Secession in the United States

South Carolina Ordinance of Secession (1860)

United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled 405 SOUTH CAROLINA ORDINANCE OF SECESSION (1860) john c. calhoun, the foremost theorist of secession, had argued that the United States Constitution was a compact among sovereign states. When one of the parties to the compact (federal government or other state) had violated its terms by enacting or
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United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled SECESSIONSecession, the withdrawal of a state from the American Union, first appeared as an impulse rather than an articulated constitutional doctrine. Inchoate secessionist movements agitated the southwestern frontier after the signing of jay ‘ streaty (1794) . aaron burr’s alleged conspiracy was
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Secession in 1899 (United States)

The following information about Secession is from the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers.

SECESSION (IN U. S. HISTORY). The constitutional apology for the right of secession by one of the states of the American Union may be very briefly dismissed; it is entirely dependent upon the theory of state sovereignty. (See that title.) Grant that the states are still individually sovereign; that their citizens owe a primary allegiance and obedience to their state, and a secondary obedience to the federal government because their state remains a member of the Union; that the Union is a voluntary confederacy, not a nation: and the right of secession must be admitted as a matter of course. The advisability of secession, the propriety of severing the ancient relations with friendly and confederate states, is entirely a matter for the state’s decision: when the decision is made, every law-abiding citizen is bound by his allegiance to his state to obey it. (See ALLEGIANCE, III.) However fallacious the doctrine of state sovereignty and its progeny, secession, may be, there is at least this apology for the action of the seceding states in 1860-61: that the doctrine of state sovereignty, in both its premises and its consequences, had been familiar almost from antiquity; that its technical language had been used constantly, even by those who would have scouted its logical consequences, and that the system of negro slavery, with all its countless influences, had shut out the south from that educational process which had made state sovereignty either a meaningless formula, or a political heresy, in the north and west. (See NATION.) It must be noticed, however, that the right of secession has never been admitted by any department of the national government: joint or separate resolutions have been passed by the two houses of congress, asserting [694] the sovereignty of the states; decisions have been made by the supreme court of much the same character; but the right of secession itself has never been admitted. Leaving the theory of state sovereignty to be considered under its appropriate head, it is the object of this article to trace the more practical idea of secession in our history: I., as a mere incident of particularism, of state sovereignty; II., as complicated with slavery; and III., in practice.

-I. The union of 1643 (see NEW ENGLAND UNION) experienced in miniature most of the perils to which the perfected and national Union was afterward exposed: nullification attacked its commercial regulations, and even put a veto on its wars; but its final disappearance was due not so much to any secession as to the inherent weakness of its nature, and the dislike of the crown. With the introduction of the attempt at a more general union in 1754 (see ALBANY PLAN OF UNION), the idea of secession first comes plainly into view. The plan of Franklin contemplated its establishment by act of parliament, a very unusual acknowledgment of the power of parliament over the colonies. In explanation of this feature of his plan, he states the various interests of the colonies, and their jealousy of one another, and adds:

If ever acts of assembly in all the colonies could be obtained for that purpose, yet as any colony, on the least dissatisfaction, might repent its own act, and thereby withdraw itself from the union, it would not be a stable one, or such as could be depended on; for, if only one colony should, on any disgust, withdraw itself, others might think it unjust and unequal that they, by continuing in the union, should be at the expense of defending a colony which refused to bear its proportionable part, and could therefore one after another withdraw, till the whole crumbled into its original parts.

The theory of secession could hardly be more exactly stated; in its final application in practice it was only improved in one respect, the passage of the ordinances of secession by state conventions, instead of by the assemblies.

