Several weeks ago the city of Memphis, Tenn., took steps to remove two Confederate statues from its parks, part of an ongoing spasm of political correctness across the country to dump American history down the memory hole. Secession, the Confederacy and slavery have become one travesty in many minds. They shouldn't be.
America was born of secession, so it's unsurprising that many early Americans thought it was a legitimate course if necessary to protect liberty. Contrary to liberal thought, secession was not always a forbidden topic. A number of signers of the Constitution, such as Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris and George Clymer despite penning their names to the document, nonetheless firmly believed in the right of secession. They weren't alone.
President James Buchanan opposed secession but believed the Constitution gave him no authority to stop it. President Thomas Jefferson thoroughly approved of it. Even President Dwight Eisenhower noted that "at the time of the War Between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years." Were all of these men traitors and expounders of treason?
You might have heard of the Hartford Convention, in which the New England states during the War of 1812 considered seceding from the union. So widespread, in fact, was the notion of separating one's political unit from another, that New York City threatened to secede from New York if the new Constitution wasn't approved.
Thus, it's probable that the Confederacy did nothing unconstitutional when it tried to leave the union. Emphasize "leave," because the South didn't take war to the North. On the contrary, it only tried to get away in peace. While the bombardment of Charleston's Fort Sumter (no one was killed) was a propaganda coup for Lincoln and all unionists ever since, the argument can be made that secession was still a legitimate option that the North denied, Charleston was a critical port for the South, and the fort was on South Carolina soil.
What of slavery, the ultimate driving force behind the historically vacuous protesters against Confederate monuments? First, a simple distinction: the great Robert E. Lee and others didn't fight to defend slavery, but to defend their homes from invaders. We also need to remember that the framers of the Constitution had to compromise and countenance the evil of slavery. So at the time of the Civil War it was constitutional and would remain so until the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed. If the North threatened that southern "institution," then the constitutionalists were men like Lee while the unconstitutional actors were those such as Lincoln.
In sum, secession was probably constitutional, as slavery certainly was. Confederate monuments were put up as remembrances to brave men fighting for their homes. That's why Arkansas governor Bill Clinton created a Robert E. Lee holiday and a law honoring the Confederate flag. That's why Eisenhower praised Lee as "one of the supremely gifted men produced by our nation" and "proudly" had his picture in the White House. Political correctness robs us of truth.
Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion page.