There Is No “Right of Secession” Guaranteed by the ConstitutionMay 22, 2007 at 11:28 am | Posted in America, American politics, Civil War | 171 Comments
Back in March, I wrote a post about the American Civil War. I titled it The American Civil War, Fought Over Slavery, Begun by South Carolina. This has garnered many views and plenty of comments. One point that seems to be made quite frequently by those who support and defend the South is that somehow the Constitution of the United States allows a right of secession, to secede from the Union at will. Most take the Tenth Amendment as their justification. The Tenth Amendment is:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
On the face of it, it would seem to, if you stretch logic, justify a state choosing to leave the Union, but that is not the case. The annotations at Findlaw, for example give no indications that it was so.
More importantly, beyond the Tenth Amendment, the Founding Fathers were attempting to create a “perpetual,” “more perfect union,” and not just some voluntary contract between states. Mackubin Thomas Owens writes for the Claremont Institute:
That the American Republic was both federal and national was the dominant view among statesmen of the antebellum period. For instance, in his reply to Calhoun on Feb. 16, 1833, Daniel Webster observed that the state conventions, including that of South Carolina, did not accede to a league or association when they approved the Constitution, but ratified and confirmed that Constitution as a form of government.
Andrew Jackson made the same point in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” during the nullification crisis. The Constitution, said Jackson, derives its whole authority from the people, not the States. The States “retained all the power they did not grant. But each State, having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute, jointly with the other States, a single nation, can not, from that period, possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation.” And Madison, who presumably knew something about the constitutional theory of the American Founding, was horrified by the idea that the coordinate sovereignty retained by the States, as stated in the Tenth Amendment, implied the power of nullification, interposition, or secession.
Lincoln argued that the Union created the States, not the other way around and that the States had no other legal status than that which held in the Union. Harry V. Jaffa has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Revolutionary generation universally understood the separation of 13 colonies from Great Britain and the union among them to have been accomplished simultaneously. Colonial resolutions called for both independence and union. According to Jefferson and Madison in 1825, the Declaration of Independence constituted an “act of Union of the States.”
The Articles of Confederation (a document that begins and ends with the assertion that the Union is perpetual) was an unsuccessful attempt to govern the Union created by the Declaration of Independence. It failed because the central government lacked the necessary power to carry out its obligations. The Constitution was intended to rectify the problems of the Articles — to create “a more perfect Union.” As George Washington wrote in his letter transmitting the Constitution to Congress, “In all our deliberations we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, perhaps our national existence.”
In my previous post on the Civil War, I quoted both Andrew Jackson and George Washington, who understood the importance of the Union over the priorities of the individual states, and I recommend their words in the strongest terms. I shall quote them here again:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts…
The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations…
But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
With such powerful and obvious motives to union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
The ordinance is founded, not on the indefeasible right of resisting acts which are plainly unconstitutional, and too oppressive to be endured, but on the strange position that any one State may not only declare an act of Congress void, but prohibit its execution- that they may do this consistently with the Constitution-that the true construction of that instrument permits a State to retain its place in the Union, and yet be bound by no other of its laws than those it may choose to consider as constitutional. It is true they add, that to justify this abrogation of a law, it must be palpably contrary to the Constitution, but it is evident, that to give the right of resisting laws of that description, coupled with the uncontrolled right to decide what laws deserve that character, is to give the power of resisting all laws. For, as by the theory, there is no appeal, the reasons alleged by the State, good or bad, must prevail. If it should be said that public opinion is a sufficient check against the abuse of this power, it may be asked why it is not deemed a sufficient guard against the passage of an unconstitutional act by Congress. There is, however, a restraint in this last case, which makes the assumed power of a State more indefensible, and which does not exist in the other. There are two appeals from an unconstitutional act passed by Congress-one to the judiciary, the other to the people and the States. There is no appeal from the State decision in theory; and the practical illustration shows that the courts are closed against an application to review it, both judges and jurors being sworn to decide in its favor. But reasoning on this subject is superfluous, when our social compact in express terms declares, that the laws of the United States, its Constitution, and treaties made under it, are the supreme law of the land; and for greater caution adds, “that the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” And it may be asserted, without fear of refutation, that no federative government could exist without a similar provision. Look, for a moment, to the consequence. If South Carolina considers the revenue laws unconstitutional, and has a right to prevent their execution in the port of Charleston, there would be a clear constitutional objection to their collection in every other port, and no revenue could be collected anywhere; for all imposts must be equal. It is no answer to repeat that an unconstitutional law is no law, so long as the question of its legality is to be decided by the State itself, for every law operating injuriously upon any local interest will be perhaps thought, and certainly represented, as unconstitutional, and, as has been shown, there is no appeal.