-Accession to, and secession from, any union, were of course equally unconstitutional, without the king’s consent, while the colonies remained a part of the British empire. But, as the American revolution itself was frequently appealed to in after years, as the first great example of, and precedent for, secession, it may be well to lay stress here on one essential difference between them, that the former was an exercise of the undeniable right of revolution, a revolt of an unrepresented fraction of the empire against the usurpations of parliament, and afterward against the king for sustaining parliament; while the latter was attempted to be justified as a constitutional right of the states, which could not rightfully be resisted by any other state, by all the other states, or by the federal government. A revolt of a territory, unrepresented in the federal government, against what it might consider the usurpation of the federal government, and its attempt to establish a separate government, might claim the American revolution as a precedent; the seceding states in 1860-61 could not. A revolutionist hazards his life upon the issue, with the pains and penalties of treason as a possible result; a secessionist claims all the advantages of revolution, without any of its responsibilities or dangers.

More about Secession in the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

-Notwithstanding the early and general dissemination of the theory of state sovereignty, its practical consequence, the right of secession, was for some years unheard of, perhaps unthought of. Until 1783 the common dangers of war were a fence outside of which none of the thirteen states dared to stray; after 1783 the authority of the congress of the confederation was so weak a fence that none of the states cared to give it importance by formally demolishing it. The ugly word secession first appears in the convention of 1787, July 5, though it then referred to the states as represented in the convention itself: Gerry remarked that, unless some compromise should be made, a secession, he foresaw, would take place.

The subsequent ratification of the constitution by eleven of the thirteen states, on the original refusal of Rhode Island and North Carolina to ratify, has often been appealed to as a brilliant example of peaceable secession; and so it must be considered, if the ratifications were really, as they purported to be, the acts of sovereign states.

The articles of confederation had expressly provided that no change should be made in them unless with the assent of the legislatures of every state; and yet, in the face of this covenant, eleven of the states not only formed a new government, but inserted in it a provision for future amendment by three-fourths of the states. On the theory that the states were sovereign until the adoption of the constitution, how can such a proceeding be anything but a secession, albeit of the majority from the minority? But another power was present in the ratification, the power which had held the states together even before the adoption of the articles of confederation, the sovereign power of the nation, of the national people as distinguished from the people of the state. Its non-recognition by the state conventions can not alter the fact of its already established existence; and, without its existence, the assumptions of the continental congress, from 1775 until the ratification of the confederation in 1781, would be even a more colossal sham than the ratification of the constitution. The historic truth is, that the people of the nation, which had alone validated the revolutionary acts of the continental congress, and which had tolerated the articles of confederation, had now at last interposed to bring order out of chaos; that it was disposed to deal very tenderly with the rights and even with the prejudices of the peoples of the several states; that it chose to maintain state lines in the ratifications; but that, when nine of the states, including a heavy majority of the territory, wealth and population of the nation, had expressed their decision in favor of the new form of government, factious opposition was to cease. It is true that the status of the possible non-ratifying states was carefully ignored [695] everywhere, as being what the Federalist called a delicate question; but it is impossible to suppose that two, or even four, recalcitrant states would ever have been allowed to escape from the national jurisdiction. Gouverneur Morris’ warning in the convention of 1787, July 5, This country must be united; if persuasion does not unite it, the sword will, which provoked so much contrary feeling, was the simple truth. The forms of ratification would never have been neglected; but ratification, willing or unwilling, would have been extorted from Rhode Island and North Carolina by a pressure increasing continually until finally successful. The passage of the senate bill, May 18, 1790, to prohibit bringing goods, wares and merchandise from the state of Rhode Island into the United States, and to authorize a demand of arrears of money from the said state, is a fair example of the sort of pressure which would have been increased indefinitely but for the ratification by the state on the 29th of the same month. The nation has always been thus gentle and considerate in allowing the assertion of state sovereignty in non-essentials; in essentials state sovereignty must yield or be crushed.

-Under the constitution the Union was at first spared any internal dissensions of such magnitude as to suggest secession as a remedy. Projects for separation from the Union were undoubtedly on foot before 1795 in Kentucky (see that state), and in western Pennsylvania (see WHISKY INSURRECTION); but these were rather the product of frontier freedom from restraint than the consequence of state sovereignty. Soon after 1795 a series of articles were published in the Connecticut Courant, urging the impossibility of union for any long period in the future, and laying down the permanent dogma that there can be no safety to the northern states without a separation from the confederacy.

