The Civil War was a major turning point in US History. While it’s role in ending slavery is well known another factor is that it marked a shift in the relationship between the Federal government and the individual States. This can be summed up by saying that before the Civil War we were “These United States”. After it we were “The United States.” Originally, the States were conceived of as separate sovereign entities that granted to the Federal government certain powers over them, mostly in the form of providing a “public face” to deal with the rest of the world. After the Civil War, the States began taking on more and more subservient roles.
It was the simple fact of the assumption that the Federal Government had the power, not just “military might” but legal power, to keep a State (or group of States as it happened) in the Union against its will–a power nowhere granted to it in the Constitution–that was the prime mover of that change.
So what would we have without that? If the right of a State to leave the Union was actually acknowledged. How would things likely have gone?
- Acknowledge the States’ right to secede(should be a no-brainer given the 10th–there’s no language in the Constitution forbidding a State to leave the union nor granting the Federal Government power to retain a State against its will)
- However, Federal land still remains Federal since it was legally obtained.
- This requires negotiation and possibly payment for the repatriation of Federal Land to the South (for example, places like Fort Sumter).
- I do not think there is any way the South would have engaged in this. They would still have fired on Fort Sumter.
- At this point, we now have, not a rebellion, but a war between two sovereign powers.
- North (in this case the remaining United States) still wins. Only now, instead of reclaiming States, they have conquered a formerly sovereign nation.
- With the South as a conquered territory, we can establish whatever rules we like over it, including things like the abolition of slavery.
- The South is now a territory of the US to eventually (“when it’s ‘ready'”) be divided up into States to be re-admitted fully into the Union. Said new States may or may not match the original ones. There’s no particular reason why they must, but then no particular reason not too either.
And there we have it. Minimum violence done to the Constitution. Slavery still ended. And we’re still “These United States” rather than “The United States.” Furthermore, the Federal Government would have to limit itself to only those things which have an extremely broad consensus since the precedent would have been established that a State or group of States that became sufficiently dissatisfied could leave.
But Lincoln didn’t do it that way and the result is what we have. At this point, I’m not sure if there is anyway to restore the “multiple laboratories of democracy”, a free nation of largely independent States freely trading with each other and relying on the Federal government primarily, if not strictly, for simply dealing with the world at large (whether diplomatically or militarily).
Which, frankly, is a great pity.