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‘Rule or Ruin’: What the Confederacy Teaches Us About the Arrogance of Secession

While Catalonia is not defending slavery, just like the South it wants to defend its economic and political dominance and will use the language of the oppressed to do so.

PARIS–In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, white southerners went wild with fear and hatred—but also, in some circles, a sense of opportunity. A relatively small but very militant group had pushed the notion of slave-state secession for decades. They interpreted history, religion, and philosophy to equate ownership of black slaves with the white man’s freedom; they played on paranoia about “servile insurrections,” and they attacked anyone who dissented. Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” were depicted as evil incarnate, their election the shock that brought the secessionist monster, at last, fully to life.

As I watch today the drama surrounding the Catalans’ bid for independence from Spain, I keep thinking of the very reasonable and very lonely voice of prominent Charleston lawyer James Petigru when secession fever consumed his state in the wake of Lincoln’s election 157 years ago this week.

“South Carolina,” said Petigru, “is too small for a republic, and too large for an insane asylum.”

One could say the same of Catalonia.

Of course analogies can go only so far, and Catalonia is not defending slavery (even if the original fortunes of some big Catalan families were built on the backs of slaves in Cuba in the 19th century).

But there is a popular notion that secession is a response to oppression, which, when we look at the South back then and several separatist movements in Europe today, is deeply misleading.

Radical Southerners, as I wrote in Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, wanted to secede because the South was used to being the richest and, politically, the most powerful part of the United States. When that economic and political dominance was threatened in the middle of the 19th century, the radicals argued the South should get out of the Union altogether.

So, too, with today’s secessionist movements in Europe—and not only Catalonia. The Flemish nationalists of Belgium and the Northern League of Italy want to ditch the poorer parts of their countries just as the hard-liners in Catalonia wanted to jettison Spain.

Lincoln accused the South of wanting to “rule or ruin,” and that remains, in many contexts, a useful and frightening phrase to remember.

***

For Americans following the news here in Europe, I think, there is quite a lot to be learned from our own example, but it takes a much better understanding of what happened in 1860 than most of us, or for that matter White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seem to have.

“The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” Kelly told Laura Ingraham on Fox News in a now infamous interview.

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Sanders, defending Kelly, said “many people … believe that if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises on different things, then it may not have occurred.”

Actually no. As others have pointed out, there were plenty of compromises, but the core reason for the Civil War came down to this, an explanation that can be expressed in fewer than 140 characters so that even an attention-challenged tweeter like President Donald Trump might understand it:

The South seceded to defend slavery. The North went to war to stop secession.

***

Southerners called their radicals of the 1850s “the fire eaters,” and they preached that only secession and independence could protect their cherished Southern way of life, which depended absolutely on slave labor. They did not represent a majority in any of the southern states, possibly not even in South Carolina. But they did represent elite plantation owners who wanted to protect their agrarian economy and investments, and who wanted to make sure nobody could challenge their power or privilege.

In order to do that, using racism and fear as their primary tools, they mobilized popular opinion among the non-slave-owning whites who made up the vast majority of the Caucasian population and later would die by the hundreds of thousands defending the secessionists’ cause.

Contrary to what Kelly or spokeswoman Sanders may believe when they suggest that “compromise” could have averted the Civil War, there had been in fact compromise after compromise with the slavocracy of the South, dating back to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789–which at Southern insistence also ratified the institution of slavery.

The Constitution allowed the slave-owning states to count Negroes as 60 percent human for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, while giving those same slaves 0 percent protection under the law. They were afforded no civil rights, no human rights, nor, indeed, common humanity. So if the census showed a State had 100,000 white residents and 100,000 slaves, it counted as equal in Congress to a state with a population of 160,000 people, even though none of the slaves could vote. The multiplier effect made every white Southerner much more powerful in the American constitutional system than any free-state Yankee.

Indeed, what we would call today a “strict constructionist” view of the founding document of American democracy upheld the “rights” of slave owners again and again, including their right to have their human property returned to them from free states in the North where slavery had been abolished.

And while abolitionists raged, giving the fire eaters plenty of rhetorical fuel for their incendiary secessionist arguments, in fact the Northern firebrands had relatively little political clout.

