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Do States Have a Right of Secession?

Do states have a right of secession? That question was settled through the costly War of 1861. In his recently published book, “The Real Lincoln,” Thomas DiLorenzo marshals abundant unambiguous evidence that virtually every political leader of the time and earlier believed that states had a right of secession.

Let’s look at a few quotations. Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.” Fifteen years later, after the New England Federalists attempted to secede, Jefferson said, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union …. I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.'”

At Virginia’s ratification convention, the delegates said, “The powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” In Federalist Paper 39, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, cleared up what “the people” meant, saying the proposed Constitution would be subject to ratification by the people, “not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong.” In a word, states were sovereign; the federal government was a creation, an agent, a servant of the states.

On the eve of the War of 1861, even unionist politicians saw secession as a right of states. Maryland Rep. Jacob M. Kunkel said, “Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty.” The northern Democratic and Republican parties favored allowing the South to secede in peace.

Just about every major Northern newspaper editorialized in favor of the South’s right to secede. New York Tribune (Feb. 5, 1860): “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.” Detroit Free Press (Feb. 19, 1861): “An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful could produce nothing but evil — evil unmitigated in character and appalling in content.” The New York Times (March 21, 1861): “There is growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go.” DiLorenzo cites other editorials expressing identical sentiments.

Americans celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but H.L. Mencken correctly evaluated the speech, “It is poetry not logic; beauty, not sense.” Lincoln said that the soldiers sacrificed their lives “to the cause of self-determination — government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth.” Mencken says: “It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of people to govern themselves.”

In Federalist Paper 45, Madison guaranteed: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” The South seceded because of Washington’s encroachment on that vision. Today, it’s worse. Turn Madison’s vision on its head, and you have today’s America.

DiLorenzo does a yeoman’s job in documenting Lincoln’s ruthlessness and hypocrisy, and how historians have covered it up. The Framers had a deathly fear of federal government abuse. They saw state sovereignty as a protection. That’s why they gave us the Ninth and 10th Amendments. They saw secession as the ultimate protection against Washington tyranny.

Editor’s Comment: Secession is not protection against establishing a government to prevent the abolishment of slavery. The key issue in the right to secession is not separating oneself from a government that prevents the “self-determination” of “peoples,” but separating oneself from a government that fails in its purpose: the protection of individual rights.