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Posted at 10:24 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

David Blight: Was President James Buchanan correct when he said the executive lacked the power to coerce the states to remain in the Union?

By David Blight

Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition at Yale University

Blight

No, President Buchanan was not correct in his claim that, although secession was wrong and dangerous, he had no power to stop it and coerce the Southern states back into the union. Buchanan was to say the least, an ineffectual leader in such a crisis. He owed so much of his own political career to the Southern leaders of the Democratic party that his opinions and decisions on secession were likely motivated by his own long-standing allegiances. Buchanan, after all, had been perfectly willing to accept the "Lecompton constitution" in the Kansas crisis, a denigration of any legitimacy for "popular soverignity" in western territories, and a position that even Stephen Douglas opposed. So, it was not as if Buchanan was not willing to be creative about constitutional interpretation and action. He had spent much of his political life carrying water for the pro-slavery wing of his own party in national affairs.

It would appear that Buchanan simply did not acknowledge, nor perhaps fully understand, the difference between revolution and secession. If the president has no right or power to sustain the union by his powers as commander-in-chief in the face of a state's resistance or rebellion, then why is he commander-in-chief at all? The political reasons for Buchanan's position aside, his stand, or lack of one, on secession was a lame-duck's even lamer response to national crisis. There is no constitutional right of secession. There is a natural right of revolution. Governments, by their very nature and existence, wherever righteousness lay, try to contain or suppress internal revolutions. The burden of success is on those who take the fundamental risks of their revolt.

In our history with secession in 1860-61 rests many lessons for our current-day states' rights advocates who are fond of the language of secession and nullification, if not yet the act. Our history, as well as our present, demonstrate that for the collective good of the nation, and for the survival of a social contract in America, we need much more of Lincoln on these matters than we ever will of Buchanan. Buchanan was not merely constitutionally weak in the face of secession; he was wrong. Tragically, the strength or weakness of the secession movement depended ultimately on the strength of armies.

By David Blight  | January 3, 2011; 10:24 AM ET
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Comments

The four presidents who preceeded the Civil War, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, were known to be weak and ineffective. That's because the political system was beginning to fail in its ability to resolve conflict through peaceful means.

Posted by: blasmaic | January 3, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"In our history with secession in 1860-61 rests many lessons for our current-day states' rights advocates who are fond of the language of secession and nullification, if not yet the act."

That is an amazing stretch. The Civil War, the income tax and expansive interpretation of the commerce clause has made state sovereignty a joke. Any push back is small potatoes compared to the succession. This kind of hyperbole does not do David Blight any favor for his argument.

"Tragically, the strength or weakness of the secession movement depended ultimately on the strength of armies."

Ultimately the force of any nation rests on its armies and its police force. The world does not and never has run on Kumbaya principles.

Posted by: edbyronadams | January 3, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

"There is no constitutional right of secession."

Nor is there any prohibition against secession. Perhaps where the Constitution is silent we should look to the 10th amendment for proper guidance on the issue.

Posted by: slim21 | January 3, 2011 3:34 PM | Report abuse

not being too smart, isn't a "cival war" an internal revolution?

Posted by: perryrants | January 3, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

And of course, Lincoln never attempted a political solution... he went directly from being sworn in to resupplying Ft. Sumter. Then he called up 90 day volunteers and before cooler heads could prevail, marched them towards a strategic railroad junction.

Let that serve as an example to all. Never attempt a political solution when a military option is available.

Posted by: blasmaic | January 3, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

The question is wrongly worded. Yes, the president had the force to compel the southern states to stay in the union. But also notice that the men in the federal army did not fight to free the slaves- it was to protect the Union.

Slaves were not freed in the border states of Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland until after the war was over.

Secession had been threatened several times before, including Maine and Massachusetts. They obviously believed that it was their right asa state to secceed, and only said it was wrong when the South left the union.

So the north fell back on the principle of "Rebellion", and called the war officially "The War of the Rebellion". However, secession is not rebellion. The south did not invade the north in 1861, but simpy took up all their marbles and went home. It was the union armies which first advanced into Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky that initiated the sectional conflict.

After the war, no Confederate officer was tried for treason, mostly because the Supreme Court would not have found for the Union, based on the Constitutional constraints. Indeed, if any one was guilty, it was the war crimes committed by Lincoln, who waived the Bill of Rights, incarcerated opposing politicians, imposed martial law, and suspended the rules habeas corpus.

