Is there a genuine analogy between the secession of South Carolina from the USA and the secession of Lithuania from the USSR? Or between the actions of Lincoln and Gorbachev? The press either ignores the parallels or asserts that the two secessions are somehow different.
Of course they’re different; but an analogy stresses what different things have in common. World Wars I & II were very different, yet both centered in an expansionist Germany. Hitler and Napoleon were very different, yet both were conquerors and both came to grief in the Russian winter.
If there is an analogy between the secessions of South Carolina and Lithuania, a major point of similarity or difference is their claims to sovereignty. Lithuania was unquestionably an independent nation between the world wars and, though taken over by the USSR, never yielded its sovereignty, while South Carolina joined the Union of its own free will. No parallel there? Let us look more closely. If South Carolina could join or refuse to join the Union, it was then sovereign. Did it yield that sovereignty? Nothing was said in the Constitution about the Union being indivisible, and nothing to forbid secession. Indeed, Virginia and New York and other states joined the Union with the specific proviso that they could at will resume the powers they delegated and withdraw. The very word ‘state’, as opposed to ‘province’, implied an independent nation. Moreover, when the Constitution was being drawn up, a motion to give the US government the authority to use force against a state-to “coerce” it-was overwhelmingly defeated (constitutionally, Lincoin had no such authority).
And a proposal referring to the national government was rejected because of that word: the US was not to be a nation but a united nations. (In passing, we have not yielded sovereignty to the UN, have we?) There is, then, clear evidence that the states of the US had no intention of surrendering their sovereignty, and had no doubt of their right to secede. Thus Lithuania and South Carolina are fully analogous with respect to sovereignty.
It has been argued that Lithuania has a right to secede by reason of being ethnically different from the Russians while the South Carolinians weren’t ethnically different from the Yankees and had no such right. If so, the Revolutionary War against England was invalid for lack of ethnic difference. Even though some argued that the South had a right to secede on the grounds that it remained British while the North was “mongrelized” by immigration, the truth is that race neither validates nor invalidates a struggle for independence.
Did the South secede only to keep slavery, and does that invalidate their struggle? The answer is a firm No. At least 85% of the Southern soldiers never owned a slave. They fought because they were invaded. Moreover, in 1865 the Confederate States Congress, as General Lee had urged, voted to enroll blacks in the Confederate Army, whereby they would win freedom. Virginia alone was to have enrolled 300,000. But it was too late. The process had barely begun when the surrender came. Apart from regrets that Southern whites and blacks did not have the experience of being comrades-in-arms, the importance of the act is that it clearly proves that the South cared more for independence than for slavery.
What of the analogy between Gorbachev and Lincoln, each the head of a Union facing the secession of a member state? When South Carolina and the sister states, with marked legality, voted to secede, they took over federal installations within their borders. The CS wanted peace; and U.S. President Buchanan, believing that he had no authority to use force, did not do so. Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor did not surrender, and South Carolina did not force it to. Several months passed and then Abraham Lincoln, the first president to be elected by only the North-and, ironically, the only president of nothing but the North-was inaugurated, and immediately decided to attempt to re-supply the fort. Fort Sumter was of no value to the US if the South was to go in peace and also of novalue if there was to be war, since South Carolina would reduce it. It is difficult, therefore, to believe that Lincoln had any other purpose than to force South Carolina to give him a causus belli by firing on the flag. And that is what happened. Hitler, in conquering Poland, claimed the Poles fired first. Gorbachev runs his tanks through the streets of Lithuania’s capital – but the Lithuanians are wise enough not to shoot. What both Lincoln and Gorbachev simply denied is the principle we proclaimed in the Revolutionary War: “Just government depends on the consent of the governed.” The strength of the analogy between Lincoln and Gorbachev remains to be seen. Lincoln chose conquest.
At all events, there is no question about the strong analogy between small Lithuania and small South Carolina, each with a legitimate claim to sovereignty against a colossus and each desiring freedom to govern itself on the grounds of just government depending on the consent of the governed. And just as Georgia and the other Southern states followed South Carolina out of the USA, so another Georgia and Estonia and Latvia hope to follow Lithuania out of the USSR.
And the question remains: Why doesn’t the free and fearless US press want to admit the analogy between South Carolina and Lithuania?
Originally published in Southern Partisan magazine, Second Quarter, 1990.