Secede from the Union!

Autor: Thomas E. Woods, Jr. | Publikováno: 17.7.2010 | Rubrika: English

Secession, State and Liberty
Edited with an introduction by David Gordon
New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998, 344pp.

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

On a daily basis we are confidently assured by the organs of respectable opinion that the process of globalization is continuing smoothly, the old-fashioned conception of national sovereignty gradually giving way to the idea of supranational governance. Yet this confident note is not without a certain dissonance, for at the very moment when a New World Order is supposed to be emerging, the world finds itself confronted as never before by movements for secession, devolution, and local control. Professor Donald Livingston has observed that no more than twenty-five member states of the United Nations can claim to be free of such conflicts.

Secession in its historical and philosophical aspects is the topic of an outstanding volume of papers first delivered several years ago at a conference on the subject sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Entitled Secession, State, and Liberty, the collection is edited with an introduction by David Gordon, a brilliant intellectual historian about whom it has more than once been said, "Who needs the Library of Congress when you have David Gordon?" The result is an extraordinarily compelling work of scholarship bristling with insight and little-known facts.

The idea of secession, although associated in the popular mind with radicalism and – inanely – even treason since the Southern states attempted to withdraw from the Union during the 1860s, was a common one during the first several generations of the republic’s existence. Tom DiLorenzo’s essay on the subject sheds important historical light on what has been anything but a merely theoretical question throughout American history. In each case DiLorenzo examines – from rumblings following the Louisiana Purchase through the War of 1812 – the matter in dispute was the wisdom and prudence of a given state’s withdrawal from the Union at a particular time; that the states had the right to withdraw was simply taken for granted.

None of this would have startled Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson refused to view the American Union as anything more than a utilitarian political arrangement to be judged by the test of time, and he expected it ultimately to devolve into two or three independent confederacies – a development he did not view with any particular dread. He told James Madison that he was "determined…to sever ourselves from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness." When Daniel Webster attempted to argue against the principled states’ rights position in famous debates with Robert Hayne and John C. Calhoun during the 1830s, the best assurance he could offer them against the possibility of federal tyranny was the check provided by popular elections – an alleged safeguard to which the verdict of history has not been kind.

In an excellent essay on "Republicanism, Federalism, and Secession in the South, 1790-1865," Mises Institute Historian in Residence Joseph Stromberg discusses the origins of secessionist theory and, among many other examples, looks to the case of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Madison and Jefferson, respectively, penned these resolves in response to the recently passed and constitutionally dubious Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson’s, not surprisingly, was the more radical of the two, insisting on a state’s right to "nullify" laws it considered unconstitutional; this, Jefferson insisted, was the only way to ensure that the general government would not come to oppress the states by construing the Constitution however it pleased. Liberal historians, Stromberg notes, argue disingenuously that the resolutions were part of a battle over freedom of expression only; in fact, they were the battleground of a struggle for states’ rights that would be a perennial theme throughout American history.

Picking up Jefferson’s line of argument several decades later, John C. Calhoun, in his own defense of nullification, insisted again and again that if the federal government were allowed to determine the extent of its own powers, no mere piece of paper, however venerable, could stop it. The states had to be able to assert their sovereignty in a serious and forceful way if the federal compact were to retain its integrity as a joint agreement between equals and not to degenerate into the consolidated tyranny that the framers feared.

For American readers the most compelling essay may be that of Donald Livingston, a world-renowned David Hume scholar and professor of philosophy at Emory University. Livingston demonstrates that the theory of the Union held by supporters of secession is grounded so much more firmly in American history than that of its opponents as to be almost laughable. To argue, as foes of secession must, that the United States was formed by the American people in the aggregate rather than by the sovereign capacity of pre-existing states is to leave the terrain of serious historical argument and descend into a vapid mythology.

Livingston also reminds his readers of the overwhelming weight of the testimony of key American thinkers in favor of the principle that a state may freely withdraw from that Union into which it had freely entered. Thus he makes note of the important 1825 book by William Rawle, A View of the Constitution, which was so widely respected that it was used as a textbook at West Point from 1825-1840. Rawle, no friend of secession, conceded that under certain conditions it would be perfectly legal for a state to withdraw unilaterally from the federal compact. President-turned-congressman John Quincy Adams, another friend of union (albeit one who himself suggested the possibility of Northern secession over the issue of Texas annexation), observed in commemoration of the Constitution’s fifty-year jubilee:

The indissoluble link of union between the people of the several states of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the right but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it!) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bands of political associations will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited states to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.

Alexis de Tocqueville, moreover, the great French observer of American affairs, himself wrote that the Union "was formed by the voluntary agreement of the states; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced the condition of one and the same people. If one of the states chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right to do so."

Clyde N. Wilson, editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun and professor of history at the University of South Carolina, addresses the obvious objection that the states themselves are hardly bastions of liberty and culture these days. "I know there are many moral and social problems that are not solved by political arrangements, and that the level of statesmanship in the states is not much higher, if at all, than in the federal government," he observes. "But if we are to speak of curbing the central power, the states are what we have got. They exist. They are historical, political, cultural realities, the indestructible bottom line of the American system."

This is precisely the point. Any effort to recover the old American republic must begin with its constituent parts, the states. And any serious thought on the subject must come to grips with the intellectually rigorous contributions – ranging in subject matter from the political theory of secession to analyses of devolutionist rumblings in Quebec and in Europe – to Secession, State and Liberty, a unique scholarly volume on a subject rarely accorded serious academic treatment. As Professor Wilson puts it, "It would be a shame if, in this world-historical time of devolution, Americans did not look back to an ancient and honorable tradition that lies readily at hand."

August 11, 2000

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., a 1994 graduate of Harvard College, holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and is currently a professor of history at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, New York.

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