In today’s parlance, the concept of secession not only connotes insurrection but even treason. However, in 1789, when the Constitution became the governing law of the United States, the right of secession was a hotly debated subject. Even during the two-year period of the document’s drafting and ratification, the seeds of secession were sown when some states demanded an amendment to the Constitution that would allow the people to return sovereignty to their state if conditions should ever demand it. Examples of this could be seen in resolutions proposed by New York and Rhode Island that requested, in part, that “the power of government may be reassumed by the people whenever it shall become necessary.”

Even though the resolutions which would allow secession were ultimately rejected, with the Tenth Amendment put in their place, the Constitution that was finally ratified by all the thirteen states contained no section prohibiting secession. The first test of a state’s right in this regard took place only a decade later in response to the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.

In 1798 and the following year, Kentucky and Virginia offered resolutions written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison declaring that since the Alien and Sedition Act was deemed unconstitutional, the states had the right to declare it so and nullify the Act. John Taylor and other members of the Virginia House of Representatives took the matter s step further when they proposed that if the Act was not repealed, Virginia should secede from the United States. Even Vice President Jefferson tended to agree with the concept of secession in this matter. In a letter to then Congressman James Madison, Jefferson stated that if the federal government did not return to the true principles of the Constitution, we should “sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government we have reserved.”

The possibility of secession again arose during the War of 1812 and was even commented on by the writer of the preamble to the Constitution and an ardent supporter of a strong federal government, Gouveneur Morris of New York. Morris stated that while all Americans were citizens of a single union, it was possible that “secession, under certain conditions, was entirely constitutional.” Such an action was actually considered in December of 1814 by a group of Federalists from the five New England states.

In that instance, dissatisfaction with the administration had begun with President Jefferson’s purchase of the the Louisiana territory from France in 1803. The New England Federalists, led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts who had served as postmaster genera;, secretary of war and secretary of state in the Washington and Adams administrations, charged that the purchase had been made without the consent of Congress. They also felt that the Embargo Act of 1807 was detrimental to New England’s business interests, as well as that the War of 1812 with Great Britain was a mistake and a peace treaty should be immediately concluded.

The group felt their grievances could only be met through the secession of the New England states and the formation of a pro-British northeast confederation that might also include parts of southern Canada . . . a proposal that was supported by the press throughout New England. At the end of 1814, delegates from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont met in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss all the issues involved, including secession. Two months later, however, the War of 1812 had ended, and with it ended the idea of New England’s secession . . . at least for the next two decades.

South Carolina also flirted twice with secession prior to 1860, first in protest to the 1828 and 1832 Tariff Acts, which the state said would endanger its economy, and again in 1850 over a slavery issue. In the latter case, there had been growing unrest in the South concerning such proposals as the Wilmot Proviso to make all the land taken in the recent Mexican War non-slave states and territories. In 1850, the South Carolina secessionist movement elected John H. Means as governor, sent Robert Barnwell Rhett to the U. S. Senate and created a board to prepare an ordinance of secession. Supporters of the Compromise of 1850 finally prevailed, however, and South Carolina’s secession was derailed for a decade.

Meanwhile, in the 1830s, abolitionist newspaper publishers in the North, such as William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts and Benjamin Lundy of New Jersey, considered that the North was being victimized by Southern slaveholders and Western expansionists. They were also opposed to the possibility of a war with Mexica and advocated that the Northern states secede from the Union to form a new, slave-free confederacy. Garrison even went so far as to add the cry “No Union with Slaveholders” to the masthead of his Boston newspaper, “The Liberator.” The idea of Northern secession grew to the point when, in January of 1842, Congressman and former president John Quincy Adams presented a Massachusetts petition to Congress requesting the dissolution of the union.

The secession sentiment continued to grow throughout the North and at the 1851 New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, the delegates approved Northern secession by a vote of 250 to 24. Then, during 1856 and 1857, a number of well-attended “No Union with Slaveholders” conventions were held in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. It was just three years later that South Carolina actually passed the nation’s first ordinance of secession . . . a move that was swiftly emulated by six additional Southern states, followed by their reformation as the Confederate States of America.

Prior to all that, the first in-depth study of the Constitution was written by a highly-regarded Pennsylvania lawyer, William Rawle, who had been appointed as that state’s federal attorney by President Washington in 1791. His seminal work, “A View of the Constitution of the United States of America,” was published in 1829 and soon became a major text book at many universities, including the U. S. Military Academy.

The final chapter of Rawle’s book presented a lengthy dissertation on the question of secession. Rawle did not advocate a state taking such a drastic action, but he presented the various circumstances under which it might be considered, as well as the reasons why it should not. His study of the Constitution led him to the conclusion that since the union of states was not irrevocable, that secession was allowable under the Constitution. Needless to say, Rawle’s work was carefully studied by many of the South’s future lawmakers.

