The Civil War: William G. Brownlow to R.H. Appleton

November 29, 1860

Knoxville, Tennessee

When the United States faced the prospect of disunion, in the fall of 1860, there was virtually no precedent to which Americans could look. This wasn’t a matter of policy differences: states were debating whether to leave the Union. And many felt that it was inherently wrong and tried to articulate why this situation was different from the American Revolution—why the North was not tyrannical toward the South in the same way that England had been tyrannical toward the colonies—and thus why secession was not warranted. William G. Brownlow, of eastern Tennessee, was one who was against secession and sent a letter to R.H. Appleton, a friend and former subscriber of Brownlow’s newspaper, unpacking the ways in which those states were wrong to secede.

Brownlow believed that, much as they may have wanted to, states did not have a right to secede. However, they do have “the right of revolution when circumstances justify it.” There was a two-pronged test to determine whether those circumstances existed: “an extreme case of oppression on the part of Government, and of continued oppression”; just as the colonies faced, if there was oppression and for a prolonged period of time, revolution was warranted.

Secession, however, was “a more monstrous and absurd doctrine than has ever been put forth in any republic.” It was a doctrine that would allow, for instance, Texas to have joined the Union and within twenty years have the federal government pay off all its debts with and fill Texas’ coffers with millions of dollars only to have it secede “with all this booty.”

Then there were the railroads; they had cost millions of dollars to build; and some of those railroads passed through states then talking of secession. If those states took offense “at something Maine and New Hampshire are doing,” how does that justify “decamp[ing] with the whole road, its stationary, running stock, and guarantees, taking all the property with them, and forming an alliance with some Government hostile to the very nation which built the road”?

It wasn’t a matter of the South being unjustified in its discontent. However, in Brownlow’s mind, the “South should resist unlawful aggressions, but she should do it in the Union, under the Constitution, and with a scrupulous regard to the forms of law. Secession is no remedy for any evils in our Government, real or imaginary, past, present, or to come.”

And yet, despite his lamentations—despite anyone’s lamentations—states were deciding they could and would secede. Perhaps these secessions were not legal in that the Constitution or any other law prescribed them. But when states organized conventions to secede and then the people voted to approve, wasn’t this a democratic process and result?

Appleton, reviewing Brownlow’s letter, could have concluded that the legality of secession was a question for academics and lawyers—but that it would lead to a fresh start for those states and should be pursued regardless of its legality. And with states gearing up to leave the Union, so arose the practical problem of how the Union states could stave off secession or even reverse it. There couldn’t be many options, and the most fateful option—a civil war—began casting a bigger shadow as the fall of 1860 turned to winter.

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