Guest post: A meta-history lesson on states’ rights


Originally a comment by freedmenspatrol on Guest post: A history lesson on states’ rights.

Kongstad, you’re dead on about neo-confederates and the actual confederates alike. The level of blatant hypocrisy in period texts about the issue gets pretty extreme.

When South Carolina finally staged the counterrevolution that it had threatened in one form or another for decades, they published a list of reasons for it. The document included this complaint:

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

This from the same state that pioneered the theory that states could nullify federal law within their bounds whenever they felt like it. “States’ rights” was always a strategy employed for particular ends, chiefly the protection of slavery, and never an end in itself. Specifically, it was a strategy for preserving slavery in the minority section against a majoritarian threat to its continued existence. When Southerners had control of the national government, as they did almost constantly until March of 1861, they rarely cared much about limiting its power. Quite the opposite, so long as they considered slavery viable within the Union they were quite committed to extending that power.

In 1860, the state of Virginia was actually pursuing a Dred Scott style case that would have put before Roger Taney’s Supreme Court whether such a thing as a free state was even legally possible. They wanted to strike down New York’s law that slaves taken into the state in transit and resident there too long became free. If that went, then slaveholders would have gained the power to hold their human chattels indefinitely within the free states. At that point, the distinction between a free and slave jurisdiction became meaningless. But when Virginia decided that while it would not rush to join South Carolina and the rest for its own sake, it would rush to join the movement against suppressing the Deep South’s counterrevolution. That more or less killed interest in the lawsuit.

Comments

  1. cottonnero says

    I’d like to know more about that Virginia case, but I can’t quite make the Google spit it out. Anyone know the name of that case?

  2. jesse says

    The whole bit about state’s rights is really about the ability of certain states to deny human rights to people within their borders. I can’t recall it being invoked for any particularly progressive causes.

    One of the other things I have been thinking about lately was that the US was the largest and most powerful slave society in the world at that point. Even societies like say, Imperial China, which had slavery, or African kingdoms, or central Asian sheikdoms — none were as dependent on slaves for their economic well-being as the American South. The South was to cotton then as Saudi Arabia is to oil today. Even Brazil didn’t have as many people living as property as the US did, nowhere near. And they didn’t need slaves as badly.

    On top of that the US had even then a pretty powerful military — to that point we’d pretty much defeated every opponent, even counting the Brits. The continuation of slavery in the US much past 1861 would have been a disaster of the first order. it would have meant a power on the level with many European states able to not only run a society that was based on owning other humans but to spread the unholy marriage of slavery and capitalism. In the South there were already plans to do just that; imagine slavery spread to Mexico (which had outlawed it) or to Central America. (Remember by this point slavery was no longer a factor anywhere in the western hemisphere except the US — even the Brits had ended it in Jamaica 30 years prior). If you don’t think the southerners were drooling over the prospect, look up the name William Walker. The Costa Ricans still remember that guy.

    The State’s Rights crowd is upset that they have to treat other humans as humans. That’s really what it’s about; it never has been about the law or Federalism.

  3. says

    Thanks for promoting the comment, Ophelia. :) Sorry I forgot to give the case name. It’s Lemmon v. New York, as screechymonkey discovered.

    I hope the following isn’t too digressive; I get really into nineteenth century politics.

    I’m unsure of the precise language used, but it was common for free states to allow slaveholders passing through with their human property to retain it for a period of time. This goes all the way back to when Pennsylvania passed its gradual emancipation act, the first in the United States. At the time, Philadelphia was the national capital and George Washington was president. If his slaves remained in Pennsylvania, they could fall under the provisions of the law. Thus every so often, I think once every six months, the Washington slaves (and those of other slaveholding officials) would make a quick trip down to Maryland or Virginia, or across the river to New Jersey, to re-up their slavery. To make sure they were safe, I think many were rotated out and sent home in favor of new ones as well. One of Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge, used the relative freedom of Philadelphia to escape him, eventually stealing herself up to New Hampshire where she lived for decades.

    The laws did vary over time, but it was relatively normal for Southerners to visit the North with a slave or two in tow. William and Ellen Craft stole themselves from Georgia under that pretense. She could pass for white and male, so she dressed up as a man going North for his health. He posed as her slave valet. It worked well enough that a few ladies from Virginia who they shared a train with were very interested in having Ellen stop by their plantation on his way back home.

