Hot off the Presses: The South was Wrong!

I’ve always thought that the American South had every legal right to withdraw from the Union. There was nothing in the existing Constitution saying that those states who joined couldn’t leave whenever they wanted.

After all, it had only been about three score and twelve years between the ratification of the Constitution and the election of Lincoln. Surely, any state that had so recently decided to join could decide to unjoin.

Not so, according to America’s Constitution, by Amar Akhil Reed. (I’m completely impressed by Reed, as I mentioned before when talking about his book, The Bill of Rights.) Reed goes through the Constitution practically phrase by phrase, explaining the context in which it was written, and giving his opinions (extremely well backed up by research) on what the authors were going for.

He believes that the Constitution was understood by all to imply that there could be no secession in the future. That’s what a “more perfect union” meant in the preamble. It didn’t mean a better version of the same kind of union. It meant uniting more perfectly, more completely. Uniting in a way to become a single entity, with a single government, that can’t be taken apart again.

[Incidentally, “more perfect” is one of those phrases that drive some people crazy. But if it’s good enough for Madison, et al., then it’s good enough for me.]

Reed gives tons of documentary evidence for this take on the union, and he’s convincing. Thankfully, the founders weren’t shy about stating their opinions and thoughts in writing, so we have a lot to go on. It now seems clear that when those states ratified the Constitution, they knew full well that they were making a permanent commitment.

So I’ve had to revise my long-held opinion. Luckily, no one I know cares AT ALL about this issue, so I haven’t spent a lot of time arguing the point.

[Incidentally, it gives my little internal history-geek a thrill when Reed quotes from a Federalist (or anti-Federalist) paper, ’cause I can then go pull the paper in question off my bookshelf and read it for myself.]

3 Responses to Hot off the Presses: The South was Wrong!

  1. Kevin February 13, 2008 at 12:35 pm #

    Well, at least one of the founders was supposed to have felt quite differently, at least according to M.R. Montgomery and his history “Jefferson and the Gun Men”. It was a really interesting book on the westward expansion of the US, including lots of little historical oddities that you don’t usually learn about in history classes. He spent a lot of time discussing Aaron Burr and his attempts to get some of the southern states to secede and join together with parts of the Louisiana purchase and parts of Mexico he was hoping to liberate from Spain. According Montgomery’s evidence, at any rate, Jefferson dawdled for a long time in arresting Burr because he wasn’t sure that the constitution prohibited states seceding, or even allowed the Federal government to resist efforts to cause secession.

    I’ll look for Reed’s book and see what I can learn.

  2. Kevin February 13, 2008 at 12:46 pm #

    By the way, I’ll note that “Jefferson and the Gun Men” isn’t considered a “real” history, as it’s written by a journalist, not a historian, so Mr. Reed almost certainly has the upper hand in his grasp of the facts, but I always thought the Mr. Montgomery’s assesment of Jefferson fit well with my own. Agree with me and you must be right!

  3. weeklyrob February 13, 2008 at 3:18 pm #

    IIRC, Jefferson was in France during the whole Constitutional thing, so maybe he didn’t share the general feeling of the people putting it together and arguing one way or the other.

    Reed points to several arguments for and against the Constitution, with both sides saying the same thing (but with differing ideas about what’s best).

    But I’m not sure that the Constitution would make it illegal to try to convince states to secede. It just makes it illegal for them to actually secede.

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