During the period when secession was first being considered in the North, an actual act of insurrection against the United States was being contemplated by former Vice President Aaron Burr. Following his killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, Burr had been removed from office and traveled west where it was reported that he was raising an army to take over parts of the newly purchased Louisiana territory, as well as starting a war with Spain in order to gain control of Mexico.

As President Jefferson had been told by Secretary of State James Madison that he lacked the authority to send federal or state troops to counter Burr’s rebellion, he asked Congress for a law to allow such action on his part. Both houses acted swiftly, and passed the Insurrection Act of 1807. Before Jefferson could implement the new law, however, Burr had been arrested in Alabama on a charge of treason. His trial ended in acquittal, and Burr left the United States for a five-year stay in Europe.

The original Act required that state militias could only be called into federal service if it was requested by a state. The Act was rarely used though, first by Jefferson in 1808 in relation to violations of the Embargo Act of 1807 by shippers on Lake Champlain. President Andrew Jackson employed it twice, first in i831 when Virginia requested troops be federalized to put down the Nat Turner slave rebellion and again in 1834 at the request of Maryland involving a labor dispute on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The Act’s most important and controversial use, however, came in 1861 after the attempt by President Lincoln to send federal troops and munitions to Forts Sumter and Pickens had led to the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12th. Two days later, after the fort had been evacuated, Lincoln asked General Winfield Scott, the commander of the Union Army, if he felt that the capital was safe from Confederate attack and was assured by Scott that the capital was protected by a “higher power” and could not be taken. With some degree of cynicism, Lincoln replied, “Even if it has been ordained that the city of Washington will never be taken by the Southerners, what would we do, in case they made an attack upon the place, without men and heavy guns?”

Actually, Lincoln’s comment was not only cynical, but hypocritical as well, since at the time it was made, Washington was surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia . . . both of which were still loyal to the Union. Virginia had taken a vote to secede on April 4th, but it had been defeated ninety to forty-five. Furthermore, just two weeks prior to his meeting with the president, the seventy-five year old Scott, realizing he could bo longer effectively lead troops in the field, had offered command of the Union Army to his most trusted officer, Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia.

Nevertheless, the day after Lincoln asked for and received an amendment that would bolster the Militia Act of 1795 by changing the the Insurrection Act to allow him, without the consent of a state, to use both federal troops and federalized state militias against the seven Southern states. Then, on the 15th of April, ignoring all the still unresolved or unadjudicated secession arguments and movements that had taken place in the country for almost a century, he issued a proclamation stating that since the seven Southern states he named were in insurrection against the government of the United States, he was calling for seventy-five thousand troops to be supplied to suppress the rebellion. In addition, Lincoln immediately brought several thousand state troops from Massachusetts and New York to Washington to defend the capital.

Only then did the states of Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia also vote to secede and join the Confederacy. Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri had attempted to follow suit, but were prevented in doing so by Union troops. Even though the District of Columbia was now partially surrounded by a hostile state, no attempt to attack the federal capital had been made by the Confederate forces. In spite of this, on May 24th, only a day after Virginia had ratified its April 17th ordinance of secession, thousands of the Union troops that had been sent to “defend” Washington, including infantry, cavalry and artillery units, poured out of the city to invade and occupy a large part of Virginia . . . and Lincoln’s undeclared war to quell what he termed an insurrection was fully begun.

John Marquardt

John Marquardt is a native of Connecticut but a Southerner at heart. After attending the University of Georgia, Marquardt realized the truth and the value of the Southern tradition. He served in World War II and spent his career in international trade. He currently resides in Tokyo, Japan. His Japanese wife loves Charleston and Savannah and admires Southern culture.


  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    And in March, 1861, the States remaining in the union passed the Corwin Amendment through the House and Senate.

    The Corwin Amendment would forever protect slavery from the federal government in the remaining slave States where it currently was practiced.

    Five States of the Cotton-Stateless union ratified the Corwin Amendment. The Corwin Amendment is one of only 6 unratified Constitutional Amendments.

    The Corwin Amendment has been abandoned by the writers of history. They abandoned it for only one reason; it reveals the lie of the high moral ground the yankees used to justify total war upon civilians.

    The absence of slave uprisings reveals the lie of the horrors of slavery. That’s why you’ve never heard of the Slave Narratives…the Slave Narratives don’t follow the narrative.

    Thank you for your work.

  • James M Persons says:

    Does the author not know that Virginia also reserved the right to secede? Perhaps that is an oversight.

