Secession and Liberty

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The
presidential election of 2000 showed that America is now divided
into two great political classes: the productive, taxpaying class
and the parasitic, live-at-others'-expense class. The latter group
includes millions of welfare bums, federal, state and local government
bureaucrats and "contractors," and their massive supporting
propaganda apparatus in the universities, on television, and in
print journalism. Now that the vast majority of what the central
government does is unconstitutional, there is almost no restraint
at all on the extent to which the latter class can use the coercive
powers of the state to plunder the former class.

The
federal system of government that was created by the founding fathers
was designed explicitly to deter this outcome, but that system was
overthrown in 1865. The founders understood that democracy would
inevitably evolve into a system of legalized plunder unless the
plundered were given numerous escape routes and constitutional protections
such as the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, election of
senators by state legislators, the electoral college, no income
taxation, most governmental functions performed at the state and
local levels, and myriad other constitutional limitations on the
powers of the central government.

The
most important protection was the right of secession, which Peter
Applebome of the New York Times suggests
we should revive
in light of the election returns. This was quite natural, for the
United States were founded as the direct result of a war of secession
waged against Great Britain. The very principle of the American
Revolution was the right of secession against tyrannical government.
The founders understood that even the threat of secession would
hold would-be governmental tyrants in check.

In
his 1801 First Inaugural Address one of the first things Thomas
Jefferson did was to support the right of secession. "If there
be any among us who wish to dissolve the Union or to change its
republican form," the author of the Declaration of Independence
said, "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."

Jefferson
and James Madison were the authors of the Virginia and Kentucky
Resolutions of 1798 which held that "where powers were assumed
by the national government which had not been granted by the states,
nullification is the rightful remedy," and that every state
has a right to "nullify of its own authority all assumptions
of power by others. . ." Nullification of unconstitutional
federal actions was a means of effectively seceding.

The
election of 1800 was a battle between Jefferson and the supporters
of limited, decentralized government and the Federalist Party, which
advocated a more powerful and centralized state. The Federalists
were so bitter about their electoral defeat that they immediately
began plotting to secede from the Union. The important point about
this episode is that this secession movement, which was based in
New England, was led by some of the most distinguished men of the
founding generation and was never opposed on principle by
Jefferson or anyone else. It was argued that secession might have
been an unwise strategy, but no one denied that states enjoyed a
right of secession.

The
leader of the New England secessionists was Timothy Pickering of
Massachusetts, who had served as George Washington's chief of staff,
his secretary of war and secretary of state, as well as a congressman
and senator from Massachusetts. "The principles of our Revolution
[of 1776] point to the remedy – a separation," Pickering
wrote to George Cabot in 1803, for "the people of he East cannot
reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South
and West." "The Eastern states must and will dissolve
the Union and form a separate government," announced Senator
James Hillhouse. Similar sentiments were expressed by such prominent
New Englanders as Elbridge Gerry, John Quincy Adams, Fisher Ames,
Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Story, among others.

The
New England secession movement gained momentum for an entire decade,
but ultimately failed at the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814.
Throughout this struggle, wrote historian Edward Powell in Nullification
and Secession in the United States, "the right of a state
to withdraw from the Union was not disputed."

At
the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence in 1861 the vast
majority of Northern opinion leaders still believed that
a right of secession was fundamental, and that the South should
be allowed to go in peace. The abolitionist Horace Greeley, editor
of the New York Daily Tribune and the preeminent journalist
of his day, wrote on December 17, 1860 that "if tyranny and
despotism justified the American Revolution of 1776, then we do
not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions
of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861" (Howard Perkins,
Northern
Editorials on Secession
). "Nine out of ten people
of the North," Greeley wrote on February 5, 1861, "were
opposed to forcing South Carolina to remain in the Union,"
for "the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration
. . . is that governments derive their just power from the consent
of the governed." Therefore, if the southern states wanted
to secede, "they have a clear right to do so."

Similar
statements were made by newspapers all throughout the North on the
eve of the war, and are perhaps best represented by an editorial
in the Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat, which on January 11,
1861, wrote that secession is "the very germ of liberty"
and declared that "the right of secession inheres to the people
of every sovereign state."

"If
military force is used," the Bangor Daily Union wrote
on November 13, 1860, then a state can only be seen "as a subject
province and can never be a co-equal member of the American union."

Most
of the top military commanders in the war (on both sides) were educated
at West Point, where the one course on the U.S. Constitution was
taught by the Philadelphia abolitionist William Rawle, who taught
from his own book, A
View of the Constitution
. What Ulysses S. Grant, Robert
E. Lee, and others were taught about secession at West Point was
that to deny a state the right of secession "would be inconsistent
with the principle on which all our political systems are founded,
which is, that the people have in all cases, a right to determine
how they will be governed."

Lincoln
never attended West Point, but he supported secession when it served
his political plans. He warmly embraced the secession of West Virginia
from Virginia, for example, and was glad to permit slavery in West
Virginia (and all other "border states") as long as they
supported him politically. Indeed, in a July 4, 1848 speech Lincoln
said, "Any people whatsoever have the right to abolish the
existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.
This is a most valuable, a most sacred right." Lincoln biographers
never seem to get around to quoting this particular speech.

After
the war Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in the harshest of conditions
but was never tried for treason, and for good reason: The federal
government knew that it had no constitutional case against secession,
as Charles Adams describes in his brilliant book, When
in the Course of Human Events
. After his release from prison
Jefferson Davis wrote what would have been his legal defense of
secession in the form of a two-volume book, The
Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government
.

The
centralization of governmental power not only leads to the looting
and plundering of the taxpaying class by the parasitic class; it
also slowly destroys freedom of speech and the free exchange of
ideas. One of the first things every tyrannical government does
is to monopolize the educational system in order to brainwash the
young and bolster its political power. As soon as Lee surrendered
at Appomatox the federal government began revising history to teach
that secession was illegitimate. This was all a part of Lincoln's
"revolution" which overthrew the federal system of government
created by the founding fathers and put into motion the forces of
centralized governmental power. Peaceful secession and nullification
are the only means of returning to a system of government that respects
rather than destroys individual liberty. As Frank Choderov wrote
in 1952: "If for no other reason, personal pride should prompt
every governor and state legislator to take a secessionist attitude;
they were not elected to be lackeys of the federal bureaucracy."

November
28, 2000

Thomas
J. DiLorenzo is Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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