These letters met no general approval in the north, and the election of Adams to the presidency in 1796 took away for the time their moving cause, a fear of southern domination in the federal government. The idea of state sovereignty, with secession as a possible consequence, next appeared, on the other side of Mason and Dixon’s line, in 1798. (See KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS.) The author of the Kentucky resolutions, Jefferson, explains his feeling on the subject of secession at some length in his letter of June 1, 1798, to John Taylor.

If, on a temporary superiority of the one party, the other is to resort to a scission of the Union, no federal government can ever exist. It, to rid ourselves of the present rule of Massachusetts and Connecticut, we break the Union, will the evil stop there? Suppose the New England states alone cut off, will our natures be changed? Are we not men still to the south of that, and with all the passions of men? Immediately we shall see a Pennsylvania and a Virginia party arise in the residuary confederacy. If we reduce our Union to Virginia and North Carolina, they will end by breaking into their simple units. Seeing that we must have somebody to quarrel with, I had rather keep our New England associates for that purpose.

The objections, it will be noticed, lie to the advisability, not to the right, of secession. This defect, however, was common to most of the public men of the time; and for years afterward state sovereignty, with all its consequences, was the first refuge of a minority. The existence of the nation was hardly recognized, even by the courts, for twenty years after 1798 (see NATION, JUDICIARY); though its existence was not often denied in such plain language as that employed by Tucker, in his edition of Blackstone in 1803. After summing up, to his own satisfaction, the proofs that Virginia had always been a sovereign state, and enumerating the powers which Virginia had delegated to the federal government, he thus concludes:

The federal government, then, appears to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations and with each other. Their submission to its operation is voluntary: its councils, its engagements, its authority, are theirs, modified and united. Its sovereignty is an emanation from theirs, not a flame by which they have been consumed, nor a vortex in which they are swallowed up. Each is still a perfect state, still sovereign, still independent, and still capable, should the occasion require, to resume the exercise of its functions, as such, to the most unlimited extent. But, until the time shall arrive when the occasion requires a resumption of the rights of sovereignty by the several states (and far be that period removed when it shall happen), the exercise of the rights of sovereignty by the states individually is wholly suspended, or discontinued, in the cases before mentioned; nor can that suspension ever be removed, so long as the present constitution remains unchanged, but by the dissolution of the bonds of union: an event which no good citizen can wish, and which no good or wise administration will ever hazard.

Herein is contained, for the first time, the sum and substance of the doctrine of secession.

-When the idea of secession next appeared, it was again in the north, and closely connected with the question on which it was finally put into practice in the south, the territories of the United States. The acquisition of Louisiana (see ANNEXATIONS, I.), in 1803, was very objection able to the federalist politicians of New England. They had been beaten in the contest with the south alone: to re-enforce the southern line of battle with six, nine or a dozen future states, peopled by the wild men on the Missouri, seemed simply suicidal, a condemnation of New England to perpetual nullity. They therefore resisted the annexation to the utmost, and claimed that, as the constitution was made only for the original territory comprised within the United States, an extension of territory was unconstitutional without the consent of all the states.

Suppose, in private life, thirteen men form a partnership, and ten of them undertake to admit a new partner without the concurrence of the other three, would it not be at their option to abandon the partnership [696] after so palpable an infringement of their rights? How much more so in the political partnership.

The annexation was consummated; but it was not until Jan. 14, 1811, on the enabling act for the first of the dreaded new states, Louisiana, that Quincy, of Massachusetts, fairly declared, in the house, the federalist conception of its consequences.

It is my deliberate opinion, that, if this bill passes, the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the states which compose it are free from their moral obligations; and that, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must.

Quincy was called to order, but the house decided that he was in order. Ex-President Adams, in reply to a copy of the speech, could only say that prophecies of division had been familiar in his ears for six and thirty years.

