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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

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

By Frank J. Williams

Chairman of The Lincoln Forum

Waugh

While President James Buchanan did not believe the states had any right to secede, he believed he was powerless to prevent it and thus took no action when South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. While he did dispatch a supply ship to Ft. Sumter, he recalled it, accomplishing nothing but further indignation in the state.

He was wrong in believing the federal government powerless to bring the seceded states back into the Union. He, as with all Presidents, had taken an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." If he was convinced that it was unconstitutional for a state to secede then he had the duty to take, as did his successor, the necessary steps to bring them back into the Union. While easier said than done, nonetheless, he had no stomach for what was required - actions that would lead to war. He tried to straddle the fence between North and South and satisfied neither.

By Frank J. Williams  | January 3, 2011; 10:20 AM ET
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Comments

and straddling was bad?

it didn't kill over half a million americans!

Posted by: perryrants | January 3, 2011 3:51 PM | Report abuse

It has always seemed to me the the Constitutional argument in favor of forcibly retaining the Union, in the event of genuine and clear popular will (which, with the large unfree population in the Confederacy, is at the very least a doubtful proposition) was an exceedingly weak case.

If the electorate is the ultimate power in a representative democracy, while it cannot vote to violate the Constitution, and remain inside the Union (that is where the courts step in), it seems much harder to see what prevents them from deciding to leave that Union, and form a new basic law (constitution) that better suits the wishes of the electorate.

Putting it bluntly, wasn't that what 1776 was all about?

The British denied that the Colonies had the right to break from the Mother Country. The war was fought to defend that right. It seemed that this should have been an established fact in 1860.

While the system of chattel slavery was indefensible from any standpoint, by 1861, the system of slavery was dying out everywhere in the Americas (its last home was in Cuba) and probably would have been gone in the American South within a few decades at the most, for the dual reasons of its immorality, and its uneconomic nature.

In some ways, for that reason, the Civil War as probably an unnecessary one. And 620,000 soldier's deaths, incalculable property loss and human suffering, could have been avoided.

For decades I laughed at southerners who made this sort of case, until I read the history closely myself, and came to see that they had a point. The South was on the wrong side of history because of slavery, but the war was a mistake.

I suspect that there will be some who don't see things this way. I suggest that they step back and review the facts calmly, and consider the issues. They may surprise themselves.

Posted by: micolpaneur | January 3, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

But if he believed that secession was a right that the 10th Amendment granted to the states...

and please forgive me for quoting our Constitution...

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

... then he was correct in concluding that there was no power to force states back into the Union.

Again, I sincerely apologize for quoting our constitution. I know how badly it upsets people to read the 10th Amendment, and I wouldn't do it if it weren't neccesary. Slavery was a great evil and it should have never been permitted by England it its colonies.

Lincoln must be credited with being the first President to attempt a military solution to the divisive problems that plagued our nation. Folk like Buchanan were mired in the limitations of politics to resolve our irrepressible differences.

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

Of course States' rights could have given rise to secession. The 10th amendment seems to make that point. However, with secession comes consequences, including the dire possibility that the Union would fight to bring the states back into the fold. Then what? Nothing. That's what. States and the Union are at that point operating outside the Constitutional protections covering the seceded states. The Union declares war on the seceded, wins or loses, and we go from there. Can you seriously imagine who would come to the support of the seceded states in the war to reinstate?

Posted by: fmamstyle | January 3, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

None of these scholars fully admit that, while the Constitution does not expressly allow secession, it is basically silent on the issue, and does not specifically prohibit it. While I am a neophyte on the subject of the dynamics that lit the fuse of the powder keg of civil war, it does seem to me that Lincoln was extremely canny in inducing the South Carolina militia to fire the first shots of the conflict on Fort Sumpter. That and the seizure by the seceding states of US military property gave Lincoln all the rationale he needed to claim that those original seven states were in rebellion. The result was the call by Lincoln for thousands of volunteers from the Northern States to quell the "rebellion".

The founding fathers basically "kicked the can down the road" on the issue of slavery when the Constitution was written. Passions in both the north and the south were so inflamed by 1860, even after decades of compromises, that war was probably inevitable.

The more than 600,00 Americans who perished during the Civil War (about half of which died due to camp diseases) were the price that our Nation paid for indulging the "peculiar institution".

