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Thomas Jefferson, and all those who agree with and find inspiration in the Declaration of Independence, support secession. There is no denying that the Declaration was a statement of secession “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”. Thomas Jefferson stayed true to this point when writing in the Kentucky Resolution (1798) that “the several states who formed that instrument (the U.S. Constitution), being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction…” Secession is an inherent right in governing bodies and the states themselves ought to have sovereignty over the decision to secede.
The Declaration of Independence was a solidification of prior state action rather than a moment of instigation. Beginning in 1775 the former colonies began declaring themselves states rather than colonies and writing their own constitutions with New Hampshire becoming the first in January 1776 followed by Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey. Rhode Island renounced its allegiance to Britain and revised its charter a full two months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. These independent states joined together in an act of secession as they were seeking to dissolve the political bands that tied them to Great Britain. Each colony that fought against the crown was a secessionist regime. Secession is a central part of this nation’s founding sown at the time of its founding.
At the time of the nation’s founding the states considered themselves to be sovereign entities that could compact together to address common needs, and it could reverse that decision if the common governing body no longer fulfilled its duty. Sovereignty was not relinquished. This is not only documented, but procedurally it is reinforced in that each state needed to ratify the primary governing documents before those documents took effect within that state’s legal jurisdiction. For instance, the U.S. Constitution was drafted by a committee in Philadelphia, it was then sent to the states to ratify individually. And while the Constitution only required nine of the thirteen states to be put into effect, only those states that had ratified it would be part of the Union. Those who had not ratified could not take part in the new government. This is a continuation of the political practice started with the Articles of Confederation in which the Second Continental Congress drafted and approved the Articles but then sent them to each state for independent ratification. The same is true of the Declaration of Independence—no state was forced against its will to fight the British once a majority of states accepted the Declaration; rather, it required unanimous consent from each state in Congress.
Secessionist thought is often commingled with the U.S. Civil War, but one of the first moves toward secession after the formation of the United States was undertaken by the New England Federalist Party between 1814-1815 in reaction to the War of 1812 at what is known as the Hartford Convention. Lest we forget that Tennessee was formed through secession from North Carolina, Kentucky from Virginia, and Maine from Massachusetts. Secession is neither uniquely American with Sweden seceding from Norway, Belgium from the Dutch, and Eritrea from Ethiopia to name only a few. But for most Americans our understanding of secession is clouded by the war between the states and the subsequent Supreme Court decision of Texas v White (1869) that declared secession unconstitutional despite historical and normative claims to the contrary.
Almost without exception a discussion of secession introduces the issue of slavery. But that is a product of an undisciplined mind that cannot separate two mutually exclusive ideas rather than a fact of reality. Secession is about self-determination; it is the ultimate weapon against tyrannical government. As Jefferson writes, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” A people unable to dissolve political bonds are a people who no longer have the ability to preserve the rights endowed to them by their Creator but have instead given all authority to some distant governing body. This would be antithetical to every precedent-setting document one could read at the time of the founding. To say that states gave up their right to secede when they ratified the Constitution is to not understand the founders as they understood themselves. A people committed to freedom and liberty would not so willingly give up the very thing that allowed them to be free in the first place.
Kyle Scott, PhD, MBA serves on the Board of Trustees for the Lone Star College System and teaches political science at the University of Houston and is an affiliated scholar with the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Health Policy and Medical Ethics. Kyle has authored over 70 op-eds, dozens of academic articles and five books, the most recent of which is The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature in Political Analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @kanthonyscott
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