The Right of Secession

Cincinnati Daily Commercial, November 14, 1860

Has a State the right to secede from the Union? is a question just now discussed with much interest, and decided in a manner indicative of anything but unanimity in the public sentiment. Although the question itself is not a new one, the present attitude of a portion of the South is rapidly rendering it a practical one. What was once held to be the gasconade of orator YANCEY, about "precipitating the cotton States into a revolution," has now reached the length of State secession Conventions, resignations of United States Senators, provisions for arming States for offence and defense, and a general excitement and tumult in the public mind of several States, strongly significant of a purpose to make secession from the Union an established fact.

The doctrine of secession is based upon the extreme idea of State Rights, as held by Mr. CALHOUN and his school of political theorists. According to this, the Federal Union is not a government of the people of the nation, acting in their aggregate capacity, but a Federal compact between States, acting in their State capacity. The States are sovereign and independent political communities, and surrender, in entering the Union, none of the attributes of sovereignty which they have not a right to resume, when they consider that their rights and interests will be promoted in so doing.—Hence the CALHOUN theory of government logically implies not only the right of nullification within the Union, but the right of secession from it. A State which deems its rights invaded by any action of the Federal Government, may resist or nullify the execution of the obnoxious act, or, failing in doing this effectually, may secede from the Union, and resume her independent sovereignty.

This extreme doctrine of Mr. CALHOUN has hitherto found little favor among American statesmen or parties. The test to which it came near being subjected, in 1832, rather served to strengthen the opposite doctrine of Federal supremacy, than to give weight to the nullification side. Under the influence of a vigorous and defiant attitude on the part of Gen. JACKSON's Administration, seconded by Congress in the passage of a Force Bill—giving all needful power to enforce obedience to the Federal laws—the claims of South Carolina,—then, as now, the leader in revolt, were held in abeyance until the threatened conflict was evaded by a compromise.

Yet the doctrine of State Rights, shorn of its more odious features of secession and nullification, has always found a powerful support in this nation. The principle of local self-government—the right of every State to make all laws pertaining to its internal and domestic polity—to exercise sovereignty over all matters not expressly reserved to the Federal Government in the Constitution, is accepted as sound doctrine by many of the strongest opponents of Mr. CALHOUN. Precisely where to draw the line between the doctrine of State sovereignty, and the doctrine of nullification—would doubtless puzzle many of the adherents to the former. It might also give them some trouble to show how even a secession from the Union, on repeated and persistent infringements upon State sovereignty by the Federal government, would be inconsistent with the strict doctrine of State Rights.

The opponents of the right of secession base their argument upon the principle that the Federal government is not a confederacy of States, but a consolidated government of the people of the whole country. They set out with showing historically, that the first United States government, under the Articles of Confederation, was a mere confederacy, which experience proved ineffectual to secure the ends of power and stability, which are necessary to the permanence of all government. Under this confederation, the power to enforce obedience, on the part of the United States, was wholly wanting. The present Constitution was framed expressly to obviate the evils connected with so loose and disjointed a government. It sets out, in the very preamble, with declaring that the Union then formed was a government of "the people of the United States." It confers upon the three branches of the general government, large specific and general powers, which are thereby taken away from the States. It declares, in terms, that "this Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof, shall be the Supreme law of the land—anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary, notwithstanding."

Hence it is inferred that the intention of those who founded the federal government was to make a government, not of States, but of the people; to found, not a league—but a nation; and it is also maintained, that as the Constitution contains no word or hint of any right of secession, the States are bound to adhere together, in all contingencies, and to abide by the action of the majority. It is denied that a State has any more right to secede from the Union, than a single county has to secede from the State of which it forms a part. And this analogy is pushed farther—to the extent of declaring that the Federal Government is necessarily the sole judge and exponent of the extent of its own powers, and of the proper construction of the Constitution—just as a State government, under a State Constitution, must be the arbiter of its powers as against the lesser local governments subsisting within its jurisdiction.

It is alleged further that an admission of the right of secession leads to monstrous absurdities and injustice. If one State has the right to secede, and dissolve the Union, clearly every other State has the same right. If South Carolina can be suffered to secede and set up for herself, then New York may do the same, which would cut off at one blow, two-thirds of the Federal revenue, arising from customs; then Louisiana may do the same—which cost the Federal Government fifteen millions to purchase; then California may do the same—which cost us the war with Mexico, and a hundred million of dollars; then Florida, which we bought from Spain, could steal herself from the government which purchased and paid for her, and sell herself to Spain again; Texas could do the same by Mexico, and Louisiana by France. Each State may at its mere whim and caprice, break up the Confederacy, and withdraw without even reimbursing the Federal Government for the "blood and treasure" invested in its acquisition. While three-fourths of the States are required to amend the Constitution in the smallest particular, the government which it founds may be dissolved, and the Constitution in effect abolished by the act of the smallest member. The right of secession, like the right of nullification, implies that each State has a veto upon all the others. What kind of a confederacy is that, in which a single member rules the majority, under penalty of dissolving the concern? How can treaties made with foreign powers be valid, if each State has the right to reject, or refuse to be bound by them? On this hypothesis, foreign governments would have to negotiate with each of the United States separately. In short, the doctrine of secession not only violates the majority principle, on which our whole institutions rest, but it is incompatible with the existence of any national government whatever. If the right of secession exists, a federal government having any of the attributes of sovereignty, does not exist, and vice versa.

A multitude of authorities, from among the great men of the nation, are brought forward in support of this view, but as authorities prove nothing but the opinions of individuals, we need not consume space in citing them.

But, however clear in theory the denial of the right of secession may be, it must be admitted that, in practice, great abatement from its rigor would probably be made. Practically, the American people are largely impregnated with the idea of local self-government, or the sovereignty of each separate political community. When it comes to Federal coercion of sovereign States, the stoutest opponents of nullification and secession are apt to pause. Even in the former crisis of South Carolina nullification, after all the lofty proclamation that was made of Federal power—not a finger was laid upon a citizen of South Carolina, to enforce the Federal laws. The rugged issue was avoided by a subterfuge in the shape of a compromise tariff, which satisfied the belligerent Palmetto State, while it salved the public consciousness of the strength of the Union and the supremacy of the national power. So, now, we find a majority of our people, however strongly they may reject all idea of the right of secession, are perhaps willing to concede the privilege. Seeing that most, if not all the evils of secession would be sure to fall upon the heads of the seceding States, there is a very general disposition to say, "Let them try it." However clear and indisputable the right of coercion may be, there would be a strong party in the North against compelling States to continue in the Union against their will.

We have sometimes heard the question argued with some animation, "Whether an individual has the right to go to the devil, if he pleases?" A somewhat similar problem is before us with regard to our seceding brethren of the South. No sane man doubts that they would lose infinitely more than they would gain by a separation. But the question recurs whether it is not better to let them work out their salvation or destruction in their own way, than to attempt, by forcible coercion, to save them in spite of themselves?