Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
—I. The union of 1643 (see
—Accession to, and secession from, any union, were of course equally unconstitutional, without the king's consent, while the colonies remained a part of the British empire. But, as the American revolution itself was frequently appealed to in after years, as the first great example of, and precedent for, secession, it may be well to lay stress here on one essential difference between them, that the former was an exercise of the undeniable right of revolution, a revolt of an unrepresented fraction of the empire against the usurpations of parliament, and afterward against the king for sustaining parliament; while the latter was attempted to be justified as a constitutional right of the states, which could not rightfully be resisted by any other state, by all the other states, or by the federal government. A revolt of a territory, unrepresented in the federal government, against what it might consider the usurpation of the federal government, and its attempt to establish a separate government, might claim the American revolution as a precedent; the seceding states in 1860-61 could not. A revolutionist hazards his life upon the issue, with the pains and penalties of treason as a possible result; a secessionist claims all the advantages of revolution, without any of its responsibilities or dangers.
—Notwithstanding the early and general dissemination of the theory of state sovereignty, its practical consequence, the right of secession, was for some years unheard of, perhaps unthought of. Until 1783 the common dangers of war were a fence outside of which none of the thirteen states dared to stray; after 1783 the authority of the congress of the confederation was so weak a fence that none of the states cared to give it importance by formally demolishing it. The ugly word "secession" first appears in the convention of 1787, July 5, though it then referred to the states as represented in the convention itself: Gerry remarked that, unless some compromise should be made, "a secession, he foresaw, would take place." The subsequent ratification of the constitution by eleven of the thirteen states, on the original refusal of Rhode Island and North Carolina to ratify, has often been appealed to as a brilliant example of peaceable secession; and so it must be considered, if the ratifications were really, as they purported to be, the acts of "sovereign states." The articles of confederation had expressly provided that no change should be made in them unless with the assent of the legislatures of every state; and yet, in the face of this covenant, eleven of the states not only formed a new government, but inserted in it a provision for future amendment by three-fourths of the states. On the theory that the states were sovereign until the adoption of the constitution, how can such a proceeding be anything but a secession, albeit of the majority from the minority? But another power was present in the ratification, the power which had held the states together even before the adoption of the articles of confederation, the sovereign power of the nation, of the national people as distinguished from the people of the state. Its non-recognition by the state conventions can not alter the fact of its already established existence; and, without its existence, the assumptions of the continental congress, from 1775 until the ratification of the confederation in 1781, would be even a more colossal sham than the ratification of the constitution. The historic truth is, that the people of the nation, which had alone validated the revolutionary acts of the continental congress, and which had tolerated the articles of confederation, had now at last interposed to bring order out of chaos; that it was disposed to deal very tenderly with the rights and even with the prejudices of the peoples of the several states; that it chose to maintain state lines in the ratifications; but that, when nine of the states, including a heavy majority of the territory, wealth and population of the nation, had expressed their decision in favor of the new form of government, factious opposition was to cease. It is true that the status of the possible non-ratifying states was carefully ignored everywhere, as being what the "Federalist" called a "delicate question"; but it is impossible to suppose that two, or even four, recalcitrant states would ever have been allowed to escape from the national jurisdiction. Gouverneur Morris' warning in the convention of 1787, July 5, "This country must be united; if persuasion does not unite it, the sword will," which provoked so much contrary feeling, was the simple truth. The forms of ratification would never have been neglected; but ratification, willing or unwilling, would have been extorted from Rhode Island and North Carolina by a pressure increasing continually until finally successful. The passage of the senate bill, May 18, 1790, to prohibit bringing goods, wares and merchandise from the state of Rhode Island "into the United States, "and to authorize a demand of arrears of money from the said state, is a fair example of the sort of pressure which would have been increased indefinitely but for the ratification by the state on the 29th of the same month. The nation has always been thus gentle and considerate in allowing the assertion of state sovereignty in non-essentials; in essentials state sovereignty must yield or be crushed.
