by Diane Rufino, May 7, 2018
Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Daily Tribune, was the embodiment of the North. In an editorial for the paper on December 17, 1860 (three days before South Carolina voted in Convention to secede, and amidst rumors that the state would likely secede), Greeley articulated the view of secession that most in government and in the North held. In that brilliant editorial, entitled “The Right of Secession,” he wrote:
We have repeatedly asked those who dissent from our view of this matter to tell us frankly whether they do or do not assent to Mr. Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and 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 a new government,” etc. etc. We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that, universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood. And, if it justified the secession from the British Empire of three million colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of five millions of Southerners from the federal union in 1861. If we are mistaken on this point, why does not someone attempt to show wherein and why we could not stand up for coercion, for subjugation. We do not think such would be just. We hold the right of self-government to be sacred, even when invoked on behalf of those who deny it to others. If ever ‘seven or eight States’ send agents to Washington to say “We want to get out of the Union,” we shall feel constrained by our devotion to Human Liberty to say: ‘Let Them Go!” We do not see how we could take the other side without coming in direct conflict with those Rights of Man which we hold paramount to all political arrangements, however convenient and advantageous.
Of course, when Northern businessmen and northern businesses realized how badly they would suffer without the stream of money coming from the South and its tariff collections and in trade against a “free-trade” Confederacy (the Confederate Constitution prohibited protective tariffs), their view of secession changed.
Even Europe saw the Civil War for what it was. Europe understood that at its core, the American “Civil War” as an exercise of the right of secession. If the South had the right to secede from the Union, which Europe believed it had (articulated to a “candid world” in the Declaration of Independence), then the South held the moral superiority in the conflict and Southerners were the heroes. The North was the great villain, starting a fratricidal war merely for commercial and economic gain. Certainly Great Britain knew what was going on, for the Confederacy was hoping it would join the conflict on its side and the North was doing what it could to prevent that from happening (ie, the Emancipation Proclamation). The legendary English writer, Charles Dickens, expressed this view very clearly in commentary during that period.
British Lord Acton (John Dalberg Acton) wrote the following to General Robert E. Lee in November 1866, a year and a half after his surrender at Appomattox:
…… I saw in States Rights the only available check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will (of the federal government), and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the Old World the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore, I deemed that you were fighting the battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
The South, unequivocally and without doubt, had the right to secede from the Union. Anyone who believes in the Declaration of Independence and in the debates in the several Ratifying Conventions to determine whether the Constitution (creating a limited government) would be ratified HAS to believe in the right of secession and HAS to respect the decision of the Southern States to seek their independence. After all, the Declaration of Independence is the greatest Ordinance of Secession ever written and the most eloquent expression of the right of and the desire to pursue independence.
*** This article is based, in part, on sections from Gene Kizer Jr’s book, Slavery Was Not the Cause of the War Between the States, Charleston Athenaeum Press (2014)