    The right of sojourn was time-limited, and increasingly so as the antebellum era went on and the white North became increasingly unfriendly to slavery. At the same time, some northern states passed laws forbidding entry by black people at all and trying to expel those already resident. These included Lincoln’s Illinois.

    But I digress. Lemmon could very well have been another Dred Scott, since the arguments in both cases were dangerously similar. Scott claimed freedom from extend residence in free Illinois (under state law) and free Wisconsin Territory (modern Minnesota and under federal law, in the person of the nation’s first antislavery enactment: the Northwest Ordinance and further freed by the Missouri Compromise and various territorial legislation). The Taney court ruled that Congress lacked the power to exclude slavery from the territories. If Congress lacked the power, could a state enact such a law? Maybe, and that was the status quo after the Dred Scott decision.

    But the status quo, which had been assumed even by southerners who hated it and considered it personally dangerous to them, had also been that the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery would be inviolate too. A senator who said just that in 1853, Missouri’s David Rice Atchison, was instrumental in repealing it in the Kansas-Nebraska Act less than a year later. We can’t know how Taney would have ruled, but he might very well have decided that slaves counted as property in constitutional law (this point has arguments for and against it) and so restricting possession of slaves in free states to a limited time, or forbidding it whatsoever, was just as repugnant to the Constitution as he decided a territorial ban was. John C. Calhoun, Mr. States’ Rights, was fond of that argument.

    While such a ruling would have contradicted a state law, it might have been in keeping with a strict reading of the ideology. On a really technical level, states’ rights was a theory about the federal government’s powers. It did not apply to states at home.

    But that didn’t mean states got carte blanche. John Ashworth makes the point in The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861, that the advocates of states’ rights on the national level favored limited government in the states. States rights protected slavery from Washington. Limited government protected it from the attentions of Richmond and Columbia, in some weird world where they turned a baleful eye toward it. Why not also the attentions of Albany or Boston? This was how antebellum Democrats thought, and Taney was very much one of those. Further he had a strong interest in “resolving” the slavery question for good…in the way that only a man reared in slavery could: by stopping the abolitionists from making trouble.

    All of this tied back into ideological positions on individual white male autonomy in the moral sphere, which insisted that as a white man he had the right and power to decide for himself if he would or would not have slaves. To do otherwise would be an assault on his sacred freedoms.

    Which is not to say that the hypocrisy did not help tremendously. But one could get there through sufficiently abstracted reasoning as well. Everywhere you go, you end up back at slavery. Heads slavery won; tails the slaves lost. It didn’t necessarily have to be that way, but it working out that way was very much intended by the leading lights of the movement.

    Only after the war was fought and lost did the white South discover in itself a firm states’ rights orthodoxy. This was just the time they were fighting to roll back federal impositions of civil rights for the freedpeople. They lost interest in it again progressively as they returned to the political mainstream and regained full control of “their” states, only to rediscover the ancient faith just in time for the Civil Rights Movement.

  4. says

    I’m not as up on the international comparisons as I should be, but Brazil still had open slavery in 1861. It would retain the institution until 1888. However, Wikipedia tells me that even toward the end, slaves constituted only 15% or the population of 10 million. That works out to, if I’ve got the math right, 1,500,000.

    The census of 1860 found 3,950,511 slaves in the American South. Almost half a million of those lived in Virginia alone. That’s out of a total sectional population of 12,240,293, so about 32.02% of the southern population was enslaved. (Unless I just used my calculator wrong, which is possible.) It’s massive on a whole different level. But it gets worse from there. In the Deep South cotton states, the average was 46.03% enslaved. It went as high as 57.18% in South Carolina. That state even had more white slaveholders than it did nonslaveholders, an achievement no where else matched, and required you to own at least ten slaves in order to have a seat in the lower house of its legislature. Manumission was much harder in the US than it was anywhere else, incidentally. We made up for our small share of the transatlantic slave trade (most went to Brazil or the Caribbean) by being especially rigid with the lives we stole.

    The only other major slave system I know of active at the time was Russian serfdom, which ended in 1861. The British and French empires ended slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. Slavery was de jure illegal in the Spanish empire, but still openly practiced in Cuba up until 1886. They even tolerated the transatlantic slave trade, which was a major factor in Southern interest in stealing it away from the Spaniards.

