States rights would doom the Confederacy even if they won the war

Would the Confederacy have become a powerful nation if they had won the Civil War? Probably not. Their commitment to state sovereignty would have soon torn them apart.

By the summer of 1864 Southerners were sick of the Civil War. Many of them were looking for ways to negotiate an end to the conflict on terms they would consider honorable. A similar war weariness was taking hold in the North, at least among Democrats, many of whom had opposed the war from the beginning.

Confederate States

Confederate States

One strategy for ending the war that seemed to be gaining favor both North and South was the idea of calling a convention of all the states. The hope was that delegates to that convention would hash out some sort of compromise that they could take back to their respective states for approval.

Neither Jefferson Davis nor Abraham Lincoln wanted anything to do with the idea of a convention, both sensing that if it achieved anything at all, it would be at the expense of the very war aims each side had already spent so much blood to advance. But as Northern Democrats prepared to fight the 1864 presidential campaign, they were considering adding the convention idea to their platform.

That’s the background to the editorial that appeared in the August 31, 1864 issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. Quoting approvingly from an article published in the Charleston Mercury, the Dispatch editor wanted to drive home the point, which both newspapers considered the consensus view among Southerners, that “the Constitution of the Confederate States does not authorize the Government to put the said States, or any of them, into convention with any foreign power.”

A “government” that had no ability to govern

The key issue, from the two newspapers’ point of view, was that the Confederate government couldn’t call the Southern states into a convention because it was basically powerless to tell them to do anything at all. Here’s how the Dispatch put it (italics are my emphasis):

The Confederate States are so many sovereignties, each a nation in itself, with all the claims and attributes of sovereignty. This is the doctrine we went out of the Union proclaiming; the doctrine for the maintenance of which we have been fighting for the last three years and a half; the doctrine which distinguishes us from our enemies of the Yankee States; and which, if we surrender, we give up all we have been contending for.

Being independent nations, they have united in a partnership for certain specified purposes, and have appointed an agent or attorney to carry those purposes into effect. That agent or attorney is known as the Government of the Confederate States. Its power of attorney is the Constitution, and it cannot transcend the limits conferred by that instrument any more than an attorney of flesh and blood can go beyond the limits of the paper by which he is created such. Now, what right has such an agency as this to put any one of the independent nations from whom it holds its power into the proposed convention, or any other sort of convention, not authorized expressly by the Constitution? . . .

Whenever a treaty of peace shall be made, it must be done solely on the basis of the entire independence and sovereignty of each particular State. That must be preliminary to, and cannot be a subject of, negotiation. The Confederate Government has no right to make any peace in which one inch of land belonging to any one of the States shall be given up, or one iota of its privileges as a sovereign be surrendered. This, so far from being the subject of negotiation, must be the starting point from which all negotiation must proceed.

I think the Dispatch did a pretty good job of summarizing the guiding philosophy of the Confederacy. It was by declaring itself an independent nation simply resuming its sovereignty that South Carolina claimed the right to secede from the Union.

States rights meant no negotiated settlement to end the war

To me, this commitment to the principle of state sovereignty had a couple of implications, one recognized by Confederates at the time, and one probably not.

The first was explicitly stated in the Dispatch article, and was articulated repeatedly by Jefferson Davis: the only negotiation for ending the war the Confederacy would even consider would be one that acknowledged the independence of the seceded states from the outset. Of course, for the United States to negotiate on that basis would concede the very issue on which the war was being fought. The thought of doing that never entered Abraham Lincoln’s head. There would be no convention of the states, and the only meaningful negotiation between the two sides would occur at Appomattox.

States rights would have blown a victorious Confederacy apart

The second consequence of the Confederacy being founded on the principle that each state was a sovereign nation was, in my opinion, that even if the South had won the war, the Confederate States of America was doomed. It couldn’t last. Even during the war states like Georgia and North Carolina had serious disagreements with the central government in Richmond. Once the unifying force of fighting a common enemy had dissipated, the first serious clash of interests between one state and the rest would have set off a second round of secessions, this time among the Confederates themselves.

A “nation” founded on the principle that its constituent parts are sovereign in their own right is an impossibility.

Ron Franklin

© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin

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