I hate the Confederacy. My home state seceded after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, but my hometown still voted 2-to-1 against secession. From that state, my great-great-grandfather and his two uncles fought for the Union. They were captured and sent to Andersonville Prison in southern Georgia. My great-great-grandfather survived, but his uncles died of complications from diarrhea. I don’t blame Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) for their deaths. I blame the Confederacy.
Do states have the right to secede from the United States of America? Many Southerners thought so, in the months and years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865). Seven states seceded before Fort Sumter, four more afterward (Bailey and Kennedy 408). After South Carolina captured the federal fort, President Lincoln called up troops to defend and preserve the Union (416, 418). As a result, many historians have labeled this conflict “Lincoln’s War.”
War might have been avoided if Lincoln hadn’t called up troops. He could have let states secede peacefully and punished them in other ways, like barred Southern congressmen from the House and Senate. Eventually, the states might have seen their folly and returned to the Union. Peaceful secession might have been temporary. So was it legal? Was Lincoln wrong? I’m not an attorney, historian, or politician, but I think the answer is “no.”
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence (1776) doesn’t give states a right of secession. It is a legal document dissolving all political ties between the United States of America and Great Britain, not between individual states and Great Britain. Later, only Congress could make legally binding treaties with the Cherokee Nation, not individual states.
- “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
- “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it and to institute new Government.”
- “The United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”
These clauses neither create nor dissolve political ties between the federal and state branches of government. The “united colonies are… free and independent” of Great Britain, not one another or the governments they form. Lincoln said this in his July 4, 1861 message to Congress: “The object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary” (qtd. Radan 60). So this document applies only to our federal government. Did each state produce its own Declaration of Independence? No. They united to produce one.
Sadly, the Confederacy used this document only as a right of secession. Its citizens refused to acknowledge “that all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Confederacy denied basic rights to its four million slaves, who didn’t “consent” to this government. If anyone had the right “to alter or to abolish” a government and create a new one for “their Safety and Happiness,” it was the Confederacy’s slave population. Children want freedom for themselves; adults want freedom for others. So the Confederacy’s leaders were really overgrown children.
The Constitution (1787) is a legal contract between the government and people of the United States. Does it give states a right of secession? Is this contract between the federal government and the people or between that government and the states? Article IV, Section IV says that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government” and “shall protect each of them against Invasion” and “domestic Violence.” The phrase “United States” sounds like the federal government to me. Article IV, Section III says that only Congress can admit “New States … into this Union.” Therefore, after 1787 new states needed Congress’ permission to exist. So do the states and the federal government share sovereignty? Is political divorce an option? According to Cass Sunstein, “no serious scholar or politician now argues that a right to secede exists under American constitutional law” (qtd. Radan 56).
Although Lincoln rejected the Confederacy’s legitimacy, some scholars think he recognized a right of secession that was both consensual and morally justified (Radan 56-59, 66; Armitage 43, 50). The Confederacy just failed to produce either qualification (Radan 56-57). First, it didn’t seek consent to secede from the Union via a constitutional amendment or national referendum (57-58). Second, as both the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) and some modern scholars have argued, upholding the institution of slavery was not a morally just cause (67, 72). One scholar says that “legitimate states need only avoid injustice in order to retain an absolute right to territorial integrity” (Wellman 22). However, as explained earlier, the very existence of the Confederacy was a gross injustice to its slave population.
Article I, Section II created this problem by counting non-free persons, slaves, as “three-fifths.” In its “Declaration of Causes of Secession” (1860), South Carolina argued that the North had violated the Constitution by making new territories free, creating the Mason-Dixon Line, inciting slave insurrection, subverting fugitive slave laws and the 1857 Dred Scott decision, refusing to reimburse slave owners, and giving Negroes citizenship (Rawley 232-33). [The Constitution denies full citizenship only to slaves, so it has little to do with race.] The Confederacy refused to acknowledge that only a constitutional amendment could settle the question of slavery. It took the law into its own hands instead. Yet thanks to the constitutional 3/5 provision, the South had a political stranglehold on Congress. The North couldn’t constitutionally destroy slavery, even if it wanted to. So the passage of Amendment XIII in 1865 was a miracle.
Still, a region’s cultural attributes cannot sustain secession (Wellman 22-23). The Confederacy needed more than slavery to exist separately from the Union. It also needed to “perform the requisite political functions” for its citizens (34-35). Until Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina seceded after the capture of Fort Sumter, the Confederacy wasn’t able to perform these functions. Without these states, it couldn’t have fought a war (Bailey and Kennedy 420). The Confederacy still lost, which says much for its incapability as a separate state. Would the Union have been able to function politically without the Southern states? Lincoln didn’t think so. This is why he argued that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (qtd. Rawley 92). Through secession, the Confederacy jeopardized the nation’s “political stability” (Wellman 22). So Lincoln’s army fought the Civil War in order to preserve the Union – politically.
However, constitutional questions about slavery and secession only skim the surface in relation to the Civil War. Spiritually, something else was happening. Jesus said, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse” (Matthew 9:16). In other words, no one attaches new cloth to old. They must start over with a new garment. So spiritually, North and South did not mix. Eventually, the fabric that held them together as a Union had to be ripped apart. War was inevitable.
Jesus Christ is the “chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42; cf Isaiah 28:16). Sadly, the South didn’t choose Christ as its cornerstone. It chose racial inequality instead. Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens (1812-1883) called racial equality a “sandy foundation” that the U.S. government was built on, one he thought had fallen (qtd. Rawley 249). By contrast, “our new government … rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man”; therefore “slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition” (qtd. 249). As a result, many white Southerners thought Negroes were “too lazy to work but not too proud to steal,” and therefore “totally unfit for self-government” (qtd. Dew 104). Southerners also feared for the sexual purity of their wives and daughters; they thought that racial mixing – intermarriage or miscegenation – would overthrow white society (104; Rawley 95). So, the threat of slave emancipation by any Northern Republican president filled them with dread (Dew 104).
The Confederacy, a gulag archipelago, was willing to go to war for perpetual slavery rather than a perpetual Union. Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) credited slavery with Negro civilization, religion, and education, as well as Southern progress and an increase in U.S. overseas commerce (Rawley 252). Yet after splitting up families, many slave owners made religion and education illegal. Some even had sex with female slaves, in order to produce slaves without purchase. Racial mixing didn’t bother these men, since their own wives and daughters weren’t the ones being violated. Southern culture was riddled with irony, injustice, and sin.
Contrary to Southern views on race, God has “made from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). So the Confederacy, not the Union, was built on a sandy foundation and a lie. It reaped the consequences in blood. Through the Civil War, the “chief cornerstone” descended on the Confederacy and ground it into powder (Matthew 21:44).
Armitage, David. “Secession and Civil War.” Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements. Ed. Don H. Doyle. 37-55.
Bailey, Thomas A., and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. 8th ed. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1987.
Dew, Charles B. “Lincoln, the Collapse of Deep South Moderation, and the Triumph of Secession: A South Carolina Congressman’s Moment of Truth.” Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements. Ed. Don H. Doyle. 97-114.
Doyle, Don H., ed. Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2010.
Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
Radan, Peter. “Lincoln, the Constitution, and Secession.” Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements. Ed. Don H. Doyle. 56-75.
Rawley, James A. Secession: The Disruption of the American Republic, 1844-1861. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Co., 1990.
Wellman, Christopher. “The Morality of Secession.” Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements. Ed. Don H. Doyle. 19-36.
 All quotes from this document are from Bailey and Kennedy i-iii (appendix 1).
 All quotes from this document are from Bailey and Kennedy v-xxii (appendix 2).