Search this blog

I have been enjoying Allen Guelzo’s new book Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The book’s description gives a nice overview of its distinctiveness: “In Fateful Lightning, two-time Lincoln Prize-winning historian Allen C. Guelzo offers a marvelous portrait of the Civil War and its era, covering not only the major figures and epic battles, but also politics, religion, gender, race, diplomacy, and technology. And unlike other surveys of the Civil War era, it extends the reader’s vista to include the postwar Reconstruction period and discusses the modern-day legacy of the Civil War in American literature and popular culture. Guelzo also puts the conflict in a global perspective, underscoring Americans’ acute sense of the vulnerability of their republic in a world of monarchies. He examines the strategy, the tactics, and especially the logistics of the Civil War and brings the most recent historical thinking to bear on emancipation, the presidency and the war powers, the blockade and international law, and the role of intellectuals, North and South.”

On his Thinking in Public podcast, Albert Mohler had a good conversation with Guelzo. You can read the transcript or listen to the audio.

Here was an interesting exchange from their conversation on whether or not the South or the North had better arguments (apart from slavery) regarding the relationship between state rights and federalism.

* * *

Mohler: Who had the better argument in that particular debate? Not in terms of what the preferred outcome might have been in terms of the war and its aftermath, but just in terms of the argument about the essence of the American system of a republican government going back to the early nineteenth century into the early constitutional era. Did the Southerners have the better argument or did the North?

Guelzo: I don’t think the southerners did. I think that the American union as a federation of states was intended to be equipoise between entirely sovereign entities and an entirely centralized homogenous government. The idea being that the states were one more example of a system of checks and balances that were worked into the constitution. A check and a balance is supposed to be existing in relationship with another entity, which in this case was to be the federal government. It was not supposed to be something that led to the very destruction and break-up of the government, and I think that is illustrated in a number of ways in the constitution itself.

One is that the constitution contains no reversion clause. There is no description within the constitution about what to do in case of disaster, catastrophe, or flood or something else. There is no little glass to break marked, “Secession: This is how you terminate the constitution.” It is just not there.

The other thing that is in the very warp and woof of the constitution is the way that the powers of the states are described with relationship to the federal government in Article 1, Section 10, in which the states, the constitution makes very clear, do not have the power to coin money, the power to keep permanent standing armies and navies, to conduct diplomatic relations. By the time you get down to the end of that list, we are not talking about the kind of sovereignty residing in the states, that is the same kind of sovereignty that an independent country has where a member of an existing state has, coming into a federation with others. It was a very different kind of federation than let’s say, the European Union today.

Now, beyond that, there are at least two other considerations that mitigate against the southerner’s argument.

One is the fact that the federal government itself, while it was composed in 1787 of representatives of various states, most of the states that were in existence at the time of the Civil War, had in fact been creations of the federal government. In other words, they were the states carved out of western territories that had been acquired by the United States. Those states didn’t have a prior independent existence, so to claim that they had in fact a level of sovereignty that permitted them to become independent was really begging most of the question that was involved in the secession.

Then the other thing was the practical sense that, suppose the southerners did secede. Where would they go exactly? There would still be southerners looking across the Ohio River at northerners or across the Potomac River, and what would be the result of that? Well, they would beggar each other through trade wars, and up and down the Mississippi, there would be trade wars even more violent. If that was the case, then why? Why secede at all? Because you would only be making yourself poorer in the process. There was no practical way that southerners could simply take their bat and ball and go someplace else.

View Comments


38 thoughts on “Why the South Was Wrong on State Rights and the Role of the Federal Government”

  1. Bobby says:

    If I may, I would also recommend Kenneth Stampp “The Perpetual Union”,”The Real Lincoln” by Thomas DiLorenzo and “The South Was Right” by the Kennedy brothers. All of these deal with the arguments by Guelzo and give a strong, positive case for States Rights’.

    1. Richard says:

      Also recommend “Vindicating Lincoln,” a book by Thomas Krannawitter, who teaches at Hillsdale College, for historical arguments on the opposite side and which support Guelzo’s views.

      1. Bobby says:

        I will have to check it out. Thanks for the rec.

  2. Lewis says:

    The same logic of the last 2 paragraphs can be applied to the American colonies and Britain. Paragraph #1 logic: Britain created the colonies, therefore they cannot succeed. Paragraph #2 logic: Where are the American colonists going to go with Canada above them and Britain to the east of them, it will create a trade war, and Americans will be poorer.

    Mr. Guelzo’s logic basically nullifies any form of succession from a centralized power whether that power is Great Britian or America or the Soviet Union. I for one think local government is a good thing and the ability to succeed is a valuable tools when dealing with a centralized government power. I’m happy that the US and India are no long British colonies and the Ukraine and Belarus are no longer Soviet territories all thanks to succession.

