Many people heatedly condemned the secessionists when the first Seven States seceded from the United States in 1861, viewing it as unauthorized or as unconstitutional. And yet, no such
disparaging remarks are made about the Secession of the Thirteen Colonies from the British Empire in 1776—or the Secession of Mexico from the Spanish Empire in 1810—
or even the Secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836. So why? I mean the premises and reasons for secession happened based on these governments walking away from the original contract or compact to its citizens. That’s what happened with the Thirteen Colonies, Mexico and Texas. These compacts or contracts were to be held as binding and then lived out rightly. But for those contracts mentioned, they were not faithfully executed, they had become broken by its present government. So, decisions were made by its citizens based on broken promises that were meant to be kept.
The act of “secession” has been viewed throughout history and even today, as an ugly term for so many. Some can even be so vocal by saying, it’s just illegal. But history teaches us that it has been used as a viable instrument when conditions merit such actions. The simple definition of secession states: “Specifically, the act of seceding or withdrawing from a religious or political organization or association; formal withdrawal.” 1
by a few until it has assaulted the rights of the entire people then the people have the right to defend themselves. Thomas Jefferson reminds us, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing, invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” 2
form a Northern Confederacy. Later the threats were renewed in Northern opposition to the admission of Louisiana as a State. John [Josiah] Quincy, of Massachusetts, on the floor of Congress said: ‘If Louisiana is granted Statehood, it is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of the Union, that it frees the States from their moral obligation; and as it will be the right of all, it will be the duty of some definitely to prepare for a separation amicably, if they can; violently, if they must.’ Again, throughout the War of 1812 talk of secession was rife through New England. Massachusetts passed secession resolutions which now stand upon her records unrepealed. At no time was disputed the right of the North and of Kentucky to secede.” 3 4 Now, did you hear that?, no one sought to coerce them back.
If this next quote sounds familiar—then you are right—I have already used it—but this time, it is recognized as coming from the Declaration of Independence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing, invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for
their future security.” 5 This document was drafted by a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. But it was Thomas Jefferson, who was recognized for his ability with words and therefore, wrote the first draft; then it was edited by the rest of the committee, and then it was edited again and passed by the whole of Congress, July 4, 1776.
First, it is the right of the people to “alter” the existing government when their rights become unsecured. Second, it is the right of the people to “abolish” the existing government when their rights become unsecured. Third, it is the right of the people “to institute a new government” from the existing one when their rights become unsecured.
Jefferson Davis, then Senator from Mississippi. On January 11, 1861, Davis delivered his farewell address to the U. S. Senate: “I rise, Mr, President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce the fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the State I here represent, on an occasion so solemn as this.” 7
A little later in this address he states: “Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again, when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.” 8
Then later he says: “It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstance and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their
independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born—to use the language of Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson—booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal—meaning the men of the political community; and that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families, but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed.” 9
So, one more time, to close out this section: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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 a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” 10 It is established, according to the Declaration of Independence, the right for a state to secede from the federal government.
Let’s start at the front: “Congress Resolved, on the 11th of June, 1776, that a committee should be appointed to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between the Colonies; and on the day following, after it had been determined that the committee should consist of
a member from each Colony, the following persons were appointed to perform that duty, to wit: Mr. [Josiah] Bartlett, Mr. S. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. [Stephen] Hopkins, Mr. [Roger] Sherman, Mr. R. R. [Robert Robert] Livingston, Mr. [John] Dickinson, Mr. [Thomas] M’Kean, Mr. [Thomas] Stone, Mr. [Thomas] Nelson, Mr. [Joseph] Hewes, Mr. E. [Edward] Rutledge, and Mr. [Button] Gwinnett.” 11
Also, with the formation of the Articles of Confederation, the problem that arose was when the colonists wanted to preserve their liberties, the central government was powerless to do anything, which proved to be disastrous. It could not regulate trade nor could it keep the states from circulating their own currency. No chief executive could make real decisions, and no national court could settle disputes among states. And perhaps most importantly, they could not efficiently conduct a war nor pay the debts incurred once the war was over.
By 1786 the new country was in serious economic straits, and states were quarreling over boundary lines and tariffs. An economic depression left not only states in trouble, but also many ordinary citizens, such as farmers and merchants, were deep in debt as well. With [Daniel] Shays' Rebellion, a revolt by angry farmers in Massachusetts, symbolized the chaos in the country. Even though the Massachusetts militia finally put the rebellion down, it pointed out the inability of the central government (the Legislative Branch) to maintain law and order. In reaction, Alexander Hamilton of New York initiated the organization of a meeting in Philadelphia in 1787. This convention would eventually throw out the Articles of Confederation and draft the Constitution. So, the freedom that the American Revolution created, with the Articles of Confederation they realized that they could not keep law and order. This failure leads us to the next section, when we get there.
