The Right of Secession

Boston Daily Traveller, November 16, 1860

Boston, Nov. 13, 1860

Editors of the Traveller:—
Gentlemen: I hear the question asked almost every hour, how can a State get out of the Union, or become independent of the other States? This question has doubtless been suggested by the course the Southern States are taking. Will you please state in your valuable paper this P. M., what the process is by which a State can become free and independent of the other States, and you will much oblige many of your subscribers.

No State can legally leave the Union. What is called "the right of secession" has no existence. It means the right of revolution, which belongs to every people, and which may be called an appeal to that "higher law" concerning which so much nonsense has been written ever since Mr. Seward uttered a truism on the subject. Any community which is seriously aggrieved, and which cannot legally remove the grievances under which it suffers, can resort to revolution, which is a right over, and above, and beyond all law, and which depends for its character and justification upon the degree of success that shall attend the movement made. If the revolutionists succeed, history justifies them; if they fail, it condemns them, even while not condemning their motives of action. William III. placed himself at the head of the men who were discontented with James II.'s rule, and succeeded; and we call the movement the English Revolution of 1688. James II.'s grandson, Charles Edward, placed himself at the head of the Scotch Jacobites, and because he failed we call what was then done the Rebellion of 1745. History tells us of the American Revolution, but if George III. had been victorious instead of George Washington, history would call the war of 1775–'83 the American Rebellion. If the "Cotton States" should set up the standard of revolt, they would act illegally, no matter what might be their grievances, and supposing them to be really aggrieved. Their action would be revolutionary, and could be maintained only by an appeal to arms. They have no right, in any legal sense, to withdraw from the Union, no more right so to do than the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk have to withdraw from the State of Massachusetts. To suppose that such a right exists, is to suppose that the men who made the Constitution were fools, and that they provided the means for the destruction of their own work. A fine opinion that would be of such men as Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, and the rest of the statesmen of 1787! We cannot now cite the many facts from the history of the Constitution which prove that its makers never intended that any State should have the right to leave the Union, but one consideration is decisive on the point: no government was ever yet deliberately provided with the means for its own destruction by its framers, and to have allowed the right of secession would have been to provide such means for our government. Instead of organizing a polity, the statesmen of that day, had they provided for peaceable secession, would have organized anarchy. It might, perhaps, be judicious conduct in our government and people to allow a State to leave the Union, under certain circumstances, but their forbearance would be illegal, and subversive of the Constitution. They might be morally right, but in a legal sense they would be entirely wrong. As to the present business, South Carolina has no more right to secede because Mr. LINCOLN has been chosen President, than Massachusetts had to secede because Mr. Buchanan was chosen President in 1856. If the right of secession existed in full force, in a legal sense, she has had no cause for falling back upon it. If she had, there could not be an election held in this country without bringing on some act of secession. We should be in a worse condition than are any of the Spanish American countries, the irregular action of whose people has made them spectacles at once laughable and melancholy. If South Carolina should rebel,—and secession is rebellion,—and if other States should join her, it would be the duty of the general government to compel them to observe the law: and that is precisely what the LINCOLN administration will do, and in doing which it will be supported by the people, and by the people of the South as well as by the people of the North. The Constitution not only does not provide for secession, but it absolutely forbids it, by prohibiting the doing of various things that would have to be done to render secession effective. It is forbidden to a State to enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation, or to pass any law impairing the obligations of contracts; or to lay duties on imports or exports, or to levy tonnage duties, or to keep up an army or a navy in time of peace; or to make a compact with another State, or with a foreign power; or to lay taxes on articles from other States, or to give preference in its ports to the vessels of one State over those of other States. The secessionists would have to do these things, and many others of an illegal character, were they to attempt to carry out their designs; and it would then be the business of the General Government to force them to submit to the law. That business the Republican administration will perform, firmly but moderately, and to the nation's satisfaction, should the secessionists act as well as talk.