A strong, but highly nuanced and conditional, case can be made that President Abraham Lincoln was wrong to violently prevent secession much as Russia is wrong to do so now against illiberal Chechnya. Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel persuasively contends that had Lincoln let South Carolina and its allies leave prior to the firing on Fort Sumter, the Upper South would have stayed in the Union. Limited to a weak rump of Gulf coast states and South Carolina, the new nation would have faced a grim future of isolation, slave revolts, runaways, and eventual collapse.
An even more powerful moral case for self-determination can be made, though Confederate multiculturalists will never do it, in defense of the insurgents at Harpers Ferry led by John Brown. If any individual during the civil war period deserves the accolade of hero, it is not Lincoln or Davis but Brown’s ally, Lysander Spooner. Spooner’s antislavery interpretation of the Constitution had inspired Frederick Douglass during the 1850s. Later, Spooner opposed the war but, all the while, he was consistent in his support for the inalienable rights of all individuals.
IMAGE: The Bombardment of Fort Sumter, an engraving that dates to 1863 (National Park Service)