Secession. American Civil War



Secession is the formal separation from a political group or entity. Secession differs from a revolt in that proponents of secession argue they have the legal right to separate from a government, while a revolt is an illegal, or extra-legal, rejection of government authority.

The idea of secession has existed in the United States since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. During the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies formed the Articles of Confederation, which generally recognized each state as sovereign (supreme in its own authority) except for the powers specifically designated to a central government. Delegated powers included authority to declare war and make peace, international diplomacy, and resolution of disagreements among the states. This arrangement balanced state versus federal power, but also reflected the conflicting ideas of state sovereignty. The Articles described the individual states as sovereign, free, and independent, but also declared the states were required to obey the provisions of the central government and that “the Union shall be perpetual.”

The Articles of Confederation proved too weak to handle many national matters, leading representatives from the states to write a new Constitution in 1787. Opponents of this effort, often referred to as Anti-Federalists, feared strengthening the national government at the expense of state sovereignty. The Constitution did not recognize state sovereignty to the same degree as the Articles of Confederation, demonstrated by terms within the document like “We the people,” which recognized the national government as being of the American people rather than a compact of individual states. Anti-Federalists were unable to prevent ratification of the Constitution, but did prompt the creation of the Bill of Rights—ten amendments that protected specific rights of the people and the states from federal infringement. The Constitution and Bill of Rights remained silent on if or how a state could leave the Union.

For the first few decades of the Constitutional Union, secession was more of an academic question than a major political issue. The country was growing more divided over the issue of slavery, with white southerners embracing it as a vital part of their economic, social, cultural, and political society, and an increasing number of northerners turning against it. However, politicians in Washington, D.C., had managed to establish a balance between slave and free state interests and representation to maintain a general peace. Then, in the early 1830s, a political crisis emerged over federal protective tariffs. The state of South Carolina objected to the tariffs and declared them null and void within the state boundaries. The incident became known as the Nullification Crisis, and was the first major test of state versus federal authority in the United States. Though the matter directly focused on a state rejecting a national law, a South Carolina convention warned that the state would secede if challenged by the U.S. Congress. Led by John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinians argued that the federal government’s authority was limited to those powers specifically listed within the Constitution, leaving all other authority and sovereignty in the hands of the people through their state governments.

President Andrew Jackson, a southerner, vehemently denounced South Carolina’s actions, declaring that the Constitutional Union was constructed by the people as a whole, and represents them as such. He argued that the states had surrendered their sovereignty, or ability to act independently from the rest of the country. James Madison, the primary framer of the Constitution, was still alive during the Nullification Crisis and, in a personal letter to Senator Daniel Webster, also denounced secession as contrary to the principles of the Constitution.

South Carolina found little support from other southern states in its nullification and secession talk in the early 1830s, and eventually backed down, in part due to a compromise tariff. But the crisis had set a prominent seed in the minds of southerners that separation from the United States was a possible option should the central government prove hostile to its interests.

Over the next two decades talk of secession periodically emerged in political writings and speeches of extremists, in both north and south. While mostly associated to “Fire-Eaters” in the south—who argued that southern slaveholding interests would be better served in an independent south—some extreme abolitionists in the north also talked of secession. These northerners were a distinct minority, and not taken very seriously, but reflected the fact that various special interest groups and political extremists expressed ideas of disunion.

Secession advocacy hit its zenith during the presidential election of 1860. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, an openly anti-slavery northerner, South Carolina held a convention and passed an ordinance of secession on December 24, 1860, which declared the state to be sovereign and independent and that its union with the other states of the Constitutional Union was "dissolved." Six other states of the Deep South followed soon after. They quickly united under a new central government, the Confederate States of America. While many people in the north denounced the act (and the population of the upper south was split on the matter of secession), the issue did not spark immediate military action. For several weeks it remained a political matter, with the Lincoln Administration denying the legitimacy of secession and trying to operate as if nothing had changed, and the seceded states trying to create a new government with their own debates over federal versus state authority in the Confederacy. The political tension finally erupted into violence over events in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in April 1861. Confederate forces demanded that federal soldiers evacuate the military fortifications there. Lincoln refused, choosing to maintain his position that secession was illegitimate and that U.S. officials would continue to carry out their duties as usual. In response, Confederate forces attacked and then captured a federal garrison at Fort Sumter, turning the tense political crisis erupted into full blown war. At this point, the question of secession’s legitimacy came down to which side was victorious on the battlefield.

Throughout the war, the Lincoln administration treated Confederate forces as rebellious Americans rather than citizens of a separate country. This view guided Lincoln’s reconstruction ideas, as well. When Confederate forces surrendered and the Confederate government dissolved, the idea of southern secession essentially died. Lincoln’s assassination complicated federal reconstruction efforts, especially with disagreements within the Republican Party of how to treat former Confederates. Congress passed no specific laws about secession as a whole, and the most direct legal assessment of the right of secession in the wake of the Civil War emerged from the Supreme Court in regards to the case Texas v. White. While the case involved the sale of U.S. bonds by the former Confederate state legislature, the Supreme Court’s majority decision stated that Texas had never actually seceded from the Union. The majority opinion explained that the United States of America was perpetual and that states could not unilaterally remove themselves from the Union. The Court acknowledged, though, that state independence could result from revolution (the extra-legal rejection of higher authority) or through consent of the other states (secession approved by majority vote among all American states). (Wikipedia; The Avalon Project; American Battlefield Trust)

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