One of the benefits of the vote on Scottish independence is that it helps re-establish a common-sense principle: a smaller political unit is allowed to choose whether to break away from a larger one. Nobody really thinks twice about the concept that Scotland was allowed to decide for itself whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. If they wanted to stay (and they did), fine. If they wanted to break away — well, that would have been fine too.
But if anyone suggests that a state should have the right to vote to break away from the United States, that person is necessarily Certifiably Insane.
I think it’s pretty clear this attitude derives from our history. In our wonderful and increasingly federally-dominated school system, children are indoctrinated to believe that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible” — and that some evil men once tried to secede because they loved slavery. So President Lincoln, because he hated slavery and racial prejudice, decided to stop the evil men from seceding — and now, anyone who talks about seceding probably is a Neoconfederate who wants to re-enslave black people.
There are some problems with that narrative, for anyone who cares to look at the facts. Lincoln said quite plainly in his First Inaugural Address that he was willing to allow slavery to continue in the South:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
In that same speech, Lincoln promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act:
There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:
“No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution–to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause “shall be delivered up” their oaths are unanimous.
It would be a bit odd to think that he turned on a dime so quickly and decided to fight a horribly bloody war simply because he hated slavery. He repeatedly said otherwise: that he fought the war to maintain the Union. As for his views on racial equality, it is enough to quote him from the Fourth Lincoln/Douglas debate:
While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
So: whatever you think of Lincoln, let’s not pretend he was not a non-racist, abolitionist angel. But due to the fact that the Civil War ultimately resulted in the abolition of slavery — one of the most ugly, anti-liberty institutions in human history — it’s understandably difficult for most people to see that war as anything but a Good Thing, no matter the horrible bloodshed or atrocities associated with it. Fair enough.
But what does that have to do with whether secession is a valid option today? Slavery has been history for generations. No state that makes noises about secession is talking about re-instituting slavery. No, those who advocate seceding from the United States, as far as I can tell, are people raising valid points about the sorry state of the economy and national debt, and the seemingly unstoppable march towards the repeal of our basic freedoms.
Why is it insane to have this discussion? Why do people take it as a given that the Absolute Pinnacle of Ideal Government is a single national government that rules over 300 million disparate people? It is really so crazy to posit that some of the states are tired of being under the thumb of a system that is running us off a fiscal cliff? It is truly insane to suggest that maybe some of the states are sick of choosing between socialism and socialism lite? Is it beyond the realm of rational discussion to argue that a state like Texas, which was once its own country, might choose to reassert that status when its borders are under attack and the national government won’t lift a finger to defend them?
To me, it’s not obvious that any state should actually secede. The benefits of having free movement and free trade between the states are worth preserving.
But if the situation in Scotland means anything, it’s that a free people should be able to debate and decide these questions for themselves.