The Northern States' Rights Tradition

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"States Rights, which prior to 1860 had been as important a part of northern beliefs as southern, were overturned."

~ Dean Sprague, Freedom Under Lincoln, p. 300

There they go again. Yet another "Straussian" neocon associated with the Claremont Institute is spreading lies and misinformation about American history. This time it is one MacKubin Thomas Owens, a paid propagandist for the U.S. military establishment ("on leave from the U.S. Naval War College") writing about the great new movie, "Gods and Generals," on National Review online. Owens repeats many of the fanciful tall tales that are Claremont’s specialty, but the most egregious is his description of the role of states’ rights in precipitating the War for Southern Independence.

To Owens, immature Southerners began attempts at "blackmailing" the "majority" (i.e., enlightened Northerners) by threatening to nullify federal tariff legislation or even to secede if they didn’t get their way. This attempted "blackmail" supposedly went on in periodic bouts until, finally, the more mature, civilized, and patriotic Northerners had had enough and put an end to these "blackmailers" who wanted to bust up the Union. Following the moral lead of a corporate trial lawyer from Illinois, the enlightened Yankees killed one out of every four adult white Southern males between the ages of 20 and 40, burned their towns, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in private property, stole tens of millions of dollars worth, and killed tens of thousands of civilians as well.

Once again, a Claremontista authors a bizarre fantasy that is totally at odds with historical reality. The truth is that the Northern states were every bit as active in threatening secession and nullification as the citizens of the Southern states were in the half century preceding the war. Americans from all regions understood that the system of states’ rights and federalism that was established by the founding fathers (and destroyed by Lincoln’s war) was an indispensable defense against federal tyranny.

In response to British hijacking of American ships, President Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo on all shipping on December 22, 1807. The New England states, whose economy depended heavily on shipping, first ignored the embargo with massive smuggling and then formally nullified the federal embargo law, the very kind of act that Owens describes as "blackmail." On February 5, 1809, both houses of the Massachusetts legislature nullified the embargo act by denouncing it as "unjust, oppressive, unconstitutional. While this State maintains its sovereignty and independence, all the citizens can find protection against outrage and injustice in the strong arm of State government" (James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States, p. 130). The embargo, said the Massachusetts legislature, "was not legally binding on the citizens of this state." This was an application of the Jeffersonian states’ rights doctrine, as enunciated in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves of 1798, authored by Jefferson, James Madison, and Virginia Senator John Taylor.

Connecticut also denounced the federal embargo law as being "incompatible with the Constitution of the United States, and encroaching upon the immunities of this State." Its legislature directed all state government officials to deny "any official aid or co-operation in the execution of the act aforesaid." Rhode Island’s legislature announced that it was its duty to "interpose for the purpose of protecting [its citizens] from the ruinous inflictions of usurped and unconstitutional power." All of New England, plus Delaware, formally nullified the federal embargo law by denouncing it as an unconstitutional usurpation of power.

When the War of 1812 broke out, New Englanders saw it as a dispute between Jefferson’s Republican Party and England that did not involve the entire country. The region refused to send militia troops when they were requested by President James Madison. The Connecticut state assembly issued the following statement that is a perfect description of the states’ rights philosophy that would later be eloquently espoused by John C. Calhoun:

But it must not be forgotten, that the State of Connecticut is a FREE SOVEREIGN and INDEPENDENT State; that the United States are a confederacy of States; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated Republic. The Governor of this State is under a high and solemn obligation, “to maintain the lawful rights and privileges thereof, as a sovereign, free and independent State,” as he is “to support the Constitution of the United States,” and the obligation to support the latter imposes an additional obligation to support the former. The building cannot stand, if the pillars upon which it rests, are impaired or destroyed.

(This statement highlights yet another lie that is espoused by Owen and his fellow Claremontistas: They smear the name of John C. Calhoun by claiming that he supposedly "invented" the notion that the Union was a voluntary association of states only to defend slavery. In light of statements such as this one by the Connecticut legislature, it is clear that this doctrine was in fact widely held by Americans from all regions. The smearing of Calhoun is simply part of the blizzard of misinformation that is produced by the Claremont propaganda mill).

The "building" referred to in the Connecticut legislature’s statement is of course the Constitution, and the "pillars" are the rights of the free, sovereign, and independent states. Rhode Island and Vermont issued almost identical statements and, like Connecticut, refused to participate in the war (Kilpatrick, pp. 133—34).

