How the Civil War Kept You Sovereign

Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of public opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible, so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left. -- Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural, March 4, 1861.

The dispute between absolute and limited power, between centralization and self-government, has been, like that between privilege [of Parliament] and prerogative [of the Crown] in England, the substance of the constitutional history of the United States. This is the argument which confers on the whole period that intervenes between the convention of 1787 and the election of Mr. Davis in 1861 an almost epic unity. It is this problem that has supplied the impulse to the political progress of the United States, that underlies all the great questions that have agitated the Union. -- Lord Acton, in The Rambler, May 1861.1

The North and the South were in greater agreement on sovereignty, through all their dispute about it, than were the Founding Fathers. The truth in their conflicting concepts was expounded by statesmen of the calibre of Webster and Calhoun, and defended in the end by leaders of the nobility of Lincoln and Lee. The people everywhere had grown meanwhile in devotion to basic democratic principle, in understanding of and belief in the federal balance, and in love of their Union. Repeated efforts -- beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1821 -- were made by such master moderates as Clay and Douglas to resolve the difference peacefully by compromise, rather than clear thought and timely action. Even so, confusion in this period gained such strength (from compromise and other factors) that it led to the bloodiest war of the Nineteenth century. Nothing can show more than this the immensity of the danger to democratic peoples that lies in even relatively slight deviation from their true concept of sovereignty.

The present issue in Atlantica -- whether to transform an alliance of sovereign nations into a federal union of sovereign citizens -- resembles the American one of 1787-89 rather than the one that was resolved by Civil War. And so I would only touch upon it now (much as I have long wanted to write a book about it.) I think it is essential, however, to pinpoint here the difference between the two concepts of sovereignty that went to war in 1861 -- if only to see better how imperative is our need today to clarify completely our far worse confusion on this subject.

The difference came down to this: The Southern States insisted that the United States was, in last analysis, what its name implied -- a Union of States. To their leaders the Constitution was a compact made by the people of sovereign states, who therefore retained the right to secede from it. This right of the State, its upholders contended, was essential to maintain the federal balance and protect the liberty of the people from the danger of centralizing power in the Union government. The champions of the Union maintained that the Constitution had formed, fundamentally, the united people of America, that it was a compact among sovereign citizens rather than states, and that therefore the states had no right to secede, though the citizens could. Writing to Speed on August 24, 1855, Lincoln made the latter point clear. In homely terms whose timeliness is startling today, he thus declared his own right to secede.

We began by declaring that all men are created equal. We now practically read it, all men are created equal except negroes. When the Know-nothings get control, it will read, all men are created equal except negroes and foreigners and Catholics. When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy. [His emphasis]

When the Southern States exercised their "right to secede," they formed what they officially styled "The Confederate States of America." Dictionaries, as we have seen, still cite this government, along with the Articles of Confederation of 1781, as an example of a confederacy. The fact is that the Southern Confederacy differed from the earlier one almost as much as the Federal Constitution did. The Confederate Constitution copied much of the Federal Constitution verbatim, and most of the rest in substance. It operated on, by and for the people individually just as did the Federal Constitution. It made substantially the same division of power between the central and the state governments, and among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

The Difference Between Confederacy And Federal Union in 1861

Many believe -- and understandably -- that the great difference between the Constitution of the Southern Confederacy and the Federal Constitution was that the former recognized the right of each state to secede. But though each of its members had asserted this right against the Union, the final Constitution which the Confederacy signed on March 11 -- nearly a month before hostilities began -- included no explicit provision authorizing a state to secede. Its drafters discussed this vital point, but left it out of their Constitution. Their President, Jefferson Davis, interpreted their Constitution to mean that it "admits of no coerced association," but this remained so doubtful that "there were frequent demands that the right to secede be put into the Constitution."2

The Constitution of the Southern "Confederation" differed from that of the Federal Union only in two important respects: It openly, defiantly, recognized slavery-an institution which the Southerners of 1787, even though they continued it, found so impossible to reconcile with freedom that they carefully avoided mentioning the word in the Federal Constitution. They recognized that slavery was a moral issue and not merely an economic interest, and that to recognize it explicitly in their Constitution would be in explosive contradiction to the concept of sovereignty they had set forth in the Declaration of 1776 that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...." The other important difference between the two Constitutions was that the President of the Confederacy held office for six (instead of four) years, and was limited to one term.3