    1. J. Srnec says:

      The word you’re looking for is “secede”, and I’m pretty sure it was illegal when the Yanks did it.

      I’m not sure about Guelzo’s last argument, but I’m pretty sure his point is one that is sometimes made in Canada with respect to Québec secession: the seceding state cannot dictate terms to the state from which it secedes. The USA would not have been obligated to trade with or treaty with the CSA.

  3. This has always been a fascinating debate. Thanks Justin for pointing out this book, I’ll have to check it out.

    Thanks Bobby for that list of counter-argument books.

  4. Josh Crews says:

    On the state’s rights question, the South has the better argument

    1) the Constitution does not forbid secession

    2) The right of any people to form determine their own government is a natural right. If an American protests this point, he is obliged to disregard and ignore the Federal government as a false government and work to re-establish the rightful government of Britain or France or Spain or Indian nations.

    3) the ‘idea of states’ is not a check and balance built into the Constitution. The States formed the Constitution as an agreement amongst themselves. The Constitution is agreement among states that includes some agreed limits to a State’s natural right (coin money) for the common benefit of all states.

    4) If some states secede, they can go whereever they want. A historian not seeing an good place for them to go has no bearing on whether a state can secede the Union, or whether secession is constitutional

    5) Saying that a state can’t secede the United States, and that if it does it’s property will be seized and citizens murdered, is like saying a lawyer who leaves a law parternship should have his house burned down

    1. The Jones says:

      See my response to Mr. Kent Will below.

  5. Timothy says:

    “Now, beyond that, there are at least two other considerations that mitigate against the southerner’s argument.”
    Does he mean ‘militate’?

    As a Brit it might seem that I have no stake in this debate but I read recently in a seminar observation that the nation of Israel post Moses until Saul (and maybe afterwards too which is what made the secession of the Northern Kingdom so easy) was a confederation of tribes. Since this seems to have been the model of nationhood bequeathed by God to Israel, is there far more to be said in favour of confederacy than we usually hear? In European debates, federalism seems to be seen as the ideal and confederacy as much inferior.

    In the debate about the American Civil War, could one argue that confederacy is better than federalism as a system of government but that the confederates tied this system to an evil practice, that of slavery?

    1. Bobby says:


      You make some good points. I would have to say that the southern view of states’ rights was not tied to slavery initially or wholly. Especially since historically slavery was not really the issue until a year into the War and not the reason the Civil War was started. Also we have to remember that slavery was an American problem not just a southern problem.

      I think that there is a lot we can learn from the ante-bellum south in regards to states’ rights, agrarian principles, the place of the fed etc. Sadly though the most of us can’t get past the slavery issue in order to look at things clearly and fairly.

      1. Richard says:

        Bobby, really, slavery was NOT the reason the Civil War started? What do you have to say to the Vice-President of the CSA, Alexander Stephens:

        The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution of African slavery as it exists amongst us, and the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him . . . were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

        Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its corner- stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . . Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system . . . . I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we must triumph.

        1. Bobby says:

          Richard – I should have spoken clearer. I agree that slavery started or was the immediate occasion for the secession crisis and so on, which ultimately led to the War itself, for both the North and the South. I was speaking more in terms of the moral dogma attached to it, the modern rendition of the slavery issue. As if the War was instigated because the North was trying to solely eradicate the moral evil of slavery and the South was resisting. The morality agenda doesn’t seem to really start having sway until about a year into the War. So I was speaking in terms of how most people understand the cause of the War today. Also I would recommend looking into Stephen’s later comments on that speech. He believed it was hurried and inaccurately represented. Interesting at the very least and worth considering.

  6. Kent Will says:

    I’m afraid Guelzo’s arguments are not very impressive. They skate on the surface of the debate and assume most of what actually needs to be proven. Just as in theology, it is easy impress a layman by using some technical terms. But to really get to the meat of the issue, it is necessary to read all the relevant documents from all the participants, with an eye to original intent and the constitutional history that led up to 1789. I realize that Guelzo could not go into all of this during a short radio interview, but that fact should also make us cautious about forming opinions based on the limited scope of a radio interview.

    That being said, there are multiple pieces of evidence that seem to directly contradict some of Guelzo’s assertions above.

    First, the Tenth Amendment, which declares that all authority that was not delegated to the federal government is retained by the states or the people. In other words, it is pretty clear that any power that the federal government has (such as Guelzo’s examples of coinage or treaty-making) is not original to it, but derived from the entities that created it. Logically the federal government must be the creature of the states, not their creator.

    Second, we need to look at the ratifying documents by the thirteen original states. Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island stated quite clearly that they retain all power not delegated, and could rescind their agreement if it became necessary. Multiple other states included similar statements. Those are difficult statements to get around.

