30n. 2 Confederacies

Generally, the word “Confederate” is used in only one context = The Confederate States of America / Confederate Battle Flag. Few appreciate that this was a re-run of history.

The ink was hardly dry on the Declaration of Independence when the Founding Fathers commissioned a committee to write a document to define the new country they had just founded and establish a method of governing it. It took nearly a year. What they produced was the Articles of Confederation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articles_of_Confederation

One only has to look at the opening of the Declaration of Independence to see the mindset of the committee. The seeds of the revolution were the monarchy and the taxes imposed “without representation”. The result was their view of a diffuse government with no central control what so ever. The one lasting legacy of the Articles of Confederation was that it established the name of the country as The United States of America. But, rather than being truly united, the colonies (now states) were more akin to 13 independent, sovereign entities. They were to be “confederated” but not exactly “united” and they were not about to be “led”! There was no executive leader; there was no federal judiciary; there was a simple 13 member “congress” with each state having one member to be appointed by the state’s legislature. Nine was established as a quorum to transact business.

It had little to do. The Articles of Confederation recognized the need for a “common defense” and authorized congress the raise an army, but gave it no taxing authority to pay it or the debt that the country was incurring in executing the war with England. Only congress could declare a war or enter into treaty discussions with other sovereign countries. It had to “petition” the states for funds to operate.

The expression “not worth a continental” came about from the worthlessness of the currency printed by that congress. Oddly enough, that was even a clause that allowed Canada to join the confederation if it so requested.

It allowed citizens to freely move between and among the states and allowed for extradition in cases of crime. Primarily, it strongly affirmed States Rights: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”[1] Since the limitations and taxes imposed by England were primarily directed at trade goods, shipping and international trade all such issues were the purview of the states. This rendered the “government” of the USA unable to guarantee trade agreements with even its allies.

Perhaps most importantly, without a judiciary, the congress was unable to adjudicate disputes between the states which were not infrequent. Alexander Hamilton led a group to petition Congress to call a convention to address these issues. The Constitutional Convention was born.

Fast forward to 1861, as the southern states were seceding, their representatives met in Mobile AL to formulate a new constitution. They simply copied the majority of the existing US constitution. The changes they made emphasized the state over the federal: “each state acting in its sovereign and independent character”. Obviously, it legalized slavery but continued the existing (since 1808) prohibition on the importation of new slaves. Seemingly, while attempting to re-create the relative independence of the states, they avoided the pit-falls of a weak (non-existent) central government of the earlier Articles of Confederation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_States_Constitution

So, in reality, the CSA seems to have learned the lessons of the earlier confederation and walked a tighter line between state’s rights and a strong central government. Since it did not survive after the war, the long-term effectiveness of the document was never tested.

Oddly enough, about 100 years later, there arose what might be described as the antithesis of a “confederacy” = the USSR. It began with Stalin and evolved from there. Dozens of relatively independent countries were subjugated under the supreme central authority of the Kremlin and the Communist Party bosses. After only 50 years, the Soviet Union collapsed and these countries once again asserted their independence of the central authority while continuing (for the most part) to embrace socialism. 

[1] a harbinger of the 10th Amendment of the future Constitution?

Part 2: Slavery or sovereignty?

Just as full understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg can only come by placing it within the full context of the Civil War, so too, is an understanding of root issues that that led to that war. Was it a war over slavery or sovereignty (aka State’s Rights)? At its heart was the concept of secession. But this was not a new idea, it reached back to the earliest days of the Republic. In fact, it played a role in founding the Republic and it fits together like links in a chain.

To appreciate how these political ideas blossomed into war, we must examine their origins. It must be understood that the 13 original British colonies acted as nearly self-sufficient, independent entities with almost no links to the others except via trade. There were no political bonds. They only joined themselves to a common cause of independence when the circumstances demanded it. Having achieved that goal, they could easily have operated as 13 separate countries. Had they been islands in the Caribbean, they might have done just that. But in order to speak to the world with one voice – particularly as to trade and commerce – they affiliated themselves under the Articles of Confederation.

The first of these articles created the United States of America. They changed their status from colony to State, but they were hardly united. Old rivalries, distrusts and jealousies persisted. Because of their inherent distrust of the monarchy they had just broken from, the ‘unifying’ central government that these Articles created was inherently weak. The most powerful entity was a Legislature with 13 representatives. Its greatest weakness was that it required unanimity to act. This led to ever-shifting political alliances and demands for concessions to gain the necessary votes.

The second Article asserted the sovereignty of each entity: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.” They had formed a ‘league of friendship’ rather than a unified country. The citizens had much stronger regional bonds than those to an ill-defined country. They saw themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers rather than Americans. The several States fully intended to operate rather independently as before with only a façade of ‘unity’.

Barely a decade after the revolution (May 1787) the Founding Fathers gathered again to revise and expand these Articles. But the debate soon deteriorated into regional factions. It became apparent that revision was not the solution; change was. Breaking away from the concept of unanimous decision-making, nine of the States effectively seceded from the Articles and offered a new concept of government defined by a Constitution. It ran contrary to previous concerns in forming a more robust Federal government in order to provide “a more perfect union”.

What followed was a prolonged period of peace and prosperity (interrupted by the second war of Independence in 1812). The debate over the new governmental structure had revealed a major issue: slavery. The compromise (concession) in the Constitution was the 3/5th rule for counting slaves towards representation in the House. By 1808, the importation of new slaves was prohibited, but the internal ‘generation’ of slaves ensured the system’s perpetuation. The debate over its continuation became more heated towards the middle of the 19th century. The most contentious aspect was the spread of slavery into newly forming States. Various compromises were offered; none entirely satisfactory. Then the Supreme Court promulgated the Dred Scott Decision. Therein they asserted the ‘right’ of citizens to move their ‘property’ (a slave) into a Free State but to retain ownership. So a slave was likened to a man’s horse or his bed-stead. And yet, that same slave was 3/5th a “man” for governmental purposes! A duplicitous dichotomy!

The concept of secession arose periodically over certain contentious issues. Massachusetts threatened such over the admission of Texas to the Union.

By the middle of the 19th century the entire economy of the South was so dependent on the labor of slaves that it felt that it could not continue to exist without them. Slavery (in a somewhat different form) persisted in the North but more and more States were outlawing it. There was a growing moral sentiment towards abolition. The southern faction began to view the Federal system as increasingly postured against it. They saw these actions as an attack on their individual sovereignty. This culminated in the election of 1860, in which Abraham Lincoln was elected on a purely regional basis – he received no southern electoral votes. Prior to Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, the Southern States acted on their ‘right’ to seceded from the “more perfect union”.

It is worth mentioning that the South did not view their secession as rebellion. They actually did not anticipate that it would lead to war. They viewed it as their right to assert their sovereignty. A series of seemingly inconsequential military movements led to the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor that is viewed as the spark that initiated a state of war between these factions. They seemingly did not anticipate Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union. He went to war to preserve the Union not to free the slaves!

“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.”

It is likely that future historians will continue the debate as to whether slavery or sovereignty was the underlying cause of the war. The root of the issue was clearly slavery but its stem was State’s Rights and its flower was war.

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