Let me remind you of the main point of this section: “Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” Perhaps President James Monroe says it best by stating two issues, “The first is, that in wresting the power, or what is called the sovereignty, from the crown, it passed directly to the people. The second, that it passed directly to the people of each colony, and not to the people of all the colonies in the aggregate [collective]—to thirteen distinct communities, and not to one.” 13
Now back to this compact theory or experiment, that our Founding Father’s presented from the beginning of this new nation. The confederation of states that the Articles established became reality on November 15, 1781, which was a loose compact between those states. It allowed each state to retain its sovereignty, including the power to tax its citizens, rather than share this legislative power with a national government, as what would come with the United States Constitution in 1879. The formation of the Articles of Confederation were based on the problems that were experienced under British rule and Americans’ held high their allegiances to their states. Just understand, few Americans in the late 1770s and early 1780s wanted a strong national government. Instead, the Articles of Confederation created a single-branch institution possessing the power to declare war, to establish foreign and Native American alliances, and to negotiate and approve treaties. The individual state legislatures held all other significant governing authority. Period!
When we get closer to actual reality of the South seceding from the Northern government, we read from Volume 4 of the series entitled The South in the Building of the Nation, we identify one the major reason for secession, “As soon as the South began to feel its isolation and to realize the danger of being outvoted on vital questions of economic policy, it assumed the defensive and took refuge behind the doctrine of state sovereignty. A generation of Southerners then grew up under the leadership of Calhoun who stoutly opposed the new doctrine of Federal supremacy as preached by Webster and regarded the preservation of the Union on the terms of the original compact as the most vital of all issues.” 14
SIDE NOTE: All in all, the Articles of Confederation, was a
compact among the thirteen original states, written in 1776 but was not ratified by the states until 1781. This loose League of Friendships 15 reflected the founders’ reaction to the central authority of King George III. Three conclusions are to be understood:
First—national powers are strictly limited, in that all powers remain in the states unless the federal Constitution explicitly declares otherwise. Article 2 says, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” 16
Second—states have the authority to nullify federal laws on constitutional grounds.
Third—states retain the right to secede from the union.
I close this section on the Articles of Confederation by reading this definition for “Secession”: “a term used in political science to signify the withdrawal of a state from a confederacy or composite state, of which it had previously been a part; and the resumption of all powers formerly delegated by it to the federal government, and of its status as an independent state. To secede is a sovereign right; secession, therefore, is based on the theory that the sovereignty of the individual states forming a confederacy or federal union has not been absorbed into a single new sovereignty. Secession is a right claimed or exercised by weaker states of a union whose rights are threatened by the stronger states, which seldom acknowledge such a principle.” 17
SIDE NOTE: Albert Taylor Bledsoe, who served in the
the States, the position is assumed that it is not a compact at all. If it be a compact, say they, then the States had a right to secede. But it is not a compact, and hence secession is treason and rebellion. The great fundamental questions, then, on which the whole controversy hinges, are, first, Is the Constitution a compact? and, secondly, Is it a compact between the States? These are the questions which shall and ought to be subjected to ‘the revision of posterity.’” 18
“JUDGE BYNUM. We were all at the North very much surprised as well as disappointed, Mr. Stephens, at your course on Secession.
MR. STEPHENS. Why so?
JUDGE BYNUM. Because we were led to believe, from your speech against that measure on the 14th of November, 1860, before the Legislature of your State in Milledgeville, that you were really and thoroughly for the Union. We regarded your speech on that occasion as one of the best Union speeches ever made. There was a tone of earnestness and sincerity in it which created that impression. It was published in all our leading papers, and was almost literally spread broadcast throughout the whole country. From that speech especially, as well as from your course in 1850–and indeed from your whole course from the time you entered public life—we thought that, when the crisis came, if it ever should come, you would certainly go for the Union.