    Third, we could look at the numerous secession movements in New England states during the very early days of the constitution. The doctrine of states rights and secession is by no means a uniquely Southern idea, and has no essential connection to slavery.

    Lastly, the constitution states that all new states that join the union are equal to the original thirteen. Whatever of the role of the federal government in their creation (and it is frequently overstated), once they have been admitted they share every particle of sovereignty that the original thirteen possess. Guelzo can’t responsibly point to the case of these new states as evidence for their subordination to the federal government.

    1. Richard says:

      Maybe we should take the time to read Guelzo’s book instead of relying on a short radio clip to attack his work. Guelzo is a respected historian–I find it hard to believe he does not deal with the historical documents.

      1. Kent Will says:

        I agree, Richard, but just want to note that I wasn’t attacking Guelzo’s work, but rather suggesting that his effort on the radio fell short of a real case against states rights, and that we shouldn’t use his interview as a basis for forming an opinion on the issue.

    2. The Jones says:

      Mr. Kent Will,

      If I may, I’d like to dissuade you from the opinion you’ve shared above.

      First, the States did not create the federal government. “The people” created the Federal Government, not the States. Hence the “We the People” beginning of the preamble of the Constitution; hence the “constitutional conventions” deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution and the absence of legislative up or down votes in either the states or the Congress. It was not the General Congress under the Articles of Confederation that adopted the Constitution. It only gave permission for representatives of the people (not the States) to set up a mechanism to POSSIBLY adopt the Constitution. The mechanism they set up surrendered the power back to the people.

      Second, the individual charters and constitutions of the states and Commonwealths actually are pretty easy to get around when you look at the history. When deciding whether or not to adopt the Constitution (in other words, become a whole new country, and not a confederation of individual states), the states unanimously agreed to the process of the state ratifying conventions (the mechanics of which were to be determined by each state) and the 9 out of 13 rule laid out in the Constitution itself. By agreeing to that process, they gave up the individual sovereignty they lightly claimed under the Articles of Confederation before.

      Third, you’re right that secession is not a uniquely Southern idea. But the South definitely carried it out with more gusto. And just because somebody else has an idea, that doesn’t make the idea good. Two people can be stupid just as easily as one person can be. “The North thought about secession, too, because they were mad about the War of 1812. Therefore, it’s acceptable,” is not a very good argument.

      Finally, you’re right that the new states held just as much sovereignty as the first ones. However, as I’ve already stated (no pun intended), the first ones were still subject to a federal government by the will of the people. They had given up their authority based on the ultimate source of political power in American thought: the People. The Constitution did not allow them to break off if they wanted to do so. Breaking off would involve breaking the Constitution, pure and simple.

      Now, breaking off in defiance of an earthly government is justifiable in certain circumstances (look at our own Declaration of Independence). In those cases, it is sufficient to appeal to ideas of Natural Law and God-given rights. Those principles are even higher than civil constitutions and governments. They come from God. When breaking off from Great Britain, our founders did not say “Well, our charters say we can, so we’re going to break off.” They appealed to God and universal principles of morality and Natural Law.

      However, if you read the individual declarations of secession for each of the Confederate states, you can see that the justification they put forth was slavery. They sort of parrot the Declaration of Independence, but when you see the subject matter, it reads like a sick parody, not a stunning case for the justification of Southern Secession.

      In conclusion, the South had neither a Constitutional or a morally justifiable reason for breaking the Union.

      A nice place to read relevant Southern Secession documents is here:

  7. reformedsteve says:

    If the North had the better argument, why did the Union make their war about slavery? Because they knew that apart from the slavery issue, the War of Northern Aggression (I betray my side) was a political war. It was fundamentally no different than that of Vietnam.

    Jefferson Davis reminds us in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” that the North had no problem with the expansion of slavery when it came to the Louisiana Purchase, but that it only became an issue out of political necessity with the purchase of the Northwest Territory.

    Did the Union have the better argument? Who is to really say. But we know this, that by their above mentioned actions they certainly did not think so.

    1. J. Srnec says:

      Once the South had seceded, the time for arguments had passed. The recourse to violence had nothing to do with who had the better argument.

    2. Bobby says:

      Steve – Some valid points. However the better argument is irrelevant when the first shot is fired. Although I fall on the side of the South, I think it is worth looking at Guelzo’s book to consider his take as well.

  8. Dean P says:

    A lot of these comments help to reinforce my shame for being a Southerner.

