Is Secession “Legal?”

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In his final chapter, Wilentz discusses the various political ideas supporting secession. I think that we sometimes have the tendency to group all Southerners and secessionists together and not realize the political complexity of secession, so I’m glad that Wilentz addressed this in detail. However, ANBURTON pointed out the “debate between ‘the preservation of a traditional Southern heritage and states rights vs. the preservation of slavery’ as the main cause for secession,” but also asserted that they are “completely interconnected.” I agree with this, but would also like to look at the idea of secession itself.

The first group mentioned is the militant secessionists, or the fire-eaters.  Their stance was based on the idea that “secession was perfectly legal and represented nothing radical” (Wilentz 439).  They believed that when a state secedes, it is only exercising its right to act as a sovereign state, exactly as the states did when they signed the Constitution and formed the Union.  The only difference would be that the states are breaking away from the alliance with USA instead of Great Britain in order to form a different sovereign nation.  In a way, these secessionists were acting in defense of the Constitution.  They saw the Northern Republicans as the aggressors who violated the “original constitutional agreement that left slavery undisturbed” (439).

A different group of secessionists fully embraced the illegality of secession, but they did not believe that this lessened their right to do so.  “Secession was a replay of the American Revolution, a new War of Southern Independence that aimed to vindicate, not repudiate, the struggles of the founding generation” (439).  Just as the colonists did not have the legal right to rebel from England, the Southerners also did not have this right.  Nevertheless, the American colonists rebelled successfully.  According to this view of secession, the Southerners shared the aims of their revolution with the colonists: to preserve their definition of liberty.

Even though they recognize its illegality, I see a much more legitimate justification for secession in the second, more moderate viewpoint.  The fire-eaters claim their rights as sovereign states, but to me it seems like they gave up a significant part of that sovereignty when the US switched from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution with a more powerful federal government.  It would be more difficult to argue or prove their sovereignty to either the Northerners or Southern Unionists.  On the other hand, the colonies did rebel against England, so these secessionists have a similar success story at which to point.  It would be easier to convince fellow Southerners of the legitimacy of this cause.  Moral issues on slavery aside, I believe that either on the grounds of state sovereignty or right to revolution, individual states have the right to withdraw from the Union if its citizens deem it necessary, but that the idea of “a new War of Southern Independence” would be more successful at gathering public support for secession (439).

Wilentz, Ch. 13 / Davis, Ch. 13: A Hotbed for Abolitionism

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Sherwood Callaway

Blog Post 6

In chapter 13, Wilentz writes:

“Abolitionism represented a new kind of American political community. Its activists, at great personal risk, defied widely and deeply held social conventions. This community set itself apart from sinful complicity with slavery and racism and created a new humane model of equality, freedom, and love.”

To synthesize and summarize his argument, within American society, the abolitionist movement sought unprecedented goals and held unprecedented values. But though the idea of ending the institution of slavery may have been radical and new (which it wasn’t), the movement itself was founded on principles that were both well recognized and well liked—which contributed to the movement’s widespread popularity.

For example, Wilentz mentions that abolitionism appealed to the “revival-soaked areas that defied greater New England.” This is because revivalism and abolitionism both emphasized similar values—individualism and progressivism. Revivalists encouraged a personal relationship with God, unlike traditional forms of Christianity. Both men and women, whether free or enslaved, were accepted as converts and allowed to profess their new faith. Subsequently, revivalists often came from the margins of society—the frontier, for example, or poverty, or slavery. Revivalism also represented a departure from ceremonial traditions; churches, priests and sacraments were no longer necessary for worship. Revivalists would have been excited about furthering the causes of individualism and progressivism through the abolitionist movement, which proposed to liberate slaves from oppression and end a tradition that primarily benefited the white landed elite.

The first great awakening, which saw the initial emergence of revivalism in British America, was during the 1730s and 40s. The second enveloped this period of abolitionism, running from the 1800s to the 1840s. It is no coincidence that these periods coincide; rather, because they held similar values, they energized one another. Revivalism during the 18th century laid the foundations for Abolitionism; revivalism during the 19th century popularized it.

But the goals and values of the abolitionist movement cannot only be tied to those of revivalism. Consider also, the spirit of 1776. Wilentz says abolitionism favored “equality, freedom, and love.” I cannot account for the latter of these, but I can certainly account for the former two. The notion of “equality” featured heavily in pre-revolution dialogue, as American-born Britons sought the same rights and representation as those across the pond. Of course, these sentiments did not stretch to the margins of society, as they did during abolitionism, but the language of equality was very much present. “Freedom”, also, was obviously associated with the spirit of 1776—personal freedoms such as the right to expand along the frontier, and the right to refuse quarter to visitors, for example.

Wilentz argues that abolitionism was a wholly new phenomenon in the United States. But rather, it seems as if the US would have been a hotbed for such a movement.

The Verbal Worship of the British Empire by Taylor

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The Chapter 18 reading of American Colonies presents an alternative view of the New World. Whereas up until this point Taylor has described the New World in terms of settlement and development of political structures and economic systems, he now describes it as a battlefield to set the stage for the seven years war. He opens the history of war in the 18th century by stating that, despite having a well-funded army in the area, the French managed to lose a fortress at Louisberg to what was essentially a New English militia. After initial battles, both the French and the British realized that they needed to pay more attention to the New World as a theatre for warfare. However, as both colonial areas developed into the mid 18th century, population dynamics shifted so that the British found themselves at a massive advantage. They enjoyed areas of centralized, high density population, whereas the French found themselves dispersed along hundreds of miles of land that frankly was unsustainable and nobody could really live on. This lead to a particular point where Taylor refers to the French as “more restrained and civil” during the seven years war.




He goes on to explain himself by stating that since the French had such a dispersed population, they knew that the only way to win the seven years war was to gain the help of the Indian population, and become their puppeteers so that the Indian nations between the French and British Borders would die for the French. I completely agree with Jelaws post stating that The British, in this and several other instances, are painted in far too kind a light.


However, this does not excuse the indignation of the colonists that is described in later chapters. In exchange for fighting for and successfully defending the colonies, The British began to raise taxes on the colonists that were minuscule compared to taxes in England, and extremely affordable in the economy of the New World. However, the Colonists believed that they were being oppressed by their mother country because they were being asked to pay in VERY small part for a war which the British fought for them. Taylor describes the taxes being viewed as an “attack on liberty”, but, as always, in reality there is always a much more simple and pragmatic cause for government actions. Like trying to pay for two imperial wars at once.