On December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the American Union because of the election of an antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln, setting into motion the creation of the southern Confederacy and the start of the Civil War. Remarkably, on the 150th or sesquicentennial anniversary of South Carolina's secession, arguments used to legitimize disunion are back in vogue.
In a speech before Congress on the eve of Lincoln's election to the presidency, Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina, a southern rights Democrat, accused that "red republicanism" in America had merely "blacked its face." Chesnut was referring to the antislavery platform of the original Republican Party, whose centerpiece was the non-extension of slavery into the western territories. The election of a president based on such a policy he argued would gravely endanger the property rights of southern slaveholders.
Long before Tea Party activists and other sundry conservatives detected the ghost of socialism in health care reform and financial regulation legislation, proslavery theorists argued that abolition was akin to socialism. Even though the Lincoln administration would preside over the largest uncompensated confiscation of property in American history, four million slaves valued at around three billion dollars, the Republican party of the Civil War era was as far from socialism as the Obama administration is today.
Not only do contemporary accusations of a drift towards socialism have historical roots in the debates over secession but the alleged rights of the states to nullify or veto federal laws and secede from the Union are also enjoying a newfound popularity. The father of constitutional thought in South Carolina was its most prominent nineteenth century son, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was part of the Senatorial triumvirate that included Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in an age, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, of highly forgettable presidents. But while Clay and Webster were known for their devotion to the Union, Calhoun was notorious for formulating an absolute version of state sovereignty, the "Carolina Doctrine," according to which nullification and secession were rights reserved to "sovereign states" in the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Calhoun's constitutional ideas were designed to protect slavery, which he euphemistically called the south's "domestick institution," against federal intervention. Calhounian state sovereignty would die in the battlefields of the Civil War, only to be revived by southern segregationists during the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the brief evocation of states rights by abolitionists during the fugitive slave controversy of the 1850s, Calhoun's arguments forever associated states rights with secession, the defense of racial slavery, and segregation.
Indeed, the old South Carolinian is probably smiling from his grave to see his theory of state sovereignty contained in the Tenth Amendment revived by the so-called Tenther movement. A couple of weeks ago, proposals from members of the Texas legislature vindicating state sovereignty capped a nearly year long agitation by "tenthers." In 2009, the Georgia state senate and Texas house passed resolutions affirming state sovereignty and the Florida legislature received a petition proposing similar action against the implementation of the federal health law. The new Calhounites range from a northern Governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, to Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who regularly invoke state sovereignty and the Tenth Amendment in their political battles against the Obama administration. The idea of a state nullifying a federal law or Calhoun's "state interposition" has gained political currency with state governments like Virginia vowing to block federal health care reform as unconstitutional.
Not just nullification but secession is back in fashion. Some Republicans like Governor Perry have unearthed the constitutionally and militarily discredited notion of a state's alleged right to secede from the Union, albeit more as a flamboyant political gesture than a serious threat. It is indeed a supreme irony of history that the Grand Old Party of the Union, the party of Lincoln, is becoming the Grand Old Party of Secession and Calhounian state sovereignty.
The state of South Carolina itself has taken the lead with Senator Jim DeMint, the doyen of Tea Party Republicans, leading the charge against "socialism" and for state sovereignty. In the years before the Civil War, unionist James Louis Petigru commenting on his state's reputation for political extremism, sardonically noted that South Carolina was too large to be an insane asylum and too small to be an independent republic. As if on cue, the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans plan a "secession ball" to commemorate their state's departure from the Union over a hundred years ago.
Note: The writer is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000).