    The Constitution is a document created to say only, and specifically, what the federal government was allowed to do, thus limiting federal power, not what the people or states are allowed to do. Nowhere in the Constitution is the issue of secession addressed. Therefore, the federal government has no legitimate Constitutional power over secession. The 9th and 10th Amendments enumerated that all other rights were left to the states/people. Therefore, the feds had/have no right to prevent secession.

  • Michael Woodward says:

    As Yale law professor Akil Amar clearly points out, George Washington emphatically rejected the idea that any individual state, post-ratification, could unilaterally leave the Union. If allowed, any state could ally itself with a foreign European monarchy of its choosing, thus endangering the union. Federalist Papers 2-8 are of great geopolitical importance, and Federalist 11 models USA #2 on the indissoluble union of Scotland and England (1707). Don’t overlook Article VI, Section II (the Supremacy Clause) or the fact that the new Constitution dropped the emphatic language of the Articles of Confederation proclaiming that each state was sovereign (By the way, could Charleston secede from South Carolina or Boston from Massachusetts?). The new government, Amar argues, was NOT a league or a treaty of sovereign states, but a true constitution modeled on contemporaneous state constitutions. Never did a leading Federalist suggest that a state could unilaterally leave the new union.

    Madison made a key point here: “The Constitution requires an adoption IN TOTO and FOR EVER. It had been so adopted by other states ” (including Madison’s Virginia)… “A reservation of the right to withdraw…was inconsistent with the Constitution, and was no ratification.” As President Lincoln pointed out and as Garry Wills examines, no constitution provides for the means of its own termination. For a Constitution to be terminated , all parties would have to agree to rescind it. The Union, in fact, precedes the states in time as well as authority. Unilateral secession negates the idea of a “perpetual union” and a “more perfect union.” The right to revolution must be exercised by the people as a whole, not by a part.

    The irony here is that if the South had not seceded, they would have been able to keep slavery. By firing on Ft. Sumter, they guaranteed the destruction of their “peculiar institution.”

    • Gee Tisdale says:

      In Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that for the general ( that means U.S. Government) government to invade the States is treason .
      P.S. ” Bloody Bill ” Rides ! !

      • John Marquardt says:

        This comment certainly sheds a light on Lincoln’s violation of Article IV of the Constitution and the unconstitutionality of his invasion of the South. Section 4 of the Article states in part that the “United States shall guarantee to every state in this union” protection “against invasion and . . . domestic violence” Since the first provision could hardly apply should the United States itself be the invader, Lincoln had to turn to the second cause of “domestic violence” as his rationale for the invasion by declaring that the Southern states were in rebellion against the United States, and thus in violation of the Insurrection Act of 1807 As his action would also have violated the Act’s provision that a state first had to request such federal military assistance, Lincoln had to quickly obtain an amendment to the 1807 Act that would allow him to invade the South unilaterally.

        As a sidebar, Lincoln also violated Section 3 of the same Article later in the war when he allowed West Virginia to be admitted into the Union as a new state without the constitutionally required consent of the Virginia legislature. If he had obeyed the Constitution in this matter, Lincoln would have had to deny that such permission could not be obtained due to the condition of “rebellion”`that then existed in the state.

    • Paul Yarbrough says:

      The Articles of Confederation required any changes to be agreed to and ratified by unanimous consent. The Articles were dissolved without such a vote.
      The union existed prior to the states? When? The original secession document of July 4, 1776 stated that the colonies were free and independent STATES of the world. They were independent of any “union.”

    • Albert Alioto says:

      A couple of things. If Madison’s argument that “A reservation of the right to withdraw.. was inconsistent with the Constitution, and was no ratification,” then the ratifications of the three states, including Virginia, that specifically declared the right to withdraw should have been rejected. They weren’t.

      Does anyone contend that it was the “people as a whole” who acted in 1776?

      Is it contended that any group of people, no matter how large, can decide something at one point in time, and that the decision cannot be revisited for all time to come? That would be a rather remarkable power to grant to one group of people.

      • James M Persons says:


      • scott thompson says:

        and my understanding is that this ‘one people’ really didnt like each other too well at times anyway…somewhat unted against a king but with historical differences from the island. religious differing , previous allegiances to the crown, various differences about parliment, etc.

    • Albert Alioto says:

      I might also add, touching the statement that slavery would have been preserved if the seceding states had stayed in the Union, that that would be a rather conclusive proof that secession was not about slavery.

    • James M Persons says:

      “… federal statutes and treaties must be within the parameters of the Constitution; that is, they must be pursuant to the federal government’s enumerated powers, and not violate other constitutional limits on federal power, such as the Bill of Rights—of particular interest is the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that the federal government has only those powers that are delegated to it by the Constitution.” Since secession is not a “delegated power”, secession is legal and the feds have no legal authority over secession.

