Slavery and Voluntary Association

Abstract: Freedom is an important value, whether the freedom is for individuals or a collective. An adult individual should be free to accept or decline employment or membership in a group. A group ought to be free to accept or decline membership in a larger group. This article argues that the U.S. Civil War, in fighting for the principle of freedom for slaves, ended up denying freedom to states. While states like individuals should be prohibited from harming others, they also ought to enjoy the right to voluntary association, a  principle enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Voluntary association, a principle enshrined in the First Amendment of the  U.S. Constitution, was the principle upheld in the voluntary union of states that created an unparalleled  social experiment in world history—the United States of America. Yet the same Constitution allowed slavery, an unjust social institution that is the opposite of voluntary association. It is ironic that the escalating repugnance against slavery as the experiment unfolded led to the Civil War that ended the voluntary association of states, as secession was forbade from that time on. This development led the a gradual formation of a union of states that was no longer voluntary. In 1865, the Supreme Court forbade the secession of Texas, in effect ruling that the original fundamental principle of voluntary union of states had become unconstitutional. Thus states were no longer sovereign and gradually came more to function like administrative provinces of  kingdoms and empires.

Immanuel Kant had written his Perpetual Peace inspired by the voluntary association of states in America. The League of Nations and the United Nations were inspired by the idea that a voluntary world association on states could be the foundation for world peace.

Slavery was from the very beginning the bane of the United States, it violated the fundamental principle in the United States Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” This principle, violated at the founding, was compromised because the Southern economy was heavily based on slavery.

But ending the voluntary association of states to fight the repugnant violation of civil rights called slavery was likely an unacceptable price to pay in the long run, for it violates the very principle the Civil War was fought to bring to an end. Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee:

I saw in the States’ rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but redemption of Democracy…. I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization.

Today after federal power has consolidated over the ensuing 150 years, individual states are becoming virtual slaves to the U.S. Federal government. Today the grandiose schemes of those who control the federal government, oppress the citizens of all states, without the original checks and balances against the federal government that secession would allow.

The long-term peace of the United States, or the peace of any world organization will depend on voluntary association. While secession may be as socially traumatic as divorce is in a family, if it is not allowed, the greater power will inevitably abuse a lesser power, creating a new form of slavery at a different level of governance. The principle of secession, like the concept of divorce, is socially distasteful, yet absolutely necessary for a sustainable society that is not built on coercion and oppression.

In our postmodern world it  is often said that values are relative and that social policy is a matter of preference of the majority. But the founding fathers of the United States were students of history. They built their “more perfect” government based on lessons of history. The study of history yields knowledge of time-tested principles, like voluntary association, that are necessary if the goal of a society is to be peaceful and sustainable. Our world has drifted away from such principles and focused on the majority opinion, or the elite opinion, on issues divorced from principles necessary to produce a stable social system.

Further Reading:

Anderson, Gordon L., Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0, St. Paul: Paragon House, 2009.

Kant, Immanuel, Perpetual Peace, ed. Lewis White Beck, Indianpolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.

Kaplan, Morton A., System and Process in International Politics, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1957.

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