The Secession Theory

Madison Wisconsin Daily State Journal, November 17, 1860

The present ebullition of disunion feeling at the South is reviving the old discussions, so general during nullification times when General Jackson issued his famous proclamation against the nullifiers of South Carolina, respecting the limits of State and federal authority under the Constitution.

Such discussions can only result in good. They lead to a study both of the fundamental law, and of the early history of the Republic, too much neglected by a people who are themselves the source of all political power, and who, under the Constitution, are "the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts."

Our whole system of Government is founded upon the supposition that the majority of the people are not only just and honest, but intelligent. Yet it must be conceded there are too many who exercise the right of suffrage without that knowledge of the government and its history essential to enable them to cast an intelligent vote.

Whatever tends therefore to turn the attention of the reading public in the direction of the Constitution and its history, must produce, in this respect at least, beneficial results.

The particular point which is now most discussed, is the right of a State to withdraw from the Union without the consent of the other States, and to set up as an independent nation. It might in some cases be just and politic to permit such a secession. But this is not the question.—It is whether, upon some alleged grievance, or on account of some fancied good to be obtained, a State has the right to dissolve the bonds of the Union.

The great majority of the Northern press take ground against this right. Madison, who was better entitled, perhaps, to the name of the Father of the Constitution than any other man, denied it in the most explicit language. Such was Webster's interpretation. Such is the view taken by President Jackson in his proclamation already alluded to. That document contains an admirable summary of the argument against the alleged right. It is yet more fully argued in Webster's celebrated speech in reply to Hayne. The other side of the question is presented most fully and ably by the writings of John C. Calhoun.

The whole question depends for its solution upon the manner in which we understand the character of the Union. If it be a mere loose league of confederated sovereignties, the right to secede undoubtedly exists. If it be more than that, if it be a government, if the states are not complete sovereignties but have given up a portion of their sovereignty to a national government for the sake of mutual protection and benefit, then that right must be denied, although it would still remain a question of policy whether, in a particular case, force should be employed to restrain a state attempting to cut loose from the Union.

Some of the disadvantages which would result from the right of secession, if granted, will readily suggest themselves:

  1. The people of the United States have bought and paid for Florida, Louisiana, and other states. Under the secession theory these may step out of the Union to-morrow without any obligation to refund the money they have cost us.
  2. Texas was an independent sovereignty. But she was overwhelmed with debt. She asked and was admitted into the Union. The Union has paid her debts; it has defended her territory at the sacrifice of both blood and treasure. Wisconsin contributed of her means and men; so did New York, Massachusetts, and every State in the Union. Having got rid of her debts, upon this theory of secession, Texas has the right, at any time, to cut loose and set up for herself again.
  3. The Union may buy Cuba to-morrow, at a cost of $200,000,000, of the common treasure of the States. The next day she may assert her right of secession. Spain will have the $200,000,000. We shall have nothing but an illustration of the beautiful results of the Calhoun construction of the Constitution.
  4. The Atlantic States may, under this doctrine, secede, and set up an independent confederacy, or confederacies, compelling the interior States to pay to them, for their sole benefit, a duty upon all their imports and exports, while Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the other interior States, now prone to suspect that they have some little interest in the Atlantic ports, must quietly submit.
  5. If the Union is involved in war with some foreign power, and becomes plunged in debt by a heroic struggle for her existence—no matter how just her cause—any craven and selfish state, under the doctrine of the right of secession, may abandon the Union at the beginning and thus avoid the dangers which the others meet, or, at the close of the struggle, and thus avoid the payment of her proportion of the debt incurred.

These are but a few of the evil consequences which attend this theory. We believe it is alike without foundation in the Constitution or in common sense and we have no doubt but it will find in ABRAHAM LINCOLN as prompt and as decided an opponent as it found in ANDREW JACKSON.