The Argument Used to Justify Secession as a Remedy
The Civil War pitted the armed forces of twenty-three Northern states against the military forces of eleven Southern states. The underlying issue was whether or not a state or a group of states could leave the Union. After four years of war and the death of over seven-hundred thousand soldiers, the Northern states won the war and the argument.
In 1860-61, Southern leaders argued that the United States Constitution was a compact between sovereign states, where-in those states gave some of their authority to a central authority for the mutual benefit of the said states. And, that a breach of the contract could trigger secession.
Was this a new argument to justify secession? Let’s see.
In February of 1787, the Congress called for delegates from the thirteen states of the Confederacy to meet and consider revising the Articles of Confederation. Their charge was to consider ways to render,
“…the Constitution of the federal adequate to the exigencies of the Union…”
Subsequently, the state legislatures of twelve states sent delegates to meet in Philadelphia for that purpose. Forty-five delegates met for the first time on May 25, 1786. After much debate, thirty-eight of these delegates signed a document and sent it to the congress of the Confederation on September 17, 1786. This body sent it to the states for ratification.
Therafter, in each state, delegates to state conventions were elected. their charge was to review and possibly ratify the the proposal. As a result five state conventions quickly ratified the document. The process did not go quite as rapidly through the nation’s two largest state conventions, New York and Virginia.
The document (Constitution) was finally ratified by the Virginia delegates in June of 1788. but not without a proviso which stated:
“We, the delegates of the people of Virginia … 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 re assumed by them, whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury of oppression.”
Still, the vote in the Virginia Constitutional convention was close, 89 to 79 in favor of ratification.
In the New York convention, a similar and fierce debate developed. By a vote of 30 to 27 the Constitution was ratified, But only with a proviso of their own.
“We, the delegates of the people of New York … Do declare and make known … That the power of government may be re assumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness. “
The ratification convention of Rhode Island adopted similar language when it ratified the Constitution.
Thus, it was, that the framers and the state convention ratifiers, understood the newly adopted Constitution to be a compact. and, like all compacts was subject to the remedy of recession or annulment upon a breach. Just what constituted a breach to justify secession was not determine at that time.
We will discuss this issue further along with Lincoln’s response to secession, in the next blog.
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