Secession Sesquicentennial

Posted Jan. 12, 2011, at 4:14 p.m.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the secession of 10 of the 11 states that made up the Confederate States of America. While South Carolina was the first to secede, on Dec. 20, 1860, the other 10 followed through the first half of 1861. This week marks the anniversary of Mississippi, Florida and Alabama’s secession. Next week is Georgia’s anniversary, and in the weeks that follow, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina also will look back from the perspective of 150 years.

The election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1860 precipitated the secessions, which led to the Civil War. At Florida’s secession convention, chairman John Pelot said, “The rapid spread of Northern fanaticism has endangered our liberties and institutions and the election of Abraham Lincoln, a wily abolitionist, to the presidency of the United States destroys all hope for the future.”

Many of these states are marking this chapter in American history. In doing so, they risk offending the descendants of slaves and inciting a population already suspicious of and antagonistic toward the federal government.

On the one hand, efforts to sweep under the carpet the darker moments in the nation’s history are clearly misguided. But should they be celebrated with the regional pride usually associated with marking the anniversary of the first settlers arriving? Or would it be more appropriate to have a sober reflection on the political fevers that drove the nation to this bloody internecine war? Germans are not unaware of their history, but they don’t celebrate the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

In Florida, Richard Keith Call, the former territorial governor, told those celebrating the convention vote to secede, “You have opened the gates of hell, from which shall flow the curses of the damned which shall sink you to perdition.” The decades it took the South to recover from the war proved Mr. Call right. The bitterness of the defeated South led to the repression and segregation that continued for another 100 years, which arguably kept those states from thriving.

Some historians argue the Civil War was not about slavery as much as it was about state rights. Slavery was merely the issue on which the debate turned. State rights are very much at the heart of contemporary debates. The sweeping federal health care law has elicited constitutional challenges from some 20 states, including Maine, arguing in essence that the federal government does not have the right to require people to purchase insurance.

Two years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in speaking to a tea party group, implied that secession might be a logical response to federal interference. A group in Alaska that has championed secession included former Gov. Sarah Palin’s husband; several years ago, the former governor congratulated the group on its work.

Southerners refer to the conflict as the War of Northern Aggression, and this description is accurate. Under President Lincoln, the armies of the Union compelled the Southern states to return to the fold. Secession or the threat of secession, then and now, should not be seen as a noble assertion of liberty. There are far better ways to settle differences.

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