The Right to Secession

The Founding Fathers put into the United States Constitution at least two remedies should it happen that the splendid mechanism they had devised should show imperfections either in systems or in practice. First off, they provided for a process of amendment whereby, with great difficulty, Congress or the states could alter the Constitution, the process not being hasty lest it be engaged in for mischievous reasons. Second of all, they provided for impeachment, whereby even the President could be removed from office, his powers so great that he might be suspected of wanting to overstep them, and there had to be a way of doing that without resorting to his execution, an expedient which the British had used in their own past and whose lesson was not lost on the Founding Fathers: find a way to peacefully get rid of the one who presides over the nation. The Founding Fathers did not expect this power to be used lightly, for then it would have turned the new nation into something of a parliamentary democracy, the President subject to the political inclinations of his legislature. To the contrary, the spirit of the Founding Fathers was to make as many things as possible about their system objective rather than political, and so the term of service of the President was set as a fixed number of years, just as the allocation of seats in the Congress to the various states was on the basis of a census of the people of the United States so as to prevent the existence of “rotten boroughs”, which are districts without many persons living there, which happened in the British system because it was by act of Parliament that an area had a seat in Parliament or had one withdrawn.

Not included in the Constitution was a third possible remedy for disfunction. That would have been the right of succession. No such event is contemplated under the good old Eighteenth and Seventeenth Century idea that the final guarantor of a nation, what made it, was violence. The ability of a government to insure cultural and economic and political control of its territory was whether it could maintain military control. Areas could be conquered and added to the territory of a nation whether or not its residents had much in common with those who resided in other parts of the nation. It is in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that a different basis for nationhood is established: the ethnic identity of a population. Every ethnicity deserves its own country, whether the people are Kurds or Estonians or whatever. Frenchmen from all regions of France lose their separate identities, as do those of Germany and Italy. Only in America is it the case that the overriding ethnic identity is with the Constitution itself, which becomes a sacred document to bind people to their citizenship and so allowing everyone who wants to consider themselves as such to be an hyphenated American. Once the majority of states, including all the large ones, had ratified the Constitution, the holdouts did not have much choice. They probably would not have been able to hold out as independent states for economic reasons, but the Congress was also willing to invade Rhode Island, the last holdout, to make sure of ratification. This was a political deal once done not to be revoked.

This view of the foundation document of a nation as forever applicable-- until, that is, it is rendered asunder by violence-- does not apply to the European Union, whose founding document does provide procedures for secession from the agreement, and those are presently being used to negotiate the peaceful separation of Great Britain from the continent wide affiliation of states which are joined together by a common Christian culture, as that has been modified by the Renaissance, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment, and the experience of two world wars, but which has not unified into a single political unit because of the economic chasm between the northern European states and the southern European states, the north taking advantage of the south by extending loans it knew could not be paid back, and the south resenting its status as second class citizens in this polity of nations. Perhaps Europe has been too long asunder for it to put itself right except when under the protection of the American military umbrella.  

Alexander Hamilton, in “The Federalist Papers” No. 6 and No. 7, where he discusses the reasons why the various states, if they did not form a single union, would as individual states and small confederacies, likely turn to war with one another because that is the thing that states do, clearly had in mind a single nation that was like a European state in that it would enforce its sovereignty throughout its provinces so as to avoid that outcome of perpetual warfare. States, he maintained, go to war because of the greed of leaders, because of their close proximity to one another, because of territorial ambitions. In the case of the states of North America, they would also go to war to settle claims to territories not yet included in a state and to settle the apportionment of taxation between states, such as Connecticut and New York, where New York controlled the harbor and Connecticut therefore got its goods from New York. Hamilton also argued that even if all the states were commercial rather than agricultural, and he clearly expected that would be the case with the United States, they still might go to war with one another because other commercial states, such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, had gone to war with one another. Commerce does not necessarily bring peace. It is interesting to note that Hamilton thought that personal vices or economic and political conflict are what give rise to war between nations. He did not yet have the nineteenth century notion that cultures went to war with one another or that nations are built on a common culture, and that, of course, was the cause of the American Civil War, where the Southern Way of Life, dependant on slavery, conflicted with the Northern Way of Life, which was dependant on wage labor.

Hamilton’s powers of prophecy also failed him in No. 17 of “The Federalist Papers” when he considered the question of the encroachment of the federal government on states’ rights. He thought it not much to worry about because the federal government would not have much interest in going beyond its jurisdiction over commerce and war because the natural allegiance of people would be to their states, and particularly because the states would retain their jurisdiction over criminal justice, as indeed is still the case, and because states would be like feudal barons, who also hold the allegiance of their dependants over that of princes, who become important at moments of crisis. Hamilton did not consider that American society was to have a perpetual economic crisis ushered in by Gilded Age corporations that needed regulation and so would therefore require a strong prince indefinitely. That is just the way it is with complex economies. Moreover, only the federal government would have the power to regularize and equalize the relations between social classes, races, ethnic groups and sexes that is required if all people are to be treated as citizens, and that is what has come to pass. At any rate, Hamilton did not mention secession as one remedy for the overreaching of the federal government.

It therefore does not make sense to say that the Confederacy was exercising a right to secede. There was no such right because whether a part of a nation can secede is a political and military act that precedes any appeal to rights, although it can appeal, as Thomas Jefferson did, to the reasons that one nation decides to sever its ties with another. That is the logic of self-interest rather than a legal argument, however much its declaration of independence spells out how abominable are the practices which prompted it. The secession of the Confederate states, as that was codified in its constitution, mentioned slavery as a practice to be protected, but did not even suggest that there might be laws to make of slavery a more humane practice.

There is a point to be made here other than to tweak the noses of unreconstructed Confederates who claim that they had a constitutional and not just a natural right to rebel. It is that the United States was an exceptional nation from its very beginning because its creation as a nation, as was noted by Hamilton in “The Federalist Papers” No. 1, was not the result of conquest but of the consent of the governed, as that was offered when the various states decided to ratify the Constitution. They did not have to, though once they did so, there was no going back, a nation’s continued sovereignty indeed guaranteed by force. What was revolutionary here was that the creation of the nation was deliberate and (largely) freely given. This does not ordinarily happen in the history of nations. Hamilton knew that a revolution was not simply a change of regime but of doing something profoundly different, turning the political world topsy-turvy. Radical departures in the American constitution made sense when the American revolution had been one that was out to challenge a basic sociological situation: the aristocratic order was to be overthrown in favor of a very different form of society, one ruled on republican principles that foresaw the extension of the franchise to many categories of people not yet even regarded as fully human. It is not what is meant by revolution in the Arab world, where the term means simply a shift in power from one ethnicity to another or one power center to another. The American claim to distinctiveness is one of which we can still remain proud.