As Scotland lurches toward its historic vote for independence this week, it brings to mind a similar moment, seven score and fourteen years ago, when the American South voted, en file, to secede from our Union. While Scotland's proposed break does not thankfully involve the moral plague of slavery, it nevertheless allows us to reflect on the nature of the State and of freedom generally.
South Carolina was first. In measured, legal prose, the die was cast for the cataclysmic rupture that defines American history:
"We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain...that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the "United States of America," is hereby dissolved."
We know what happened next. As many as 850,000 citizen-soldiers and untold numbers of civilians died over a single burning question: Ought a people be held by force?
For the American South, the answer was a resounding "No." In affirming their right, like their forebears, to separate from a government to which they no longer felt allegiance and which they believed was actively threatening their "property," they were aggressively upholding the principles of the American Revolution, "throwing tea" in the "Revolution of 1860."
For the North, the answer was likewise an equally resounding "No." The moral abomination of slavery, the "holding by force" was bad enough where it flourished amongst their southern neighbors. The broken compromises, the defiant expansion of slavery was an unforgivable moral trespass, requiring violent confrontation. They were vigorously upholding the hallowed principle of the Declaration of Independence wherein "all men are created equal..."
Both, sadly, were wrong. The preservation of the Union required the North to hold the South by force. The preservation of slavery required the slave-owner to hold another human by force.
Two neatly nested evils tearing at the vitals of our republic.
No such cataclysmic rupture, of course, awaits Scotland. The Queen has asked the Scots to "think carefully" about it, but it is the advice of an avuncular grandaunt, not the naked threat George III would have delivered. Their referendum is not over the 'right' to hold fellow humans in perpetual bondage. The issues, thankfully, are rather more prosaic: questions over currency and EU membership, not abject slavery. Scotland's turmoil appears largely administrative; the tone of their eventual declaration (if it should come to pass) may well resemble the dispassionate declaration of the Palmetto State in 1860.
Yet, buried under the legal façade smolders a debate about the nature of the State: does it rely on force or voluntary association? What if England lay poised, battle lines drawn, Prince Harry at the head of a Mechanized Division, ready to hold Scotland, a fortiori, within the union of Great Britain?
If this were so, it would fan the smoldering question into open flame: Ought a people be held by force? The answer must clearly be a categorical "No," neither at the inter-personal level (slavery), nor the inter-state (invasion and occupation).
With this in mind, it is my halting, reluctant conclusion that our Civil War was an unjust war -- Lincoln (yes, our martyred Lincoln) -- himself unwarranted in having waged it. This is not, God forbid, some shrouded defense of slavery (though I can see the mail already) or reflexive sympathy for the South (my ancestry is as Yankee as they come). Rather, this is recognition that the State should never wield aggressive force to maintain a reluctant union...
Our great Civil War banished one form of subjugation, but opened the door to another.
We eliminated a deep injustice in vanquishing slavery, but in the process saddled ourselves with an equally pernicious one: the State as receptacle of forceful power; newly entitled to hold people at the point of a gun. The Union North eliminated the oppression of the slaveholding Confederacy, true, but only by becoming a hopeless Javert, mindlessly committing injustice in the name of justice...
In 1320, the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath stated that "...never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule." That sentiment clearly runs deep, not only in modern Scotland, but within the "celtic fringe" settlers that largely peopled our early southern colonies. That selfsame Declaration also hinted at our modern concept of popular sovereignty, the notion that the governed hold ultimate authority in government.
It is a striking principle; oxymoronic to some, yet is nevertheless the bedrock upon which the modern liberal state is (or rather, ought to be) founded. The principle lay at the heart of our founding, and reverberates - albeit in attenuated form - within our modern controversies over marijuana legalization or the 'Cliven Bundy Affair.' Of course, "Popular Sovereignty" figured prominently in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, fueling the moral outrage (on both sides) that led to a national willingness by brother to kill brother. Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, argued against the principle, correctly observing that a proper moral understanding of popular sovereignty cannot allow a majority to trespass upon the rights of the few. "Voting" to allow slavery in your territory does not make slavery just.
But Lincoln, our first Big Government Republican, erred in bringing war to the South. Why not allow the South to peacefully secede--the house, as they often do, to divide? Two independent states of freely associating citizens would have far surpassed one stitched together by might. Slavery could have been vigorously confronted, and with greater moral conviction, as a dispute between sovereign nations.
Perhaps I am hard on Lincoln. The esoterica of the moral debate, I'm quite sure, had long ceased to matter for both sides as the issue rapidly escalated out of the abstruse and into logistical questions of survival. In my rare but memorable schoolyard brawls, my inability to remember why I was fighting did not stop me from throwing punches as quickly or as viciously as I could... War is not Reason. As Angelo Codevilla writes, "when war comes, when some states begin to kill and others to take sides, the logic of fear and honor, the multiplicity of passions, drive events beyond anyone's control."
Sides were drawn quickly and irreversibly when secession was last a national debate in America. Slogans trumped moral reason. The Union's battle cry of "Preserve the Union!" held far less moral content than the South's "States Rights!" It could be brushed aside as easily as the British redcoats' cry of "traitors!" over their muskets at Lexington. Who, after all, in their right mind would wish to die to preserve an unwilling union? But war came, beyond anyone's control, and destroyed. The Union was preserved. We do not need a passport to travel from Atlanta to Atlantic City. Devastatingly, however, it left us with a diminished inheritance in our Declaration of Independence.
Focus on the Scottish national debate is more than an idle comparison. Let us all hope, as we can all safely assume, that a Scottish vote for "Yes" will be met with the appropriate moral response. More states on the world stage, created through free association (and disassociation), with less power, can only accrue to the benefit of the individual.
We all win if Scotland freely secedes.