Monday, December 3, 2012

"The word government means coercion"

In a post last week, I wrote that the immediate cause of the Civil War was a Northern desire to maintain the Union. The following passage helps illuminate the philosophical quagmire that cause poses for people like me trying to judge the rationale for war.

From Lincoln and the Decision for War, by Russell McClintock, on Stephen Douglas:
Douglas...rejected the argument that the use of force was incompatible with free, republican government. "Sir, the word government means coercion....The necessity of government is found to consist in the fact that some men will not do right unless coerced to do so." However, "coercion must always be used in the mode prescribed in the Constitution and laws." Illustrating just how much Northern Democrats had come to appreciate Buchanan's fine distinctions of a month earlier, he avowed that the use of force in order to reduce the de facto government of South Carolina, a government whose legitimacy none of its own citizens questions, would be a perversion of the law, not its enforcement.
Coercion is an important word. Coercion precludes consent. Any consent given under threat of coercion cannot be thought legitimate. So, how do we judge a government's right to do anything? A familiar phrase from the secession crisis, and from states' rights arguments throughout history, is that government exists due to "the consent of the governed." But is consent really possible, or has it simply been coerced?

If "the word government means coercion," does that mean that government has a right to use force as it pleases, so long as it can? Does that mean, so long as the United States wanted to fight, and had a population to fill its armies, it was justified in pursuing civil war to enforce the laws in the seceded states?

I'm not sure there's much morality here. It would be easy to point to the secession declarations of the southern states* to argue that secession was immoral, because it was done to protect slavery in perpetuity. But then one must also point out the Corwin amendment, which Lincoln supported in his first inaugural address. It reads:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
In other words, Lincoln supported an amendment to protect slavery in perpetuity.

How do we judge the beginning of the Civil War? Buchanan and Douglas thought that secession was illegal, but should not be reversed with force. To do so would be to invalidate the very idea of the republic. Buchanan's view changed as the secession crisis wore on, but his administration became an embarrassment because he had not acted quickly enough. Douglas' power in the senate waned, and he died in June 1861. People in the North knew how they felt about the war: they wanted it. I'm not so sure.

*Take Mississippi's, for instance: "a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization"

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