State and Liberty
Edited with an introduction by David Gordon
New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998, 344pp.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
a daily basis we are confidently assured by the organs of respectable
opinion that the process of globalization is continuing smoothly,
the old-fashioned conception of national sovereignty gradually giving
way to the idea of supranational governance. Yet this confident
note is not without a certain dissonance, for at the very moment
when a New World Order is supposed to be emerging, the world finds
itself confronted as never before by movements for secession, devolution,
and local control. Professor Donald Livingston has observed that
no more than twenty-five member states of the United Nations can
claim to be free of such conflicts.
in its historical and philosophical aspects is the topic of an outstanding
volume of papers first delivered several years ago at a conference
on the subject sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn,
Alabama. Entitled Secession, State, and Liberty, the collection
is edited with an introduction by David Gordon, a brilliant intellectual
historian about whom it has more than once been said, "Who
needs the Library of Congress when you have David Gordon?"
The result is an extraordinarily compelling work of scholarship
bristling with insight and little-known facts.
idea of secession, although associated in the popular mind with
radicalism and inanely even treason since the Southern
states attempted to withdraw from the Union during the 1860s, was
a common one during the first several generations of the republic’s
existence. Tom DiLorenzo’s essay on the subject sheds important
historical light on what has been anything but a merely theoretical
question throughout American history. In each case DiLorenzo examines
from rumblings following the Louisiana Purchase through the
War of 1812 the matter in dispute was the wisdom and prudence
of a given state’s withdrawal from the Union at a particular time;
that the states had the right to withdraw was simply taken for granted.
of this would have startled Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson refused
to view the American Union as anything more than a utilitarian political
arrangement to be judged by the test of time, and he expected it
ultimately to devolve into two or three independent confederacies
a development he did not view with any particular dread.
He told James Madison that he was "determined…to sever ourselves
from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of
self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness."
When Daniel Webster attempted to argue against the principled states’
rights position in famous debates with Robert Hayne and John C.
Calhoun during the 1830s, the best assurance he could offer them
against the possibility of federal tyranny was the check provided
by popular elections an alleged safeguard to which the verdict
of history has not been kind.
an excellent essay on "Republicanism, Federalism, and Secession
in the South, 1790-1865," Mises Institute Historian in Residence
Joseph Stromberg discusses the origins of secessionist theory and,
among many other examples, looks to the case of the Virginia and
Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Madison and Jefferson, respectively,
penned these resolves in response to the recently passed and constitutionally
dubious Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson’s, not surprisingly,
was the more radical of the two, insisting on a state’s right to
"nullify" laws it considered unconstitutional; this, Jefferson
insisted, was the only way to ensure that the general government
would not come to oppress the states by construing the Constitution
however it pleased. Liberal historians, Stromberg notes, argue disingenuously
that the resolutions were part of a battle over freedom of expression
only; in fact, they were the battleground of a struggle for states’
rights that would be a perennial theme throughout American history.
up Jefferson’s line of argument several decades later, John C. Calhoun,
in his own defense of nullification, insisted again and again that
if the federal government were allowed to determine the extent of
its own powers, no mere piece of paper, however venerable, could
stop it. The states had to be able to assert their sovereignty in
a serious and forceful way if the federal compact were to retain
its integrity as a joint agreement between equals and not to degenerate
into the consolidated tyranny that the framers feared.
American readers the most compelling essay may be that of Donald
Livingston, a world-renowned David Hume scholar and professor of
philosophy at Emory University. Livingston demonstrates that the
theory of the Union held by supporters of secession is grounded
so much more firmly in American history than that of its opponents
as to be almost laughable. To argue, as foes of secession must,
that the United States was formed by the American people in the
aggregate rather than by the sovereign capacity of pre-existing
states is to leave the terrain of serious historical argument and
descend into a vapid mythology.
also reminds his readers of the overwhelming weight of the testimony
of key American thinkers in favor of the principle that a state
may freely withdraw from that Union into which it had freely entered.
Thus he makes note of the important 1825 book by William Rawle,
A View of the Constitution, which was so widely respected
that it was used as a textbook at West Point from 1825-1840. Rawle,
no friend of secession, conceded that under certain conditions it
would be perfectly legal for a state to withdraw unilaterally from
the federal compact. President-turned-congressman John Quincy Adams,
another friend of union (albeit one who himself suggested the possibility
of Northern secession over the issue of Texas annexation), observed
in commemoration of the Constitution’s fifty-year jubilee:
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 bands of political
associations 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 from each other, than to be held together
de Tocqueville, moreover, the great French observer of American
affairs, himself wrote that the Union "was formed by the voluntary
agreement of the states; and these, in uniting together, have not
forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced the condition
of one and the same people. If one of the states chose to withdraw
its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its
right to do so."
N. Wilson, editor of The
Papers of John C. Calhoun and professor of history at the
University of South Carolina, addresses the obvious objection that
the states themselves are hardly bastions of liberty and culture
these days. "I know there are many moral and social problems
that are not solved by political arrangements, and that the level
of statesmanship in the states is not much higher, if at all, than
in the federal government," he observes. "But if we are
to speak of curbing the central power, the states are what we have
got. They exist. They are historical, political, cultural realities,
the indestructible bottom line of the American system."
is precisely the point. Any effort to recover the old American republic
must begin with its constituent parts, the states. And any serious
thought on the subject must come to grips with the intellectually
rigorous contributions ranging in subject matter from the
political theory of secession to analyses of devolutionist rumblings
in Quebec and in Europe to Secession, State and Liberty,
a unique scholarly volume on a subject rarely accorded serious academic
treatment. As Professor Wilson puts it, "It would be a shame
if, in this world-historical time of devolution, Americans did not
look back to an ancient and honorable tradition that lies readily
E. Woods, Jr., a 1994 graduate of Harvard College, holds a Ph.D.
in history from Columbia University and is currently a professor
of history at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, New York.