A Grim Sesquicentennial

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Secession and changed the American republic forever.  Superficially, the reason for secession was slavery, but the clock was already tolling on that vice.

Robert E. Lee himself said, "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil."  Moreover, slavery was becoming increasingly uneconomical.  Eli Whitney's signature invention made cotton (and thus slavery) profitable for a while in the Deep South, but this labor-intensive crop could be grown cheaply in other parts of the world, like Egypt and India.  The trajectory was clear: the combination of national moral condemnation and economic reality had slavery slated for the dustbin of history.

In short, our nation did not need a Civil War to end slavery in the South.  In fact, with this in mind, it could be argued that the Civil War did more harm than good.  Of course, this is especially true for the South, which had produced many of the great patriots who made our nation.  Post-Civil War, the South found itself physically destroyed, desperately impoverished, and almost a colony of the North.  It was not until 1976 that a major political party nominated a presidential candidate from the Deep South, and the heavy stigma of being Southern bred widespread resentment in that region.

This resentment appeared in many ways.  Governor Orval Faubus found himself in 1957 facing President Eisenhower, who sent in federal troops and nationalized the state guard to compel de jure desegregation.  Governor George Wallace brazenly defied attempts to desegregate the University of Alabama.  If Southerners themselves had chosen to end slavery, then there would have been no need for federal enforcement of it.  Instead, these Southern states came to be perceived as threats to human rights, with Washington cast as the defender of those rights.

This perception was more myth than truth.  Robust state governments protect our liberties better than a remote central government.  Why?  State officials are physically closer to the people.  Their children attend the same schools as constituents'.  They see the same doctors, go to the same groceries, and attend the same churches.  Most state legislators are only part-time politicians.  They work at a real job; they deal with all the government red tape, tax regulations, and laws that plague everyone else.

State governments also cannot print money.   Whether state politicians want to be fiscally conservative or not, their place in our federal system and their inability to simply create money from thin air make state governments more responsible than the federal government.  The census data released this week shows a steady movement of people into states with more sensible state finances.  States cannot keep citizens from leaving if state taxes get too high, if state laws get too onerous, if state government gets too corrupt, or if bigotry makes some groups in a state feel uncomfortable.  The right to "vote with your feet" served blacks well in the last century: millions fled the South for better jobs and civil rights in the North.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union 150 years ago, the rest of the nation should have bid the Palmetto State a fond farewell.  A few states might have followed, but the very recognition of a right of secession would have discouraged states from leaving.  A modern-day analogue is readily available in Quebec: Quebec can leave Canada, but it never has.  All Canadians grasp that a civil war to keep Quebec, against its will, as part of Canada would be as disastrous as trying to keep the Irish as part of the United Kingdom.  The union of Quebec with the rest of Canada is consensual, like the union of South Carolina with the United States should have been.  A hundred and fifty years later, America is still paying the price for thinking otherwise.

Bruce Walker is the author of a new book: Poor Lenin's Almanac: Perverse Leftists Proverbs for Modern Life.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Secession and changed the American republic forever.  Superficially, the reason for secession was slavery, but the clock was already tolling on that vice.

Robert E. Lee himself said, "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil."  Moreover, slavery was becoming increasingly uneconomical.  Eli Whitney's signature invention made cotton (and thus slavery) profitable for a while in the Deep South, but this labor-intensive crop could be grown cheaply in other parts of the world, like Egypt and India.  The trajectory was clear: the combination of national moral condemnation and economic reality had slavery slated for the dustbin of history.

In short, our nation did not need a Civil War to end slavery in the South.  In fact, with this in mind, it could be argued that the Civil War did more harm than good.  Of course, this is especially true for the South, which had produced many of the great patriots who made our nation.  Post-Civil War, the South found itself physically destroyed, desperately impoverished, and almost a colony of the North.  It was not until 1976 that a major political party nominated a presidential candidate from the Deep South, and the heavy stigma of being Southern bred widespread resentment in that region.

This resentment appeared in many ways.  Governor Orval Faubus found himself in 1957 facing President Eisenhower, who sent in federal troops and nationalized the state guard to compel de jure desegregation.  Governor George Wallace brazenly defied attempts to desegregate the University of Alabama.  If Southerners themselves had chosen to end slavery, then there would have been no need for federal enforcement of it.  Instead, these Southern states came to be perceived as threats to human rights, with Washington cast as the defender of those rights.

This perception was more myth than truth.  Robust state governments protect our liberties better than a remote central government.  Why?  State officials are physically closer to the people.  Their children attend the same schools as constituents'.  They see the same doctors, go to the same groceries, and attend the same churches.  Most state legislators are only part-time politicians.  They work at a real job; they deal with all the government red tape, tax regulations, and laws that plague everyone else.

State governments also cannot print money.   Whether state politicians want to be fiscally conservative or not, their place in our federal system and their inability to simply create money from thin air make state governments more responsible than the federal government.  The census data released this week shows a steady movement of people into states with more sensible state finances.  States cannot keep citizens from leaving if state taxes get too high, if state laws get too onerous, if state government gets too corrupt, or if bigotry makes some groups in a state feel uncomfortable.  The right to "vote with your feet" served blacks well in the last century: millions fled the South for better jobs and civil rights in the North.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union 150 years ago, the rest of the nation should have bid the Palmetto State a fond farewell.  A few states might have followed, but the very recognition of a right of secession would have discouraged states from leaving.  A modern-day analogue is readily available in Quebec: Quebec can leave Canada, but it never has.  All Canadians grasp that a civil war to keep Quebec, against its will, as part of Canada would be as disastrous as trying to keep the Irish as part of the United Kingdom.  The union of Quebec with the rest of Canada is consensual, like the union of South Carolina with the United States should have been.  A hundred and fifty years later, America is still paying the price for thinking otherwise.

Bruce Walker is the author of a new book: Poor Lenin's Almanac: Perverse Leftists Proverbs for Modern Life.

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