Secession from the Union of States is Legal?

One of my favorite syndicated columnist is Walter Williams who is a Black Economics Professor at George Mason University.  He apparently wrote a column several weeks ago on the dismantling of Confederate Monuments.  I was not in town to get the paper that ran the article, but apparently he is against the abolishment of the monuments.  In the past week he reported that his column generated quite a bit of mail.   Some of the responses apparently said that there “should not be statues honoring traitors such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, who fought against the Union”.  In this week’s column he addresses the question, “Did the South have a right to secede from the Union?”.  If it did, he thinks that the confederate generals should not be labeled as traitors.

He presents a pretty good case for the Southern States having a right to secede, starting with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which recognized the thirteen colonies as “independent states”.   Apparently at the Constitutional Convention there was a discussion about whether the states should be allowed to secede or not.  The result was not to write into the Union papers any prohibition against, or punishment for, secession.   The first threat of secession was apparently in 1803 by the New England States who were upset over the Louisiana Purchase.  A Massachusetts senator wrote that “The principles of our revolution point to the remedy – a separation”, and ” that the people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West.”  The call for secession was shared by other prominent Americans including John Quincy Adams.  On the eve of the Civil War in 1861 many unionist politicians saw secession as the right of states, and many Northern newspapers editorialized in favor the South’s right to secede.

Growing up in the South, I never heard some of the evidence he puts forth.  I guess I grew up thinking it’s legality was a question, but there was not a lot of discussion of that.  I had ancestors who fought in the war and who may not have owned saves (one became a Christian minister after the war).  I believe they were all thought, by those who knew them, as “good people”.  I don’t believe that they thought that the Confederate States did anything illegal by seceding.  And they, or their children, never saw themselves as traitors.  They were fighting for their homeland, and the right to solve their own problems.  But if Walter is right that secession was legal, then the Union must have started the war – not the South.  I always have heard that the war started in Charleston, S.C. when Confederate Troops fired on the Union Army in Ft. Sumter.  But if Walter Williams is right, then they had a right to do that because the Union should have vacated the Fort.

But growing up in the South, I believed that people were glad that we did not leave the Union.  The United States of America is a great country, and it would probably not have been so great if the states had not stayed together.  I had relatives who fought in the U.S. army in WWII and believed in their country even though their ancestors were Southerners who fought for the Confederacy.   As Walter Williams pointed out, history is written by the victors and often “does not reflect the facts”.  At least it’s not all the facts and it’s not always balanced.  And the ones that they remember are those that support their position.  Reconstruction tended to treat the people who fought for the South as Traitors and Criminals so I was brought up to believe.  The people who fought for the confederacy might have been wrong, but they were not criminals or traitors.  And I think Walter Williams is right, they did not think they were doing anything illegal.

A book review in this week’s Wall Street Journal there was a review of a new book about Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty).  The review was written by another writer of history – W. H. Hay.  Hay said that before the 1970’s, books on Jefferson “treated him with sympathy and celebrated his enlightenment ideals”.  Then in the mid – 1970’s a book by Fawn Brodie “changed Jefferson’s public image by highlighting his relationship with slave Sally Hemings”.  After that writers started characterizing  Jefferson differently.  Mostly as a “slave-owning elitist whose class interest as a Virginia Planter, trumped his egalitarian rhetoric.””  In the book under review, John Boles, a history professor at Rice University, offers a series of arguments, based on the  standards of Jefferson’s day, that he should be viewed differently.  In fact, much of what he did went against the accepted standards of the day.  What he did was bold for his time and he should be appreciated for much of what he did.  (P.S. Jefferson was also the President who made the Louisiana Purchase, which despite the fact that it was not liked by some of the Northerners helped make the U.S. what it is today)

History should be remembered with balance and in its entirety, and judgments should be made relative to the standards of the time – not today’s standards.  And at some point, you need to let the past go and move on.  I think the monuments should stand and it’s time to move on.


About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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