IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, SECEDE, SECEDE AGAIN
By Doug Coleman
Okay, friends – let’s wrap our heads in tinfoil, because today we are going to talk about secession!
American history is a history of rebellion. Our defining moment was our secession from the British Empire. As a people, we decided that in the balance of government versus freedom, we were going to go long on freedom and try to make the ride last forever. Our Constitution was very deliberately drafted to try to maintain this balance favoring liberty over government. Nonetheless, some states, including New York and Virginia, pessimistically reserved the right to secede at the same time they ratified the Constitution. As Virginia put it, the powers ceded to the Federal government, “being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression…”
The first president to have to deal with secession was not Abe Lincoln, but Thomas Jefferson. The New England Federalists were very proud of their lily-white English bloodlines and culture. They were concerned that the Louisiana Purchase was going to pollute their gene-pool with icky Spanish and French blood as those people assimilated from the new territories, plus they were not crazy about Southerners. So they wanted to have New England, New York and New Jersey amicably leave the Union to form a “Northern Confederacy.” Everyone took for granted in 1804 that they had the right to secede and President Jefferson would not have stopped them: “God bless them both and keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them if it be better.” The break-away Yankees ultimately determined to stick with the Union at the Hartford Secession Convention in 1814.
Andrew Jackson was less relaxed when South Carolina was talking secession in the 1830s. The Federal government imposed a tariff which disproportionately impacted the Southern states which traded with Britain, but helped Northern interests in competition with Britain. Having none of it, South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Nullification declaring the law void in South Carolina and threatening a separate government if the Feds pushed pack. Jackson made the commonsense observation that one could not be a member of the Union and pick and choose which Federal laws one might obey. But then Jackson took the position that no state could leave the Union by its own choice alone, that we were now one nation, and that secession was treason. Given that no one doubted what Old Hickory might do to a traitor, cooler minds prevailed and the Union remained intact.
Right up to the Civil War, the mainstream position was that the states could come and go as they pleased. In the 1830s, Jackson’s predecessor John Quincy Adams defended secession. In 1848, freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the Mexican conflict took for granted that: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Northern newspapers like the New York Tribune were still saying nutty things like “The great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, is sound and just”, such that any state wishing to withdraw had “a clear moral right to do so.” The crazy-talking Trenton True American felt “there is room for several flourishing nations on this continent; and the sun will shine brightly and the rivers run as clear” if states were to amicably divorce over irreconcilable differences.
The North referred to the Civil War as “the Great Rebellion.” Think about that – a subject rebels against a king, a slave against a master, a child against a parent – but equals can never rebel against one another. Lincoln was changing the game by breaking the states to the Federal yoke – thug stuff. Further, it is a misnomer to call Lincoln’s war a “civil war.” When Cromwell went against his king in the English Civil War, what was at stake was the government of the entire country. Same with the Spanish Civil War, Fascists versus Communists, winner takes all. The South was not trying to overthrow Lincoln’s government – the Confederacy wanted to be left alone.
Notwithstanding that Virginia had expressly conditioned her entry into the Union upon her right to leave it, our second-most divisive president from Illinois ordered Federal troops to invade Virginia on May 24th, 1861. Four years later, the official estimate of deaths was in the neighborhood of 620,000, perhaps as high as 850,000. Civilian and partisan deaths are educated guesses, but are estimated in the neighborhood of 60,000. Lincoln claiming he had “saved the Union” would be a lot like the wife-beater bragging he had saved the marriage, at least until the missus comes out of the coma.
Asked if secession was legal in 1861, most people will answer: “Didn’t the Civil War settle that?” Not really – the question actually settled was whether an agricultural nation of 9 million could hold off an industrial nation of 22 million. The first “legal” precedent addressing the legality of secession was Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869). The Supreme Court decided that secession was rebellion and therefore not legal – duh, vae victis – what other answer might one expect from the folks who just won the Civil War?
And of course it has been downhill ever since in the States’ rights department. From the New Deal and the Great Society, the Federal government dominated the states completely. Nowadays the Feds bully the states by imposing mandates and threatening to withhold Federal money unless the states roll over like beaten dogs.
Increased central power did not bode well for individual rights either. The people who want to be in charge of you are exactly the people you would never want to be in charge of you. Yeats might say: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And this passionate intensity has had a decidedly leftist bent, laying long siege to an open-minded and tolerant middle class lacking the conviction to defend their core virtues.
Now we are closing in on endgame. The middle class is shrinking. The American Dream is dying. Our jobs have gone to China, Mexico and the huddled masses outside Home Depot. Or, like coal mining, the jobs have been regulated out of existence. The Federal government is so broken that no election can fix it. No matter who wins the next presidential election, on the day after Election Day we will have the same corrupt Congress, the same gazillion laws, taxes and regulations, and the same bureaucracy killing us with a thousand small cuts. Ask a regular American who this government represents. The answer is almost always “not me,” though the banks, big corporations and illegal aliens seem to be doing okay.
Americans who love their country are frustrated and angry – really angry. Some of them hate this government – not like “I hate liver and onions”, more like “I’d like to strangle those bastards with their own intestines.” In researching this column for the last couple of years, I have often been struck by the rhetoric leading up to the Civil War – it is practically indistinguishable in intensity from the comments one sees on the Internet. We are every bit as divided now as then. Half the voters want to save the Republic and the other half want to pillage it. And we are never going to agree. One side is going to win and one side is going to lose.
Does this mean another civil war is coming? Doubtful – who could coax the necessary volunteers away from their video games? The cops and military will not play – these folks generally love their country and its Constitution and would be more likely to protect their fellow citizens than obey orders to fire on them. Ask them – they have already talked it over among themselves. Also, the good guys own the rifles (Google “Gran Torino/get off my lawn”).
Our Union is not a suicide pact. It is time for revolution or divorce. A third American Revolution can be accomplished peacefully and lawfully through an Article V constitutional convention. If 34 state legislatures agree, we can assemble delegates. Amendments can be proposed. If 3/4s of the states, 38, ratify the proposed amendments, the Constitution changes. It is all legal and there is not a damned thing the President or Congress can do about it. We could have a balanced budget amendment, term limits, an overhaul of our tax system, abolition of direct election of senators, sunset provisions on all laws except the Constitution and treaties, reversion of Federal lands to the states – you name it. Republicans presently control the governorships of 31 states and both legislatures in 30 states. And why would any of the states pass up the opportunity to restore the balance of power? This is not only doable, but would be vastly entertaining – a debate that matters, where the losers are amended into impotence.
One of those amendments could make clear that every state has an unconditional right to secede, perhaps during a window which opens every ten years. Even now, every state has a petition for secession pending with the White House; Texas and Vermont may even be half-serious. The Federalist reported on August 6th that IRS political operative Lois Lerner’s now-recovered e-mails contained stuff like: “Look my view is that Lincoln was our worst president not our best”, that “He should have let the south go” and that “We are witnessing the end of America.” Our masters despise the South, the West, all of “flyover country.” They have contempt for the rubes, the rubes are sick of getting screwed – why not get a divorce? The Left Coast could split off into a Pacific Republic; the Northeast can finally have that elite Northern Confederacy. Hawaii and Alaska may go it alone. California could give itself back to Mexico. The rest of America can get back to a life where every day is not opposite day. Best of all, the real possibility of secession might actually save the Union by providing an incentive for everyone to crank it down a notch and try to get along.
If not, will the last one out of D.C. please turn off the lights and pay the national debt?
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.