Happy Secession Day

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Perhaps the best evidence of how American history was rewritten, Soviet
style, in the post-1865 era is the fact that most Americans seem to
be unaware that "Independence Day" was originally intended
to be a celebration of the colonists’ secession from the British
empire. Indeed, the word secession is not even a part of the vocabulary
of most Americans, who more often than not confuse it with "succession."
The Revolutionary War was America’s first war of secession.

America’s most prominent secessionist, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, was very clear about what he was saying: Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and whenever that consent is withdrawn, it is the right of the people to "alter or abolish" that government and "to institute a new government." The word "secession" was not a part of the American language at that time, so Jefferson used the word "separation" instead to describe the intentions of the American colonial secessionists.

The Declaration is also a states’ rights document (not surprisingly, since Jefferson was the intellectual inspiration for the American states’ rights political tradition). This, too, is foreign to most Americans. But read the final paragraph of the Declaration which states:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other things which independent states may of right do (emphasis in original).

Each colony was considered to be a free and independent state, or nation, in and of itself. There was no such thing as "the United States of America" in the minds of the founders. The independent colonies were simply united for a particular cause: seceding from the British empire. Each individual state was assumed to possess all the rights that any state possesses, even to wage war and conclude peace. Indeed, when King George III finally signed a peace treaty he signed it with all the individual American states, named one by one, and not something called "The United States of America." The "United States" as a consolidated, monopolistic government is a fiction invented by Lincoln and instituted as a matter of policy at gunpoint and at the expense of some 600,000 American lives during 1861—1865.

Jefferson defended the right of secession in his first inaugural address by declaring, "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 to combat it." (In sharp contrast, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln promised an "invasion" with massive "bloodshed" (his words) of any state that failed to collect the newly-doubled federal tariff rate by seceding from the union).

Jefferson made numerous statements in defense of the defining principal of the American Revolution: the right of secession. In a January 29, 1804 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly he wrote:

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, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this; and did I now foresee a separation [i.e., secession] at some future day, yet I should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power.

In an August 12, 1803 letter to John C. Breckinridge Jefferson addressed the same issue, in light of the New England Federalists’ secession movement in response to his Louisiana Purchase. If there were a "separation" into two confederacies, he wrote, "God bless them both, & keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better."

So on July 4 stoke up the grill, enjoy your barbecue, and drink a toast to Mr. Jefferson and his fellow secessionists. (And beware of any Straussian nonsense about how it was really Lincoln, the greatest enemy of states’ rights, including the right of secession, who taught us to "revere" the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could be further from the truth.)

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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