Did these non-Consitutional actions save the union? Yes. Was this a good thing? Yes. Was it constitutional? No.

Did Lincoln have the power to force the south to stay in the union? Yes, but with qualifications. He was not able to ever expand the army to its needed strength. He depended all through the war on the volunteers from the northern states to crush the secession movement. These regments and brigades were all listed as state units, not national ones, and as volunteers they came together to fight for the union, but not as the US Army, but only as state units in the the army.

Only in the US Navy was Lincoln able to form up an national force under the federal government's rule.

So he had the power, but not necessarily the right, to quell the secession.

And that is what we are still arguing today.

Posted by: LeeH1 | January 3, 2011 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I would argue that any system which is built around elections carries an implicit agreement that the results of the elections (assuming that the election result was recieved fairly)are binding on all. I don't understand how anyone can think that when elections are held that accepting the results is optional for the losers. The fact that the Southerners cloaked their decisions as a response to "tyranny" of the North, when all they were responding to was a fair election (reminds me of the Tea Partiers today and their ideas about the "tyranny" of the Obama Administration - basically just sore losers) demonstrated the lack of commitment to the core principles of a democratic republic in the seceding states. All the rest is window dressing to cover this fact up.

Posted by: hohandy | January 3, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

edbyronadams @ January 3, 2011 1:52 PM wrote "The Civil War, the income tax and expansive interpretation of the commerce clause has made state sovereignty a joke. Any push back is small potatoes compared to the succession. This kind of hyperbole does not do David Blight any favor for his argument."

Actually it is SECESSION not SUCCESSION.

As for the rest, states are not sovereign. You must recall that there was initially a Confederacy, that was so ineffective, that a Federal Constitution was written. Once the states ratified the Federal Constitution, they surrendered much of their sovereignty.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | January 3, 2011 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Why does the Post continue to use the Confederate battle flag instead of the political flag of the confederacy? You know, the one that looks just like the Georgia state flag at the moment. If you had a unit flag from a Union unit on the other side it would make sense.

Posted by: jim4postnatl | January 3, 2011 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Since the deep south states, especially Mississippi, along with most of the other states complaining about the Federal government receive far more federal money compared to what they pay in taxes, than northern and democratic states, I say, let them secede, and stop sending more money to them than they pay in taxes.

Posted by: billaldridge | January 3, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Since the deep south states, especially Mississippi, along with most of the other states complaining about the Federal government receive far more federal money compared to what they pay in taxes, than northern and democratic states, I say, let them secede, and stop sending more money to them than they pay in taxes.

Posted by: billaldridge | January 3, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

---------------------

Well how about just stop delivering services to African Americans in Mississippi?

If you remove the black population from the infant mortality statistics, Mississippi is in the mid-range of states. Kick Mississippi, and you're kicking the large African American population that is not wanted in northern, urban cities and that needs a lot of help.

Posted by: blasmaic | January 3, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Three questions:

1. The constitution does not say who can break a treaty: just that it takes both the executive and the senate to make it. A treaty is by the constitution the supreme law of the land. Presidents have assumed, without issue, that they can "withdraw" from treaties on their own, without consultation with the senate. This would seem to be an arrogation of the congresses right to declare war.

Isn't a state's secession comparable to a president's withdrawal from a treaty?

2. Do Lincoln's moral arguments against secession from the sanctity of union have any weight in an age where divorce is common? Are we left with just his financial argument: a state cannot withdraw from the national debt it helped create? Are we ready for a modern, casual attitude to statehood similar to the one we have adopted with regard to marraiage?

3. Let's say a state cannot secede from the union. Does anything prevent it from reverting to territorial status?

4. Couldn't a commander in chief be useful against foreign aggressors, and not simply against peaceful, non-aggressive seceders?

Posted by: Don19 | January 3, 2011 5:48 PM | Report abuse

"If you remove the black population from the infant mortality statistics, Mississippi is in the mid-range of states. Kick Mississippi, and you're kicking the large African American population that is not wanted in northern, urban cities and that needs a lot of help."


What does that have to do with anything? These southern states are utter parasites on the rest of us. If they don't secede soon enough, throw them out.

