Secession: Getting It Right This Time Around


For the first time since the year 1860, Secession appears to be a viable option, in part because all other arrangement for the operation of the American union are deemed by many to have failed. However, let me offer some friendly advice to the Secessionists among you. A survey of American history indicates that the prospect for success is minuscule. But don't be discouraged. Follow the sage advice that I'm about to impart and your odds for success will improve dramatically. In fact, I can almost guarantee that, if you adopt my deft strategy, you'll have a fighting chance of accomplishing your goals.

For starters, what do we already know about Secession? Disgruntled New Englanders toyed with the notion back in 1814 near the end of the War of 1812. But the abrupt termination of the conflict with Britain removed the major irritant propelling Secession; and so the movement (whatever it's strength) simply evaporated. Nevertheless, this episode should have furnished a warning. After all, in 1814 the United States was only thirty-eight years old as a nation and the cement bonding the country had not yet hardened.

The Great Plains and Western Populists circa 1890, who waged a futile campaign for liberation against the "imperial" East, occasionally broached the subject of Secession. And Southern states raised the issue while resisting the Federally-mandated Civil Rights' Movement of the late 1950s and 60s. Next the late 1970s featured the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" out West, which dovetailed nicely with John Leboutillier's diatribe against Liberal Eastern elites, Harvard Hates America. Clearly, the intellectual ground for modern-day Secession had been laid by 1981, just in time for the publication of Joel Garreau's groundbreaking book, The Nine Nations of North America – a work that presented a convincing blueprint for the partition and reconfiguration, not just for the United States, but for the entire North American continent as well.

The 1990s provided the concrete examples abroad of the more-or-less successful breakup of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia (Yugoslavia remains another story). The razor-thin rejection of Quebec Secession from the rest of Canada in 1995 also provided a role model for Americans of such persuasion. For the French-speaking Canadians (regardless of the outcome of that particular referendum) had scored a major triumph by even holding the election and having extracted a commitment from the rest of Canada to swallow the results. Elsewhere, the specter of failed states, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq – that should be, by all accounts, mercifully partitioned – also helped embolden American Secessionists. Finally, by 2000 the prospect of an increasingly global world – that is, a world without borders – induced many Americans to adopt Secession as a logical "tribal" countermeasure.

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Nonetheless, in a practical political sense, all these aforementioned efforts at Secession failed to generate sufficient steam for a number of reasons – in particular these movements became too closely associated in the American public's mind with a particular political party and its agenda – thus provoking strong antipathy from its assorted opponents.

This brings us back to the Secession Crisis of 1860–61, which came close to success. In fact, we can draw some useful lessons from that near-miss experience. In fact, Secession would probably have succeeded had not the Civil War intruded. For unlike the other Secession efforts, the movement to break up the Union in 1860–1 was actually a nationwide effort – not confined to a single geographic region or political party. For instance, as historian Richard Hofstadter notes, Northern Abolitionists were quite willing to let the South leave in peace. Indeed anti-slavery radicals like William Lloyd Garrison – who had dramatically burned the slave-sanctioning United States Constitution in public – felt that the Union had been a moral failure and that only the moneyed interests schemed to keep the country intact.

Meanwhile, when Southern Secession loomed, New York City, led by colorful Mayor Fernando Wood, sought to separate from the rump North and establish itself as an independent city-state. For aside from disruption of its lucrative Southern commerce, free-trade New York City feared remaining trapped in the high-tariff North.

A measure so revolutionary as Secession could never have gotten off the ground unless at least some Northerners had been willing to acquiesce, even abet the cause. In actuality, Secession was encouraged in part by the knowledge that there were fellow Democrats in the North – the Franklin Pierce /James Buchanan wing of the party – that was so accustomed to appeasing the South that they might swallow Secession. Or they might take only half-hearted measure to suppress it.

