Book Review: Sovereignty, Allegiance And Secession

Sovereignty, Allegiance And Secession:  An Essay On The Constitution And  Government Of The United States, by William Hunter

If this book is not particularly famous, it certainly presents an astonishing perspective from a writer of the time who is well worth reading and thinking about to this day.  Published in 1868, during the Reconstruction, the author was a judge in the criminal court system of Tennessee at the time based in Memphis.  To some extent, the level of disagreement during the period of the Reconstruction between those who held to early versions of the Lost Cause myth and those who maintained the proper and Lincolnian view of constitutional theory has been muted but this book provides a somewhat short (roughly 50 pages or so) account of the contradictions between the Southern Confederate approach and the proper American nationalist approach in a way that powerfully condemns the views of secession and supposed “state’s rights” as being contradictory to the allegiance that has always been owed by American citizens to the national government regardless of the identity of those who have been in the office of president, something contemporary readers would do well to remember.

This particular short essay has two parts.  The essay begins with an introduction that posits that the spirit of Secession is entirely contrary to the principles of American Republicanism, precisely what was argued in Lincoln’s inaugural, for example.  The first part of the book discusses the relationship of sovereignty and secession, pointing out that from the very beginning of the American Republic during the Revolutionary War that the federal government had sovereignty even under the Articles of Confederation with perpetuity and there was no intent on the part of the states even under that weak government to argue that they were sovereign except with regards to reserved local powers and not including those matters where the states were forbidden to act as free agents with regards to military and diplomatic matters [1].  The second part of the book then discusses the question of the allegiance that was (and is) owed to the national government and the way that secession contradicted this allegiance and demonstrated secessionists to be traitors and oathbreakers, something that is often forgotten when people try to behave as if Confederate leaders were loyal and honorable men when they betrayed the oaths they had made to the government of the United States by making contradictory oaths in rebellion.

As is frequently the case, this is a book that is not only intensely relevant as a look at sound constitutional thinking in the period just after the Civil War in a way that demonstrated that not everyone was snowed by the self-justifications of former rebels and traitors that sought to regain their elite status within the United States after their effort to rebel and separate from the United States failed spectacularly, but also for nowadays.  After all, we still live in an age where those states whose corrupt political leadership is hostile to legitimate national government leaders and principles seeks to form their own confederations as a way of preserving their local power and avoid having to follow the example set by a national government whom they hold in contempt.  And if the horrors of the Civil War have not convinced these states that this is a dangerous policy to follow, it will perhaps be necessary for a virtuous government to repeat the remedy of warfare in defense of American unity against those who would ruin a nation that they were not able to rule.  Let us hope it will not have to happen, but prepare for it all the same in rhetoric as well as in more concrete preparations.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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