These are not, however, differences in federal structure. The only important difference from that standpoint, between the two Constitutions, lies in their Preambles. The one of 1861 made clear that in making their government the people were acting through their states, whereas the Preamble of 1787-89 expressed, as clearly as language can, the opposite concept, that they were acting directly as its citizens. Here are the two Preambles:

Federal Constitution, 1789-90
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Confederate Constitution, 1861
We the People of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- invoking the favor and the guidance of Almighty God -- do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

One is tempted to say that, on the difference between the concepts of sovereignty in these two preambles, the worst war of the Nineteenth century was fought. But though the Southern States, when drafting a constitution to unite themselves, narrowed the difference to this fine point by omitting to assert the right to secede, the fact remained that by seceding from the Union they had already acted on the concept that it was composed primarily of sovereign states. If the Union conceded this to them, the same right must be conceded to each remaining state whenever it saw fit to secede: This would destroy the federal balance between it and the states, and in the end sacrifice to the sovereignty of the states all the liberty the citizens had gained by their Union.

Lincoln saw that the act of secession made the issue for the Union a vital one: Whether it was a Union of sovereign citizens that could continue to live, or an association of sovereign states that must fall prey either to "anarchy or despotism."

Much as he abhorred slavery, Lincoln was always willing to concede to each "slave state" the right to decide independently whether to continue or end it. Though his election was interpreted by many Southerners as the forerunner of a dangerous shift in the federal balance in favor of the Union, Lincoln himself proposed no such change in the rights the Constitution gave the states. After the war began, he long refused to permit emancipation of the slaves by Union action even in the Border States that stayed with the Union. He issued his Emancipation Proclamation only when he felt that necessity left him no other way to save the Union.4 In his Message of December 2, 1862, he put his purpose and his policy in these words -- which I would call the Lincoln Law of Liberty-and-Union: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."

What Lincoln could not concede was that the states rather than the people were sovereign in the Union. He fought to the end to preserve it as a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

The Truth on Each Side Won in the Civil War

The fact that the Americans who upheld the sovereignty of their states did this in order to keep many of their people more securely in slavery -- the antithesis of individual liberty -- made the conflict the grimmer, and the greater. Out of this ordeal the citizen emerged, in the South as in the North, as America's true sovereign, in "a new birth of freedom," as Lincoln promised. But before this came about, 214,938 Americans had given their lives in battle for the two concepts of the sovereign rights of men and of states.

On their decisive battlefield Lincoln did not distinguish between them when he paid tribute to the "brave men, living and dead, who fought here." He understood that both sides were at fault, and he reached the height of saying so explicitly in his Second Inaugural.

To my knowledge, Lincoln remains the only Head of State and Commander-in-Chief who, while fighting a fearful war whose issue was in doubt, proved man enough to say this publicly -- to give his foe the benefit of the fact that in all human truth there is some error, and in all our error, some truth. So great a man could not but understand, too, that the thing that moves men to sacrifice their lives is not the error of their thought, which their opponents see and attack, but the truth which the latter do not see -- any more than they see the error which mars the truth they themselves defend.

It is much less difficult now than in Lincoln's day to see that on both sides sovereign Americans had given their lives in the Civil War to maintain the balance between the powers they had delegated to their States and to their Union. They differed in the balance they believed essential to the sovereignty of the citizen -- but the supreme sacrifice each made served to maintain a still more fundamental truth: That individual life, liberty and happiness depend on a right balance between the two -- and on the limitation of sovereignty, in all its aspects which this involves. The 140,414 Americans who gave "the last full measure of devotion" to prevent disunion, preserved individual freedom in the United States from the dangers of anarchy, inherent in confederations, which throughout history have proved fatal in the end to all associations composed primarily of sovereign states, and to the liberties of their people. But the fact that 70,524 other Americans gave the same measure of devotion to an opposing concept served Liberty-and-Union in other essential ways.