      • scott thompson says:

        i guess it is interesting that of the first 10, the last one you read is “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      You argue the point of might making right. Convert or die. This point was settled by blood.

      All rebels are traitors until victorious. Men are supposed to rise above the laws of the jungle. We entered into a representative republic…we have delved into mob rule where 51 percent of the inmates now run the asylum.

      “Never did a leading Federalist suggest that a state could unilaterally leave the new union.” Well…they were…after all…”Federalists”.

      Thank God for the “anti-Federalists” or the Constitution would indeed be “just a scrap of paper” without the Anti-federalists’ BILL OF RIGHTS attached.

    • Barbara says:

      I thought the colonies had to be persuaded to join the union because they thought the federal government would rule over them and they wanted liberty?

  • Quaestor says:

    In his book, “The South Under Siege – 1830 – 2000,” chapter 3, subchapter “Wrangling Over the Terms of the U.S. Constitution,” Frank Conner writes the following.

    “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union had contained a clause which said, ‘…and the Union shall be perpetual…’ and another clause specifically prohibiting individual states from seceding. But as Mildred Rutherford points out in Truths of History, when Governor Morris’ draft Constitution was read aloud, Alexander Hamilton and others noticed immediately that the phrase ‘perpetual union’ had been omitted from it, and that no provision had been incorporated into the text of the Constitution to prohibit states from seceding.

    “Hamilton objected sharply, because this omission would make the United States a republic of largely-sovereign states, which could secede at their pleasure; whereas he wanted the central government to be a national government, with absolute control over the states. Another delegate moved that the convention now vote to make the U.S. government a national government which would prohibit secession; but this motion was defeated by the delegates. Perhaps those delegates were ashamed of the fact that their previous ‘perpetual union’ government which was supposed to last forever had in fact lasted only six years before requiring a complete overhaul. But whatever the motive, the net result was that under the U.S. Constitution, the states would now be left free to secede from the United States at their desire.”

    To be honest, all this strikes me as a little vague and I don’t know how well sourced Ms. Rutherford’s narrative is. (I don’t have access to her book.) It would be wonderful, if somebody with access to pertinent primary sources (“The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787” edited by Max Farrand, for example?) could shed some light on this possibly extremely important discussion at the convention.

  • Barbara says:

    Seems to me that we were hated before the war and we’ve been hated ever since. President Kennedy made a speech in which he told a group of people that he was very concerned that good jobs were going south for cheap labor and he was not talking about Mexico. They don’t even consider us to be part of the union.

    When JFK sent troops to the south to desegregate the schools I think it was done more so because of hatred of southern whites than any concern for blacks whom they quickly segregated in inner cities. We get scapegoated for everything that goes wrong but the people who created welfare programs (Jews) are the ones who broke up black families. During segregation in the south, there was mother and father in the home and blacks worked for a living and were law abiding. Now they create no go zones everywhere they live and no father is in the home.

    But there is no point today in trying to leave this union because the south is not even southern any more.

  • R M Shivers III says:

    It seems a few key points are missing from this discussion of secession:

    1. The constitution was not interpreted, debated and ratified by either Gen. Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams or Thos. Jefferson. Their opinions are just that – opinions. The constitution was ratified by the State conventions and it is to the States that we must turn to discern its true meaning. The fact that in the ratification conventions, 3 States declared their right to reclaim their sovereign power and exit the union shows that this right was understood and claimed by the States and was nowhere overturned by the const or any law passed by the general govt.

    2. The fact that it was considered adopted and effective by 11 States without the consent of NC and RI demonstrates conclusively that the AoC was jettisoned and rendered null and void and hence any argument about “perpetual union” from the AoC is irrelevant.

    3. Alfred Taylor Bledsoe in his book, “Is Jefferson Davis a Traitor” documents extensively in several chapters that the constitution was properly considered a compact and recognized as such by the Founders. Under a compact between equals (States), any violation of the terms and duties of the compact by one or more parties releases the other parties from their obligations and duties. This is the argument outlined at length in the SC Declaration of Causes in 1860 in particular about the northern refusal to enforce the fugitive slave laws as stipulated by the const.

    4. The article implies, but fails to declare, that even during the multiple cases of ante-bellum secession there was no serious consideration of a right of the federal govt to forcibly prevent a State from seceding.

    5. The right of a people to withdraw from a political arrangement and establish a govt of their own was declared to be an inalienable, natural law right in the Declaration of Independence, itself a secession document which is the cornerstone of the republic. The right of secession is not subject to legislation and judicial proceeding any more than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Regardless of the modern opinions of Yale law professors, the Claremont Institute and “Texas vs White”, as far as me and my house, we’re going to rest on the views of Jefferson, Henry, Calhoun, Davis and many other renowned Southern statesmen that the right to secession is inviolable.

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