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The American Tradition of Secession
by Tom DiLorenzo - LewRockwell
Published : November 21st, 2012
1570 words - Reading time : 3 - 6 minutes
( 11 votes, 4.2/5 ) Print article
 
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"Secession is a deeply American principle. This country was born through secession."

~ Ron Paul

 

Leftists and neocons in the media who tend to agree on the propriety and desirability of an ever-growing welfare/warfare/police state were predictably apoplectic when Ron Paul recently stated on his House Web site that secession is "a deeply American principle." Congressman Paul was alluding to the fact that all fifty states have sent secession petitions to the White House.

Typical of the media response was a snotty remark by one Robert Schlesinger, the son of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who is the "managing editor of opinion" of the soon-to-go-out-of-business U.S. News. Ron Paul is "deeply wrong," he moaned, calling the congressman a "crank" and predicting that he "will soon be forgotten." Robert Schlesinger’s bad manners are matched by his utter ignorance of American history.

Ron Paul was most certainly correct when he said that America "was born through secession." The Revolutionary War was a war of secession from the British empire. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, our Declaration of Secession from the British Empire, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and whenever that consent is withdrawn, it is the right and duty of the people to "alter or abolish" that government and "to institute a new government."

How else could one possibly interpret the following passage from the Declaration but a declaration of secession or separation from Great Britain?: "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved . . ." (emphasis in original).

In his first inaugural address Jefferson advocated attempts at persuasion, as opposed to a Lincolnian waging of total war of terrorism on American citizens who sought disunion: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union . . . let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it." In a January 29, 1804 letter to a Dr. Joseph Priestly, who had inquired about the prospect of the New England Federalists seceding from the union, as they were plotting to do at the time, Jefferson said: "Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern . . . " If there was a separation in the future, Jefferson continued, "I should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern,, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power."

In an August 12, 1803 letter to John C. Breckenridge Jefferson addressed the issue of New England secession by saying that if they seceded, "God bless them both, & keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better." On June 20, 1816, Jefferson wrote to a Mr. W. Crawford that "If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in the union," then "I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate’" (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 15, p. 27). Jefferson believed that the right of secession was absolutely necessary if America was to avoid tyrannical government. (And Robert Schlesinger hasn’t the foggiest idea of what he is talking about).

John Quincy Adams believed that if a state or states wanted to secede, then "a more perfect Union" could be formed "by dissolving that which could no longer bind . . ." (John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, p. 66). In Democracy in America (p. 381) Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality . . . . If one of he states chooses to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right."

Jefferson’s great nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, defended the right of secession by saying that "To coerce the States [to remain in the Union] is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised" and thought of "a government that can only exist by the sword," with "Congress marching the troops of one State into the bosom of another" a moral abomination (Jonathan Elliot’s Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, p. 232).

America’s second generation of secessionists were not the Southern Confederates but the New England Federalists who so loathed the idea of a Jefferson presidency that they plotted to secede for the next fourteen years. Their efforts culminated in the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814 (See James Banner, To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts). Much of the discussion of the New England secessionists is contained in Henry Adams, editor, Documents Relating to New-England Federalism. In it one learns that the leader of the New Enland Yankee secessionists was United States Senator Timothy Pickering, who had previously served as George Washington’s adjutant general and quartermaster during the Revolution, and later as secretary of state and secretary or war in the Washington administration.

In 1803 Pickering announced that with New England seceding from the union "I will rather anticipate a new confederacy, exempt from the corrupt and corrupting influence of the aristocratic Democrats of the South." United States Senator James Hillhouse agreed that "The Eastern States must and will dissolve the union and form a separate government." George Cabot, Elbridge Gerry, John Quincy Adams, Fisher Ames, Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Story, among others, voiced similar opinions in the first years of the nineteenth century.

Governor Roger Griswold of Connecticut proclaimed that because of the political clout of the Southern states, "there can be no safety [from political plunder] to the Northern States without a separation from the confederacy [a.k.a. the union]." Senator Pickering explained that secession was THE principle of the American Revolution when he said that "the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt." And he was right: President Jefferson considered New Englanders to be an integral part of the American family, and the last thing in the world he would have done was to launch an invasion of New England, bombing Boston, Providence, and Hartford and turning them into a smoldering ruin to "save the union."

The New England Federalists eventually decided in 1814 at the Hartford Secession Convention to remain in the union and work within the system. All during this fourteen year ordeal the predominant view of the New England Federalists as well as the Jeffersonian Democrats was that of course the American union was voluntary, and of course the states therefore have a right to secede without asking for or being given permission by anyone or by any other government.

The third significant American secession movement occurred in what in the nineteenth century were called "the middle states" – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. In The Secession Movement in the Middle Atlantic States historian William C. Wright described how in the 1850s these states, which accounted for some 40 percent of the U.S. economy, had put together a powerful political movement in favor of forming a Central Confederacy as a separate country. On the eve of the War to Prevent Southern Independence leading opinion makers in these states advocated either allowing the Southern states to secede in peace; seceding and joining the Southern Confederacy; or seceding to form a separate nation comprised of the Middle Atlantic states.

Belief that the American union was voluntary and that it would be a war crime and a moral abomination for the federal government to force any state to remain in the union was strong throughout America on the eve of the war. Northern Editorials on Secession, edited by Howard C. Perkins, describes how the majority of Northern newspapers advocated peaceful secession of the Southern states in 1860-61. For example, the Bangor Daily Union editorialized on November 13, 1860 that "The Union depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone." The New York Journal of Commerce condemned "the meddlesome spirit" of Northern "Yankees" who "seek to regulate and control people in other communities." The New York Tribune wrote on December 17, 1860 that "If tyranny and despotism justified the Revolution of 1776, then we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861." The Kenosha, Wisconsin Democrat editorialized on January 11, 1861 that "Secession is the very germ of liberty . . . the right of secession inheres to the people of every sovereign state."

Ron Paul could not have said it better.

 

 

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Tom DiLorenzo

Thomas DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College, Maryland, and a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author or co-author of ten books, on subjects such as antitrust, group-interest politics, and interventionism generally
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