't forever withstand a constitutional appeal in the United States Supreme Court.

What if Lincoln had allowed the South to secede?

First, Mr. Black's remarkably even-handed account of the war's issues and onset requires one not-so-small correction: It was not Lincoln's attempt at resupply that forced the South's hand in taking Sumter. The Charleston authorities had, in an expression of comity intended to support negotiators trying to keep the peace, offered Sumter's commander full resupply privileges in the town's markets, on Union credit. It was the appearance of a large Union fleet fully equipped for Charleston's bombardment and amphibious invasion that forced the taking of Sumter; the only thing that kept the North from being the first to make war was an untimely storm dispersing most of the fleet before it could invade the harbor. The invasion fleet was also a breach of faith during peace negotiations not seen in such breathtaking magnitude again by America until Pearl Harbor.

To the main points raised by several commentors here: Allowing secession would likely have avoided the bloodthirsty tyrannies of the 20th century and their bloody wars, as well as the bloody interventionism of the United States of the last half of that century (and the first decade of this), in conflicts not involving actual national interests.

To begin with, the interests of national power elites of the CSA and USA would probably have led them to reunite, as they had led them, against very powerful competing interests, to unite against Britain in the first place. However, secession behind them, the antebellum inequalities brought about by the North's superior political (and industrial and financial) power would have had to have first been equalized. One such accommodation may likely have been to hew more closely to Washington's counsel against foreign entanglements; but most of the "causes which impel[led] to the separation" were, as in almost all great conflicts, economic.

As one example, one of the South's most international, intellectual, and peaceful modern statesmen, Sen. William Fulbright, noted in his memoirs that it took World War II's imperative for efficient national movement of industrial and war materiel to level railroad tariffs. Before the war, he pointed out that Arkansas lumber exporters and furniture importers paid very low tariffs to move those goods to and from the Northeast; but tariffs on exporting finished furniture to the NE made the business uneconomical.

Slavery was only one aspect of the unequal economics which impelled secession, and one to which Lincoln himself was famously indifferent, preferring perpetual slavery in the South to disunion.

The principal fight was the same one that went unresolved back to Hamilton and Jefferson, that of a national government vs. a federal one. Would the power and economics be in the hands of a few "who knew how to organize things", or would it be more widely dispersed among the people, with the leveling influence of States' power to balance the concentrations of wealth and political power (the same basic organizing principle which gave states equal representation in the Senate)?

As one commentor here put it, the issue was finally decided by a .68 caliber lead ball, or many millions of them, in a contest of arms forced by the North, and settled by blood in its favor, with, along the way, Northern jurists, legislators, and ordinary citizens incarcerated wholesale or destroyed if they dissented: The Republic was destroyed to save the Union.

We have since then progressed in almost unalloyed succession toward always more and more central power, to the point that our President now feels comfortable publicly asserting his right to ignore habeas corpus, to repeal posse comitatus, and to order the extrajudicial murder of any American citizen he deems worthy, anywhere in the world.

About the only current hopeful signs of effective resistance to this movement are the States' current exploration of Nullification (so we are now almost back to secession), and their overwhelming passage of laws radically returning to their citizens the right to arm themselves (these rights, tellingly, were first reduced by southern post-Reconstruction racist state governments to disarm African-Americans in order that the KKK might ride more freely).

So it is far from apparent that Lincoln's instincts were for the good in the long run. But, as another commentor here has noted, it is just this sort of large-scale and long-scale speculation upon the organization and conduct of polities which augurs well for our continued respect for the world-shaking freedoms set in motion by our Revolution, and which may yet be ours to enjoy.

Alternate History

I though Turtledove wrote about what might have happened had the South won the Civil War, not what might have happened if Lincoln had chosen not to fight and let the Confederacy stand as a fait accompli.

Interesting question.

Secession was good

I actually think the South would have rejoined the USA before the beginning of the 20th century. Remember many of the upper southern states such as virginia were moving away from crops such as tobacco which required slaves and slave labor was becoming important only in the deep south. Jefferson Davis so much as admitted that slavery would end by the end of the 19th century and many upper south states would not have seceded had Lincoln not been so heavy handed in his reaction to the idea of secession of the states in the deep south.

The North fought the war to preserve the union. They cared about preserving the union because of the Mississippi river. This is why the early battles were fought and won along the river. It is also why the most aggressive generals such as Grant and Sherman came from the midwest. If the river did not exist the North would have let the south secede.

Secession I think would have been the best thing for blacks. The north would no longer have to enforce the fugitive slave act and slaves would have migrated more rapidly to the north. The north could have offered to compensate the southern states for their slaves once freed as a condition for rejoining the union and along with the British which no longer needed cotton from the south could pressure the south with trade sanctions to end slavery.

The worst thing that could have happened would be for the south not to have seceded. As many leaders here in Texas said at the time, it would have lasted at least another 30 years. and it would have required a change in the fabric of the supreme court for it to be overturned