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-In the meantime the opposition to the democratic administration, confined chiefly to the New England politicians on the annexation question, had become more popular with the introduction of the restrictive system. (See EMBARGO, III.) It is beyond question that some project of secession had been mooted in New England in 1803, though probably confined to a very few; and that Burr’s candidacy for governor of New York in 1804 was a part of it. (See BURR, AARON.) By taking in the great state of New York, and by yielding the leadership-in-chief to a New York democrat, who was highly popular with the democrats of New England, it was hoped that a new republic might be formed, compact, homogeneous, and strongly defended by nature in every direction. Burr’s defeat had much to do with the failure of this project, but the indifference of the people of New England probably more. The strong and general popular feeling which was aroused by the embargo revived the project. How many took part in it is uncertain; they were probably very few. The whole truth is probably expressed in a letter of Joseph Story, afterward supreme court justice, Jan. 9, 1809:

I am sorry to perceive the spirit of disaffection in Massachusetts increasing to so high a degree; and I fear that it is stimulated by a desire, in a very few ambitious men, to dissolve the Union.

Henry’s letter, of March 7, 1809 (see HENRY DOCUMENTS), goes further, and details the federalist programme as follows: that, in the event of war, the legislature of Massachusetts will declare itself permanent until a new election of members; invite a congress, to be composed of delegates from the federal states; and erect a separate government for their common defense and common interest.

Henry’s assertions, however, are usually only proof that the contrary is the truth, and that is probably the case here. It is only certain that the accounts of the feeling in the eastern states, as given by John Quincy Adams and Story, caused a panic among the democratic leaders, and ended the embargo.

-During the war of 1812 the feeling in New England grew still higher. Ultra federalists undoubtedly used language aiming directly at secession; the student will find a large collection of such utterances in Carey’s Olive Branch, as cited among the authorities. Indiscreet references to the New England nation, occasional flauntings of a flag with five stripes and stars, the firing of New England national salutes of five guns, and other similar indications, when combined with the general discontent in New England (see CONVENTION, HARTFORD), kept the administration in a chronic state of alarm. The discussion of secession in any form by the Hartford convention has been denied by its president and secretary; its journal shows no trace of it; and Mr. Goodrich has collected every available proof to the contrary. It appears certain that no such active design was considered or desired by its members; but a few of the opening sentences of its report are at least suggestive.

If the Union be destined to dissolution, by reason of the multiplied abuses of bad administrations, it should, if possible, be the work of peaceable times and deliberate consent. Some new form of confederacy should be substituted among those states which shall intend to maintain a federal relation to each other. But a severance of the Union by one or more states, against the will of the rest, and especially in a time of war, can be justified only by absolute necessity.

The report concluded by advising, that, if no attention should be paid to their remonstrances, and the war should continue, a new convention should be called in the following June, with such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require.

-With the close of the war of 1812 the first period of the history of secession ends. It continued immanent in the doctrine of state sovereignty; but nothing occurred to call it to active life. It was threatened as a possible alternative to its illegitimate brother, nullification (see that title), but was never enforced. Secessionists proper in South Carolina had a contempt for nullification, and composed the so-called Union party of 1831-3 in that state. Indeed, Jackson’s nullification proclamation was offensive to them, as laying down the tyrannical doctrine that we have not even the right to secede.

-II. Throughout its subsequent history secession is always connected with slavery or the opposition to slavery. The right to secede, after it had been completely formulated by Tucker in 1803, was asserted again and again for the next thirty years, but always as a mere particularist formula, a corollary of state sovereignty. The most striking of these. and particularly as coming from the north, is that of Judge Rawle, of Pennsylvania, in his commentaries on the constitution, as cited below, in 1825.