    American abolition had an impact on the western hemisphere’s remaining slave societies, though. The Royal Navy patrolled around the African coast to catch slavers. After 1808, when we outlawed the Atlantic trade, occasionally US Navy squadrons joined them. But we didn’t coordinate very well and a fair bit of looking the other way went on. In particular, the US did not look kindly on the Royal Navy stopping American-flagged ships. That was for our Navy alone, thank you very much. If we “forgot” or “didn’t notice” or whatever, that was our business. Once the South was out of the Union, and then defeated, its concerns did not apply and we got much better at dealing with such things. This added some strain to Brazilian slavery, which thanks to the ease of manumission there needed more fresh imports than otherwise. It wasn’t decisive, I’m sure, but we did help a little.

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    Jesse @6: “the unholy marriage of slavery and capitalism”

    Capitalism cannot exist without a slave class. With the monarchies, it was the serfs; with the mills, it was the workers; with the New World colonies, it was slavery. The serfs rebelled – “Off with their heads!” – and seized control of the government; the workers struck and formed unions so the workers, in aggregate, would have a means of matching the mill owners’ power; and slaves revolted and killed their masters (and every other white person they could get their hands on). In no case can we completely condemn the violence involved – given the violence of the times, a violence that had been applied extravagantly and uninhibitedly against the powerless to that point, their only recourse was to fight back in the same savage terms.

    Now? It’s a cage match between the prison industrial complex and the undocumented workers as to which will prove to be the dominant slave class.

    Let’s remember that slavery was returning a profit of up to 1600%. Many people would sell their children and grandmas for that kind of return. Even Thomas Jefferson, who started off somewhat abolitionist, retreated spectacularly from that position when he ran the numbers and realized the astonishing rate of return/profit he was realizing from his slaves’ reproduction alone. Jefferson helped draft the will of Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kos­ciuszko, a Polish nobleman who had named Jefferson his executor. The terms of his will were that over a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money would have gone to Jefferson, earmarked for the freeing of Jefferson’s slaves: the funds were stipulated to be used to purchase land and equipment so that Jefferson’s freed slaves would be set up for self-sufficient free life. It was a *huge* amount.

    Jefferson refused the gift, even though he was in debt and it would have eased his financial burden, even though it was his legal, ethical, and moral responsibility to carry out the terms of the will. Why? Because slavery was more profitable for him, and his conscience caved to the almighty dollar, as we’ve seen in so many politicians.

    A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly…. [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”

    In another communication from the early 1790s, Jefferson takes the 4 percent formula further and quite bluntly advances the notion that slavery presented an investment strategy for the future. He writes that an acquaintance who had suffered financial reverses “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises that if the friend’s family had any cash left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”

    That’s Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, in case you didn’t recognize the excerpt’s author from the content of the excerpt. Read all about it: “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson” – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/?all

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    @9 freedmenspatrol: For comparison purposes, on the eve of Haiti’s slave revolution – the only successful slave revolt the world has ever seen – there were 40K white people, 30K free blacks/mulattos…and 500K slaves. Anyone can do THAT math! The New World colonies were incessantly recruiting Europeans to counterbalance the burgeoning mass of enslaved dark-skinned peoples, and given the established colonists insatiable addiction to ever more slaves (in the service of ever more profit), the US was headed in the same direction as Haiti. Something was inevitable, whether it was abolition or rebellion. Either the privileged whites could be pro-active and emancipate the slaves, thereby retaining control; or they could continue on and potentially see the slaves win out, as in Haiti, and enslave the whites instead. The victory of the North over the South in the Civil War changed the laws of the South, but it didn’t change the culture. Slavery continued in the form of Jim Crow, and continues in de facto form now in the prison industrial complex, which locks up and exploits young black men above all (and mostly for trivial offenses). Look up the cradle-to-prison pipeline for more information – here’s an excellent place to start: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/ending-the-cradle-to-pris_b_1655138.html

    A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 7.1 million adult residents — one in 33 — are under some form of correctional supervision including prison, jail, probation, or parole. Michelle Alexander writes in her bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that there are more adult African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In 2011, our state and federal prison population exceeded that of the top 35 European nations combined. Something’s very wrong with this picture.