The embargo, the war, and the Louisiana Purchase incited the New England Federalist Party to begin planning to secede from the Union. Governor Griswold of Connecticut announced the reason why: "The balance of power under the present government is decidedly in favor of the Southern states . . . The extent and increasing population of those states must forever secure to them the preponderance which they now possess . . . . [New Englanders] are paying the principal part of the expenses of government" without receiving commensurate benefits. Thus, "there can be no safety to the Northern States without a separation from the confederacy" (Henry Adams, Documents Relating to New England Federalism, 1800—1815, p. 376). John C. Calhoun would make this exact same argument some two decades later in complaining about the federal "Tariff of Abominations."

The New England secession movement was led by U.S. Senator Timothy Pickering, who was the adjutant general of the Revolutionary Army and served as President George Washington’s secretary of war and secretary of state, the latter position being held under the administration of President John Adams as well. Pickering announced that secession was "the" principle of the American Revolution. "I will rather anticipate a new confederacy," he declared, "exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence of the aristocratic Democrats of the South" (Adams, p. 338).

The New England secessionists held a secession convention in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 where they decided against secession after all. All during this ten-year period, however, no one questioned the right of any free and independent state to secede, only its economic or political wisdom.

Northern states were also instrumental in assisting President Andrew Jackson in his defeat of the Bank of the United States (BUS). The bank, which had been championed by Alexander Hamilton and, later, by Abraham Lincoln and the Whig and Republican Parties, was notoriously corrupt and politicized. Consequently, a number of states attempted to tax it out of existence within their borders. The Ohio legislature, for example, enacted a $50,000 per year tax on each of the two branches of the BUS that had opened up in that state. The bank refused to pay, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall backed it up. But like all other states, Ohio did not consider Marshall’s opinion as being anything more than his opinion, and not necessarily any more authoritative than their own. Citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, the Ohio legislature declared that "the States have an equal right to interpret [the] Constitution for themselves" (Kilpatrick, p. 152). Ohio withdrew "the protection and aid of the laws of the state" from the bank. Kentucky, Tennessee, Connecticut, South Carolina, New York, and New Hampshire adopted similar policies designed to harass the bank. Ultimately, these nullification efforts proved instrumental in President Jackson’s ability to refuse to recharter the BUS.

A number of Northern states also thumbed their collective noses at the federal government by passing "personal liberty laws" that nullified the two Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. These federal laws compelled the Northern states to devote time, money and resources to capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their owners. Slavery was constitutional, but these Northern states understood that it was their right to nullify the federal enforcement of it.

On the eve of the war it was widely believed that states did indeed have a constitutional right of secession. This wasn’t even debated by the New England federalists. As William C. Wright documents in his book, The Secession Movement in the Middle Atlantic States, in the late 1850s there were vigorous secession movements in the "middle states" — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. At the time, these states accounted for about 40 percent of GDP. The secessionists who resided there favored either joining a Southern Confederacy, allowing the Southern Confederacy to go in peace, or creating a Central Confederacy. In any event, they no longer wanted to be associated with the puritanical Yankees of New England. The Mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, even proposed making the city a "free city" that would secede from both the Union and the state of New York. These were not "blackmailers" but Americans who (unlike Owens and all of his fellow Claremontistas) understood the American tradition of federalism and states’ rights.

As I document in The Real Lincoln, there were dozens of Northern newspapers which, on the eve of the war, favored peaceful secession. Violent opposition to secession, they argued, would destroy the cherished Jeffersonian dictum, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The New York Tribune wrote on February 5, 1861, that "Nine out of ten people of the North" were opposed to forcing South Carolina to remain in the Union. "The great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration" is "that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed." Therefore, if the Southern states want to secede, "they have a clear right to do so." The New York Times concurred on March 21, 1861 by writing, "There is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go" (emphasis in original). The Hartford Daily Courant wrote on April 12, 1861, that "Public opinion in the North seems to be gradually settling down in favor of recognition of the New Confederacy by the Federal Government."

This is the truth about the Northern states’ rights tradition in America and, as usual, it is totally at odds with the misinformation and mysticism of Thomas MacCaubin Owens and his fellow neocon court historians.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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