When Abraham Lincoln came into office, he was even willing to endorse a Constitutional amendment that would have banned forever the abolition of slavery in states where it existed. “Holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable,” he said in his first inaugural address, the same one in which he appealed to “the better angels of our nature” in a vain hope compromises could be found that would preserve the Union. But by then, six other states had joined South Carolina in the new slaveholding Confederacy.

***

None of the compromises offered by Lincoln were going to be enough for the secessionists, because what threatened the Southern elites to the core was fear that new free states entering the Union would dilute their power to control the Federal government. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was meant to preserve a “balance” between North and South by allowing Missouri into the Union as a slave state when Maine joined as a free state. But, again, that was not good enough.

The westward expansion of U.S. territory all the way to California in the vast lands taken from Mexico in 1848 created a new crisis as Southern slaveholders again thought they would lose their grip on Congress. That was the fight that led to the compromise of 1850.

But the Southern elites still saw their domination threatened. The increasingly rich and industrialized North, fueled by massive immigration from Europe, was just growing too fast.

To further their goals, the fire eaters divided and all but destroyed the Democratic Party, which had been largely a pro-Southern party and always was looking to find compromises. As Douglas Egerton pointed out in his excellent history of that time, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, the radical secessionists were willing to do just about anything to get their way: “They planned to ruin so they could rule,” as he put it.

They thus made the election of a Republican inevitable and, while they claimed that is what they feared, in fact it is just what they wanted, rushing to declare the Union “dissolved.” As Petigru suggested, the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

***

Robert Bunch, the British consul in Charleston, S.C., had seen this coming. In January 1859, almost two years before secession, he predicted that the secessionists’ taunts and provocations would lead to disaster: “They will awake from their delusion to find the Democratic Party broken up and the whole power of the Country thrown into the hands of the ‘Republicans,’” Bunch wrote in a confidential letter to his superiors. “When this shall happen, the days of Slavery are numbered….The prestige and power of Slave holders will be gone.”

As events unfolded, Bunch continued to report. Four days after Lincoln’s election, he wrote to Lord Russell, the British foreign secretary, about “the feeling of hatred to the North, which has been steadily growing ever since it became evident that the rule and power of the South were rapidly vanishing before the superior population, wealth, industry, and enlightenment of the Free States.”

The people of South Carolina and other slave states, Bunch said, had convinced themselves that their very lives were at risk if they remained part of the Union. With their fears of “servile insurrection”––slave uprisings––constantly fanned by what they read about the Republicans, “they contend that the question is no longer [of] one’s logic, but of existence, and that the instinct of self-preservation renders it impossible for them to recognize a Ruler whom they believe to be pledged to their destruction.”

***

To this day, one can still find some in the United States who talk blithely about seceding from the Union. And the attitudes of the slavocracy, albeit without the slaves, still permeate the thinking of Republicans whose party long ago ceased to be the party of Lincoln in order to become the party of Dixiecrats, big business, and, under Trump, Barnum-like hucksters playing the American public for suckers.

The ginned-up hatred of the Federal government, the obsessive defense of “private property” even when it’s not threatened, “slippery slope” arguments about Federal intrusiveness, and even the strict constructionist view of constitutional “guarantees” to have and to carry guns would be familiar to the slavocrats.

Returning to the Catalan question for the moment, certainly I would not make an analogy between Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Abraham Lincoln. But Rajoy is trying to hold together his nation in the face of an implacable group of separatists feeding on fear. And the Catalan radicals are doing everything they can, with some success, to lure him into repressive policies that will only heighten public anger, increasing the chance that no compromise can ever be reached.

Are we looking at a new Spanish civil war? Probably not. One hopes not, and it seems inconceivable in the European Union in 2017. But these things do get out of hand.

One remembers another precedent from the United States a century and a half ago. Part of the pitch made by the radical secessionists to the reluctant majority of Southerners was the idea that separation from the Union would be painless: legally justified, and backed by great powers sympathetic to the South.

LeRoy Pope Walker of Alabama, the Confederacy’s first secretary of war, told his constituents, “All the blood shed as a result of secession could be wiped up with a handkerchief.”

Things didn’t turn out that way.