—Under the constitution the Union was at first spared any internal dissensions of such magnitude as to suggest secession as a remedy. Projects for separation from the Union were undoubtedly on foot before 1795 in Kentucky (see that state), and in western Pennsylvania (see
—When the idea of secession next appeared, it was again in the north, and closely connected with the question on which it was finally put into practice in the south, the territories of the United States. The acquisition of Louisiana (see
—In the meantime the opposition to the democratic administration, confined chiefly to the New England politicians on the annexation question, had become more popular with the introduction of the restrictive system. (See
—During the war of 1812 the feeling in New England grew still higher. Ultra federalists undoubtedly used language aiming directly at secession; the student will find a large collection of such utterances in Carey's "Olive Branch," as cited among the authorities. Indiscreet references to "the New England nation," occasional flauntings of a flag with five stripes and stars, the firing of "New England national salutes" of five guns, and other similar indications, when combined with the general discontent in New England (see
—With the close of the war of 1812 the first period of the history of secession ends. It continued immanent in the doctrine of state sovereignty; but nothing occurred to call it to active life. It was threatened as a possible alternative to its illegitimate brother, nullification (see that title), but was never enforced. Secessionists proper in South Carolina had a contempt for nullification, and composed the so-called "Union party" of 1831-3 in that state. Indeed, Jackson's nullification proclamation was offensive to them, as laying down "the tyrannical doctrine that we have not even the right to secede."
—II. Throughout its subsequent history secession is always connected with slavery or the opposition to slavery. The right to secede, after it had been completely formulated by Tucker in 1803, was asserted again and again for the next thirty years, but always as a mere particularist formula, a corollary of state sovereignty. The most striking of these. and particularly as coming from the north, is that of Judge Rawle, of Pennsylvania, in his commentaries on the constitution, as cited below, in 1825. "The secession of a state from the Union depends on the will of the people of such state. * * The state legislatures have only to perform certain organical operations in respect to it. To withdraw from the Union comes not within the general scope of their delegated authority. But in any manner by which a secession is to take place, nothing is more certain than that the act should be deliberate, clear and unequivocal; and in such case the previous ligament with the Union would be legitimately and fairly destroyed. * * In the present constitution there is no specification of numbers after the first formation. It was foreseen that there would be a natural tendency to increase the number of states. It was also known, though it was not avowed, that a state might withdraw itself. The number would therefore be variable. Secessions may reduce the number to the smallest integer admitting combination. They would remain united under the same principles and regulations, among themselves, that now apply to the whole. For a state can not be compelled by other states to withdraw from the Union, and therefore, if two or more determine to remain united, although all the others desert them, nothing can be discovered in the constitution to prevent it." It is notable that, so late as Nov. 9, 1860, Horace Greeley upheld "the practical liberty, if not the abstract right, of secession," only insisting that the step should be taken "with the deliberation and gravity befitting so momentous an issue." It is true that these two utterances are almost the only ones from a representative northern man after the war of 1812 in support of the theory of secession; and that all the other utterances which have been laboriously collected are simply the expression of state feeling, of state opposition to the annexation of Texas, the fugitive slave law, and similar measures, without any apparent thought of the right of secession which was involved in it. Nevertheless, it is painful to consider the result which would have followed in 1860-61, if the action of the seceding states had been slow, calm, and the evident outcome of popular desire, instead of hasty, violent, and the work of the politicians. In that event, the issue of the struggle would have been painfully doubtful.