Posted by: MillPond2 | January 3, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

The Union was not created by the Constitution. It existed before the Constitution. The Constitution itself states that is purpose is "to form a MORE PERFECT UNION," not to create a union that did not exist.

The great Southern, Jefferson, pronounced that any foreign country that controlled the mouth of the Mississippi river was a natural enemy of our country. He believed we would sooner or later have to go to war with such a country.

How then could the slave states, most of which were formed from federal territories obtained by federal taxpayers and federal troops, believe they could take the common heritage of all Americans and abscond with it to create a slave power that would threaten the rest of the country?

Posted by: forrest3 | January 3, 2011 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't care what these people thought about then. I care about now. The outcome of the civil war altered any prior debate about the subject.

The answer is simple, no the states don't get to leave. This will not be some contest, if people want to attempt insurrection they should expect to be turned into smoking chunks of burnt meat.

Posted by: Nymous | January 3, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I don't care what these people thought about then. I care about now. The outcome of the civil war altered any prior debate about the subject.

The answer is simple, no the states don't get to leave. This will not be some contest, if people want to attempt insurrection they should expect to be turned into smoking chunks of burnt meat.

Posted by: Nymous | January 3, 2011 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Section 5 of the Force Bill (or Force Act) passed by Congress on March 2, 1833

"SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That whenever the President of the United States shall be officially informed, by the authorities of any state, or by a judge of any circuit or district court of the United States, in the state, that, within the limits of such state, any law or laws of the United States, or the execution thereof, or of any process from the courts of the United States, is obstructed by the employment of military force, or by any other unlawful means, too great to be overcome by the ordinary course of judicial proceeding, or by the powers vested in the marshal by existing laws, it shall be lawful for him, the President of the United States, forthwith to issue his proclamation, declaring such fact or information, and requiring all such military and other force forthwith to disperse; and if at any time after issuing such proclamation, any such opposition or obstruction shall be made, in the manner or by the means aforesaid, the President shall be, and hereby is, authorized, promptly to employ such means to suppress the same, and to cause the said laws or process to be duly executed . ."

A law authorizing the President to use force had already been on the books for almost 30 years.

Posted by: JJJW1 | January 3, 2011 10:28 PM | Report abuse

The problem with the 10th-Amendment-Protects-Secession theory is that the states and people referred to in the amendment's text are those within the United States, not those of foreign countries. How does a state claim protection and rights in a provision of the Constitution at the very moment that state is voiding the authority of that Constitution within its borders?

Believing state ordinances of secession to be legally void and irrelevant, Lincoln took no action during his first 5 weeks in office. And he plainly told the South in his First Inaugural that "you can have no conflict, without yourselves being the aggressors."

After Fort Sumter, the issue was no longer putting down a peaceful secession. The issue was now a Southern armed insurrection and revolution against the authority of the US Constitution and the national government it had consecrated.

If he was true to his oath of office, Lincoln had no choice but to act as he did. As he succinctly put it, our constitutional government had the right to defend itself.

A nation composed of states that actually recognizes a "right of secession" is as good as dissolved from the get-go. It's only a matter of time until a divisive election or other issue prompts one region or another to pull out. And likely sooner rather than later.

No wonder that the Confederate Constitution did not provide for the right of a state to secede, but instead, in its Preamble, spoke of creating "a permanent federal government." No one knew better than the framers of that document what a "right of secession" would mean in the long run for the new Southern nation.

Ultimately, the issue is whether the Constitution of 1787 (a) created a federation of independent states with a central government whose authority over any state's boundaries was strictly on an at-will basis by each state, revocable at any time, or (b) created a NATION. A right of unilateral state secession is fundamentally incompatible with the latter.

And our republic was saved--albeit at ghastly (but by that point in history, unavoidable) cost--because a country lawyer from Illinois understood these principles very clearly.

Posted by: tallysman | January 3, 2011 10:44 PM | Report abuse

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."


For all those that claim this amendment "allowed" states to secede....then this same amendment would allow people to secede, would it not? Exactly how would that right work?

The US Constitution created a nation, not a group of federated states.

The south shold never have approved the US Constitution. They did. The attempted to secede through rebellion, and lost.

Boo hoo.

Posted by: Greent | January 6, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

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