If this doctrine had been established at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy. The excise law in Pennsylvania, the embargo and non-intercourse law in the Eastern States, the carriage tax in Virginia, were all deemed unconstitutional, and were more unequal in their operation than any of the laws now complained of; but, fortunately, none of those States discovered that they had the right now claimed by South Carolina. The war into which we were forced, to support the dignity of the nation and the rights of our citizens, might have ended in defeat and disgrace instead of victory and honor, if the States, who supposed it a ruinous and unconstitutional measure, had thought they possessed the right of nullifying the act by which it was declared, and denying supplies for its prosecution. Hardly and unequally as those measures bore upon several members of the Union, to the legislatures of none did this efficient and peaceable remedy, as it is called, suggest itself. The discovery of this important feature in our Constitution was reserved to the present day. To the statesmen of South Carolina belongs the invention, and upon the citizens of that State will, unfortunately, fall the evils of reducing it to practice.
If the doctrine of a State veto upon the laws of the Union carries with it internal evidence of its impracticable absurdity, our constitutional history will also afford abundant proof that it would have been repudiated with indignation had it been proposed to form a feature in our Government…
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
These words are of great importance, because the South’s actions were really unconstitutional and a detriment to the nation of America. If allowed to gain legitimacy, they would have destroyed the Constitution and the Union so carefully brought together by the Founding Fathers.
Finally, I offer a final arbiter on what is Constitutional, the Supreme Court of the United States. In Texas v White, the Supreme Court was faced with actually having to interpret the Constitution on whether or not the state of Texas was Constitutionally allowed to secede. As a commentator on a related post on Stubborn Facts writes:
I’m really surprised you haven’t gotten to Texas v. White yet, though. The question of secession has actually come before SCOTUS. While many may (and do!) disagree vehemently with that decision, it does, nonetheless, stand. Barring a new ruling from the court, there is no Constitutional right of secession.
Here is the relevant section of the case Texas v White:
Did Texas, in consecuence of these acts, cease to be a State? Or, if not, did the State cease to be a member of the Union?
It is needless to discuss, at length, the question whether the right of a State to withdraw from the Union for any cause, regarded by herself as sufficient, is consistent with the Constitution of the United States.
The Union of the States never was a purely artificial and [74 U.S. 700, 725] arbitrary relation. It began among the Colonies, and grew out of common origin, mutual sympathies, kindred principles, similar interests, and geographical relations. It was confirmed and strengthened by the necessities of war, and received definite form, and character, and sanction from the Articles of Confederation. By these the Union was solemnly declared to ‘be perpetual.‘ And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?
But the perpetuity and indissolubility of the Union, by no means implies the loss of distinct and individual existence, or of the right of self-government by the States. Under the Articles of Confederation each State retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right not expressly delegated to the United States. Under the Constitution, though the powers of the States were much restricted, still, all powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. And we have already had occasion to remark at this term, that the people of each State compose a State, having its own government, and endowed with all the functions essential to separate and independent existence,’ and that ‘without the States in union, there could be no such political body as the United States.’ 12 Not only, therefore, can there be no loss of separate and independent autonomy to the States, through their union under the Constitution, but it may be not unreasonably said that the preservation of the States, and the maintenance of their governments, are as much within the design and care of the Constitution as the preservation of the Union and the maintenance of the National government. The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States. [74 U.S. 700, 726] When, therefore, Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through consent of the States.
Considered therefore as transactions under the Constitution, the ordinance of secession, adopted by the convention and ratified by a majority of the citizens of Texas, and all the acts of her legislature intended to give effect to that ordinance, were absolutely null. They were utterly without operation in law. The obligations of the State, as a member of the Union, and of every citizen of the State, as a citizen of the United States, remained perfect and unimpaired. It certainly follows that the State did not cease to be a State, nor her citizens to be citizens of the Union. If this were otherwise, the State must have become foreign, and her citizens foreigners. The war must have ceased to be a war for the suppression of rebellion, and must have become a war for conquest and subjugation.
Our conclusion therefore is, that Texas continued to be a State, and a State of the Union, notwithstanding the transactions to which we have referred. And this conclusion, in our judgment, is not in conflict with any act or declaration of any department of the National government, but entirely in accordance with the whole series of such acts and declarations since the first outbreak of the rebellion.
The South never really understood the Union, never really understood what The United States of America meant. It took a Civil War, the suppression of a rebellion, and even then, even today actually, many still do not understand, or we wouldn’t be talking about it.
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