The secession of a state from the Union depends on the will of the people of such state. * * The state legislatures have only to perform certain organical operations in respect to it. To withdraw from the Union comes not within the general scope of their delegated authority. But in any manner by which a secession is to take place, nothing is more certain than that [697] the act should be deliberate, clear and unequivocal; and in such case the previous ligament with the Union would be legitimately and fairly destroyed. * * In the present constitution there is no specification of numbers after the first formation. It was foreseen that there would be a natural tendency to increase the number of states. It was also known, though it was not avowed, that a state might withdraw itself. The number would therefore be variable. Secessions may reduce the number to the smallest integer admitting combination. They would remain united under the same principles and regulations, among themselves, that now apply to the whole. For a state can not be compelled by other states to withdraw from the Union, and therefore, if two or more determine to remain united, although all the others desert them, nothing can be discovered in the constitution to prevent it.

It is notable that, so late as Nov. 9, 1860, Horace Greeley upheld the practical liberty, if not the abstract right, of secession, only insisting that the step should be taken with the deliberation and gravity befitting so momentous an issue.

It is true that these two utterances are almost the only ones from a representative northern man after the war of 1812 in support of the theory of secession; and that all the other utterances which have been laboriously collected are simply the expression of state feeling, of state opposition to the annexation of Texas, the fugitive slave law, and similar measures, without any apparent thought of the right of secession which was involved in it. Nevertheless, it is painful to consider the result which would have followed in 1860-61, if the action of the seceding states had been slow, calm, and the evident outcome of popular desire, instead of hasty, violent, and the work of the politicians. In that event, the issue of the struggle would have been painfully doubtful.

More about Secession in the Cyclopaedia

-Secession came in again with Texas, whose independent existence was itself a brilliant instance of successful secession from the Mexican republic. As the probability of its annexation grew stronger, the language used in advocacy of or in opposition to it grew with it. March 3, 1843, John Quincy Adams and a few anti slavery whigs issued an address to their constituents, warning them that the annexation project had never been given up, and that it would result in and fully justify a dissolution of the Union. Through this and the following summer, on the other hand, Texas or disunion became a frequently expressed sentiment in the south, particularly in South Carolina, but this died away as the success of annexation became assured. But even this did not drive the northern states into any action looking to secession, or a dissolution of the Union, though this was unofficially suggested. In January, 1845, at an anti-annexation convention in Boston, Wm. Lloyd Garrison urged the calling of a Massachusetts convention to declare the Union dissolved, and to invite other states to join with her in a new union based on the principles of the declaration of independence.

Although, says May, his motion was not carried by the convention, it was received with great favor by a large portion of the members and other auditors, and he sat down amidst the most hearty bursts of applause.

But the final annexation of Texas, operating against the feelings of the most thoroughly nationalized section of the Union, was insufficient to call forth any dangerous or even irritating desire for a dissolution of the Union. That was reserved for the question of the settlement of the new territories (see WILMOT PROVISO).

-CO-OPERATION. The theory of secession involved the right of any state to withdraw from the Union singly; and yet the silent proof of its inherent fallacy is that single secession was never attempted, and probably never thought of. In 1847 Calhoun had endeavored unsuccessfully to obtain the co-operation of the slave states in the following programme: 1, the calling of a slave state convention; 2, the exclusion of the sea-going vessels of the northern states from southern ports; 3, the prohibition of railroad commerce with the northeastern, but not with the northwestern, states; 4, the present maintenance of the freedom of trade on the Mississippi; 5, the continuance of this interstate embargo system until the northwest should be detached from the eastern states, and should unite with the south in opening the new territories to slavery. Calhoun’s programme opened the way, however, for a bolder idea of co-operation in 1850, according to which a number of slave states were to secede in company, for mutual defense, if any prohibition of slavery in the new territories should be enforced. But the southern states held to the resolutions of the Georgia state convention of 1850, declaring that the state accepted the compromise of 1850, but would resist, even to secession, such anti-slavery legislation as the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in the territories, or of the interstate slave-trade. There can be no doubt that South Carolina was ready to secede in 1850, but not alone. Her state convention of April 26, 1852, declared her right to secede, but forbore to exercise it, out of deference to the wishes of other slaveholding states, that is, because no other slaveholding state wished to secede with or after her. Co-operation was, therefore, never practically attempted, because of the compromise of 1850, by which the Wilmot proviso was really enforced in California, by its admission as a free state, while nothing was said of it in the organization of the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and the fugitive slave law was accepted by the south as a make-weight. (See COMPROMISES, V.) But, though this attempt at secession by a section was unsuccessful, there had grown up an alienation between the north and the south which boded no good for the future. Calhoun’s last speech in the senate, March 4, 1850, described the manner in which many of the multitudinous cords that bound the Union together had already snapped. Of the five great Christian denominations which had been national in their organization, two, the [698] Methodists and Baptists, had split into two sectional parts; and the Presbyterians were evidently close to the point of division. Political bonds were also stretched almost to breaking, and their preservation depended on the willingness of the northern states to satisfy the south by not excluding slavery from the territories.

