Secession was the underlying principle of the American Revolution. The colonists who fought in the American Revolution were not fighting a revolution like the one in France that sought to completely remake society and overhaul its institutions. Colonial Americans fought a war of secession to protect their traditional rights and to secure these rights under their own local self-governance.
The attitude of Colonial Americans can best be summed up by a statement given by Captain Levi Preston in 1842. Captain Preston, a veteran of the Battle of Concord in 1775, was interviewed by Judge Mellen Chamberlain, who sought to understand why the colonists fought against the British. Judge Chamberlain asked then ninety-one year old Captain Preston whether he fought against oppression, the Stamp Act, the Tea Tax, or whether he was inspired by the writings of liberty theorists like John Locke. Captain Preston said he knew nothing about stamps or taxes and said he never felt oppressed. Judge Chamberlain then asked, “Why, then, did you fight?” Captain Preston replied, “Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
Declaration of Independence and Secession
The Declaration of Independence is a secession document. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain “unalienable” rights which include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This part of the Declaration about the natural rights of man is very important, but King George III probably would have had a laugh and gone about with his day if he’d stopped reading at this point. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to dissolve political ties with Great Britain. In the words of the Declaration, governments, “[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Moreover, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
This principle – that Americans not only have a right, but a duty to throw off government that becomes destructive of their rights and liberties – is the foundation of government in America.
Importance – Why Does Secession Matter?
Secession is of critical importance because it stands as the ultimate check on the arbitrary power of government. Common sense dictates that governments are less likely to abuse their powers if people have the ability to withdraw their consent.
States should not secede from political federations for, “light and transient causes.” Acknowledging the right of secession is critical if the federal government is to ever acknowledge limits to its power. Given the abuses and usurpations discussed, it should be apparent that federal usurpations have increased dramatically in the years since Lincoln’s “Civil War.” As such, secession should always stand as the remedy of last resort.
Legality of Secession
Constitution Allows Secession
States absolutely have a right to secede from the Union. Consider the nature of the Constitutional partnership agreement with certain enumerated powers delegated to the federal government. All powers not delegated to the federal government were reserved to the states or the people. Where in the Constitution does the federal government have the authority to prevent a state from seceding from the Union and reclaiming those powers previously delegated to the federal government? The federal government has no such power. As such, that power must be reserved to the states.
States would not have ratified the Constitution if secession was prohibited
Consider whether the several state ratifying conventions would have ever ratified the Constitution if those representatives had any reason to believe they were entering a Roach Motel? Consider that Virginia, New York and Rhode Island explicitly reserved the right to secede from the Union in their ratification documents. Since the states all entered into the Union under the same terms, it stands to reason this power was reserved by the other states as well.
For example, New York’s ratification document says, “the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness; that every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several states, or to their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the said Constitution, which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.”
Constitution Does Not Repudiate the Declaration of Independence
Consider also, if the Constitution does not allow for states to secede from the Union, then the Constitution would have had to repudiate the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is a secession document. The Declaration says, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” and that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Did the Constitution really set aside these principles? It seems a bit odd to say that considering the states had just seceded, defacto, from the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” just a few years after the colonies had seceded from the British Empire.
Consider also that North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont all ratified the Constitution after the First Congress had been seated, and after George Washington had been inaugurated as President. Vermont did not join the Union until almost two years after George Washington’s inauguration. North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont were totally independent states (i.e., countries) during this interim period.
Secession Provision Rejected During Constitutional Convention of 1787
During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a clause was proposed to authorize the federal government to use force against the legislative action of a state that refused to comply with federal law. Ultimately, this provision was condemned and excluded from the Constitution. The omitted clause read, “And if any State, or body of men in any State, shall oppose or prevent the carrying into execution such [federal] acts, the Federal Executive shall be authorized to call forth the powers of the confederated States, or as much thereof as shall be necessary to enforce and compel an obedience to such acts.”
In response to this proposed clause, James Madison said, “A Union of States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked, as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.” With respect to this same issue, Alexander Hamilton said, “To coerce the States is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised.”
Two Constitutional Amendments Prohibiting Secession Were Proposed Before the Civil War
Two federal Constitutional amendments were proposed in Congress before the Union Army’s invasion of Virginia and the southern states. One was proposed during the late summer of 1860. The other was proposed two days prior to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861. This amendment said, “No State or any part thereof, heretofore admitted or hereafter admitted into the Union, shall have the power to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the United States.”
Why would a constitutional amendment prohibiting secession have been proposed if states had not reserved the power and right to secede? If the Union was, “one nation, indivisible,” then this proposed amendment would’ve been superfluous and unnecessary.
Secession and Its Legitimacy
Jefferson and Secession
Several northern states entertained secession when Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800. In addressing potential disunion, Jefferson’s inaugural address acknowledged the right of secession. Jefferson said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
John Quincy Adams and Secession
John Quincy Adams, an ardent Federalist and opponent of state nullification, believed it better for states to secede than to be held together by force. According to Adams, “… the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the RIGHT, but in the HEART. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it !) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other, when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bonds of political association – will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies ; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect Union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the center.”
