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.” She added, “The great pride of the South Carolina secessionists was Sen. John C. Calhoun, a beloved pro-slavery politician who … championed the cause of nullification.”
In addition to Calhoun, some of the earliest defenders of nullification were the abolitionists who defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act declared that slaves who escaped to free states must be forcibly returned to their masters. When South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860, it specifically listed the nullification of fugitive slave laws by its Northern counterparts as one of its grievances. When U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis left Congress to become the president of the Confederate States of America, he specifically denounced nullification in his farewell address.
That Southern leaders denounced nullification since it undermined the institution of slavery only further reinforces the argument made by liberals that the Civil War was exclusively about slavery. But it also contradicts the Left’s argument that nullification is exclusively about slavery.
Still, was the Civil War just about slavery? Not according to President Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, he wrote: “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 secession, Southern or otherwise. In 1848, Lincoln said: “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, the most significant rumblings about secession had been made 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 and not always the primary one either. Quite frequently it was a wedge issue, exploited by those on both sides for the purpose of empowering political, corporate, or special interests.
Given that Maddow’s primary reason for denouncing nullification and secession is the popular association of these concepts with the Old South and slavery, would she have respected the Fugitive Slave Act if she had lived in Lincoln’s time 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 the MSNBC host have occasionally found herself in the strange position of supporting slavery?
What about today, where a de facto nullification remains in effect in California that 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 versus decentralization — the debate that raged in 1776, in 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 relinquishing centralized power — even in the name of what would typically be considered liberal causes — is heresy.
When it comes to liberals, not only was the Civil War just about slavery, it must be about only slavery. And that Lincoln simply freed the slaves is not just the end of the story — it is the only story, lest Americans begin to go down the dangerous path of looking at their history and government with honest and open eyes.
Jack Hunter co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Southern Avenger commentaries can be heard every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 AM WTMA.