Everyone loves to quote Lord Acton when he says things like, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In American schools the Civil War is a one trick pony. It was all about slavery and that is all it was about.
There can be no doubt that slavery was a blight upon the History of the United States. It was incompatible with the inspiring words of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The very idea of chattel slavery wherein one person can own another and their children, and their children’s children unto the furthest generation is an abomination. The South saw this as their peculiar institution, and they had built an entire culture upon slavery as an economic necessity. For a variety of reasons even the Southern Churches supported and attempted to justify the practice. However, all of this being said slavery was not the only issue at stake in the Civil War.
There was one other that took center stage in the minds of many: State’s Rights.
In the decades that had passed since the ratification of the Constitution slavery had been steadily abolished in the Northern states while remaining prevalent in the South. This inexorably led to the issue of slavery becoming intertwined in the issues of States Rights, Federalism and the growing power of the Federal Government.
The proponents of States rights appealed to the 10th Amendment which states, “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.” This had been added to the original Constitution due to the intellectual and political pressure from the Anti-Federalists. This Amendment was meant to reassure people of the limited nature of the Federal government and that with the few exception specifically delegated to the Federal Government by the States the States and the people were free to continue exercising their sovereign powers.
President Lincoln did not see the Civil War as a war to end slavery until that became necessary to stop European powers from recognizing the South.
Lincoln said in his 1st Inaugural Address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
Lincoln was on record as saying, “"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”
Lincoln also said, “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.” Obviously his object was to maintain the Union at all costs and ending slavery (or not) was to him merely a means to that end.
That Lincoln himself was on record as believing that the invasion of the States was unlawful is shown by another quote from his 1st Inaugural Address, “That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” Yet in this same address he proclaims his belief that the Union is perpetual and the he has sworn an oath to preserve it.
However there were very basic and foundational problems with the entire effort to preserve the Union. For one thing it was known by all that it was a voluntary union entered into by sovereign States. It was also known that the Federal Government only has those powers which are expressly delegated. Nowhere in the document does it say the Federal Government has the power to force States to remain in the Union.
In addition, three states—New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia included “resumption clauses,” which would allow the states to leave the union to “resume” their status as independent states.
New York declared, “That the Powers of Government may be reassumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness.”
Rhode Island said, “That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.”
Virginia stated, “Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.”
Everyone loves to quote Lord Acton when he says things like, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”
Most are not aware of the correspondence that took place between Lord Acton and Robert E. Lee after the Civil War. In that correspondence Lord Acton said, “I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”
To which Lee answered, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
I know that States Rights has been tarred with the broad brush of racism; however, I reject that attempt to restrict the speech of a free people along with all of the strangulating impediments of political correctness.
America was designed to be a federal republic which operates on democratic principles. The continuing attempts to curtail the freedom of actions of the States and to transform the United States into a centrally-planned democracy run counter to our founding documents, our History, and, our nature.
Here’s another Lord Acton quote people seem to overlook, “Socialism means slavery.”