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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

For Secessionists as well as for Union men


I

think it can. One may at once dismiss the common illusion--for it is often in such cases a genuine illusion, though sometimes a piece of hypocrisy--which undoubtedly had possession of many Northern minds at the time, that the Southern people did not really want to secede, but were in some mysterious fashion "intimidated" by a disloyal minority. How, in the absence of any special means of coercion, one man can "intimidate" two was never explained any more than it is explained when the same absurd hypothesis is brought forward in relation to Irish agrarian and English labour troubles. At any rate in this case there is not, and never has been, the slightest justification for doubting that Secessionism was from the first a genuine popular movement, that it was enthusiastically embraced by hundreds of thousands who no more expected ever to own a slave than an English labourer expects to own a carriage and pair; that in this matter the political leaders of the States, and Davis in particular, rather lagged behind than outran the general movement of opinion; that the Secessionists were in the Cotton States a great majority from the first; that they became later as decided a majority in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; and that by the time the sword was drawn there was behind the Confederate Government a unanimity very rare in the history of revolutions--certainly much greater than existed in the colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence. To oppose so formidable
a mass of local opinion and to enforce opposition by the sword was for a democracy a grave responsibility.

Yet it was a responsibility which had to be accepted if America was to justify her claim to be a nation. To understand this certain further propositions must be grasped.

First, the resistance of the South, though so nearly universal, was not strictly national. You cannot compare the case with that of Ireland or Poland. The Confederacy was never a nation, though, had the war had a different conclusion, it might perhaps have become one. It is important to remember that the extreme Southern view did not profess to regard the South as a nationality. It professed to regard South Carolina as one nationality, Florida as another, Virginia as another. But this view, though it had a strong hold on very noble minds, was at bottom a legalism out of touch with reality. It may be doubted whether any man felt it in his bones as men feel a genuine national sentiment.

On the other hand _American_ national sentiment was a reality. It had been baptized in blood. It was a reality for Southerners as well as for Northerners, for Secessionists as well as for Union men. There was probably no American, outside South Carolina, who did not feel it as a reality, though it might be temporarily obscured and overborne by local loyalties, angers, and fears. The President of the Confederacy had himself fought under the Stars and Stripes, and loved it so well that he could not bear to part with it and wished to retain it as the flag of the South. Had one generation of excited men, without any cognate and definable grievance, moved only by anger at a political reverse and the dread of unrealized and dubious evils, the right to undo the mighty work of consolidation now so nearly accomplished, to throw away at once the inheritance of their fathers and the birthright of their children? Nor would they and their children be the only losers: it was the great principles on which the American Commonwealth was built that seemed to many to be on trial for their life. If the Union were broken up, what could men say but that Democracy had failed? The ghost of Hamilton might grin from his grave; though his rival had won the laurel, it was he who would seem to have proved his case. For the first successful secession would not necessarily have been the last. The thesis of State Sovereignty established by victory in arms--which always does in practice establish any thesis for good or evil--meant the break-up of the free and proud American nation into smaller and smaller fragments as new disputes arose, until the whole fabric planned by the Fathers of the Republic had disappeared. It is impossible to put this argument better than in the words of Lincoln himself. "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" That was the issue as he saw it, an issue which he was determined should be decided in the negative, even at the cost of a long and bloody Civil War.


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