  7. quixote says

    freedmenspatrol, thanks very much for all the detail. It’s particularly fascinating and eye-opening to be reminded how normal and accepted such a crime against humanity was.

    And then this:

    All of this tied back into ideological positions on individual white male autonomy in the moral sphere, which insisted that as a white man he had the right and power to decide for himself if he would or would not have slaves. To do otherwise would be an assault on his sacred freedoms.

    So many echoes of current attitudes about male entitlement to women, of “rights” to guns. If having some kind of power is the only way to feel worth, then an oppressed class is essential to the emotional life of the ones with the whip hand. I’m not sure I ever really took that on board so clearly before. And I’m also just sitting here boggling a bit at how it must feel to live inside a mind that doesn’t feel any intrinsic worth. A screwed up system doesn’t begin to cover it.

  8. says

    @Blanche

    The Haitian example was very much on the minds of antebellum Southerners, if not always in quite the same way. They were very sure that their slaves loved them and needed slavery…but completely sure that they also plotted bloody rebellion at any time. Of course, any step toward emancipation would inspire that rebellion. But even if it didn’t, then abolition without some kind or purge of black people from the continent would surely lead to a genocidal race war all the same. The fact that Haiti (and later the British Caribbean) were “ruined” by freedom (plantation profits went way down when slaves had the option to do other things) deeply informed their thinking not just about domestic threats to slavery, but about threats on the international stage. An “abolitionized” Cuba, or before that Texas during its tenuous independence, would surely bring about endless calamities.

    And in the black belts (named for dark river bottom soil, but also prime cotton country and thus…yeah) black Americans often outnumbered white Americans by huge margins. This impressed on them every day that they, they numerical minority, had to keep rigid control. If not, we’re back at Haiti again. In some areas, the planters preferred to stay as far away from their land as possible, most especially in coastal South Carolina.

    I’m in full agreement with you that Jim Crow, mass incarceration, penal labor, and the like are all continuations of that tradition. White people controlling supposedly barbarous black people is one of our most ancient and fundamental traditions. I’m not sure if slavery is the best name for all of that or not, but it’s certainly a candidate. My concern with using it is that it can obscure the genuine, if contested, achievement of abolition. For a few years the South actually looked like it might become something approaching a racially egalitarian society. Then the whites regained full power, the Supreme Court eviscerated the laws protecting the freedpeople, and most of white America turned its back on the former slaves. Many things reverted to status quo antebellum, but not all of them. Before emancipation, a slave was sold about every three minutes. Even with Jim Crow and convict leasing in full force, it never came back to that. The law no longer inherently made someone’s children into slaves for life. They had to at least put you through a show trial. It’s a tenuous gain, far less than we’d want, but even “nothing but freedom” meant a genuine improvement in the quality of life for a vast majority of the nation’s former slaves. We could and should have done more, but the nation fought a war to save the white man’s Union rather than the black person’s life. Emancipation was accepted, even in the North, as largely as a necessity of the war rather than a goal in itself.

  9. says

    @quixote

    So normal that people would walk right by stinking jails full of slaves waiting for auction. One operated a few blocks down from the Capitol. You could smell it inside when the wind was right. Likewise you could go to the town square and see whippings that had been hired out to the local sheriff. (Robert E. Lee did this with one of his slaves, sending along instructions that the lashing should be done thoroughly.) People bought and sold like cattle, collected when their owners couldn’t pay debts. They could even be gambled away. While the law usually said you could not just casually murder a slave (at least not someone else’s), and people did occasionally go to jail for it, the slave codes always made allowances for deaths dealt in the course of “correction.”

    In his narrative, Frederick Douglass calls himself a thief. He stole his body. By the law, he was absolutely right. He made off with another man’s property, just as if he’d absconded with a cow or the fine silver. And this after he’d been sent to a man who worked, professionally, as a slave breaker.

    Women could have it worse. A slave “wench” held most of her value not in the work she could do, though they were put in the fields alongside the men from time to time, but in her “increase.” Slavery was transmitted via the womb. We can’t know how many owners took the obvious route to realize that increase, but it appears that the option to do so escaped few of them, even if not all exercised it. On occasion, southerners defended the practice as sparing white women from the rapes they would otherwise receive at the hands of men who just couldn’t help themselves.

