There is nothing in the text of the Constitution to suggest that it is a treaty among independent nations, and the right to secession shows up nowhere. You don’t need to embrace Lincoln’s robust nationalism — he thought the Union had existed prior to the Constitution and the states, and argued that “perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments” — to reject nullification and secession. You need only go to the Father of the Constitution, James Madison.
Madison held something of a middle position. He explained in Federalist 39 that we have “neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both,” or, as he said elsewhere, “a new Creation — a real nondescript.” That didn’t mean that the union wasn’t a nation. “What can be more preposterous,” Madison asked, “than to say that the States as united, are in no respect or degree, a Nation, which implies sovereignty; altho’ acknowledged to be such by all other Nations & Sovereigns, and maintaining with them, all the international relations, of war & peace, treaties, commerce, &c.” In the 1869 case of Texas v. White, the Supreme Court nicely stated a Madisonian view of the question: “The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States.”
Madison considered Calhoun’s views dangerous. If the states had the power to decide whether or not to abide by federal law, it would lead to clashes between state and federal officials “in executing conflicting decrees, the result of which would depend on the comparative force of the local posse.” It put “powder under the Constitution and Union, and a match in the hand of every party to blow them up at pleasure.” Secession was “the twin” of nullification, and Madison urged in 1832, “It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion.”
It hasn’t been entirely put down yet. In his anti-Lincoln tract The Real Lincoln, Thomas DiLorenzo argues that secession is as American as apple pie. “The United States were founded by secessionists,” he insists, “and began with a document, the Declaration, that justified the secession of the American states.” No. The country was founded by revolutionaries and the Declaration justified an act of revolution. No one denies the right of revolution. Madison said that revolution was an “extra & ultra constitutional right.” Even Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, concedes the point: “If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution — certainly would, if such right were a vital one.”
The friends of secession aren’t eager to invoke the right to revolution, though. For one thing, when a revolution fails, you hang. For another, the Declaration says a revolution shouldn’t be undertaken “for light and transient causes,” but only when a people have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” What was the train in 1860 and 1861? Seven southern states left the Union before Lincoln was inaugurated. The South had dominated the federal government for decades. Abuses and usurpations? It’s more like lose an election and go home.
As Thomas Krannawitter points out, the Founders thought revolution was justified in the case of a violation of natural rights. The Confederates, in contrast, wanted to wage a revolution to ensure no interference with their violation of the natural rights of slaves.
This gets to another element of the anti-Lincoln case, which involves denying or downplaying the role of slavery in secession and the Civil War. DiLorenzo says, for example, that Lincoln’s cause was “centralized government and the pursuit of empire.” Walter Williams addressed the issue in a column aptly titled “The Civil War Wasn’t about Slavery.” Charles Adams, author of When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, pins the war on “economic and imperialistic forces behind a rather flimsy façade of freeing slaves.” The pro-secessionists typically fasten on the tariff as the cause of all the unpleasantness.
This is laughable. The tariff wasn’t anything new, and in fact was the main source of revenue for the federal government. Tariff rates bumped up and down. When South Carolina got the ball rolling on secession in December 1860, the tariff was at its lowest level since 1816, thanks to southern and western success at dropping rates in 1857. The Morrill tariff, steeply hiking rates and supported by Lincoln, passed the House in May 1860. But it didn’t pass the Senate until early the next year, its cause aided by the departure of southern senators who were no longer there to vote against the measure that some of their chronologically challenged latter-day apologists would hold responsible for their exit.
There’s no doubt that the South had reason to be aggrieved by high tariff rates favoring northern manufacturers, and the issue came up in its justifications for leaving the Union. But it was decidedly secondary to the primary issue: slavery, slavery, and slavery. South Carolina’s declaration of secession complained, first of all, that northerners had become maddeningly lax about returning fugitive slaves to bondage. The second sentence of the Georgia declaration was: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Mississippi avowed with refreshing frankness: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”