Future governor of North Carolina, Quaker and Unionist Jonathan Worth, believed his State was driven out of the Union by Lincoln’s actions, which was forcing his fellow citizens to not only violate the United States Constitution by allowing a president to raise an army, but to also wage war against other States. On 30 May 1861 he wrote: “We are in the midst of war and revolution. North Carolina would have stood by the Union but for the conduct of the national administration, which for folly and simplicity exceeds anything in modern history.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"
If it was unconstitutional, did the opponents of secession have the right to combat it with equally unconstitutional measures? Was the president’s subsequent response any less illegal than the actions of the secession conventions, merely because his actions followed theirs chronologically?
Beyond the question of right, was it wise to meet secession with extralegal force? Was the preservation of the national borders worth the precedent of the chief executive initiating warfare, arbitrarily suspending civil liberties, jailing thousands on suspicion or political whim, using the military to manipulate elections, and even overthrowing the legitimate governments of States?
Perhaps most relevant then and now, especially considering the potential for the repetition and expansion of those infringements under increasingly numerous and nebulous emergencies, is the question of whether those infringements were even necessary.
Did the permanent weakening of America’s best protection against tyranny not exceed the violence done to the Constitution by the secession of seven States, and might that fundamental document not have survived in firmer health with the remaining twenty-seven States adhering to it all the more strictly?
For that matter, would the bifurcation of the United States have been worse than the war waged to prevent it? The instinctive reply (after requisite reference to the abolition of slavery) asserts that the precedent of secession would have led to further divisions, until the former nation had been thoroughly Balkanized; Lincoln himself alluded to that potential fragmentation in his first inaugural.
Yet the very choice of the pejorative “Balkanized,” which is so often employed in that argument, carries an assumption that a continent of smaller republics would not have been preferable. Nationalist advocates can and have produced abundant evidence of economic and social development under the reconstructed United States, but that evidence does not necessarily suggest that equivalent development would have been impossible under another political and geographic configuration.
Although it would likely have increased internal tension in the North, unopposed secession in 1861 ought, at least initially, to have eased the conflict between the sections – rather than aggravating it, as “Balkanization” implies.
Disunion would have made slavery a national issue within the Confederate States, rather than a divisive sectional problem within the United States, thereby eliminating what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. considered one of the foremost impediments to a peaceful, internal solution for that evil. The obstacles to proving any hypothesis of separation as a viable alternative apply equally to any assertion of it as an unacceptable solution.
If Lincoln considered the issue of secession negotiable at some point on a scale of increasing resistance, it seems that such devastating mortality would have figured fairly high on that scale. Had he been able to foresee the harvest of death his choices would yield, anyone as reasonable as the sixteenth president might understandably have opted against the carnage and accepted the departure of seven fractious provinces in return for a smaller but more peaceable federation.
Of course he owned no such foresight; the resort to arms seldom fails to inflict far greater suffering than either belligerent expects, but it took a peculiar blend of circumstances to turn the American Civil War into an unpredictable bloodbath.
It was Lincoln, however, who finally eschewed diplomacy and sparked a confrontation when he fully understood the volatility of the situation. Although he avoided the political blunder of firing the first shot, he backed himself into a corner from which he could escape only by mobilizing a national army, and thereby fanning the embers of Fort Sumter into full-scale conflagration.
(Mr. Lincoln’s War, William Marvel, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, pp. xv-xvii)