chapter  5
13 Pages

Confl icting perspectives on the dissolubility of the American Union

As we have seen, the compact theory of the Union emerged with the founding era antifederalism, affi rmed by the Old Republicans in the crisis of 1798, upheld by New Englanders, and then fi nessed by antebellum Southerners. The contestation between interposers-nullifi ers-secessionists and nationalists revolved around four interrelated moot points. Is the Union/Constitution a compact? To whom belongs the right of authoritative interpretation of the Constitution? Is one or a group of constituent units allowed to cease its membership in the Union unilaterally? Is forcible resistance to secession constitutional? The prolix constitutional controversy around these issues had lasted for decades and attracted scores of disputants before it was put to rest by the Civil War. The tenets of the states’ rightist perspective were set forth, notably, by Luther Martin, Thomas Jefferson, Spencer Roane, John Taylor, John C. Calhoun, Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis. Among the chief proponents of the nationalist side in the dispute were James Wilson, Justices Marshall and Story, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. 1

The nationalist defence of union integrity comprised the propositions on perpetuity, democratic privilege, infi nite secession, outlaw culture, expiation exceptionalism, and common heritage. 2 Secessionists invoked the right to self-determination of a separate Southern nation, subjected to economic imperialism and majoritarian oppression, the voluntary nature of the compact and the sovereignty of the states in a federation as well as the deceitfulness of anti-slavery propaganda. The states rights doctrine had variants, some of which emphasised the theme of divided governmental powers, while others, more radical ones, insisted on popular sovereignty to change the form of government at will if it becomes oppressive and injurious.