Posted by: eezmamata | January 3, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I say no, but now I want those honkeis to leave our country. Not welcome, not forgiven. Go away and die

Posted by: johng1 | January 3, 2011 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Secession failed once, but who is to say it will fail again?

Imagine if such States face a bankrupt, weak, corrupt and overbearing Federal Government, or such states at the same time are encouraged by foreign Gov'ts with large unassimilated minorities in that state, or foreign creditor nations looking to remove the United States as a long-term strategic threat?

Don't look at the past - look to the future.

Posted by: pgr88 | January 3, 2011 6:26 PM | Report abuse

"If you remove the black population from the infant mortality statistics, Mississippi is in the mid-range of states. Kick Mississippi, and you're kicking the large African American population that is not wanted in northern, urban cities and that needs a lot of help."


Try that again - if you want to make this kind of comparison, you also have to remove that population from the other states being compared. But that kind of destroys your contrivance there, doesn't it? Too bad.

Posted by: eezmamata | January 3, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

"If you remove the black population from the infant mortality statistics, Mississippi is in the mid-range of states. Kick Mississippi, and you're kicking the large African American population that is not wanted in northern, urban cities and that needs a lot of help."


What does that have to do with anything? These southern states are utter parasites on the rest of us. If they don't secede soon enough, throw them out.

Posted by: eezmamata | January 3, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

---------------------

Well African Americans are citizens just like everyone else. You should not call southern states parasitic because they are not. Besides, those same states that you're calling parasitic attempted to leave the Union once and were destroyed for it.

So regardless of whether you like or whether it's legal for a state to leave, the south is staying put. Car factories and other manufacturers who get tired of the cold weather and the heavy-handed unions can come south and enjoy a better climate, for living and for working.

Leave Flint to Michael Moore. Life is good in the sunbelt. Blacks and whites have learned that the most important color is... green.

Posted by: blasmaic | January 3, 2011 7:26 PM | Report abuse

a quote from a North Carolina newspaper of 1854. It reads, “A meddling Yankee is God’s worst creation; he cannot run his own affairs correctly, but is constantly interfering in the affairs of others, and he is always ready to repent of everyone’s sins, but his own.”


Posted by: gofishing | January 3, 2011 8:08 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: eezmamata
"These southern states are utter parasites on the rest of us. If they don't secede soon enough, throw them out."

That's real intelligent. We supply a very large portion of the country's military personnel and facilities so how would you sufficiently man the Miliary Industrial complex you people have created ?

Posted by: gofishing | January 3, 2011 8:31 PM | Report abuse

Who cares if Buchanan was right or not?

1) The Bush Administration proved that this is a dead issue--The executive office can do anything it likes by executive order...only the Supreme Court can over turn any disputed executive action...and that takes years and could be wrongly upheld by a politically biased court.

2) The Civil War is a dead issue...dredging-up Civil War issues of seceding and the differences between North and South only serves to help tear this country apart all over again--cut it out.

3) The Civil War was a stupid war...it never needed to be fought...had the Union done absolutely nothing, the Confederacy would have died a purely economic death within a decade...all they had was tobacco and cotton...after a couple of years, Texas would have declared itself independent of the South...without slave labor there would never have been an economic South and a slave rebellion would have happened once the South began its economic down-slide...those few Southern stated never ever even had a chance.

4) If the South or Texas would like to withdraw now from the Union--fine...let them. They could never be economically viable as their on country. The oil is gone in Texas. Tobacco ain't what it used to be. The North could produce synthetics and due without cotton. What the South has ever contributed to the national coffers is a joke; in fact the North would be better-off not having to constantly carry the poor backward South and put-up with their bible-belt ignorance, KKK-esque racism and perpetual mule-like mendacity in congress.

So, really, the best thing the Washington Post can do for all of us is to just cut-out the waving of that bloody flag left-over from that idiotic War Between the States. Let it die. There are no lessons there for us...only old wounds waiting to bleed again.

Posted by: YWoodmanBrown | January 3, 2011 8:57 PM | Report abuse

It is interesting that pro-southern posters skip straight from Lincoln attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter to his calling for volunteers without mentioning the southern artillery shelling the fort and forcing its surrender. Seems like an act of war to me. They also forget to mention the shelling of a supply ship, the Star of the West in January while Buchanan was still president. In fact, the South expended a lot of ordinance before Lincoln called up the troops. Hardly a "war of Northern aggression."

