A discussion of secession ultimately centers on the question of “quitting,” and more specifically, when is it right to quit, if ever? There are two basic questions that must be asked: first, does such a fundamental right exist; and second, is it Constitutional.
Whenever talk of secession arises, whether in the early to mid 1800’s in America or now, a dissatisfied group of citizens expresses their frustration by demanding a break of political ties and a separation from the Union.
It is essential from the outset to clarify a few terms, specifically a distinction between secession and revolution (at least in the minds of Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln). While revolution and secession both represent a breaking of ties with others, I will attempt to show how Lincoln’s understanding of the difference between the two was much greater than just semantics.
The key distinction between the two concepts is of intention, ultimate goals, and most importantly, basis. For Lincoln, the distinction could most clearly be seen by comparing the cause of 1776 vs. the cause of 1860-61. In Lincoln’s mind, one breaking of ties was just, while the other was not.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson provides us with the theoretical argument for revolution, as well as the practical evidence based upon this theory of why the colonists were just in their cause of breaking their “political bands” with Great Britain. The Declaration affirms that when a group’s God-given rights have been denied (and when political means to remedy the problem have failed), the ties can be broken. Essential to the American Revolution then, is the fact that the natural rights of all men were being denied. At this juncture, a people can legitimately break their political bands and seek their independence. In Lincoln’s mind, this is the legitimate nature of revolution.
We can contrast this with the political separation of 1860, when the South, after losing an unquestionably constitutionally held election, unsatisfied with the results, decided to sever their political ties with the North. For Lincoln, the claimed right of separation on the part of the South could not have been more different then the cause of revolution and liberty in 1776. Following the South’s secession, Lincoln repeatedly questioned what fundamental right was being denied for which they could legitimately “quit” the Union? In his mind, no such claim or cause existed. The repeated refrain of “states rights” or “property rights” was, of course, nothing more than the South’s claim to protect their “right” to own other human beings; a claim which Lincoln correctly argued is not grounded in the “laws of nature or nature’s God.” Rather, it is the essence of corrupt political rule which is based in the denial of natural rights.
Lincoln often compared the institution of slavery with the claimed “divine right” of Kings, both of which were a denial of individuals’ fundamental rights, where some were placed in a position to rule over others by the mere chance of birth. Both institutions are a denial of a person’s God-given liberty and, as such, both can be legitimately revolted against. For Lincoln, there was only one group who could lay claim to a legitimate right to “quit” in 1860, and it certainly wasn’t white southerners. Rather, it was their African slaves. Lincoln never denied a legitimate right of breaking political ties. What was essential was the nature of the cause. Quitting because you don’t like an election outcome or because you fear you will lose your claim to own another person both fail the test of legitimate causes.
While some suggest that the difference between secession and revolution is merely semantic, for Lincoln it was clear that the basis and intentions for breaking ties was more than that.
Our second question is this: does a right of secession exist within our constitutional framework. The answer to this question is simple: no. The Constitution is silent on the subject of states’ attempts to “de-ratify” their participation. More fundamentally, the underlying premise is one of perpetuation. The preamble of the U.S. Constitution makes this clear:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Union was not to be temporary, but permanent, designed not just for the present but for posterity. The inference is clear: this was a Union intended to last.
Finally, a political society based on the idea that “quitting when unhappy” with the political twists and turns of our government is destined for destruction. Lincoln described secession in this way: “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinion and sentiments is the only true sovereign of free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or despotism.” The nature of quitting, if held as a fundamental, stand alone principle, will ultimately lead to anarchy, soon to be replaced by despotism.
Constitutionalism demands an adherence to the laws, even if we do not like the decisions that are being made. I may not support a war, but I am obligated to pay my taxes and support it – perhaps even fight in it – as a part of my obligation as a citizen. Likewise, states are obligated to obey the laws of the land as a part of their commitment to the perpetuation of the Union. The solution to bad laws is found in our system of free and frequent elections. Lincoln famously stated in his July 4, 1861 address to Congress that “ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
Constitutionalism requires us to accept election outcomes, and then pursue change in later elections. This is not to suggest that ties can never be broken. As mentioned above, Lincoln truly believed that southern slaves did indeed have a legitimate claim to break ties with their oppressors.
The South never claimed that they were revolting from the North, nor did they base an appeal to quit in the Declaration or some other natural law basis of rights. To do so would have forced them to explain how in nature their cause was legitimate, and how their continued support for the institution of chattel slavery was moral. Had the North been denying a fundamental natural right of the southerners, the South would have had an absolute claim to revolt against its northern oppressors. No such claim can be made.
With current discussions of secession being thrown around and an increasing public opinion in support of a right of secession, we would do well to consider Lincoln’s warnings. If we ever reach a point where some demand a breaking of the political bands that have held this Union together for over 200 years, we must be certain that all political means to remedy the problem have been exhausted and that the cause be one grounded in the laws of nature and nature’s God