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Why Secession Is a Big Problem — For Politicians

Tags Decentralization and Secession


When the southern states were debating secession in 1861, there was one other proposed secession that almost always gets overlooked in history: New York City. The Mayor of New York at the time, Fernando Wood, saw disunion as an inevitability at the start of 1861, and in a January 6th address to the city council, he advocated New York City’s secession.

“When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact,” Wood asked the council, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master — to a people and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her, take away the power of self-government, and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

Although Wood did cite slavery as among the reasons for the city’s need to secede (he believed New Yorker’s benefited from trading with the slave economy, and the city was home to a respectable number of slave traders who continued to operate their not-entirely-clandestine businesses for places such as Brazil and Cuba), he did not propose joining the Confederacy, which had yet to be formed. He wanted to establish New York City as sovereign entity — the Free City of Tri-insula, referring to the islands of Manhattan, Long, and Staten.

The Common Council agreed with Wood, and the city looked poised to secede. They only changed their position after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, not because they objected to the Confederacy’s actions as much as their desire not to be surrounded by territories that would view them as traitors during the oncoming war. 

But New York’s near-secession is an example of what many people in the North — particularly Republicans — feared from secession; they were not worried about severing their nation, but rather that it might dissolve altogether — or at the very least, break into multiple smaller countries. The relatively new Republican Party had grand plans for the country, rife with economic interventions such as infrastructure projects, a transcontinental railroad, a protective tariff, and a homestead act.

The only thing that had prevented such reforms taking place in the past was sectional disagreement on various policies. Southerners, for instance, supported a transcontinental railroad, but they wanted it to be built in the South, and no compromise was ever successfully made. Southerners also supported homestead legislation that would have sold public lands, rather than granting 160 acres for only a standard clerical fee. Infrastructure and economic protectionism were more widely rejected by southerners, and Southern Democrats continually blocked the passage of such bills.

But if anybody was permitted to secede, then the precedent would be set. If political disagreement could be established as sufficiently sectional (not necessarily North-South, but merely territorial in nature), then the disintegration of the central government could potentially continue ad infinitum. Thus, the national policies of the Northern Republicans (and some non-Republicans) could never be instituted.

Such possibilities were briefly part of the conversation about disunion. Virginia’s Governor, John Letcher, made the prediction in December of 1860 that disunion would not mean two nations, but rather four: The South, the Midwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England. The New York Times reported that Missouri was discussing independence from both the Union and the southern Confederacy. Other similar rumors continued to abound in the months prior to the start of the Civil War.

But all of these possibilities would upset the centralizing plans of the Republicans. In the words of historian Richard Bensel:

The legitimation of secession as a possible political option seriously weakens centralizing tendencies that would otherwise compel political and administrative integration and immeasurably strengthens the political position of the remaining regions in their own quarrels with the central state.1

The Republicans were formed as an alliance between various parties with their own particular interests. Anti-slavery politicians were a small part of it, but it also contained nativists from the Know-Nothing Party, and although Republicans wanted various economic interventions, different members favored some policies more than others or not at all. But “Lincoln’s election heralded the ascension of power of a broad alliance of northern industrial capital, labor, and land-owning farmers. As the alliance emerged as a contender for the dominant position in the national political economy, the Republican party became the vehicle for its political program.”2

Secession stood in the way of the party’s national plans, but no single issue could unite the North in a way that would garner sufficient support for a war to suppress the secessionists.

Except Nationalism.

Quoting again from Richard Bensel:

The major problem facing northern leaders was finding a popular basis for unifying the free states behind a policy of coercion. A moral appeal for the abolition of slavery during this period would have driven the border states into the southern confederacy and made a policy of repression materially impossible. The only other popular basis was an imperialistic nationalism.3

Nationalism thus served dual purposes. On the one hand, the patriotic devotion to the maintenance of the government the Founding Father’s enshrined in the Constitution, as many northerners saw the issue, was a persuasive claim for gaining support for a war. But by appealing to nationalism as the basis for war, it was also that much easier to gain support for national economic policies. Infrastructure no longer helped one state at the expense of another — it now promoted the national economy. Protectionism did not help the industrialized regions at the expense of the agrarian export economies, it promoted national industry.

With the Deep South states leaving the Union, Republicans no longer had their main source of political resistance standing in their way; even before Lincoln took office, many of the party’s plans were passed. But with appeals to nationalism in support of the war, national identity became a reflexive way of thinking for many Americans, and a permanent and powerful central state was embraced with open arms by patriotic citizens.

  • 1. Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 61.
  • 2. Ibid., 64.
  • 3. Ibid., 62-63.

Chris Calton

Chris Calton is an economic historian and a former Mises Research Fellow. He was the writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

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