    Every atrocity has its own peculiarities; none are quite the same. But the justifications appear nigh-universal: They’re inferior. They have it coming. We can’t help it. It’s the best we can make of a bad situation. We inherited this problem.

    Things like this remind me of that line from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

  10. jesse says

    @freedmenspatrol — one of the things about Brazil (and Jamaica for that matter) was that by the time Brazil abolished slavery slaves just weren’t that important to the economy any more, which was smaller than that of the US (in fact it was smaller than that of the American South, I think) in any case. In Jamaica, the slave system was much less entrenched and on it way out by the time they were emancipated in the 1830s (this had less to do with principled British planters and more to do with changes in the sugar market). In Brazil, ironically enough, mismanagement of the local economy by dependence on slave labor and lack of investment in roads and such meant that the whole economy was relatively unconnected to the rest of the world compared to the US. So the market forces that made slavery such a good deal weren’t there as much. Add in the British pressure on the slave trade, and by the 1880s you didn’t have a viable institution anymore unless they did what we did here in the US. In Brazil that wasn’t an option.

    Russian serfdom was also not really a human chattel system like in the US. You didn’t have people being bought and sold and forced to move great distances — serfs were tied to the land and the “market” for serfs was such that you wanted the serfs to stay where they were.

    One of the things that made Cuban slavery (and in what was left of the Spanish Empire by that point) different was that a slave who married a free person had free children. There were mixed-race and black slaveholders in Brazil and Cuba as a result (that existed here and there in the US as well, but obviously in really tiny numbers).

    Another interesting twist was the Cherokee and Choctaw nations in Oklahoma. The question of slavery split the nation; even there passing of slavery on through generations wasn’t done in the same way as in the white Confederacy and marrying slaves wasn’t such a problem — the miscegenation laws familiar to people elsewhere didn’t exist. And in some areas — Florida — slaves would run south because they could be free among the Seminoles.

    One more interesting bit: slavery still existed in the US until 1880 or so, if you were a Native American. It was basically legal to claim the labor of any Native in California and while there were supposed to be terms for this, it was de facto slavery. I don’t know if any person was actually sold under that system, since the Civil War amendments were in place by that point.

  11. Iain Walker says

    jesse (#6):

    On top of that the US had even then a pretty powerful military — to that point we’d pretty much defeated every opponent, even counting the Brits.

    Hmm. Most of your opponents up to this point were Native American tribes or Mexico, and your ability to defeat the British was heavily dependent on (a) having powerful allies like the French, and/or (b) the British having no particular stomach for the fight. And you still lost the War of 1812 at the strategic level (just ask any Canadian), despite some good showings at the tactical level.

    On top of which, the US military was tiny for most of this period – the US didn’t become a significant naval power until after the Civil War, and a large regular army is a distinctly post-WW2 phenomenon. So no, the US did not have a particularly powerful, or uniformly successful, military during the 19th century. What it had, as time went on, was the ability and resources to expand its regular forces into effective volunteer/conscript armies when needed, which is what won the Civil War for the North, who had the men and materiel that the South lacked. If anything, the emergence of the US as a major military power was something that followed the defeat of slavery.

    If you don’t think the southerners were drooling over the prospect, look up the name William Walker. The Costa Ricans still remember that guy.

    Surely you mean the Nicaraguans? Or the Hondurans (who were the ones who finally killed him)? Yes, quite a few Southerners would like to have created a slave empire in Central America, but the filibuster expeditions that actually managed to get off the ground were ramshackle, private-enterprise affairs that enjoyed no government support and were all ultimately failures.

  12. lpetrich says

    Interesting stuff, freedmenspatrol. Some of the slaveowners got worked up over some abolitionists snickering about what lechers they were, but who were they trying to kid?

    There was another interesting historical curiosity from just before the Civil War: the Central Confederacy. Politicians in some mid-Atlantic states proposed a three-way division of the US: New England, the CC, and a Southern Confederacy of strong supporters of slavery. The CC would have contained moderate free states and moderate slave ones, like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and some states further west. There was a mayor of New York City who proposed making that city the Free State of Tri-Insula after its three islands: Staten Island, Manhattan, and Long Island.

    Colin Woodard mentions the CC in his book American Nations.

