Can a State Constitutionally Secede?
Dubuque Herald, November 11, 1860
This is one of the questions of the day, and it appears to be no longer a mere abstract or theoretical question. The Constitution makes no provision for secession. A Government is not a corporation whose existence is limited by a fixed period of time, nor does it provide a means for its own dissolution. The Constitution of the United States provides that it may be amended, and prescribes how this may be done, but it does not, as it exists now, contemplate its own destruction, nor a dissolution of the Government of which it is the living evidence. Constitutionally, there can be no such thing as secession of a State from the Union.
But it does not follow that because a State cannot secede constitutionally, it is obliged under all circumstances to remain in the Union. There is a natural right, which is reserved by all men, and which cannot be given to any Government, and no Government can take it away. It is the natural right of a people to form a Government for their mutual protection, for the promotion of their mutual welfare, and for such other purposes as they may deem most conducive to their mutual happiness and prosperity; but if for any cause the Government so formed should become inimical to the rights and interests of the people, instead of affording protection to their persons and property, and securing the happiness and prosperity, to attain which it was established, it is the natural right of the people to change the Government regardless of Constitutions. For be it borne in mind, the Constitution is an agreement made among the people that the Government formed by it is to be just such a Government as it prescribes; that when it recognizes a right to exist, it must protect the person in the enjoyment of that right, and when it imposes a reciprocal duty upon a portion of the people, the performance of that duty it will have enforced. When a government fails in any of these essential respects, it is not the Government the people intended it to be, and it is their right to modify or abolish it.
So, if the rights of the people of the United States as recognized by the Constitution, are not secured to them by the Government, and the people of any State have no other means to redress their grievances except by separating themselves from their oppressors, it is their undoubted natural right to do so. Now it is unquestionable that one of the rights recognized to belong to the Southern people by the Constitution, and pledged to be respected by the other States, and secured to them by the Government, has nevertheless been violated, wilfully and intentionally by twelve Northern States; and this course towards the South has been virtually approved of by a large majority of the Northern people at the recent election.
What then is the South to do[?] Suffer the compact which brought them into the Union to be violated with impunity, and without means of redress; submit to incursions into their territory and trespass upon their property by northern abolitionists[?] Look on submissively upon every aggression upon their domestic institutions[?] Who expects, who desires the South to submit to all this? The South will not do it. The South ought not to do it.
Let the Northern States repeal their Personal Liberty Bills, and pass laws recognizing the rights of the Southern people to their property. Let Southern people be permitted to enjoy their rights unmolested and undisturbed. Let them, if they desire it, carry with them in their tours of business or pleasure their domestic servants. Let the Southern people be treated as friends and neighbors, not as aliens and enemies. If this be done, no Southern man will think of secession, much less desire it. If this be not done, there is but one course left for the South by which its people can enjoy the rights which they believe to be theirs by nature and by the Constitution of the United States.