Andrew Johnson’s Ingenious Sophism
George Herbert’s 1884 history text exemplified what Northerners were led to believe about the war, and what Southern parents wanted excluded from their children’s schools. With a severely distorted understanding of the framers’ Constitution of 1787, including its provisions regarding the writ and presidential powers, Lincoln and his followers destroyed the experiment in self-government. Apparently unknown to Andrew Johnson in 1861, the 1781 Treaty of Paris granting independence to thirteen former colonies, each individually as sovereign entities, preceded the Constitution of 1787.
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
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Andrew Johnson’s Ingenious Sophism
“In the Senate Andrew Johnson appeared as the Senator from Tennessee . . .
“It is believed that nothing has been done [by the President since Fort Sumter] beyond the Constitutional competency of Congress. Soon after the first call for militia, it was considered a duty to authorize the commanding general, in proper cases, to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus; or, in other words, to arrest and detain, without resort to the ordinary processes and forms of law, such individuals as he might deem dangerous to the public safety. The authority has been exercised but sparingly.
It was decided that we have a case of rebellion, and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the writ, which was authorized to be made. Now it is insisted that the Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power. But the Constitution is silent as to which or who is to exercise the power; and as the provision is plainly made for a dangerous emergency . . . No more extended argument is now offered, as an opinion at some length will probably be presented by the Attorney General.
It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement in the South be called Secession or Rebellion. The movers well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law . . . [but they accordingly] . . . commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind; they invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents of the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself that any State of the Union may, and therefore lawfully and peaceably, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State.
With little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judges of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice within the rebellion. Thus sugar-coated they have been dragging the public mind of these sections for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the Government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretense of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.
Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union before they cast off their British Colonial dependence . . . Having never been States, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of State rights, asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself?”
(The Popular History of the Civil War, Illustrated, George B. Herbert, F.M. Lupton, 1884, pp. 116-119)