If you have spent anytime at all in the western part of Virginia, you’ll find that monuments dedicated to U.S. Civil War are just about everywhere. For example, there are historical markers, statues, even an occasional flag or two. Generally, a lot of people who are native to the Shenandoah Valley are quite suspicious of the government in Washington due, in part, to the events before, during, and after that conflict. After all, a number of battles took place here and tales of the brutal actions of General Sheridan linger in the minds of many to this very day.
But now time for a bit of history, eh? The idea of secession was integral to the formation of the United States of America. After all, the War for American Independence against Great Britain was a secessionist movement. The thirteen colonies (or states) no longer sought redress or a greater sway in the matter of the government of Great Britain, but instead wished to break free of that government and to rule themselves as they saw fit. Once they achieved victory, out of concern over a strong federal government, the states first came together to create a very weak united federal government under a document called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This largely ineffective “perpetual” government was soon replaced by our present Constitution. But with this new government did the states reserve the right to secede if they so chose? There was no clear-cut answer. During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a number of New England states threatened secession over the issue of the Louisiana Purchase. His response? “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the Western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the Eastern.” Jan. 29, 1804. And “God bless them both, & keep them in Union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.” August 12, 1803. Andrew Jackson took the opposite viewpoint when faced with prospect of South Carolinian secession over the issue of tariffs. “The Constitution of the United States, then, forms a government, not a league, and whether it be formed by compact between the States, or in any other manner, its character is the same. It is a government in which all the people are represented, which operates directly on the people individually, not upon the States; they retained all the power they did not grant. But each State having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute jointly with the other States a single nation, cannot from that period possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation, and any injury to that unity is not only a breach which would result from the contravention of a compact, but it is an offense against the whole Union. To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation” Dec. 10, 1832. In neither of these two cases, of course, did any state or states secede from the union.
Then, on December 24, 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina issued the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union (the full text of which can be found here). In the ensuing weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all withdrew from the Union. In response, on April 15, President Lincoln issued a call for troops to put down what he saw as an illegal and unconstitutional rebellion. Although an earlier effort by some Virginians to secede failed, the government was quite unwilling to take up arms against its Southern neighbors and therefore passed an ordinance of secession two days later. (text found here). This act was followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina all removing themselves from the Union. Perhaps the history you learned in high school would lead you to believe that everyone thought secession was illegal and that war was the only solution. Not so. For example, consider the mixed opinions of the then living former Presidents of the country. Martin Van Buren (8th, New York) opposed secession and was an advocate for war. John Tyler (10th, Virginia) supported peaceful secession and was even elected to represent Virginia in the Confederate Congress. Millard Fillmore (13th, New York) initially in favor of the war later opposed Lincoln and supported the Democrats and peace in 1864. Franklin Pierce (14th, New Hampshire) although against secession was a heavy critic of the war and Lincoln, saying, “‘I will never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war.’ He opposed just as firmly Lincoln’s violations of civil rights, and thought the Emancipation Proclamation showed, his biographer states ‘that the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property.’” (Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart, page 360). James Buchanan (15th, Pennsylvania) spoke against secession but also against a war to prevent it. In an 1860 message to Congress he stated, “Our union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war.” After the bloody and costly war ended one would expect the issue of secession to be as dead as the mounds of fallen soldiers. In 1869, the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White that secession was unconstitutional, stating, “The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”
Let us flash back to the present. I cannot recall ever meeting a Virginian who called for secession, at least orally. The phrase “the South will rise again” was more of a metaphor than a true call for action and I assumed that such was the same in other former confederate areas as well. No one actually advocates secession these days. Boy, was I wrong and my experiences in Tennessee and South Carolina taught me otherwise. Like so many Virginians, a lot of Tennesseans and South Carolinians maintain a healthy distrust of the federal government. But some go further, advocating secession for his or her home state or region. Of these people and movements, the most organized that I found was the League of the South. They maintain chapters are not only in the traditional south, but also claim members in California, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, and West Virginia (who would think?). I would suspect, however, that most of their branches outside of the Deep South are quite small. After all, how many of you knew about the Virginia group? The purpose of this organization, according to their website, is “To advance the cultural, social, economic, and political well-being and independence of the Southern people by all honourable means.” But the ideas of secession permeate more than just nostalgic Southerners. For example, in Hawaii and Alaska, the two most recent additions to the American Union, there are dedicated secessionist movements. Then you also have the neighboring New England states of Vermont and New Hampshire. As a handful in Vermont look to create a quasi-socialist paradise, two groups vie for control of New Hampshire, activist libertarians and theocratic Christians. Will any of these efforts succeed and break away? And if they attempt a feat, what will be the federal government’s response? Will we be engulfed or torn asunder as a result of another Civil War?
So what are my thoughts on this subject? My theory on American government, be it local, state, or federal, is that the primary focus is and should be to protect the lives, liberty, and property of her citizens. Should any government fail its critical duties, then the people (ideally, through their elected representatives) have the right to withdraw from this corrupt and worthless government. Way too radical, you think? Do these thoughts not hearken back to the ideas which founded this great nation? Did Thomas Jefferson not write similarly in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.”? Secession, in my mind, serves as final tool to bulwark against the threat of tyranny. Like war, it should not be used lightly or without cause, but if a state (or locality) feels as if the federal (or state) government has usurped power or has repeatedly violated the Constitution then it can and should exercise this extreme option. It should serve as a last resort to advance the cause of liberty, freedom, and self-determination. Does the government exist to serve the people or do the people exist to serve the government? Don’t local, state, and federal governments serve at the pleasure of the citizenry? How much closer would the government adhere to the agreed upon rules if they could be punished with the loss of revenue and constituents? Say that Massachusetts wished to become its own nation to better promote their liberal values. Although I would think such a move terribly foolish, regardless of the reasoning, I would respect the will of the people of Massachusetts and could not neither take up arms against them nor advocate reaffixing the state to the nation under threat of violence. To do so would undermine the spirit of liberty and the right of the men and women of Massachusetts to consent to their own governance. All this being said, I truly hope that American government can be restored rather than broken apart. Despite the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of secession, I predict that the issue will resurface in the mainstream within the next 25 years. Will the American experiment crumble into fifty separate nations or will the issue be resolved through peaceful diplomacy…or bloody warfare? Are we, or will we be, a Republic of fifty United States or an Empire of provinces? Therein lies our answer. If we lay aside or are stripped of the principles and values under which this nation was founded, then I have little choice but to say, “If at first you don’t secede…”
Update: I’ve got a poll about this subject up in a recent post, so head on over and cast your vote.