Their appeal from ballots to bullets at Fort Sumter ended by costing the Southerners their right to have slaves -- a right that was even less compatible with the sovereignty of man. The very fact that they came so near to winning by the wrong method, war, led directly to their losing both the war and the wrong thing they fought for, since it forced Lincoln to free their slaves as a military measure. There was a divine justice in one wrong thus undoing another. There was also a lesson, one that has served ever since to keep Americans, in their conflicts with one another, from turning from the ballot to the bullet. Yet though the Southern States lost the worst errors in their case, they did not lose the truth they fought for. The lives so many of them gave, to forestall what they believed would be a fatal encroachment by the Union on the powers reserved to their states have continued ever since to safeguard all Americans against freedom's other foe. The South remains today our surest brake against the trend toward over-centralization that inheres in central power and that leads inevitably to despotism -- as Lincoln saw -- when men fail to guard against it vigilantly and vigorously.

The basic federal balance, formed by the rights delegated by the citizens to their Union and to their states, continues to check this danger. True, power has gravitated in recent years increasingly from all the states to the Federal Government, but no states have maintained their rights so much in practice and in principle as have the Southern ones, the current conflict over integration testifies to this.

The Continuing Issue in American History

What Lord Acton expressed in English terms in 1861 in the quotation at the head of this chapter, continues to be true of the United States.

In other terms, the history of the United States has always centered on the revolutionary concept of sovereignty that gave it birth -- "the principle it lives by and keeps alive," as Lincoln put it. Twice already this concept has moved the American people as it has moved no other people, and as nothing else has ever moved Americans. Here is the kernel of our history: To give this concept life we first took thirty-five years -- from Franklin's proposal of Union in 1754 to the Federal Constitution he lived to see go into effect in 1789. In that period we created states of sovereign citizens by eight years of Revolutionary War, and then by a bloodless, shorter, bolder Revolution united these states in a grander Union of Sovereign Citizens. The next struggle was to preserve the sovereignty of the citizens in both the Union and their states -- a forty-four-year struggle, if dated from the Missouri Compromise in 1821 to the Union victory. It included only four years of war, but fifty times more lives were sacrificed than in the First Revolution.

Both times the American people, when their leaders and friends almost despaired of them, ended by drawing from the confusion and the conflict an astonishing extension of their freedom-and-union concept. Here lies their genius as a people. Here is the reason why they honor as their highest heroes those who have done the most to clarify this concept, and to establish, preserve, extend it. These heroes of theirs are the Americans whom all the world, too, most esteems -- Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lincoln. That each of these is honored everywhere reflects how profoundly true, and universally appealing in the end, is the democratic federal concept of the sovereignty of Man. It would not be the world's, or ours, today without each of these heroes ... or without the myriads of unknown men who gave volume to their voices, and proved their concept true.

Since the creation of the American Union, and even more since its preservation a century ago this revolutionary concept of sovereignty has gone marching on -- and nowhere have its victories been so early and enduring as around the North Atlantic. And so its success has led us into a third period of confusion and conflict. Oceanic in scope, the current period also centers in the true concept of sovereignty and the primal issue with which we began: Can citizens remain sovereign only within their nation? Must they not establish their sovereignty over their common interests with other democratic nations, too, if they are to stay sovereign at home? We living Americans have been in this struggle now for more than forty years -- ever since we set out in 1917 under Woodrow Wilson to make the world "safe for democracy."

The Current American Confusion

Through the same confusion as in 1776, we began in 1917 by seeking to make the world safe for the sovereignty of man by centering our attention totally on the sovereignty of his nation. This notion, which identified self-government only with the independence of nation-states from empires, has in forty years won the whole world. It has destroyed all the empires save the Russian and the Chinese; it has produced scores of new independent states that, from the Congo back to Cuba, all call themselves democracies. If this notion could make the world safe for democracy, Earth should be a Heaven now, for the planet is today completely papered with democracies -- even the Communists describe their tyrannies as "people's democracies." Instead of Heaven, we find Hell on Earth. We find we have but balkanized Europe, the Mid-east, Southern Asia, and all Africa. From the Balkans we have spread all over the world the cancerous concept of sovereignty with which World War I began. And so we have inevitably brought our concept of the sovereignty of man into direr danger than it was when we set out in 1917.