Posted by: rhc52 | January 3, 2011 10:28 PM | Report abuse

In our history with secession in 1860-61 rests many lessons for our current-day states' rights advocates who are fond of the language of secession and nullification, if not yet the act. Our history, as well as our present, demonstrate that for the collective good of the nation, and for the survival of a social contract in America, we need much more of Lincoln on these matters than we ever will of Buchanan.
=================================
I think it is a big mistake to view current problems as though the issue of "property rights" will resurface as the (glaring) evil of human slavery.

Sadly, there is no Social Contract that a corporation in interstate or international commerce is bound to respect. That language should be familiar from somewhere, nonetheless, that is precisely the same faulty Dred Scott reasoning we struggle with today.

When a Google Street View car is in your driveway, your iPhone is broadcasting your location and your Facebook account available to some; for the right price, then the whine of the South that the Yankees would not return "property" does not seem so unreasonable. The "language of secession and nullification" protected slavery, but it also put the State Courts first. That is not a bad thing.

Posted by: gannon_dick | January 3, 2011 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Interesting discussion.I live way north. Visited Charleston two years ago. What a great town. Visit if you get the chance! Took the tour of Sumter. The Stars and Stripes are flanked by the current state flag and the historic Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars ( old Stainless being one of two out of the three) of the era. The Park Ranger told us that the Confederate Battle Flag was never flown from any public Confederate government buildings, contrary to the sentiments of some southern Sates in recent memory. He also told us that President Lincoln declined an invite to come to Charleston, deciding instead to stay in Washington and go to the theater. So, if you have a choice between going to Charleston and being somewhere else--go to Charleston. Just say a little prayer of thanksgivin that there is a United States of America and that fifty stars now fly over Sumter.

If you get to Charleston and take the tour of the Fort, look at the ecology and habitat out a the mouth of the harbor and ponder it--and what our ways are doing to put things in peril. It's a much more pressing issue than re-fighting the now resolved issues of racism that dominated the the the world a century and a half ago.

Posted by: garcia2 | January 3, 2011 11:17 PM | Report abuse

The whole premise of a United States(USA) where the rights of the nation exist only where explicitly stated and ALL other rights are held by the States and the people...and there is definitely no right granted to the USA to force States to stay united; ergo, any State has the perfect and legitimate right to withdraw! In fact, it could be argued that a State is required to withdraw when its peoples no longer hold to the laws and principles declared by the USA! Now, it could be argued that the remaining USA has the right to war against whomever it chooses and can take life, liberty, and property by force of arms; but to give such criminal actions some grand justification is just pure bunkum! It ias worth noticing that such acts of aggression are exactly what the USA did in the New World and now claims the right to do anywhere on the planet!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | January 3, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse

gofishing wrote: a quote from a North Carolina newspaper of 1854. It reads, “A meddling Yankee is God’s worst creation; he cannot run his own affairs correctly, but is constantly interfering in the affairs of others, and he is always ready to repent of everyone’s sins, but his own.”

--------------------------------------------

Good God! Who knew they had leftist liberals back then as well?!

Posted by: pgr88 | January 3, 2011 11:49 PM | Report abuse

U.S. Grant, in his autobiography, noted that all the states except for the original 13 were created by the Federal government and therefore did not have to right to leave the union. It seems to me that by extension if states have the right to leave the union then the argument could be made that cities (which are creations of the states) have the right to leave a state.
The real cause of the civil war was slavery--pure and simple. I urge the readers to use the internet to read the various resolutions of secession issued by the southern states.
Those resolutions specifically proclaim that the non-slave northern states were attempting to undermine southern slave based cultures and economy. The 19th century slave states were angered by the northern states exercising their “state's rights" to abolish slavery and to refuse support for slavery within their own borders. The southern states considered these actions a violation of the northern states' federal duty to recognize and support their slave based culture. This was their justification for secession. The confederate states were simply leaving the union to protect slavery.
It is true that the north largely did not fight to eliminate slavery but to preserve the union. It is also true that by making emancipation part of the northern cause, Lincoln made it impossible for the European states to intervene in the war on the side of the south. At the end of the day the southern cause was doomed by its own immoral purpose.

Posted by: ernie50 | January 4, 2011 1:39 AM | Report abuse

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