150 years ago today, South Carolina seceded from the United States of America. Over the next few months, 6 additional southern states joined it prior to the firing on Fort Sumter (4 more states seceded after that). The Civil War was on. Over 600,000 Americans would be dead by April 1865.
Today we hear a lot from modern-day states’ rights people who soft-pedal the causes of the Civil War while they promote their ideas of state sovereignty and proto-nullification against what they see as a too powerful federal government.
South Carolina taught us, starting 150 years ago, that the extreme solution is invalid (and, one would hope, incomprehensible). The United States is supreme, a state can’t seceded. In an interesting take on the subject, Civil War historian Glenn LaFantasie writes:
If by defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Union did not prove conclusively that secession could not be legally sustained, the point was made emphatically clear in the 1869 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (a Republican appointed by Lincoln), the court ruled that under the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the states during the American Revolution, “the Union was solemnly declared to ‘be perpetual.’ And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?
So, thanks, South Carolina, for starting a rich conversation about the merits of secession and state sovereignty. Your outburst 150 years ago really cleared things up.
– Fred Dews, December 2010