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In the final analysis, Southern Secession looked like an ad-hoc, spur-of-the-moment decision following Lincoln's election as President in the fall of 1860. As such, the South had neglected to take the necessary steps to prepare Northern public opinion adequately for the break. So in the end, despite the presence of some Northern allies, the South could not prevent the majority of Northerners from supporting (tacitly or otherwise) Lincoln's ambitious plans to invade the South and enforce compliance with Federal laws. For good measure, Honest Abe had skillfully managed to change the issue from the oftentimes abstruse merits of Secession to the simple defense of the Union.

Meanwhile, the South was by no means united in support of Secession – a factor that doubtless helped contribute to its eventual failure. The Secession movement seems to have been composed primarily of Democrats and opposed by Old-Line Whigs and other assorted Unionists. One can identify the political factions at play in various state conventions called to decide the Secession question. For instance, leading Georgia's respectable efforts to remain loyal to the Union was none other than Alexander H. Stephens who, several weeks later, wound up being elected as Confederate Vice-President! And these Secession opponents managed to hold Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the Union camp until after the outbreak of the war. And even following the initial skirmish at Fort Sumter, pro-Union sentiment remained strong in the Upper South until Lincoln undercut Southern Unionists by issuing his ill-timed and highly inflammatory Proclamation of Rebellion.

Curiously enough, although "slavery" is usually seen as the driving force behind the Secession movement, many of the anti-Secession Unionists were among the largest plantation owners. And the Confederates seems to have elected a Whig majority in their 1863 Congressional elections, which soon bedeviled Democratic President Jefferson Davis. Finally, it appears that the Whigs took command in the Southern states in 1865 in time to assure a smooth reintegration of the recalcitrant states back into the Union.

Meanwhile, a strong comparison could be made between the Secession movements and the Prohibition movement. Prohibitionists somehow induced the nation to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 with overwhelming bipartisan support – a fact that helps explain why the current Right-to-Life Movement – almost exclusively identified with the Republican Party – has failed to enact its controversial national agenda.

So contemporary Secessionists will only succeed fully when they garner widespread political and geographic support and avoid close association with any particular party or ideology. Therefore, any Secession movement must pay as much attention to the North as to the South and West. And rather than wasting time blasting the "Puritan" North as the source of all American dysfunction – as at least one contributor routinely does – would-be Secessionists must devote all their energy to convincing Northerners that Secession is also very much in their own best interest.

In truth, the Blue-state folks also favor the dismantling of the Union – they just don't know it yet. Indeed many Blue staters speak wistfully of an American version of a European-style secular social democracy that would arise eventually once the South leaves. But they have no concrete plans for any disconnection. (So in the absence of any such plans, why not supply them?) Be sure to make Blue Staters willing accomplices or "co-conspirators," if you will. Of course, at present the North has too much invested in the Union victory of 1865 and everything that followed accordingly, especially the Civil Rights' crusade of the 1960s. The North is loath to abandon its heroic triumphs over Southern "barbarism." In fact, it would be better for the Secession movement to drop the term "Secession" itself in favor of "partition" – a less historically-charged word that denotes a clean break from which both sides presumably benefit.

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Naturally, Red Staters find this "kowtowing" more than a bit galling. And many relish the prospect of obtaining some "payback" for the humiliation suffered at the hands of the oftentimes insufferable Yankees. For such revenge fantasies are doubtless emotionally satisfying (and politically profitable in the Heartland). But it's monumentally counterproductive. Since the goal today should be efficient Secession – nothing more and nothing less – it's simply a huge mistake to demonize the Blue States and their inhabitants

So instead of rehabilitating your Confederate ancestors (if you have any), spend time giving the Yankee his due. Talk is cheap. Tell him how much you enjoyed your mutual association in the United States of America. Thank the Yankees for their moral guidance – especially on matters of race. Be smart. The South has been on parole since 1865. The savvy convict looks his probation officer straight in the eye and thanks him profusely for straightening his life out! It's good public relations.

Tell the Blue states that it's time to separate, not in anger, but with mutual respect, admiration, and affection. Draw the analogy of the child who grows up and wants to leave home. And emphasize that the more mature (indeed chastened) South is now finally ready to go it alone. Meanwhile, express to the Blue states that, since they evidently want to create an American version of a European secular social democracy, the Red States no longer wish to impede this process.

