History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There are those who believe that much of US history is mis-taught, selectively, with an eye toward lionizing certain players and demonizing others.
That seems all well and good. But, then, two can play that game. In fact, everyone can, and they do!
Somehow or other, among freedomistas, there’s an element that spends a lot of time and energy promoting the revisionist, anti-federalist view of things. This includes the notion that the Constitution was a confederation of independent nations, and that any state can secede at any time. The Constitution, at minimum, they say, does not empower the Federal Government to keep states in the Union. Therefore, they argue, Lincoln was an “evil” man, perhaps rivaling Hitler and Stalin. They expend much good scholarship pointing to Lincoln’s usurpation of powers that weren’t and aren’t enumerated in the Constitution.
Well done, say I. However, still, the question becomes, was it reasonable that the Union took some action to quash the Confederate secession?
Let’s roll the videotape! First, the revisionists seem to flatly dismiss the “insurrection clause” of the Constitution as the basis for stopping the secession. It’s right there in black and white, and yet, the revisionist cry foul, that the Confederate secession wasn’t an insurrection, despite the little matter of the CSA firing on Fort Sumter. The Union viewed “Johnny Reb’s” secession as a rebellion, or insurrection that was simply illegitimate. Indeed, the Union never declared “war” on the Confederacy for that very reason.
The broader question is the very nature of the Republic: Was it (is it) a confederation or one nation?
Highlight #2: The Constitution’s first words were “We, the people….” Sounds like “one nation” to this 21st Century observer. “No, no, no,” the revisionists cry, that was mere editorial shorthand. Earlier drafts of the Constitution had said “We, the states….” It was merely shortened for reasons of brevity.
Perhaps they’re right. Certainly earlier drafts did say “We, the states…” But so what? And yet, one of the revisionist’s patron saints, Patrick Henry, rose at the Virginia constitutional ratification convention to say this:
I rose yesterday to ask a question which arose in my own mind. When I asked that question, I thought the meaning of my interrogation was obvious. The fate of this question and of America may depend on this. Have they said, We, the states? Have they made a proposal of a compact between states? If they had, this would be a confederation. It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government.
The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America. I need not take much pains to show that the principles of this system are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous. Is this a monarchy, like England—a compact between prince and people, with checks on the former to secure the liberty of the latter? Is this a confederacy, like Holland—an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty? It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely.
Had these principles been adhered to, we should not have been brought to this alarming transition, from a confederacy to a consolidated government.
This certainly seems to be a reasonably contemporaneous smoking gun. Henry, wanting to maintain a confederation, cites the language “We, the people” as “pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous.” “We, the people” led to “consolidated” government to Henry, and he, for one, thought that highly ill advised. It appears that the original intent or original understanding was that, indeed, the Constitution WAS about consolidation, at least to a major exponent who rejected that notion, quite vociferously, I might add. (Full Henry speech here.)
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps the revisionists are correct about a lot of things. But to say that the federal government and “the people” were not empowered to protect their interests under the Constitution simply does not seem to align with the facts.