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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

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

By Waite Rawls

President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy

Rawls

The word “coercion” is critical, and it was at the center of the national debate. The dictionary defines it as “government by force.”

The first important question is whether President Buchanan believed that the President of the United States did or did not have the Constitutional power to force a state back into the Union once it had seceded or to force the people of a state to stay in a Union in which they no longer believed. Or, put another way, could the President override the will of “the people” of that state to enforce the majority belief of the rest of the people of a union? Buchanan believed that he did not have that power—a belief shared by many people at the time.

The second question is how President Buchanan viewed the pragmatic process of keeping the Union together. He knew that there were still many loyal Unionists in the seceding states, and he knew that the Upper South would view coercion with such anger that it might force them to join the Lower South in secession. So his political instincts were to attempt to do nothing that would precipitate further disunion. Claiming that he did not have the power was a way to avoid invoking the power and buy time for cooler heads and loyal Unionists to question their state’s secession.

The original seceding seven states believed that they could voluntarily withdraw from a Union that they had voluntarily joined. It is important to note that they did not invoke the Declaration of Independence’s right of revolution. Instead, in their secession conventions, they invoked the language of the Constitution and their original Constitutional conventions of 1787, regardless of the underlying reasons (which centered around the protection of slavery) and asserted their right to secede. They believed that a government “of the people” could not force itself on those same people.

Abraham Lincoln did not share either of Buchanan’s beliefs. He believed that the secession was, in fact, a rebellion, which was not protected by the Constitution. Therefore, he believed that he had the power to put down that rebellion by force of arms. And he believed that the political demands of his new Republican Party and the North required intervention.

History has not helped us determine who was right from a Constitutional point of view. Lincoln’s actions directly led to the secession of four more states, whose secession conventions’ language centered around the coercion of the federal government. And Lincoln’s decision to use force also led to a war which saw 620,000 Americans die. But Lincoln’s actions preserved the Union—his ultimate goal. Does might make right? Perhaps it did in this case. But the question remains as to whether the same goal could have been reached at a lesser cost.

By Waite Rawls  | January 3, 2011; 10:22 AM ET
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Comments

"And Lincoln’s decision to use force also led to a war which saw 620,000 Americans die."

The various Secession conventions' decision to cease abiding by the Constitution their forefathers had agreed to led to the war in which 620,000 Americans died.

The Confederacy's seizure of Federal arms and property led to the war in which 620,000 Americans died.

"But the question remains as to whether the same goal could have been reached at a lesser cost."

Possibly. But the question here was, was Buchanan right? Way to dodge it.

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

the answer then is how it is framed by language.

secession being a noble idea - we are just divorcing.

revolution is a declaration of war - only death is certain.

making it a "rebellion" provided cover for a cival war.

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

" regardless of the underlying reasons (which centered around the protection of slavery) and asserted their right to secede"

The intellectually bankrupt viewpoint of the Confederacy is well illustrated by Mr. Rawls remarks. The Confederacy was based entirely on the notion of human slaves as being property, and secession was the response to avoid these property rights from being taken away. If anything can be disregarded, it is the trumped up excuse of states rights that was used as a convenient and respectable legal argument.

The Confederacy represents the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany, but, somehow, we do not stomach museums honoring Nazi achievements and celebrations of Nazi heritage, even in Germany. That such cultural aspirations still thrive in our nation is a symptom of a troubling cancer that still lurks within the organs of our country. This deadly tumor of Confederate white-washing of history will again metastatize into a deadly ailment, if we do not diagnose it and work to excise it completely.

Posted by: AgentG | January 3, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

It is technically incorrect to say the Civil War "preserved" the Union.

Had Lincoln lost the election of 1864 and if the winner had signed a peace with the south, then the Union would have persevered in the Northern states that chose to stay. Maybe a lot of states would have decided that the abolitionists were wrong and that the South should be permitted to rejoin an America that specifically endorsed slavery.

Slavery was a great evil that harmed everyone, those enslaved, those who profited from it, and those who tolerated it. England should never have permitted slavery in the American colonies.

Posted by: blasmaic | January 3, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Jesus man, not only do you guys have to "mini-me" the New York Times, you do it in a way that glorifies those that committed treason. Grow a pair.

Posted by: flounder2 | January 3, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

You are absolutely correct that the legal question about secession was independent from the morally repulsive fact of slavery.
However, I think it is very hard to conclude that in a democratic union, formed by the willing approval of previously mostly-independent States, these same States can not vote to secede from that union.
Any argument against the 'right' of secession is colored by what the South stood for, not the legality of it's actions.
Similarly, I believe it would have been constitutional for northern States to secede from a union that allowed slavery.

Posted by: natecar | January 4, 2011 12:18 AM | Report abuse

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