Abandon any residual trace of neo-Confederate baggage – another reason to replace the loaded term "Secession" with the better term, "Partition." Instead, focus the debate on the successful breakup of the Soviet Empire (which Blue Staters applauded) rather than rehash the failed American break up of 1860–5. For gosh sakes, stop lionizing John C. Calhoun and other ante-bellum Secessionists. Don't bring up archaic doctrines of Nullification or Interposition. Stop romanticizing the past. It only insults the North, which thinks that the Good Old Boys are trying once again to pull a fast one.

And if you personally sport Dixie roots, don't hesitate to apologize for your slaveholding ancestors. Just because they were dead wrong on slavery doesn't morally compromise you today. Everybody is born with a clean slate – historically speaking. So make sure to distance yourself from the South's allegedly heroic "Lost Cause." And speaking of Calhoun and other Southern "statesman," stop pretending that their high-sounding constitutional doctrines were anything more than an opportunistic fig leaf designed to cover the abominable institution of slavery. Acknowledge that the Southern regimes were basically "illegitimate" and embrace the stark conclusion of Wendell Phillips, the North's foremost Abolitionist, that the Southern system resembled a "pirate ship."

Again, at the risk of repeating myself, the object is peaceful Secession, not a violent showdown like that engulfing Russian Chechnya or Eritrea today. And efforts directed to rehabilitating the South's slaveowning crew will only muck up the process.

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Furthermore, stop claiming that by the 1850s the South was headed towards emancipation. For any society that could produce and embrace a writer like the Virginian George Fitzhugh – the man who seriously argued that slavery was such a fantastic institution that the poor Whites should also be enslaved, thus enjoying its evident benefits! – was hardly headed for speedy emancipation. And accept that all pre-Civil War talk of abolishing slavery was invariably coupled with ambitious plans to deport the newly freed Blacks back to Africa or wherever. Full citizenship was never deemed a viable option. And face the fact that as late as 1938, Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo introduced legislation designed to facilitate the colonization of American Blacks back to Africa.

Finally, today's Secessionists need to examine carefully the fate of Czechoslovakian reformers (the architects of the "Prague Spring" of 1968) who failed in their attempt to break away from the Soviet Empire. The Czechs, led by Alexander Dubcek who had promoted the notion of "socialism with a human face," appeared on the verge of regaining their national independence from their Kremlin masters. And unlike the swift Russian invention to suppress the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, the Soviet leaders initially moved cautiously regarding wayward Czechoslovakia. Chairman Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo cronies even traveled to Bratislava to engage in frank discussions with Czech leaders. And it was only when Brezhnev and his colleagues returned to Moscow that the Kremlin hard-line faction gain the upper hand and dispatched a military intervention to crush the incipient freedom movement.

In hindsight, Dubcek squandered an historic opportunity at the August 1968 Bratislava Conference to disarm the Soviets with "kindness." Dubeck should have praised the Soviets profusely as our dear "brothers" who had unselfishly shed their blood to save the Czech people from Nazi slavery. The Czech leader should have cried out dramatically: "We will never forget their sacrifice! And so we remain deeply indebted forever. We love our Socialist brethren." Then for good measure, Dubcek should have burst into tears, walked over to Brezhnev, given him a bear hug, and planted a wet kiss on Leonid's mouth worthy of the reception accorded to returning Soviet cosmonauts. After such a demonstration of absolute loyalty, is Moscow really going to risk looking unappreciative by sending their tanks rumbling into Prague the next week? I suspect not. Remember, politics is essentially theater.

Nowadays, American Secessionist (better yet "Partitionists") and their allies stand at the crossroads. They will only accomplish their stated objective if they can craft a workable solution amenable to the United States as a whole. They must strenuously resist the temptation to score points among the locals by bashing the Blue States, all in the hope of securing some short-term political advantage. Rather, if they're actually serious about dissolving the Union, then they need to follow my advice by courting and disarming their erstwhile opponents. Otherwise, modern-day Secessionists are just whistling Dixie.

February 22, 2010