The Jeffersonian Secessionist Tradition

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“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is its natural manure.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Nov 13, 1787

Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s July 4, 1776 Declaration of Secession from the British empire, was a lifelong advocate of both the voluntary union of the free, independent, and sovereign states, and of the right of secession.  “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1801, “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 a January 29, 1804 letter to Dr. Joseph priestly, who had ask Jefferson his opinion of the New England secession movement that was gaining momentum, he wrote:  “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, 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 did I now foresee a separation at some future day,, yet 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 . . .”  Jefferson offered the same opinion to John C. Breckenridge on August 12 1803 when New Englanders were threatening secession after the Louisiana purchase.  If there were a “separation,” he wrote, “God bless them both & keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.”

Everyone understood that the union of the states was voluntary and that, as Virginia, Rhode Island, and New York stated in their constitutional ratification documents, each state had a right to withdraw from the union at some future date if that union became harmful to its interests.  So when New Englanders began plotting secession barely twenty years after the end of the American Revolution, their leader, Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering (who was also George Washington’s secretary of war and secretary of state) stated that “the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation.  That this can be accomplished without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt” (In Henry Adams, editor, Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815, p. 338).  The New England plot to secede from the union culminated in the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814, where they ultimately decided to remain in the union and to try to dominate it politically instead.  (They of course succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, beginning in April of 1865 up to the present day).

John Quincy Adams, the quintessential New England Yankee, echoed these Jeffersonian sentiments in an 1839 speech in which he said that if different states or groups of states came into irrepressible conflict, then that “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 . . .” (John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 1939, pp. 66-69).

There is a long history of American newspapers endorsing the Jeffersonian secessionist tradition.  The following are just a few examples.

The Bangor, Maine Daily Union once editorialized that the union of Maine with the other states “rests and depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each.  When that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone, and no power exterior to the withdrawing [state] can ever restore it.”  Moreover, a state can never be a true equal member of the American union if forced into it by military aggression, the Maine editorialists wrote.

“A war . . . is a thousand times worse evil than the loss of a State, or a dozen States” the Indianapolis Daily Journal once wrote.  “The very freedom claimed by every individual citizen, precludes the idea of compulsory association, as individuals, as communities, or as States,” wrote the Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat.  “The very germ of liberty is the right of forming our own governments, enacting our own laws, and choosing or own political associates . . . .  The right of secession inheres to the people of every sovereign state.”

Using violence to force any state to remain in the union, once said the New York Journal of Commerce, would “change our government from a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism” where one part of the people are “slaves.”  The Washington (D.C.) Constitution concurred, calling a coerced union held together at gunpoint (like the Soviet Union, for instance) “the extreme of wickedness and the acme of folly.”

“The great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the New York Daily Tribune once wrote, “is sound and just,” so that if any state wanted to secede peacefully from the union, it has “a clear moral right to do so.”

A union maintained by military force, Soviet style, would be “mad and Quixotic” as well as “tyrannical and unjust” and “worse than a mockery,” editorialized the Trenton (N.J.) True American.  Echoing Jefferson’s letter to John C. Breckenridge, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial once editorialized that “there is room for several flourishing nations on this continent; and the sun will shine brightly and the rivers run as clear” if one or more states were to peacefully secede.

All of these Northern state editorials were published in the first three months of 1861 and are published in Howard Cecil Perkins, editor, Northern Editorials on Secession (Gloucester, Mass.: 1964).  They illustrate how the truths penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence – that the states were considered to be free, independent, and sovereign in the same sense that England and France were; that the union was voluntary; that using invasion, bloodshed, and mass murder to force a state into the union would be an abomination and a universal moral outrage; and that a free society is required to revere freedom of association – were still alive and well until April of 1865 when the Lincoln regime invented and adopted the novel new theory that: 1) the states were never sovereign; 2) the union was not voluntary; and 3) the federal government had the “right” to prove that propositions 1 and 2 are right by means murdering hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens by waging total war on the entire civilian population of the Southern states, bombing and burning its cities and towns into a smoldering ruin, and calling it all “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Happy Fourth of July!

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