The first products of this misconception -- the free and independent states of Eastern Europe which rose from the ruins of empire there -- lacked the experience to federate freely. These new Balkanlands among which World War II began, have been the first nations to fall back under empire. That empire is the most totalitarian type of imperialism. Its Czech subjects have formed its foremost tools of penetration from Cairo on to the Congo. Our confusion over sovereignty has already punished us with two World Wars and one in Korea -- nine years in all -- and a Hitler-breeding Depression. It has allowed the totalitarian concept of national sovereignty to capture the Russian and Chinese peoples inside-out and arm itself until it now faces our true concept with by far the most formidable challenge in our history.

Yet, like the alcoholic who seeks strength in what has already stupefied him, we have kept our trust only in the bottle that betrayed us. We have persisted for more than forty years in the nihilistic notion that individual liberty lies in the unlimited sovereignty of the nation, and neglected our own idea that it lies in the supreme but limited sovereignty of our individual selves. In these forty years a number of American leaders have enjoyed even more military or political prestige at home, and throughout Atlantica, then did Washington in Virginia and America. Yet none of them has thus far shown Washington's degree of understanding of the revolutionary American concept of sovereignty; still less has any shown his devotion to it, his determination to advance it. This concept then sent into orbit a galaxy of great men drawn from some 3,000,000 American sovereigns. It has yet to bring forth any man of their heroic stature from the 180,000,000 sovereign Americans who now profit, materially, from their wisdom, vision, courage -- and timely action. And we wonder that the immense faith which the world, and even more the Atlantic community, and most of all we Americans, have had so long in the American people -- in this people each of whom, as Tocqueville saw, was so openly and truly the sovereign that every man on earth dreams he himself should be ... we wonder that this faith everywhere is famishing, despite all the billions we now spend to send into orbit ... mice and monkeys.

The Founding Fathers took but eleven years to see that they had started wrong and to meet in the Convention where they made the revolutionary change from confederation to Federal Union. The best that we have thus far done has been to recognize that our problem lies in the community which the experienced democracies around the North Atlantic form, and to unite with them in a grand alliance. But there is cause for hope in this mouse of wisdom that a mountain of disaster has brought forth. There is still greater hope in the fact that we now have political leaders daring enough to propose changing the alliance into a confederation. Most hopeful of all is the fact that leadership by the Congress of the United States -- as by the legislature of Virginia in 1786 -- has made it possible at last for leading citizens from the free states of Atlantica to meet in a Convention, patterned on the Federal one, to explore afresh the problem of uniting their peoples both democratically and effectively.

Let us not despair of the American people -- nor of the other free peoples of Atlantica whom we despair of so readily, as they do of us, and of each other. All these nations are composed of more than sovereign citizens. Each has within it all the potential heroes, small and great, the hour demands. Many are potentially so great that even the certainty of remaining individually unknown forever will not keep them from responding to the revolutionary concept of their own sovereignty, with the heroic wisdom they showed when the first Federal Union was submitted to them ... and with the heroic self-sacrifice, on many a less known battlefield than Gettysburg, by which they have, in the end, not only maintained but advanced the Union of the Free ever since.

Let us not despair, but renew our faith in ourselves. That after all, is the soul of our concept of sovereignty.

One way to renew our faith is to note the rewards in sovereignty that resulted for the citizens who established the first Federal Union on this concept -- and compare this gain with the senseless sacrifices of our sovereignty that we citizens are each personally making today ... on the altar of the false totalitarian concept of the sovereign nation. Let us strike this balance now.


  1. Acton, Essays on Freedom & Power, Beacon Press, Boston. pp. 198-199.
  2. E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865, Louisiana State University Press, p. 30.
  3. Other differences include these: The first ten amendments to the federal Constitution (its "Bill of Rights") were incorporated in the body of the Confederate Constitution, the latter also required a two-thirds (instead of a simple) majority in both Houses for the admission of a new state.
  4. See his letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, and his letter to James Conkling, August 26, 1863.

Contents -- Chapter 7 -- Chapter 9