If you, says Calhoun, who represent the stronger portion, can not agree to settle the great questions at issue on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the states we both represent agree to separate and depart in peace. If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so, and we shall know what to do.

The last sentence shows the remarkable underlying consciousness in every advocate of secession, of the truth so forcibly stated by Webster three days afterward:

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.

(See, in general, UNITED STATES, II., 5.)

-This underlying consciousness, that secession meant war, was for some time sufficient to make any attempt at open secession hopeless ab initio, and no such attempt was made. Indeed, the south had been very well satisfied with the compromise of 1850; and the impediments to the execution of the fugitive slave law (see FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS, PERSONAL LIBERTY LAWS), while they excited great discontent in the south, were not commonly looked upon as reasonable cause for secession. Those final causes were three in number, with a supplementary cause, coercion, which will be stated in the next section. 1. Nothing is more noteworthy in the extreme southern states than the sudden development of large estates, the freezing out of small planters, and their emigration after the absorption of their property.

In a few years large estates are accumulated as if by magic.

In large sections of each state the population consisted almost wholly of negroes, with the few whites owning or managing them. But in all these states representation was on the basis of the federal population: that is, three-fifths of the negroes were represented, while the voting and office-holding pertained to the few whites. Thus, apart from the natural influence belonging to the wealthy class of the population, the counties in the black belt were practically the pocket boroughs of the slave-owners therein. These thus held far more than their fair share of power in state legislatures and conventions, and in some states absolutely controlled them. With every year, from 1850 to 1860, the power of this class was growing stronger, and their desire for secession for the protection of their property in slaves was not weakened. (See SLAVERY, IV.) 2. But there was still another and much larger class in the south, owning few or no slaves, not wedded to the protection or extension of slavery, but high-spirited, and determined not to submit to oppression, or, above all, to the evasion of a fair compromise. The results of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill (see that title) served to bring these into the secession programme. They had never asked for the abrogation of the Missouri compromise; but, when it had been abrogated by fair agreement, it seemed to them an unworthy evasion to turn Kansas and Nebraska into free states by organized, not voluntary and natural emigration from the north. This was the class to which was addressed the argument which A. H. Stephens says carried Georgia, the key-stone of a successful secession, out of the Union:

We can make better terms out of the Union than in it.

3. The Harper’s Ferry insurrection (see BROWN, JOHN) had a silent influence everywhere. Those who desired secession were active, persevering, and in earnest; those who did not, were at the best negative; for they saw one great chance of good, even in a successful secession, a release from national association with future John Browns, and the ability to protect themselves from such invasions by open and national warfare.

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-With so many influences at work in its favor, it is matter for wonder that secession in 1860-61 was only forced through by the influence of the first two classes over the delegates to the state conventions, and that the popular demand for secession was so conspicuous by its absence that the conventions, except in Texas, did not venture to submit their ordinances to popular vote. For, in a popular vote, be it remembered, the federal representation disappeared; only the votes of the whites went for anything; and the total vote of the state might very easily show that their nominal representatives did not really represent them. There must have been an enormous mass of Union feeling in the south, blind, leaderless, and rendered powerless first by the belief that their primary allegiance was due to the state, and then by the organization of the new national government at Montgomery, but still genuine and hearty.

-III The threat that secession would have foll

Author of this text: Alexander Johnston.

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