Secession Tiff

There's an interesting little flame war between various libertarians at The Liberty Papers on the issue of secession. The level of invective is amazing, as is the desire to score a point by making up whatever history will support one's views.

Let's start with Sandefur: "Excuse me, Congressman, but the United States did not 'secede' from Britain. The nation had a revolution."

Um, say what? The American colonists did not overthrow the government of the United Kingdom! They seceded from it. Has Sandefur not noticed that King George III was still right where he was at the beginning of the War for Independence -- on the throne?! That pretty much the same MPs were in Parliament? That there were now two nations were there had been one? (Of course, Sandefur is right in noting that the colonists did not view their secession as legal.) And, I'll note, Sandefur is way over the top in imputing neo-Confederate motivation to his opponents -- most of them, I think, simply wish that there was a right to secession, and so are willing to imagine one back into history. Why, oh why, Mr. Sandefur, do you immediately call what Ron Paul says "lies," and totally discount the possibility that he is sincerely mistaken? Are Governor Perry's remarks really 'disgusting', rather than just, perhaps 'mistaken'?

Now, although Sandefur is not very accurate here, one Jeff Molby comes along to show you can be even more wrong:

"'Secede' means to withdraw from an organization.
"'Revolt' means to renounce allegiance or subjection.

"They’re synonyms."

Well, whether or not 'secede' and 'revolt' are synonyms, in political science, 'secession' and 'revolution' aren't, and that's what was being talked about. A revolution tries to replace the existing state with something else, while secession tries to form a new and separate entity.

Now Stephan Kinsella chimes in:

"The states of the US obviously have a constitutional right to secede, since the federal government is merely an agent of limited powers created by compact of the original 13 state-parties, and that compact (a) never denied the right of states to leave the union; (b) the states never gave up this right; and (c) the feds were never granted the power or authority to stop the states from leaving. It is quite obvious that there is a constitutional right to secede.

"As Kevin Gutzman discusses in ch. 3 of Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 (as well as in his 2004 Review of Politics article “Edmund Randolph and Virginia Constitutionalism,” Virginia (in addition to two other states) retained the right to reclaim the powers they were delegating to the Federal Government (that is, to secede) in case those rights were perverted to their oppression..."

The language in NY, RI, and Virginia was not a claim to a right of secession -- it was standard Lockean language about the right of the people to overthrow a corrupt government, not of a state to secede. Both the Federalists and anti-Federalists were quite clear that this was a union, not a confederation (although for that reason the Federalists were pro and the anti-Federalists anti the constitution), modeled after the 'indissoluble' union of England and Scotland in 1707, in which two sovereign entities merged to become one, obliterating the sovereignty of the two separately. The Federalists repeatedly declared that any ratification that included a right to secession was 'no ratification at all.'

In an episode that's pretty much a nail in the coffin for those who fantasize that the US Constitution inherently contains a right to secession, in New York State, a proposal was actually floated that would allow the state to leave the union after 10 years, should certain amendments to the constitution not pass. As Akhil Reead Amar notes, if the US Constitution already implied the right to secede, why in the world would anti-Federalists want to tack something on to their approval of the proposed constitution that made that right limited as to both time and circumstances?! But even that limited right to secede was too strong for the Federalists, and was removed from the final ratification.

All that being said, I think it would be better if the American states did have a legal right to secession -- but they clearly don't right now.


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