Secession and Liberty

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.