    There’s also the question of why the North fought to maintain the Union. Why didn’t they pull out their assets in the South and then let the South secede? My favorite theory is that it’s due to international power politics. A split into 2 or 3 or 4 nations would have weakened the US and made it vulnerable to foreign powers, like Britain and France and Russia and eventually Germany and Japan.

    I’ve also seen the theory that it was due to the unilateral nature of the South’s secession. The South did not even bother to try to convince the North that both the North and the South would have been helped by a split. Instead, Southerners grumbled about Northerners being too helpful to escaped slaves.

  13. says

    The international issue is certainly part of it. Nineteenth century Americans were extremely conscious of being the lone republic on Earth and convinced that everywhere else was Mordor and very much out to get them, facts be damned. A smaller United States, or a collection of successor states to it, would inherently be more vulnerable. The economic disruption alone might wreck them, not to mention suddenly gaining hostile, or simply opportunistic, neighbors. The vulnerable would naturally look for protectors, either locally or among the Great Powers. And then you’ve got European protectorates on the Atlantic coast. During Texas’ period as an independent state, certain parts of the South worked themselves into a remarkable lather over the possibility of the British establishing that kind of protectorate over the Lone Star Republic in exchange for abolition.

    The circumstances do matter. If a state or collection of states could quit the nation over something as simple as losing an election, then the Union could endure nowhere. The next time around, the losing party could just quit too. Let South Carolina go, or the Deep South, or the Deep South and Upper South, and soon enough there’s nothing left to go. Every vote produces a loser who might be prepared to exercise the absolute veto they’ve been given by the precedent.

    A negotiated secession would have had a better chance of skipping the war (and thus saving slavery) than the unilateral kind that happened, but I’m not sure it would have improved the odds that much. After secession, South Carolina did send up representatives to negotiate in Washington. But secession was rebellion, so they didn’t get very far. At the very least, there would be the vexing issue of what to do with the federal property in the states that wanted out. According to secessionist logic, at least at the time, that property instantly reverted to the state that originally held it.

    This was not something that everyone agreed on, and the dissenters had a good leg to stand on. The Constitution made the national government into a legal entity in its own right, not simply a league of states. (This was not true of the Articles of Confederation.) So what happens to all those post offices, customs houses, military forts (like Sumter), mints (There was one in New Orleans.) and so forth? Those assets are worth money, and in the case of the mint almost literally was money. If the state is withdrawing from the Union, shouldn’t it pay for the Union’s land and assets being seized? They were generally bought legally by the government in Washington, not just taken by eminent domain or something. In Sumter’s case, the land was literally created by the federal government. The secessionists said they owed nothing. Everyone else had different ideas. Lincoln talks about it a bit in his first inaugural.

    With regard to New York City, Fernando Wood (the major you mentioned) led the most pro-Southern city outside the border states. The bankers who held the plantation mortgages, insured the slaves, accepted them as collateral, and owned the ships that moved the cotton mostly lived in New York. Things might have gotten nastily interesting over the potential lost investment in a war, though I do think that’s still a long shot. The Confederacy insured otherwise when it announced that debts to Northern banks need not be paid.

  14. jesse says

    @Iain Walker — there’s a huge statue / memorial for the battles against William Walker in San Jose (Costa Rica) and a lot of memorabilia in that country. The Costa Ricans basically managed to boot Walker posthaste, they wanted no part of him.

  15. jesse says

    @Iain Walker — the US military was as good as anything in Europe of similar size. The reason I describe it as a powerful one is that Mexico was no slouch, and even though an all-out war with Britain in 1850 might have been hard, I submit that the industrial capacity of the country would make the US a tough opponent no matter what. Plus, there were some interesting innovations/adoptions militarily here (mostly in the “boring” areas of logistics and supply and organization). The defeat of the South, I think sort of demonstrates this.

    The US was also able to impose its will on many countries in Latin America even then, though at that point the Spaniards and Brits still had a heavier presence.

    @Blanche Quizno — even after Florida was made a state (in the wake of the Spanish losing their colonies elsewhere and due to a lucky shot that hit an ammo dump) many slaves ran to the Everglades. Recall that Florida was among the smallest states by population for a long stretch. It took a good thirty years to subdue the Seminoles.

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