—Secession came in again with Texas, whose independent existence was itself a brilliant instance of successful secession from the Mexican republic. As the probability of its annexation grew stronger, the language used in advocacy of or in opposition to it grew with it. March 3, 1843, John Quincy Adams and a few anti slavery whigs issued an address to their constituents, warning them that the annexation project had never been given up, and that it would result in and fully justify a dissolution of the Union. Through this and the following summer, on the other hand, "Texas or disunion" became a frequently expressed sentiment in the south, particularly in South Carolina, but this died away as the success of annexation became assured. But even this did not drive the northern states into any action looking to secession, or a dissolution of the Union, though this was unofficially suggested. In January, 1845, at an anti-annexation convention in Boston, Wm. Lloyd Garrison urged the calling of a Massachusetts convention to declare the Union dissolved, and to invite other states to join with her in a new union based on the principles of the declaration of independence. "Although," says May, "his motion was not carried by the convention, it was received with great favor by a large portion of the members and other auditors, and he sat down amidst the most hearty bursts of applause." But the final annexation of Texas, operating against the feelings of the most thoroughly nationalized section of the Union, was insufficient to call forth any dangerous or even irritating desire for a dissolution of the Union. That was reserved for the question of the settlement of the new territories (see
—CO-OPERATION. The theory of secession involved the right of any state to withdraw from the Union singly; and yet the silent proof of its inherent fallacy is that single secession was never attempted, and probably never thought of. In 1847 Calhoun had endeavored unsuccessfully to obtain the "co-operation" of the slave states in the following programme: 1, the calling of a slave state convention; 2, the exclusion of the sea-going vessels of the northern states from southern ports; 3, the prohibition of railroad commerce with the northeastern, but not with the northwestern, states; 4, the present maintenance of the freedom of trade on the Mississippi; 5, the continuance of this interstate embargo system until the northwest should be "detached" from the eastern states, and should unite with the south in opening the new territories to slavery. Calhoun's programme opened the way, however, for a bolder idea of "co-operation" in 1850, according to which a number of slave states were to secede in company, for mutual defense, if any prohibition of slavery in the new territories should be enforced. But the southern states held to the resolutions of the Georgia state convention of 1850, declaring that the state accepted the compromise of 1850, but would resist, even to secession, such anti-slavery legislation as the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in the territories, or of the interstate slave-trade. There can be no doubt that South Carolina was ready to secede in 1850, but not alone. Her state convention of April 26, 1852, declared her right to secede, but forbore to exercise it, out of deference to the wishes of other slaveholding states, that is, because no other slaveholding state wished to secede with or after her. Co-operation was, therefore, never practically attempted, because of the compromise of 1850, by which the Wilmot proviso was really enforced in California, by its admission as a free state, while nothing was said of it in the organization of the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and the fugitive slave law was accepted by the south as a make-weight. (See
—This underlying consciousness, that secession meant war, was for some time sufficient to make any attempt at open secession hopeless ab initio, and no such attempt was made. Indeed, the south had been very well satisfied with the compromise of 1850; and the impediments to the execution of the fugitive slave law (see
—With so many influences at work in its favor, it is matter for wonder that secession in 1860-61 was only forced through by the influence of the first two classes over the delegates to the state conventions, and that the popular demand for secession was so conspicuous by its absence that the conventions, except in Texas, did not venture to submit their ordinances to popular vote. For, in a popular vote, be it remembered, the "federal representation" disappeared; only the votes of the whites went for anything; and the total vote of the state might very easily show that their nominal representatives did not really represent them. There must have been an enormous mass of Union feeling in the south, blind, leaderless, and rendered powerless first by the belief that their primary allegiance was due to the state, and then by the organization of the new national government at Montgomery, but still genuine and hearty.
—III The threat that secession would have followed Fremont's election, in 1856, was probably only an electioneering device. When his election seemed probable, Gov. Wise, of Virginia, called a meeting of southern governors at Raleigh, for Oct. 13; but only three governors appeared, those of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, and these did nothing. The meeting was of some influence, however, upon the northern vote. (See
—As it resulted, however, Lincoln obtained the electoral votes of all the northern and western states, with the exception of a part of New Jersey's vote, and was elected beyond cavil. What was to be the next step in the political game? Were the southern states to go on debating about co-operation, without taking any practical steps toward secession, until the popular impression caused by Lincoln's election had worn off, and his administration was found to be nothing out of the ordinary? In that case, the idea of secession might as well be laid permanently on the shelf, with other worn-out political stage thunder. The southern politician class felt, that, rather than give up what they had grown accustomed to consider the only life-preserver of their section, or rather of slavery, they would prefer to go over the cataract with it.
—Nevertheless, there remained that dread of the practical attempt to secede by a single state, which was always the surest internal condemnation of the whole theory of secession. Gov. Gist, of South Carolina, had already sent a circular letter to the other southern governors, Oct. 5, 1860, asking their advice and plans. His state, he said, would secede with any other state, if Lincoln should be elected; or she would secede alone, if she should receive assurances that any other state would follow her; "otherwise, it is doubtful." Not one governor answered that his state would secede alone. Florida, Alabama and Mississippi would secede with any other state; North Carolina and Louisiana would probably not secede at all; Georgia would wait for some overt act. At first sight, these answers seem discouraging; but there was hope in them. If three states were only waiting for a leader, South Carolina would take the plunge, though the gallantry of the act is considerably diminished by this preliminary probing for assurances of support. A movement begun even by four states, would probably swing the other gulf states; any attempt at "coercion" by the federal government would bring the border states; and the confederacy of the slave states would then be complete.
