by Dallas Brooks
Secession! It’s a common battle cry in election years, especially when we’re about to elect a new president. The left likes to decry calls of secession, saying it’s a matter of settled law since the Civil War. The right tends to support it only if their guys are losing. Over 60% of Trump supporters in Texas recently said they’d vote to secede from the Union if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States. On queue, statist journalists jumped out in defense of the government like a mama bear defending her cubs.
“Secession is illegal!” they shout.
“The South LOST the Civil War!”
“Sorry, Texas, but there’s probably no way you can secede from the US.” (They’re not sorry).
They can barely hide their glee as they laugh at those they consider to be fringe lunatics. While it’s true that there’s been a debate over secession from all angles since before our nation was founded, it’s false to assume that it’s a settled matter. It’s disingenuous to dismiss the notion as political heresy.
To those who laugh at the notion of a state like Texas seceding, would you consider the United States to be nothing but a rebellious group of colonies to Great Britain? Should Texas not still be under Mexican rule? Is Ireland an independent nation state, or not? What about the Czech Republic and Slovakia? Are they really separate states? Does Israel have a right to exist? The problem with the logic of the anti-secessionists is that they don’t define when secession is acceptable and when it isn’t.
Because the South lost its war for Independence, anti-secessionist pundits fall victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc kind of argument. States that attempted to secede failed; therefore, in their minds, it’s “settled” that secession is off the table.
Leading up to the beginning of the American Civil War, many people held the opinion that it was the right of any state to leave the union. In February of 1861, the Detroit Free Press said that “An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful could produce nothing but evil – evil unmitigated in character and appalling in content.” In fact, Senator Doolittle of Wisconsin proposed a constitutional amendment in March of 1861 that effectively banned secession. The amendment failed, but why would there need to be a change to the constitution so that it could prevent states from seceding if they were already precluded from doing so?
Imagine a battered woman standing in front of her bathroom mirror. She’s applying a second layer of makeup to hide her latest black eye before she sets out to face the public again. Her friends and co-workers whisper behind her back, and they ask her if she’s alright. She isn’t. She’s married to a monster. Does she have options? Is that holy union dissoluble or not? Should she be forced to remain with the man because it’s a “union?” No sane person would say so in contemporary society, but there are still numerous people who fail to understand that a union is by definition voluntary. Those who don’t see that have a lot in common with extremists who favor arranged or even forced marriages.
The voluntary nature of a union is what makes it so impressive. When two people want to be treated as one family unit, or when several states want to be associated for a common purpose, it’s a powerful statement of their intentions. If the relationship requires bloodshed to leave, then you don’t have a union at all. You have a gang.
The right of self-determination is as American as baseball. Mr. Declaration of Independence, President Thomas Jefferson, said after his time in office that “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’.” It’s well documented that many states in their declarations ratifying the constitution of the United States made it clear that they reserved their rights, and that the right of self-determination would not be given up by virtue of their decision to come together as one nation. Virginia’s convention said that “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.” Virginia wasn’t the only state to do this. The declarations like this by many states is precisely why the 10th Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights. It means that in our federal republic, powers are shared, but even that authority is borrowed from the consent of the governed at each and every level.
The idea of borrowed authority is nothing new, either. In 1320, Scotland wrote the Declaration of Arbroath in an appeal to Pope John XXII to recognize its own independence. Among other things, it stated that if Robert the Bruce, whom the Scottish considered their rightful king, ceased to provide the kind of leadership the nobility believed they deserved, that they would, in turn, elect a new king. This idea of choosing your leadership by popular sovereignty rather than by divine right, and then being able to oust a bad leader from power, is the most important thing to happen to politics since Og the Caveman grunted out his plans to share the Sabre-Toothed tiger meat with his fellow hunters.
The freedom to choose doesn’t mean choosing from a set of options that you didn’t pick. Not taking part in the process, if it is corrupt or oppressive, is a perfectly valid choice, as is leaving the situation altogether.
Today, secession talk is taboo, for all political parties. The late Supreme Court Justice Scalia, a rock star in his lifetime within the Conservative movement, said that “There is no right to secede,” and that it would be impossible to even sue the United States government over the issue without it first granting permission.
When Liberals and Conservatives agree that something can’t be done, that it’s “unconstitutional” (a cry often used by people who have never read the document), or that it shouldn’t even be allowed in the public discourse, that’s when Libertarians and all freedom-loving Americans should give it just a little more attention.
The issue of legality of secession is irrelevant. No tyrannical government will ever simply allow a group of citizens to leave. Those who endlessly argue over the constitutionality of the idea of leaving the union miss the point of the constitution. It’s not a document that the government created to put us on notice. It’s the document we the people created to tell the government how it will act.
If we say that “Congress shall make no law” or that rights “shall not be infringed,” it means that under our system of government, this is what is expected. When that government makes the laws that infringe upon our individual rights, it walks a fine line. By breaching the contract the people created, the government effectively secedes. It can’t be our congress if it acts outside of its specific, limited, enumerated powers.
As citizens of this nation, it’s important to understand that it was a group of states that came together to form a nation, not the other way around. This freedom is our baby, not the federal government’s. The people gave it life. The people saw it through tough times. We the people decide what options are on the table, and we don’t need permission from the government we created to ensure that it continues to serve us as we see fit.
Jefferson Quote Source:
Thomas Jefferson, letter to W. Crawford, 20 June 1816, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1905), vol. 15, p. 27