The Civil War was the greatest trauma to affect the United States in its history. The horrors of that conflict and the issues it brought to light continue to haunt the nation today and scholars continue trying to make sense of the turmoil that gripped the nation. One of the residual problems left over from that era is the doctrine of secession, or the ability of a state to rescind its membership in the Union and leave by itself or with other states. This, of course, is what eleven states tried to do in 1861 precipitating the bloody, awful war that followed. But is there a “right” of secession in the United States Constitution? How would a right of secession square with prevailing ideas of the Union? What response can be given to states claiming a right to secede from the Union? These and other questions required serious consideration in the 1860s and were answered most clearly by Abraham Lincoln.
The argument for secession begins with a claim that the states are the constitutive elements of the American political system. The states “made” the Union and thus never relinquished their essential sovereignty when the Constitution was formed. Under this view, the states were the parties to the original social contract that gave rise to the Union and thus are the entities that most legitimately judge whether the terms of that contract have been honored. When Southerners began to perceive that the terms of the contract were being violated over the slavery issue in the 1850s, a movement grew for the Southern states to withdraw their consent to be governed and to “peacefully” leave the Union to form their own political organization. In total, eleven states joined this movement and created the essential breach that inaugurated the Civil War.
President Lincoln was thrust into the role of defender of the Union and had to meet the secessionist argument head on. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln criticizes the secessionists for putting too much emphasis on the Constitution in articulating their understanding of the Union. According to Lincoln, the Union did not originate with the Constitution. Instead, “the Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of all the then thirteen states expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.” Finally, the quest for “a more perfect” Union was embodied in the Constitution in 1787.
The Union, therefore, according to Lincoln, was perpetual. “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever.” The essence of secession is thus suicide, and it is inconceivable that the Founders would have incorporated such a concept into the constitutional system. No association of states could hold together if some of them were free to leave whenever the mood struck them. Moreover, secession would not leave the Union “more perfect;” it would leave the Union less perfect, which is not consistent with the intentions of the Constitution set out in the preamble. Accordingly, it cannot be said that the Founders endorsed something like secession in the constitutional system.
Even more, secession ignores the Declaration of Independence and the first words of the Constitution. The Declaration, when speaking of the need to separate from Great Britain, does not talk about colonies or states doing the separating. The language of the Declaration is that “one people” must separate. Clearly, then, the act of separating is not a function of state sovereignty but an act of popular sovereignty, a Union of people that has been forged in shared struggle and oppression and now seeks to liberate itself from tyranny. Likewise, the first words of the Constitution are not “we the states” but “we the people.” It is the people forming a new government out of their sovereignty, not the sovereignty of the states. The states, of course, are to be partners in this new government and significant roles are delineated to them in the constitutional system. But power is ultimately held by the people, the Union is made up of the people. The people may thus dissolve the Union if they ever chose to do so, but the states may not.
Lincoln reinforces these points in his Message to Congress in Special Session. He calls secession “sugar-coated rebellion” and denies any revolutionary character to it. Instead, it is a “sophism” deriving its “currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State – to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union.” The original thirteen became a Union before completing their separation from Great Britain. And the others came into the union from a condition of dependence. Thus, the reverence given to “states” is based on mist and shadows and does not match this history of the American regime. In short, the states only possess those powers granted to them by the Constitution, and this does not include the power of secession.
Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties. His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties.
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