My “Rewriting American History” column of a fortnight ago,
about the dismantling of Confederate monuments, generated considerable
mail. Some argued there should not be statues honoring traitors such as
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, who fought against
the Union. Victors of wars get to write the history, and the history
they write often does not reflect the facts. Let’s look at some of the
facts and ask: Did the South have a right to secede from the Union? If
it did, we can’t label Confederate generals as traitors.
Article 1 of the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the war between
the Colonies and Great Britain, held “New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay,
Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina,
South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent
States.” Representatives of these states came together in Philadelphia
in 1787 to write a constitution and form a union.
During the ratification debates, Virginia’s delegates said, “The
powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the people of
the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be
perverted to their injury or oppression.” The ratification documents of
New York and Rhode Island expressed similar sentiments.
At the Constitutional Convention, a proposal was made to allow the
federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the
“Father of the Constitution,” rejected it. The minutes from the debate
paraphrased his opinion: “A union of the states containing such an
ingredient (would) provide for its own destruction. The use of force
against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an
infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party
attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be
America’s first secessionist movement started in New England after
the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Many were infuriated by what they saw as
an unconstitutional act by President Thomas Jefferson. The movement was
led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, George Washington’s
secretary of war and secretary of state. He later became a congressman
and senator. “The principles of our Revolution point to the remedy — a
separation,” Pickering wrote to George Cabot in 1803, for “the people of
the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those
of the South and West.” His Senate colleague James Hillhouse of
Connecticut agreed, saying, “The Eastern states must and will dissolve
the union and form a separate government.” This call for secession was
shared by other prominent Americans, such as John Quincy Adams, Elbridge
Gerry, Fisher Ames, Josiah Quincy III and Joseph Story. The call failed
to garner support at the 1814-15 Hartford Convention.
The U.S. Constitution would have never been ratified — and a union
never created — if the people of those 13 “free sovereign and
Independent States” did not believe that they had the right to secede.
Even on the eve of the War of 1861, unionist politicians saw secession
as a right that states had. Rep. Jacob M. Kunkel of Maryland said, “Any
attempt to preserve the union between the states of this Confederacy by
force would be impractical and destructive of republican liberty.” The
Northern Democratic and Republican parties favored allowing the South to
secede in peace.
Northern newspapers editorialized in favor of the South’s right to
secede. New-York Tribune (Feb. 5, 1860): “If tyranny and despotism
justified the Revolution of 1776, then we do not see why it would not
justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal
Union in 1861.” The Detroit Free Press (Feb. 19, 1861): “An attempt to
subjugate the seceded States, even if successful, could produce nothing
but evil — evil unmitigated in character and appalling in extent.” The
New-York Times (March 21, 1861): “There is a growing sentiment
throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go.”
Confederate generals were fighting for independence from the Union
just as George Washington and other generals fought for independence
from Great Britain. Those who’d label Gen. Robert E. Lee as a traitor
might also label George Washington as a traitor. I’m sure Great
Britain’s King George III would have agreed.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason
University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features
by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators
Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
In the first line of the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776,
Thomas Jefferson speaks of “one people.” The Constitution, agreed upon
by the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia in 1789, begins, “We the
And who were these “people”?
In Federalist No. 2, John Jay writes of them as “one united people …
descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language,
professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of
government, very similar in their manners and customs…”
If such are the elements of nationhood and peoplehood, can we still speak of Americans as one nation and one people?
We no longer have the same ancestors. They are of every color and
from every country. We do not speak one language, but rather English,
Spanish and a host of others. We long ago ceased to profess the same
religion. We are Evangelical Christians, mainstream Protestants,
Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, agnostics and
Federalist No. 2 celebrated our unity. Today’s elites proclaim that
our diversity is our strength. But is this true or a tenet of trendy
After the attempted massacre of Republican Congressmen at that ball
field in Alexandria, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “The political polarization
that is ripping this country apart” is about “identity … gender, race,
ethnicity, sexual orientation (and) social class.” He might have added —
religion, morality, culture and history.
Zakaria seems to be tracing the disintegration of our society to that
very diversity that its elites proclaim to be its greatest attribute:
“If the core issues are about identity, culture and religion … then
compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle
Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni
Among the issues on which we Americans are at war with one another —
abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, white cops, black crime,
Confederate monuments, LGBT rights, affirmative action.
Was the discovery of America and conquest of this continent from 1492
to the 20th century among the most glorious chapters in the history of
man? Or was it a half-millennium marked by mankind’s most scarlet of
sins: the genocide of native peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the
annihilation of indigenous cultures, the spoliation of a virgin land?
Is America really “God’s Country”? Or was Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev.
Jeremiah Wright, justified when, after 9/11, he denounced calls of “God
Bless America!” with the curse “God Damn America!”?
With its silence, the congregation seemed to assent.
In 1954, the Pledge of Allegiance many of us recited daily at the end
of noon recess in the schoolyard was amended to read, “one nation,
under God, indivisible.”
Are we still one nation under God? At the Democratic Convention in
Charlotte to renominate Barack Obama, a motion to put “God” back into
the platform was hooted and booed by half the assembly.
With this July 4 long weekend, many writers have bewailed the animus
Americans exhibit toward one another and urged new efforts to reunite
us. Yet, recall again those first words of Jefferson in 1776:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one
people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them…”
Are we approaching such a point? Could the Constitution, as currently
interpreted, win the approval of two-thirds of our citizens and
three-fourth of our states, if it were not already the supreme law of
the land? How would a national referendum on the Constitution turn out,
when many Americans are already seeking a new constitutional convention?
All of which invites the question: Are we still a nation? And what is
a nation? French writer Ernest Renan gave us the answer in the 19th
“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things … constitute
this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the
present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories;
the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to
continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.
“Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our
ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and
glory … is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These
are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in
the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great
things together and wishing to make them again.”
Does this sound at all like us today?
Watching our Lilliputians tearing down statues and monuments,
renaming buildings and streets, rewriting history books to replace
heroes and historical truths with the doings of ciphers, are we
disassembling the nation we once were?
“One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and
the troubles that one has suffered,” writes Renan, “One loves the house
that one has built and that one passes on.”
Are we passing on the house we inherited — or observing its demolition?
Happy Fourth. And God bless the USA.