Why Didn’t the North Just Let the South Peacefully Secede?

That was the question Penny mentioned when I raised the issue of Abolition and where each of us would stand if we had lived in the Mid-19th Century. Well, I recently listened to a Fresh Air interview with Aaron Goodheart, a professor at Washington College, who provided an answer, and I thought this was a good thread given that this is the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War. Basically, Goodheart said allowing the South to seccede would actually end democracy as a form of government–not just for the U.S. but for all governments around the world (or at least deal a terrible blow). Here’s why.

Democracy can only function if people accept the principal that the majority rules–i.e., the minority will submit to the will of the majority (protection of individual rights notwithstanding). According to Goodheart, “secession is a form of anarchy or even terrorism to democracy.” If a society doesn’t accept and submit to the principal of majority rules, then groups and faction could simply withdrawl (seccede) whenever they disagreed from the majority. Goodheart says that Lincoln understood this, and I think it’s a compelling argument.

Now if democracy failed in the U.S. this would strongly indicate that democracy could not work in other countries. Therefore, secession of the South would not only end the U.S. of America as we know it, but probably the idea of democracy as a legitimate form of government for a long time in the world.

7 Responses to “Why Didn’t the North Just Let the South Peacefully Secede?”


  1. burgess

    I had a conversation with a friend about the Civil War just this morning. Living extensively in Virginia, specifically Richmond, the capitol of the Confederate States of America, she of the opinion that the Civil War was about states’ rights, and not slavery. I did like Goodheart’s point that the issue was the state;s rights to own another human being, that the Civil War was indeed about slavery, though, and correct me please if I’m wrong, It was Lincoln’s contention that abolishing slavery was a means to preserving the Union, and if it were possible to preserve the union while preserving the institution of slavery, he would have done so.
    I think I agree with Goodheart, and that the secession of the South would have meant the end of democracy as a valid form of government, but I don’t know if I buy his “majority rules” position.
    The problem with letting the South secede is where does it end. The idea of democracy fails, because in letting the South secede, what”s to stop another state from deciding it no longer wants to be part of the Union, or the Confederacy, or what’s to stop a city or town from deciding it no longer wants to be a part of a state, or a household, even, from deciding it no longer wants to be under the control of any government. The threat to democracy as a form of government comes not with the violation of the”majority rules” principle, but with the disintegration of the union as it leads to it’s logical conclusion.

  2. Reid

    Yeah, in the interview Goodheart mentions that although arguments refer to state’s rights, most, if not all, the arguments invovle owning slaves. (He also mentions that the Confederacy was going to built on slavery–not just in terms of economics, but in terms of principle–as in they would re-write the Constitution to include slavery as a fundamental principle of the Confederacy).

    It was Lincoln’s contention that abolishing slavery was a means to preserving the Union, and if it were possible to preserve the union while preserving the institution of slavery, he would have done so.

    Yes, this is my understanding as well. The Civil War, for Lincoln, was about preserving the Union and ensure the success of the democratic experiment. (which would mean keeping democracy as a valid form of government for all nations).

    The idea of democracy fails, because in letting the South secede, what”s to stop another state from deciding it no longer wants to be part of the Union, or the Confederacy, or what’s to stop a city or town from deciding it no longer wants to be a part of a state, or a household, even, from deciding it no longer wants to be under the control of any government.

    But don’t these groups leave because they disagree with the majority–i.e., they are unwilling to honor the principle of majority rules?

    Btw, the original question that we discussed was would you be an Abolitionist (versus a moderate–i.e., tolerated slavery for the sake of union) even if it meant the end of the U.S. as a nation. (Penny suggested letting the South secede.) I think it’s a tough question. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this?

  3. dixie man

    i would just like to say i agree that democracy works only when the governed understand that majority rules but the south had a right to leave the union and that democracy only works whenever the government know that majority rules in the case of the election of abraham lincoln he only had 44 percent of the populus vote and only 2 counties in the entire south voted for him this wasnt about state right or slavery it was about the same thing that is going on now in washinton corruption greed and deception

  4. Dave B (UK)

    I recently watched North and South here in the UK and was interested to find out more. I disagree with the satatement that if democracy failed in the US it would fail everywhere else. Firstly i would say the UK ia more democratic, and many countries still look to the UK for it’s priciples of democarcy.

    the other point that to succession is a form of terrorism, The US goverment supported Kosovo in their succession from Serbia, so did the US goverment support terrorists (KLA)?

