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Secession in Principle - Part II

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Clearly, the Framers intended for secession to be a last resort measure, but recognized that it was a requirement for states to remain independent and supreme.  The state legislatures, as representatives of the people, would not have agreed to ratify the Constitution in 1787 unless the sovereignty and independence of the several states were protected and preserved.  The maintenance of state militias and limitations on a federal armed forces were intended to keep the balance of power on the side of the states.  But there is further evidence that secession was a generally accepted right retained by the states.

On numerous occasions, secession was advanced as a possible resolution to sectional disputes.  Secession was expressed as a right by the New England states in 1803, 1811, 1815 and 1845.  In 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was proposed, the New England states opposed it.  Timothy Pickering  attempted to form a secession movement among the New England states and New York.  It failed when Aaron Burr lost his bid to be Governor of New York.

On Jan. 14, 1811, Rep. Josiah Quincy (1772-1864) of Massachussetts, threatened Congress that his state would secede if Louisiana were admitted as a state.  In 1815, the Hartford Convention was held in secret to address the need for New England states to secede.  The New England states had suffered economically due to the ongoing hostilities with Britain (War of 1812) and secession was thought to be a means of striking a bargain to resume northern shipping commerce.

In 1845, the New England states again threatened to secede because they opposed the admission of Texas as a state.  They opposed any new state which would be sympathetic to existing southern states. This was just 15 years before Lincoln and his Republican party decided that secession was no longer a right and that a bloody war was justified to prevent any state from seceding.  In 1844, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison advocated northern secession to avoid association with slave states in a speech to the annual meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society of America which was published in the Anti-Slavery Examiner.

Were Josiah Quincy, Timothy Pickering or William Lloyd Garrison ever called traitorsNo.  Was the right of the New England states to secede ever challenged?  No.  It was a generally accepted right.  Why then, beginning in 1861, were the southern states labeled as "treasonous" and "rebellious" for exercising their rights?


"If the Declaration of Independence justified the secession of 3,000,000 colonists in 1776, I do not see why the Constitution ratified by the same men should not justify the secession of 5,000,000 of the Southerners from the Federal Union in 1861...
We have repeatedly said, and we once more insist that the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that government derives its power from the consent of the governed is sound and just, then if the Cotton States, the Gulf States or any other States choose to form an independent nation they have a clear right to do it...
The right to secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless; and we do not see how one party can have a right to do what another party has a right to prevent.  We must ever resist the asserted right of any State to remain in the Union and nullify or defy the laws thereof;  to withdraw from the Union is another matter.  And when a section of our Union resolves to go out, we shall resist any coercive acts to keep it in.  We hope never to live in a Republic where one section is pinned to the other section by bayonets ." --Horace Greeley, New York Tribune [ full editorial 12/17/1860 ]

"If the right of secession be denied...and the denial enforced by the sword of coercion; the nature of the polity is changed, and freedom is at its end.  It is no longer a government by consent, but a government of force.  Conquest is substituted compact, and the dream of liberty is over." --Albert Taylor Bledsoe, from Is Davis a Traitor?

In 1788, the Massachusetts state convention ratified entry into the Union by a vote of just 187 to 168. Let us suppose that, a couple of years later, a second vote has rescinded the first, and Massachusetts respectfully announced: “Upon further consideration, we have decided that belonging to the Union is not in the state’s best interest.“ I wonder if anyone can imagine George Washington issuing the following proclamation:

“ It has come to my attention that Massachusetts intends to depart the Union. I declare Massachusetts in rebellion! I am requesting the Governors of the states to muster armies which are to proceed to Massachusetts and invade it. I am dispatching federal warships to blockade Boston Harbor. Upon capture, the city is to be burned to the ground. Federal commanders shall torch other Massachusetts cities and towns as they see fit.

“I, George Washington, do further declare, that because the people of Massachusetts have perpetrated this brazen treason, all their rights are forthwith revoked. Of course, if any Massachusetts resident disavows his state’s dastardly decision, and swears an oath of loyalty to the federal government, his rights shall be restored. Such cases excepted, federal soldiers should feel free to loot any Massachusetts home. Crops not seized for army provisions should be destroyed without regards to the needs of the rebels and their families. After all, war is hell.

“And to citizens of other states, take warning! Consorting with the Massachusetts rebels will not be tolerated. It has come to my attention, in fact, that certain leaders and legislators in New Hampshire and Connecticut have expressed sympathy for their cause ! I am ordering federal troops to round up these “border state “ turncoats. They will [be] jailed without hearings. I hereby revoke the right of habeas corpus just accorded under the Constitution. In times as these, suspicion alone shall be suitable cause for imprisonment....”

No one believes Washington would have issued such a proclamation. And if he had, he would have swung from a tree. True, Lincoln did not state things so bluntly, but the foregoing accurately reflects Yankee policy. What had changed between 1789 and 1861 to warrant such a response? --James Perloff, article in Southern Partisan, 2nd Quarter 1997 [ Full Article ]


Given the preceding, secession was a generally accepted right, a right asserted as available to northern states to be exercised at their discretion.  But in 1861, the U.S. Government asserted that it was not a right (at least not a Southern right), and "preserving the Union" was its first justification for bloody conquest (followed later by abolition).  Therefore, the victorious conquerer had to continue to maintain that secession was wrong during the post-war occupation.  If secession were really "treason," then one would expect that dozens of Confederate leaders would be tried and convicted for such offenses leading to such destruction, right?  Read the next section (Part III) to see how confident the victors were in their convictions.

The links below will lead the reader to a reasonably comprehensive understanding of the Confederate Cause.

  1. Secession in principle:  Part II
  2. What does the Confederate flag represent?
  3. Conclusions

....under construction

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