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Posted at 7:29 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Harold Holzer: Did South Carolina have a Constitutional right to secede?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


Constitutional experts have pretty much settled the argument about whether South Carolina — or any of the slave states — enjoyed the constitutional right to secede from the Union and form what Lincoln rightly called an “illegal organization,” the Confederacy. The answer — so powerfully echoed by the sacrifices of the 340,000 federal soldiers killed in the war to save the nation — is no. Nothing in the nation’s founding documents, once ratified, anticipated or justified their nullification. Secession, as Abraham Lincoln put it, was “legally nothing.”

No one ever gave more powerful or convincing voice to the argument for the sanctity and permanence of the Union. As Lincoln insisted in his 1861 inaugural address: “no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” And then he added in words that did not require a law degree to comprehend: “Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this.”

Lincoln eloquently elaborated on this theme in his Message to the July 4, 1861 special session of Congress. Secession, he argued, had compelled America to face “the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in number to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth.” In other words, he asked, was America “too weak to maintain its own existence?” Lincoln’s answer was no. And what he did as a commander-in-chief to resist secession was wholly justified, I agree, by the Constitution he swore to preserve, protect, and defend, in perpetuity.

By Harold Holzer  | November 23, 2010; 7:29 AM ET
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