The Civil War’s Tragic Legacy

The Civil War’s Tragic Legacy


The Civil War’s Tragic Legacy

The Civil War produced at least two important outcomes. First, although it was not President Lincoln’s intent, it freed slaves in the Confederate States. Second, it settled, through the force of arms, the question of whether states could secede from the Union. The causes of and the issues surrounding America’s most costly war, in terms of battlefield casualties, are still controversial. Even its name the – Civil War – is in dispute, and plausibly so.

A civil war is a struggle between two or more factions seeking to control the central government. Modern examples of civil wars are the conflicts we see in Lebanon, Liberia and Angola. In 1861, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, no more wanted to take over Washington, D.C. than George Washington wanted to take over London in 1776. George Washington and the Continental Congress were fighting for independence from Great Britain. Similarly, the Confederate States were fighting for independence from the Union. Whether one’s sentiments lie with the Confederacy or with the Union, a more accurate characterization of the war is that it was a war for southern independence; a frequently heard southern reference is that it was the War of Northern Aggression.

History books most often say the war was fought to free the slaves. But that idea is brought into serious question considering what Abraham Lincoln had to say in his typical speeches: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Slavery makes for great moral cause celebre for the War Between the States but the real causes had more to do with problems similar to those the nation faces today – a federal government that has escaped the limits the Framers of the Constitution envisioned.

South Carolina Senator John C Calhoun expressed that concern in his famous Fort Hill Address July 26, 1831, at a time when he was Andrew Jackson’s vice-president. Calhoun said, “Stripped of all its covering, the naked question is, whether ours is a federal or consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting solidly on the basis of the sovereignty of the States, or on the unrestrained will of a majority; a form of government, as in all other unlimited ones, in which injustice, violence, and force must ultimately prevail.”

Calhoun’s fear, as well as that of Thomas Jefferson, was Washington’s usurpation of powers constitutionally held by the people and the states, typically referred to as consolidation in their day. A significant bone of contention were tariffs enacted to protect northern manufacturing interests. Referring to those tariffs, Calhoun said, “The North has adopted a system of revenue and disbursements, in which an undue proportion of the burden of taxation has been imposed on the South, and an undue proportion of its proceeds appropriated to the North.” The fact of the matter was that the South exported a large percentage of its output, mainly agricultural products; therefore, import duties on foreign products extracted far more from the South than the North. Southerners complained of having to pay either high prices for northern-made goods or high tariffs on foreign-made goods. They complained about federal laws not that dissimilar to Navigation Acts that angered the Founders and contributed to the 1776 war for independence. Speaking before the Georgia legislature, in November 1860, Senator Robert Toombs said, “. . . They [Northern interests] demanded a monopoly of the business of shipbuilding, and got a prohibition against the sale of foreign ships to the citizens of the United States. . . . They demanded a monopoly of the coasting trade, in order to get higher freight prices than they could get in open competition with the carriers of the world. . . . And now, today, if a foreign vessel in Savannah offer [sic] to take your rice, cotton, grain or lumber to New York, or any other American port, for nothing, your laws prohibit it, in order that Northern ship-owners may get enhanced prices for doing your carrying.”

A precursor for the War Between the States came in 1832. South Carolina called a convention to nullify new tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 they referred to as “the tariffs of abomination.” The duties were multiples of previous duties and the convention declared them unconstitutional and authorized the governor to resist federal government efforts to enforce and collect them. After reaching the brink of armed conflict with Washington, a settlement calling for a stepped reduction in tariffs was reached – called the Great Compromise of 1833.

South Carolinians believed there was precedence for the nullification of unconstitutional federal laws. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison suggested the doctrine in 1798. The nullification doctrine was used to nullify federal laws in Georgia, Alabama, Pennsylvania and New England States. The reasoning was that the federal government was created by, and hence the agent of, the states.

When Congress enacted the Morrill Act (1861), raising tariffs to unprecedented levels, the South Carolina convention unanimously adopted and Ordinance of Secession declaring “We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused for years past to fulfill their constitutional obligations. . . . Thus the constitutional compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the nonslaveholding States; and the consequence follows is that South Carolina is released from her obligation. . . .” Continuing, the Ordinance declared, “We, therefore the people of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America is dissolved and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State, with the full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce and to do other things which independent States may of right do.” Next year war started when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter, an island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

The principle-agent relationship between the states and federal government was not an idea invented by South Carolina in 1861; it was a relation taken for granted. At Virginia’s convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution, the delegates said, “We delegates of the people of Virginia, . . . do in the name and on the 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 resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them, and at their will. That therefore no right, of any denomination, can be canceled, abridged, restrained or modified by the Congress, by the Senate, or House of Representatives, acting in any capacity, by the President, or any department or officer of the United States, except in those instances where power is given by the Constitution for those purposes.” The clear and key message was: the powers granted the federal government, by the people of Virginia, “may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression” and every power not granted to the federal government by the Constitution resides with the people of Virginia. The people of Virginia, through their delegates, set up a contractual agreement, along with the several sovereign states (emerging out of the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the war with Great Britain), created the federal government as their agent. They enumerated the powers their agent shall have. When the federal government violates their grant of power, then the people of Virginia have the right to take back the power they granted the federal government, in other words, fire their agent.

The War Between the States, having settled the issue of secession, means the federal government can do anything it wishes and the states have little or no recourse. A derelict U.S. Supreme Court refuses to do its duty of interpreting both the letter and spirit of the Constitution. That has translated into the 70,000 federal regulations and mandates that controls the lives of our citizens. It also translates into interpretation of the “commerce” and “welfare” clauses of our Constitution in ways the Framers could not have possibly envisioned. Today, it is difficult to think of one elected official with the statesman foresight of a Jefferson, Madison or Calhoun who can articulate the dangers to liberty presented by a run amuck federal government. Because of that, prospects for liberty appear dim. The supreme tragedy is that if liberty dies in America it is destined to die everywhere.