  5. Reid

    Hi Dave,

    To be clear, I can’t say that democracy would fail everywhere else had it failed in the U.S. However, would you agree that the idea would have seemed less appealing and less viable had it failed in the U.S.? I think there would be serious skepticism and reluctance towards adopting, perhaps delaying the emergence of a healthy democratic society for a significant time period.

    On the other hand, don’t you think the success of the democratic system in the U.S. had made this system more appealing to other countries?

    Btw, when would you say England became a legitimate democracy? (I’m not sure about the dates.)

    Firstly i would say the UK ia more democratic, and many countries still look to the UK for it’s priciples of democarcy.

    I’m interested in hearing your reasons for thinking this. Also, I’m a little surprised at hearing that other countries look to the UK for it’s principles of democracy, although I’m sure the bias of the U.S. media and history books has a lot to do with this.

  6. John Koenig

    I still can’t figure out why the north just didn’t let the south go. The notion of states’ rights was only developed after the civil war. Prior to 1861, the southern states were adamant against states’ rights. They disputed the right of northern states to choose not to return escaping negro “slaves” to southern state masters. The south demanded that states not have the rights to overthrow their constitutional right to own people and federal statues that demanded human property be returned regardless of a free state’s laws. Read the state of south Carolina’s declaration of secession for a perspective that slavery was the single issue of the southern states. Now, an interesting perspective is this: the north had no intention of taking the south’s slaves. None. There were some radicals who talked that way, but their views were tiny minorities. Most northerners cared nothing about the plight of the blacks. Whats more the right to own people as property was guaranteed under the constituton. So what happened? The 19th century version of cable news networks got the south so riled up that they were afraid and angry at such a pitch that they went to war. Without the media getting people at a fevered pitch THE CIVIL WAR COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED….and slavery probably would have died a natural death as it did in other parts of the world…without 600,000 people uselessly murdered. What is the lesson today? Turn off FOX News. Stop listening to MSNBC. Stop listening top Rush Limbaugh and Hanity. Or Al Sharpton and, for all our sakes, think for yourself. Do we need another useless civil war? Are we that stupid? I truly hope not. They mix lies with exaggarations and are getting people so mindlessly agititated that anything is possible. That’s my rant for the day. But it is a rant and appeal for tolerance, rationality and dialogue…not cheap inflammatory journalism.

  7. Reid

    Hi John,

    If the North let the South go, wouldn’t this be a big blow to the authority and viability of the federal government and the nation as a whole? I could see this setting a dangerous precedent, leading to individual states challenging the authority of the federal government, if not seceding themselves.

    And do you not agree with Goodheart that democracy depends on accepting the principle of the majority ruling? There are limitations to this principle, but in general, it has to be accepted. Indeed, I believe the current dysfunction in Washington stems from the erosion of this belief.

    The notion of states’ rights was only developed after the civil war. Prior to 1861, the southern states were adamant against states’ rights.

    My sense is that the principle of states’ rights is invoked only when it suits the interests of the invoker.

    Whats more the right to own people as property was guaranteed under the constituton. So what happened? The 19th century version of cable news networks got the south so riled up that they were afraid and angry at such a pitch that they went to war.

    But what about the disputes about expanding slavery in new territories out west? I can’t remember the details, but these disputes, if I recall correctly, started peace brought about by the Compromise of 1850. Was rabble-rousing journalism primarily to blame for this? I’m not sure. My sense is that tensions were high regardless of the media, but I’m sure the (Southern) media didn’t help.

    What is the lesson today? Turn off FOX News. Stop listening to MSNBC. Stop listening top Rush Limbaugh and Hanity. Or Al Sharpton and, for all our sakes, think for yourself. Do we need another useless civil war? Are we that stupid? I truly hope not. They mix lies with exaggarations and are getting people so mindlessly agititated that anything is possible. That’s my rant for the day. But it is a rant and appeal for tolerance, rationality and dialogue…not cheap inflammatory journalism.

    I hear what you’re saying, and I’m with you. However, I think there are some problems we have to acknowledge. First, people depend on the media to form political opinions. Ideally, people will obtain information from a variety of sources and thoughtfully sift through them, leading to a well-informed opinion. But, given the number of important issues, this is not realistic–even for well-educated citizens. FOX and MSNBC simplify things and rely on existing tropes and narratives to package information into a compelling an intelligent form.

    Personally, I don’t care for this approach, but I feel like better approaches don’t really exist right now.

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.