On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the battle of Fort Sumter, MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow said on her evening program: “The fact that the first shots were fired in South Carolina specifically came as no surprise… the great pride of the South Carolina secessionists was Senator John C. Calhoun, a beloved pro-slavery politician who… championed the cause of nullification.”
The obviously anti-secession liberal host then defined the term: “Nullification—the idea that states could and should refuse to follow federal laws they didn’t like, that they thought went beyond the powers of the federal government.”
In addition to Calhoun, some of the earliest examples of nullification in the United States were in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act declared that slaves who escaped to free states must be forcibly returned to their masters. Many abolitionists became rabid advocates of nullification. When South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 it specifically listed nullification of fugitive slave laws as one of its grievances. When US Senator Jefferson Davis left Congress to become the President of the Confederate States of America he specifically denounced nullification in his farewell address.
Southern leaders denouncing nullification where it undermined the institution of slavery reinforces liberals’ argument that the Civil War was exclusively about slavery. It also seriously contradicts liberals’ argument that nullification is exclusively about slavery.
Still, was the Civil War just about slavery? Not according to President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
For Lincoln, preserving the Union was more important than abolishing slavery. Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s primary concern for the supremacy of federal law over state law had formerly led him to be a strong proponent of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Lincoln was for slavery before he was against it.
The same is true of his opposition to secession, Southern or otherwise. Said Lincoln in 1848: “Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”
At that point in American history some of the most significant rumblings about secession since the Revolution had been in the North—with the loudest voices often coming from abolitionists who wanted to sever their political union with the slave-holding states.
I bring up these contradictory historical views concerning what were once considered all-American decentralist concepts, not to prove that slavery wasn’t a major issue during the Civil War. It obviously was. But it was not the only issue, not always the primary issue, and was quite frequently a wedge issue, exploited by those on both sides for the purpose of empowering political, corporate or special interests. Do liberals believe that George W. Bush’s Iraq War was just about spreading “freedom” and liberating Iraqis, as the president contended, or were there political, corporate and special interests also at stake? Is it possible that Lincoln, too, wasn’t as wholly benevolent as his speeches reflect, his flip-flopping suggests and his many critics in the antebellum South and North insisted?
If a liberal like Maddow’s primary reason for denouncing nullification or secession is these concepts’ popular association with the Old South and slavery, would Maddow have respected the Fugitive Slave Act—or nullified it? Would the liberal host have agreed with Lincoln that runaway slaves should be returned to their masters? Would Maddow have opposed abolitionists’ Northern secession? If she is opposed to nullification and secession in each and every instance—as her rhetoric heavily implies—would liberals like Maddow have occasionally found themselves in the strange position of supporting slavery?
What about today, where a de facto nullification remains in effect in California which continues to openly flout federal drug laws? Does Maddow believe residents in that state who are stricken with cancer or glaucoma deserve to be arrested for alleviating their pain with medicinal marijuana? Or does Maddow support nullification?
Liberals do not want to be confronted with these uncomfortable philosophical contradictions concerning centralization vs. decentralization—the debate that raged in 1776, 1861 and still rages today—because any such intellectual exploration toward this end threatens the very heart of the Left’s collectivist historical narrative. For progressives, the ever-increasing power of the federal government represents human liberation and political liberalization—period. This has been the Left’s clarion call from FDR to Barack Obama, and any talk of devolving centralized power—even in the name of what would typically be considered liberal causes—is heresy.
In this light, for liberals, not only was the Civil War just about slavery—it must be just about slavery. And that Lincoln simply freed the slaves is not just the end of the story—it is the only story—lest Americans begin down the dangerous path of looking at their history and government with honest and open eyes.