  9. Stephen says:

    reformedsteve, your point is really good. Obviously the federals felt they needed to justify the war by grounding it in slavery which is not what the war was over. Granted slavery was a social evil that was legalized in the south. However 1.) given the fact that secession was not unconstitutional 2.) the states that succeeded did so through democratic processes it seems that the Lincoln and the federalist went beyond their respective authority. This explains why Lincoln had to invent an income tax as well as suspend habeas corpus despite the fact that the supreme court had deemed that Lincoln had acted unconstitutional. Lincoln did not respect the balance of power within the federal government just as he did not with states authority. The Federal government due to his presidency has only grown bigger and more hungry for power.

    1. Richard says:

      There was NO President who would ever have countenanced secession, so blaming all this on Lincoln and the North is kind of silly. When the southerner Andrew Jackson was faced with secession years earlier as President, he threatened to personally lead an army (to South Carolina, again!)and to hang all involved. Demonizing Lincoln and the North is kind of a cheap version of history.

      1. Bobby says:

        Richard – Nobody is demonizing Lincoln or the North that is just a straw man. Their own statements, newspapers and politics bears them out. I almost hesitate to interact with you because you seem to be angry.

        Anyhow, you stated no president would ever allow secession. What do you make of this letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestly in 1804:

        “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this; and did I now foresee a separation at some future day, yet I should feel the duty and; the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power.”

        1. Richard says:

          Bobby, no, I’m not angry. If you don’t believe that others (not you) demonize Lincoln, then you haven’t read some of the books mentioned above, see “The Real Lincoln” (sic), by DiLorenzo. Jefferson also said some silly things–such as a revolution every couple years is good for a country. He acted differently when he was President. The fact is that the idea of secession such as that propounded by Calhoun was rejected by all Presidents–southerners and northerners alike.

          1. Bobby says:

            Richard – I have read DiLorenzo’s book and the problem I had was arguing with the facts. Whether I preferred his style or not is irrelevant but checking out his sources I could not argue with a lot of what he said and cited. Lincoln said quite a few silly and contradictory things himself. Even Stephen’s I believe said contradictory things. President Buchanan believed it was wrong to stop the South from seceding yet stated it was unconstitutional.

            Regardless, Jefferson’s point remains the same. I wouldn’t expect any president before Calhoun, including Jefferson, to ascribe to his more developed view of States’ Rights. That is like saying President Harrison would have never accepted FDR’s New Deal.

            I think we have to look at Constitutional history, the Articles of Confederation and so on. I believe it is explicit the right for States to secede. History makes that plain in that it was not a uniquely southern phenomenon.

            1. Richard says:

              And history also make it plain that the South used it as a justification to perpetuate the immoral institution of slavery. We need to get over it. And we also need to realize how this sounds to our fellow African American Christians.

              1. Bobby says:

                Richard – More question begging. Anyhow, I can at least agree with you that we need to be sensitive to our African American brothers and sisters. Now use that same logic when you deal with people from the South who don’t agree with you and are Christians.

  10. The Jones says:

    I’m no fan of slavery, but [Insert convoluted diatribe about Abraham Lincoln being the antithesis of American ideals]. So, you know… …just sayin’.

    1. Bobby says:

      What’s your point?

      1. The Jones says:

        That convoluted diatribes against Abraham Lincoln representing him as the antithesis of American ideals should be ridiculed and dismissed.

        1. Bobby says:

          You can assert that all day long but that is not an argument. You are just being a bully. That type of argumentation should be ridiculed and dismissed.

          1. The Jones says:

            Well, sorry. I know it was an assertion and not an argument. An actual argument of mine is above in response to Mr. Kent Will.

          2. Richard says:

            “The Jones” is no more a bully than DiLorenzo is in his arguments demonizing Lincoln, Bobby. Read “Vindicating Lincoln,” by Thomas Krannawitter.

            1. Bobby says:

              Richard – I intend to read the book you recommend. I would also ask you to read the books that I recommended. Which show how the North has demonized the South for years.

              1. Richard says:

                Will do, Bobby. Really, I think the demonization has come from some in both camps. And it continues.

    2. reformedsteve says:

      We love Lincoln! He was the best vampire hunter in the business.

  11. Stephen says:

    It seems to me that if today any state decided through democratic processes to suceed they should have the right to. Its seems petty and foolish to wage a war over it. The democratic vote in acordance with the constitutional rights should never be silenced by bullets and swords. Granted slavery complicated things in the early 1860’s but that wasn’t Lincolns argument. You can be happy that the federalist won and still recognize they didnt have the better argument. Also you can be happy that the federalist won and still recognize that Lincoln wasnt the greatest president. You can recognize the benefits of the wars’ outcome and still recognize that the war was a huge loss of life that didn’t need to to take place and shouldn’t have taken place.

    1. Richard says:

      The South fired the first shot, not the North. It was petty and foolish for some of the Southern states to vote for secession based on the election of 1860. The war was a huge loss of life–but it resulted in the destruction of the institution of slavery. Time to move on, but let’s not re-write our history.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books