—The South Carolina legislature, which chose presidential electors until 1868, was in session to choose them, Nov. 6, 1860, and remained in session until Lincoln's election was assured. It then called a state convention, made appropriations for the purchase of arms, and adjourned. The convention met at Columbia, Dec. 17, adjourned to Charleston, on account of an epidemic in Columbia, and there unanimously passed the following ordinance, Dec. 20: "We, the people of the state of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the ordinance adopted by us in convention, on the 23d day of May, in the year of our Lord 1788, whereby the constitution of the United States was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the general assembly of this state ratifying amendments of the said constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states, under the name of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved." On the 24th a declaration of causes for secession was adopted. It recapitulated the arguments in favor of state sovereignty and the right of secession, and assigned as a cause for immediate secession the general hostility of the northern states to the south, as shown in their union under a sectional party organization, and in their refusal to execute the fugitive slave laws (see
—The action of Georgia comes second in importance politically, if not chronologically; for the rank, wealth and position of the state would have made its persistent refusal to secede a most annoying brake on the secession programme. The legislature called a state convention, Nov. 18, 1860, and the whole struggle took place on the election of delegates. There was hardly any denial of the right of secession; but a strong state party, under the lead of Alexander H. Stephens, warmly denied the advisability of secession. The convention met at Milledgeville, Jan. 17, 1861, and on the following day, by a vote of 165 to 130, declared it to be the right and the duty of the state to secede. This really settled the question. Jan. 19, the formal ordinance of secession was adopted by a vote of 208 to 89. In order to maintain the position of the state, every delegate but six signed the ordinance; and these six yielded so far as to pledge themselves to the defense of the state. After passing the other necessary ordinances for a transfer of powers from the federal government to the legislature, the convention adjourned, but re-assembled in Savannah, March 7, and on the 16th ratified the confederate constitution.
—In Mississippi the convention was called for Jan. 7, at Jackson, and passed an ordinance of secession on the 9th by a vote of 84 to 15. March 30, the confederate constitution was ratified by a vote of 78 to 7.
—In Florida the legislature passed the bill calling a convention, Dec. 1, 1860, and the convention met at Tallahassee, Jan. 3, 1861. Jan 10, an ordinance of secession was passed by a vote of 62 to 7.
—In Alabama the election for delegates was ordered by the governor (see
—In Louisiana the legislature, Dec. 11, 1860, passed the bill calling a convention, and it met at Baton Rouge, Jan. 23, 1861. Jan. 26, an ordinance of secession was adopted by a vote of 113 to 17, and on March 21 the confederate constitution was ratified. Louisiana was the only original seceding state in which the popular vote for delegates was a close one. It is stated at 20,448 for, and 17,296 against, immediate secession.
—In Texas, secession was forced through with great difficulty, and altogether as a revolution. The governor refused to call an extra session of the legislature until, early in January, 1861, he found that steps were being taken to call it together without his authority. He then summoned it for Jan. 22. But this gave very little time for the passage of a convention bill, the election of delegates, and the meeting of the convention. An entirely unofficial call was therefore issued, delegates were elected, and the convention met at Austin, Jan. 28. Feb. 1, an ordinance of secession was passed by a vote of 166 to 7; but, as the convention itself was entirely without any basis of law, the ordinance was to be submitted to popular vote, Feb. 23. The legislature, Feb. 4, validated the convention, apparently with a view to overriding a possibly adverse popular majority. The popular vote was reported to the convention as 34,794 for the ordinance, and 11,235 against it. But even before the popular ratification, the convention had appointed delegates to the confederate congress, Feb. 11, and the federal troops in the state had been captured and paroled. The confederate constitution was ratified March 23. One week before that day the convention had declared vacant the office of Gov. Sam Houston, who had shown no inclination to favor the convention or its purposes.