Alexis De Tocqueville and Secession
Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the best known foreign observers of America in the 1800s, in his magnum opus, Democracy in America, said the following regarding the nature of the American union under the Constitution:
“The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the states chooses to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right.”
Northern Newspaper Editorials and Secession
According to the Bangor Daily Union, the Federal Union, “depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone.”
New England’s Drive for Secession & Louisiana Purchase and Secession
Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, along with other Massachusetts Federalists, started New England’s drive towards secession following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Pickering and other New Englanders were concerned the new territory would diminish the influence of the New England states in Congress, among other things.
Timothy Pickering was not a random political figure in American history. Pickering was a Colonel in the Continental Army, General George Washington’s Adjutant General from 1777 until he was appointed Quartermaster General by the Continental Congress in 1780. Pickering was the second Postmaster General, the second Secretary of War, and the third Secretary of State. In later years, Pickering served as a United States Senator and a member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts.
In response to the Louisiana Purchase, Pickering said, “The people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views and interests with those of the South and West… I do not believe in the practicability of a long-continued union. A Northern confederacy would unite congenial characters, and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left ‘to manage their own affairs in their own way.’” Pickering’s conclusion was that, “the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation.”
The post-Louisiana Purchase drive for New England secession was intended to include Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, following Massachusetts’ lead. However, the drive towards secession fizzled partly due to procrastination by northern politicians, and because of a strange historical sequence of events that culminated with Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel.
Hartford Convention and Secession
Timothy Pickering and the New England Federalists continued their push for secession during the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815. The Hartford Convention was called by representatives from New England states after fourteen years under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of the Democratic-Republican Party. These representatives from the New England states believed the Democratic-Republican party and southern control of the federal government was harmful to the New England states. Federalist grievances included the aforementioned Louisiana Purchase, along with the trade embargo of 1807, and the War of 1812, among other complaints. It’s believed secession was discussed at the convention, but secession was not included in the convention’s final report.
The importance of the Hartford Convention and New England’s flirtation with secession is that secession was largely taken for granted and considered a natural right that was in no way forbidden by the Constitution. In addition, no arguments were ever made refuting either the legal or moral right of secession.
Secession was the principle of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and of government in America in general. Americans took this principle for granted until Lincoln’s invasion of Virginia. To say otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the fundamental principles of American history.
Abraham Lincoln’s Antebellum View of Secession
In 1848, Abraham Lincoln was a supporter of the natural and “unalienable” right of secession. According to Lincoln, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right — a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much territory as they inhabit.”
By 1860, when the economic interests of the north, and the economic agenda of his new Republican party were at odds with Southern independence, Abraham Lincoln’s position on secession changed radically, and violently. Lincoln’s unilateral invasion of Virginia, initially without the consent of Congress, led to the deaths of at least 620,000 Americans and the maiming of countless thousands. The war also destroyed the southern economy and brought about the perfect social and economic conditions for racial animosity to rein in the South for well over a century after the end of the war.
Secession and the Right of Revolution
Who has the power to determine whether a government has become destructive of the “unalienable” rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence? The Declaration of Independence speaks of the “Right of the People.” Do we need a federal judge to say whether it’s permissible for the People to throw off the federal government? Also, is there any reason to think the Declaration of Independence is referring to the whole “American people?” The “American people” did not ratify the Constitution. The ratifiers were the representatives of the people of each state. Each state acceded to the Union as a state. Seems reasonable to think a state could separate from the Union in the same manner, which is what the Southern states did in 1860-1861.
Morality of Secession
Consider the moral aspect of secession. Why shouldn’t people be free to determine how they wish to be governed? Moreover, it’s wrong to murder people and to destroy property. With this being the case, why are these activities (murder and destruction) justified if a member of a political union seeks to reclaim its independence?
Consider the case of General Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee did not want Virginia to secede from the Union. However, Robert E. Lee later turned down command of the Union Army because he refused to lead an invasion (through his home state of Virginia) into South Carolina to crush the people of South Carolina’s right to self-determination and self-government. It was only when northern invasion was imminent that Virginia’s secession convention reconvened, seceded and joined the Confederacy. At this time Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia to defend his home country of Virginia from a foreign invader. Few children today learn anything about Robert E. Lee, other than the cartoon history that he lead the army of the slave states. In truth, Robert E. Lee was a great, moral man well worthy of praise and remembrance.
Return of Secession and Self-Government
Today, Americans grow up pledging allegiance to the federal government and recite lyrics stating that the “nation” is “indivisible.” There is little hope that Americans will rediscover their heritage and history at the present time. However, America’s unsustainable debt and deteriorating financial condition may eventually lead to a time when disunion, decentralization, and distrust of distant bureaucrats could allow for America’s founding principle to reemerge in mainstream political discourse.