A Primer on Secession

A review of  Secession, State & Liberty, (Transaction, 1998) edited with an introduction by David Gordon.

If there is a single book you should read on the subject of secession, Secession, State & Liberty is the one. Best of all, this collection of essays is entirely free, here:

https://mises.org/library/secession-state-and-liberty

The key point of the book is the demonstration that secession is the peaceful, non-violent alternative to revolution and civil war. Remove the possibility of secession, as Justice Salmon P. Chase admitted in Texas v. White (1869), and the only alternative is a “war of conquest and subjugation” (p111). Given that national boundaries do fluctuate, how can it be that reconsid­eration after joining a union be impossible, especially once that union becomes tyrannical? The reply, according to Chase’s written opinion: “There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through [an unspecified] consent of the States.” Note that Chase, who wants to forbid secession, is basically saying: Go ahead, try it; we would rather let loose the dogs of war than let you escape our power, no matter how tyrannical. His justification for this absolutism was that the United States was, on the basis of culture and the Articles of Confederation, “perpetual” and “indissoluble,” and that the Constitution’s one phrase “to form a more perfect Union” necessarily signified perpetual union – transparently flimsy reasoning. Historian Joseph R. Stromberg, an adjunct scholar of the Center for Libertarian Studies, provides the essay “Republicanism, Federalism, and Secession in the South, 1790 to 1865” that discusses this Supreme Court decision — and the more important topic of Jefferson’s support for secession.

The various essays cover every aspect of the topic — historical, economic, legal, philosophical, and even the Canadian use of limited nullification (discussed by Canadians Pierre Desrochers and Eric Duhaime) — but the most concise and closely-reasoned section is Dr. Gordon’s introduction. David Gordon, a Senior Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and co-editor the Journal of Libertarian Studies, comes to the heart of the matter:

First, the position might hold that even if the government violates the rights it was established to secure, its subjects may not depart from it. But this is a strange contention: government exists for certain purposes, but it may continue unabated even if it acts against these very aims. (page x)

In other words, if those who oppose secession also support natural rights like those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, they must answer Dr. Gordon’s question: “Why should supporters of natural rights reject the peaceful and democratic right of secession?” He allows for argument’s sake that these opponents might logically forbid secession just because citizens like another government — that is, to secede for “light and transient reasons.” But if the larger government is violating basic rights, must the only alternative be that the citizens resort to violence?

Before I get to that, consider an ingeniously weird twist on this theme, described by Dr. Gordon, by historian Allen Buchanan. Buchanan says that, yes, great, secession is perfectly reasonable — except when the seceding government is in violation of basic rights, regardless of whether the larger government violates these rights. And since the South violated the rights of Negroes, it forfeited the right to secede. The problem here is that no one, not even Abraham Lincoln himself before the late summer of 1863, justified military action on the principle of abolition of slavery. The problem here is that Buchanan overlooks the entire history of Northern secession movements, which he falsely supposes were free of the taint of slavery, a history detailed in this collection by Thomas diLorenzo in his article “Yankee Confederates.”

But we are stuck with Dr. Gordon’s question: What are citizens supposed to do when exasperated by a government that violates their basic rights?

Scott Boykin, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in his essay “The Ethics of Secession” finds only three alternatives short of violent civil war: Secession, group veto (voting the offenders out of office), and nullification (interposition). (pp77-78) Since most opponents of secession are equally opposed to nullification, the popular reply is to say that if you don’t like your government, vote for another one. But it should be clear by now that voting is a rigged game. Both major parties have endorsed the massive government spending that has saddled the nation with a debt that approaches 30 trillion dollars — the amount that is admitted to, at least. Furthermore, consider the numbers. The population of the United States is 318.9 million. The total number of legislators is 435. That means that each one represents 733,103 people. If a measure passes by a bare majority, that number almost doubles to signify each vote representing 1,436,881 citizens. If you consider that this bare majority can succeed under the smallest quorum, the number increases yet again to about 2,873,762. Now consider that you can influence this one House member and two Senate members — and you with no more significance in terms of voting power than the 2.8 million other citizens that they represent. And even if you sway your Representative to your view, remember: He is merely one among 435 others.

Now it will be admitted that voting should have less influence in a truly free society, since if more things are privately owned, it is necessarily true that fewer things are subject to public decisions. But that would signify an option not contemplated by those who say “just vote ’em out,” and not evidenced by history: A national trend, supported by the Supreme Court, toward ever greater protections for private property. As Clyde N. Wilson, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, points out in his essay “Secession: The Last, Best Bulwark of Our Liberties”:

The alternative to state sovereignty, as Calhoun pointed out, is to give the final say-so to the black-robed deities of the Court, who go into their closets, commune with the gods, and tell us what our Constitution means and what orders we must obey, no matter how absurd their interpretation may be. (p93)

It is because secession offers the sole realistic peaceful and democratic alternative to overweening power that its suggestion must be silenced. This is why the opponents of secession fear it: It is because it is the one principle that undermines their political power. Against it they set the principle of sovereignty, no matter how much violence must enforce it, even when it contradicts basic rights, even when it defies the democratic wishes of its citizens. This is why, as Donald Livingston, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, puts it:

Secessionist discontent, though a pressing fact of contemporary political life, is the most under-theorized concept in political philosophy. (p3)

Haven’t you yourself witnessed the fear, the urge to back away, in the faces of people when you even mention the word “secession”? The defenders of sovereignty at any cost have made the term a taboo, have deliberately surrounded it with an aura of treason, because it is the one direct tool that can check their currently unlimited power.

So again, the question remains: What can anyone do to stop the centralized leviathan that our federal government has become? One of the officers of Lee’s staff, Edward Porter Alexander, just before Appomattox suggested that he not surrender, that the South conduct a guerrilla war similar to America’s first Revolution (in Fighting for the Confederacy, Gary Gallagher, editor; University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pages 530-33). Lee rejected this. But really, the only option remaining in response to an implacable tyranny would be either guerrilla war or some form of non-violent resistance. As James Ostrowski (a practicing attorney in New York, and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute) points out in his essay “Was the Union Army’s Invasion of the Confederate States a Lawful Act?”:

[I]f a state were to pursue secession by means of non-violent resistance and complete non-involvement with the federal government, an anti-secessionist federal government would have to permanently occupy and rule that state in the manner of a colonial power, exercising even greater authority than Great Britain held over the American Colonies prior to 1776! (p173)

The secessionist is steadfastly a man of peace, and peace is his primary reply to the bloodthirsty dare of Justice Salmon P. Chase, who wrote in Texas v. White that non-violence is not an option. The secessionist is open to any peaceful suggestion. One proof of its opponents’ lack of a counterargument is their commitment to demonize it, to smear it as “traitorous.” Nevertheless, secession must come to the ungovernable American Union, as surely as any nation pinned together with bayonets will most certainly come apart, one way or another. The only question is how those committed to peace might overcome those who are committed to violence.

About Terry Hulsey

Terry Hulsey is a computer programmer and independent historian and writer living in Arlington, Texas with his wife, a violinist for the Fort Worth Symphony, and two daughters, one of whom is a National Merit Finalist. It view of his small literary footprint, he considers himself to be the minor talent in the family. He hopes to devote more time someday to a study of sortition. More from Terry Hulsey

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