—These seven states, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, were the original seceding states; and the details of their action seem to show that the first three named were the only ones in which convention action represented the majority of the white voters. In Georgia and Louisiana the result was due to the lack of any abiding principle in the unionist representatives for resistance to the earnest body of secessionists; in Alabama, to the control of the convention by the southern portion, or "black belt"; and in Texas, to the revolutionary action of the secessionist politicians. These considerations, however, are not of much practical importance, for in all the states unionists and secessionists alike acknowledged the abstract right of secession, the citizen's paramount allegiance to his state, and the unconstitutionality of "coercion" by the federal government. The secession of even a single state, and an attempt to coerce it, would therefore have brought about the secession of the other states named, as it afterward did in the cases of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.
—COERCION. It is noteworthy that originally the most extreme particularists had the least objection to the coercion of a state by the federal government. In writing to Monroe, Aug. 11, 1786, Jefferson says: "There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod: perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. * * Every rational citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, and should fear to see it on any other element than the water." And still more fully, Aug. 4, 1787: "It has been so often said as to be generally believed, that congress have no power by the confederation to enforce anything, for example, contributions of money. It was not necessary to give them that power expressly; they have it by the law of nature. When two parties make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it." This was the general ground on which the democratic members of congress, in 1861-5, while still holding the constitution to be a "compact," voted for the prosecution of the war. It may also explain the reason why both the Virginia and New Jersey plans in 1787 (see
—Either of these plans would have been hazardous. Madison himself said that "the use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound." This expression, justified as it is by common sense, has often been quoted as a condemnation of "coercion." But it must be noted that no such "use of force against a state" was ever authorized by the constitution. That instrument gave an indirect and far safer power of coercion, 1, in the case of states, by extending the power of the federal judiciary to state laws involving the construction of the constitution (see
—Nevertheless the opinion was strangely prevalent in 1860-61, that, because congress had no power to "coerce" a state, secession could not be interfered with. The simplest argument for this view can be found in President Buchanan's message of Dec. 3, 1860. It was the main encouragement to secession by a single state; it was announced again and again by the border states during the winter of 1860-61; and the consciousness of its general existence threw the Lincoln administration at first altogether upon the defensive. (See
—Voluntary secession had really spent its force in carrying Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas with it; but it relied on carrying the other slave states with it on the plea of resistance to coercion, when President Lincoln should call for troops to enforce the laws. In two of them it succeeded fairly: Arkansas passed an ordinance of secession May 6, and North Carolina May 20. (See those states.) In Virginia and Tennessee, another plan had to be adopted. The convention, while nominally submitting the ordinance of secession to popular vote, first formed "military leagues" with the confederate states; confederate troops at once swarmed over their territory; and under their auspices the popular vote became a farce. In this way Virginia's ordinance was ratified May 23, and Tennessee's June 18. Here the current stopped: in Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri much the same plan was tried as in Texas, but it was a failure. (See those states.) In Delaware alone of the slave states, secession seems to have had no advocates.
—The United States supreme court has finally decided that the ordinances of secession were entirely void, and that a state government steps out of its sphere when it undertakes to organize armed resistance to the federal government. Reconstruction by congress does not seem to have been founded on the notion that the ordinances of secession had so far taken the states out of the Union as to require their readmission, but on the theory that the state governments had either been vacated by the fault of the individual citizens of the state, or had been seized upon by usurpers; that in either case the reconstruction must be under the authority of the federal government; and that individuals who had been guilty of treason were estopped from objecting to the methods which congress might see fit to employ. (See
—Finally, the suppression of the doctrine of secession by force has established the political existence of the nation, as distinguished even from all the states. It has done so, not by the facts that all the seceding states, in their new constitutions, expressly disavowed any right of secession, and declared the primary allegiance of the individual citizen to be due to the United States; but by the higher fact that the nation has plainly expressed and successfully enforced its will in the matter. For the future, all men are bound to take notice that it is the nation that wills that there should be state governments, and not states which will that there should be a national government. The ultimate results of secession in this way no man can foresee. (See
—The theory of the right of secession will be found in Centz's Republic of Republics; Fowler's Sectional Controversy; 1 Calhoun's Works, 300; 1 Tucker's Blackstone, Appendix, 187; 1 Stephens' War Between the States, 495; Rawle's Commentaries on the Constitution, 302; Appleton's Annual Cyclopœdia. 1861, 614 (Davis' Message of April 29). The study of Mr. Fisher's theory of "constitutional secession," by amicable agreement between the federal government and a seceding state, will also be found interesting and profitable: see Fisher's Trial of the Constitution, 160, 167. (See
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