The U.S. Constitution was a document designed to place restraints on the federal government the Founders were creating, not a document to restrain the people or the states. This is an important distinction
The Constitution would not have been ratified if not for the promise of a bill of rights to further check the federal government. That's because most of the Founders — particularly the Anti-Federalists — feared the Constitution wasn't strong enough to prevent the federal government from stealing power from the states.
It was commonly understood prior to 1861 that the states reserved the right to secede. There had been talk of secession by the New England states many times. They called it "disunion."
New England Federalists in the early 1800s feared that Virginia was gaining too much power and would act against the interests of New England states and in the interests of Southern ones. Many of them also opposed the War of 1812. After Thomas Jefferson's election, Federalist Stephen Higgenson claimed the federal government "had fallen into the hands of infidel, anti-commercial, anti-New England Southerners" who would "govern and depress New England."
The complaints of New England Federalists essentially mirrored those later made by Southerners advocating for secession in the 1860s. And in fact, in the 1830s and 1840s, abolitionists, chief among them William Lloyd Garrison, called for "disunion" over the slavery issue. A New England Anti-Slavery Convention was held and attendees voted in favor of secession by a margin of 250-24.
So we see that secession was not a wholly Southern construct. Even Abraham Lincoln, as a representative, recognized the states had the right to secede — he only changed his mind after became president.
To "save the Union" — which Lincoln stated at the outset was his goal in prosecuting the war, whether he had to preserve slavery or abolish it to do so – Lincoln trampled on the rule of law when he sent federal troops to occupy the seceding states and force them back into the union. The natural result of Lincoln's actions is the imperial presidency we have today.
On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln spoke these words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It's curious that he took the phrase "that all men are created equal" from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, but stopped there rather than continue with the words, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it and institute a new Government."
The Civil War was not fought to create "a new birth of freedom," as Lincoln suggested. Nor did it create a "government of the people, by the people and for the people." It did quite the opposite.
As H.L. Menken later wrote about the Gettysburg Address in "Smart Set" in 1920:
[I]t is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — "that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country — and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.
The states that left the Union to join the Confederacy did so in the true sense of the Jeffersonian principle of self-government, as stated in the Declaration. Lincoln's invasion of the Confederate States stood that idea on its head.
The threat of secession was a check on federal power that both New England and Southern states invoked between the ratification of the Constitution and beginning of the Civil War. It was generally understood that, because the Constitution was silent on the issue, secession was a viable alternative to checking federal power.
In fact, when during the Constitutional Convention a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state, James Madison proclaimed: "A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound." The proposal was removed.
Lincoln's claims in his address "that government of the people, by the people, for the people " would somehow "perish from the earth" if the Union lost the war was hogwash. Representative democracy would have continued in the Union and in the Confederacy regardless of the outcome. The Union and the Confederacy could have existed side by side as trading partners an allies, just as Mexico and Canada do today.
And remember, neither side entered the war over the issue of slavery. Lincoln's stated purpose for invading the Confederacy was "preserving the Union."
Finally, the final outcome of the Civil War did not usher in "a new birth of freedom." It did quite the opposite. It consolidated federal power, neutered the 9th and 10th Amendments and gave birth to the fascist system and the imperial presidency under which we now suffer. There is no check on federal power, the states are essentially meaningless and the political class is running roughshod over the Constitution and our traditional institutions.
Do Republicans really want to think of themselves as belonging to the party of Lincoln?
Yours for the truth,
Editor, The Bob Livingston Letter™
"The Real Lincoln," by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
"The Civil War," by Bruce Catton