A brief history of secession in America
The call and clamor for secession has steadily increased within the United States over perhaps the last decade and a half. Prior, for the most part, it was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. Despite its troubles, America remained the most free, prosperous nation on the planet as we rolled into the 20th century.
Then things began to change. Perpetual war, out-of-control spending, and a lack of governmental transparency and accountability, along with cultural corrosion, began to weaken and divide the nation. The 2020 election with its specter of fraud and corruption has perhaps ignited the conversation, particularly after comments made by former congressman Allen West, with regard to succession to a level it hasn’t been at in over a century (Mastrangelo, 2020). Given this, perhaps it would be wise to study our tense history with secession, whether the concept is valid, and whether it would be wise.
Post-Constitution, the first major threat of full state secession came during the Jefferson administration, when the New England states, led by Thomas Pickering, threatened to dissolve their participation in the Union. Their concerns over the Louisiana Purchase, the economic damage of the Jefferson embargo of 1807, and their personal dislike of Jefferson himself gave them the desire to maintain economic relations with the Union while severing the political. Jefferson, for his part, declared in his Inaugural Address of 1801 (among other places) it folly but viable in that if the federal government exceeded its constitutional powers, he would defend their right to secede (DiLorenzo, pp. 86–87). Jefferson’s management of the tense political disputes proved savvy, as no secession was actually implemented, and by the Monroe administration, relations between New England and the rest of the country had significantly improved.
Why did Jefferson argue that secession was viable and yet folly? Viable because, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, he believed that states ought to have autonomy to rule themselves or join in union with others as they saw fit. Yet, from an economic and political perspective, clearly, secession would have weakened the blossoming new nation and created an atmosphere that would have much more closely resembled war-torn Europe than a united, peaceful America. Without question, the wise course of unity served to propel the United States into a world political and economic power.
The most famous, and dire, secession movement occurred just after the election of 1860. The country, again fractured and segmented, reached a point where, on the surface, it seemed as if political compromise had grown increasingly unlikely. Yet many leaders on both sides were torn about the issue. Jefferson Davis, who became the president of the Confederacy, worried that the 1860 election “might actually destroy the Constitutional Union he cherished, and if so, he wanted no part of the country, for it would no longer be his conception of the Union created by the Founding Fathers” (Cooper Jr., p. 323). It’s worth noting that upon secession, the South had hoped it would be peaceful and that payment could be made for federal assets now in Confederate possession. In other words, Davis believed like Jefferson that secession was legal and viable, but unlike Jefferson, he felt that it may in fact be the only course available. President Lincoln felt differently, essentially arguing the primacy and supremacy of the federal government over the respective states due to secession violating majority rule and promoting anarchy (DiLorenzo, p. 117) — in other words, both folly and not legally viable.
It’s worth pausing here to examine the geopolitical situation of the Civil War. In terms of viability, it's hard to argue with Jefferson and Madison, who viewed secession as a final check on federal encroachment of power. Whether that encroachment was actually reached in 1860 or not is quite another matter. Should the South have seceded without being stopped, just as Britain, France, and Germany were really fully transitioning into their Industrial Revolutions and consecrating their power, America undoubtedly would not have been able to keep up. On the other hand, the Civil War meant the deaths of approximately 700,000 men on top of the economic ruin and political disaster that followed. While secession may have been legally viable, the price the nation paid was steep and bloody. Regardless, the Civil War put an end to the question for over a century, but not forever.
Here we are now, present-day, facing a 27-trillion-dollar national debt, a looming China, a fractured political system, and a people as divided as they have been in 150 years. Here we are, asking the same questions our forefathers asked. Perhaps the dilemma can be sidestepped for that very thing. Perhaps instead of demonizing our Founders and key historical figures of the past like Lincoln and Davis (or allowing them to be demonized), we should instead focus on learning from them, correct their errors, and find new paths. And perhaps we may yet find a way out of this mess that is both viable and wise.
Cooper, Jr., William. Jefferson Davis, American. Vintage Civil War Library, 2000.
DiLorenzo, Thomas. The Real Lincoln. Three Rivers Press, 2003.
Mastrangelo, Dominick. Texas GOP chair denies he floated secession over election results. The Hill, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/530099-texas-gop-chair-denies-he-floated-secession-over-election-results