Mr. STEPHENS. It is quite as surprising to me that any such conclusion touching my course, in case Secession should be resorted to, should have been drawn from the speech you allude to, or from my course in 1850, or from any act of my life, as you say my actual course was to you when the event occurred. I was indeed thoroughly for the Union. This the speech referred to fully attested, as well as my whole public course. No words were ever uttered with more earnestness or greater sincerity than were the words of that speech. No stronger or more ardent Union man ever lived than I was. Not a man in the Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States, which sets forth the terms of ’the Union,’ was or could have been more devoted to it than I was. But what Union? or the Union of what? Of course, the Union of the States under the Constitution. That was what I was so ardently devoted to. The Union is a phrase often used, I apprehend, without considering its correct import or meaning. By many it is used to signify the integrity of the country as it is called, or the unity of the whole people of the United States, in geographical view, as one Nation.
JUDGE BYNUM. Certainly; that is what I mean by it.
MR. STEPHENS. Well, allow me then to say that there never was in this country any such union as you speak of; there never was any political union between the people of the several States of the United States, except such as resulted indirectly from the terms of agreement or Compact entered into by separate and distinct political bodies. The first Union so formed, from which the present Union arose, was that of the Colonies in 1774. They were thirteen in number. These were distinct and separate political organizations or bodies. After that the Union of States was formed under the Articles of Confederation, in 1777; and then, the modifications of the terms of this Union by the new Compact of 1787, known as the present Constitution. To this last Union, at first, only eleven of the original thirteen States became parties. Afterwards the other two (North Carolina and Rhode Island) also acceded and became members. The last of these (Rhode Island) rejoined her former associates in 1790. Subsequently, twenty new members were admitted into the association, on an equal footing with those first forming it. Whatever intimate relationships, therefore, existed between the citizens of the respective thirty-three States constituting the Union in 1860, they were created by, or sprung from, the terms of the Compact of 1787, by which the original States as States were united. These terms were properly called the Constitution of the United States; not the Constitution of one people as one society or one nation, but the Constitution of a number of separate and distinct peoples, or political bodies, known as States. The absolute Sovereignty of these original States, respectively, was never parted with by them in that or any other Compact of Union ever entered into by them. This at least was my view of the subject. Georgia was one of these States. My allegiance therefore was, as I considered it, not due to the United States, or to the people of the United States, but to Georgia in her Sovereign capacity. Georgia had never parted with her right to command the ultimate allegiance of her citizens. In that very speech this doctrine, or these principles, were clearly asserted and distinctly maintained. However strongly opposed I was to the policy of Secession, or whatever views I gave against it as a policy, or wise measure, yet in that very speech, which you considered so strong a Union speech, I declared my convictions to be, that if the people of Georgia, in their majesty, and in the exercise of their resumed full Sovereignty, should, in a regularly constituted Convention called for that purpose, withdraw from the Compact of Union, by which she was confederated, or united, with the other States under the Constitution, that it would be my duty to obey her high behest. ...The Sovereign power of the people of the State, which alone could regulate its relations with the other States, was not vested in the Legislature. That resided with the people of the State. It had never been delegated either to the State authorities, or the authorities created by the Articles of Union. It could be exercised only by the people of the State in a regularly-constituted Convention, embodying the real Sovereignty of the State—just such Convention as had agreed to and adopted the Constitution of the United States. It required the same power to unmake as it had to make it. Hence, I said—‘Let the sovereignty of the people of Georgia be first heard on this question of severing the bonds that united them with the other States;’ and that, whatever decision the State might thus and then make, ‘my fortunes would be cast with hers and her people.’”
1 Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: Including Atlas of the World and Cyclopedia of Names, Volume 7 (New York: The Century Company, 1906), 5452.
2 Paul Leicester Ford, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: 1776-1781, Volume 2 (New York: G. B. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), p. 204-205.
3 S. A. Cunningham, Confederate Veteran, Volume 18 (Nashville, 1910), 210.
4 Edmund Quincy, Life of Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867), 206. This source gives us this quote, “I am compelled to declare it as my deliberate opinion, that, if this bill passes, the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the States which compose it are free from their moral obligations, and that, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation; amically if they can, violently if they must.”
5 The Original Declaration of Independence: Constitution of the United States and Miniature Sketches of the Signers (New York: Seaver & Company, 1861), 28.
6 The Original Declaration of Independence: Constitution of the United States and Miniature Sketches of the Signers (New York: Seaver & Company, 1861), 28.
7 Markinfield Addey, Life of Jefferson Davis: With An Authentic Account With His Private and Public & Jackson Career and His Death and Burial Together With the Life of Stonewall Jackson: Including His Glorious Military Career and His Tragic Death on the Battlefield (Philadelphia: The Keystone Publishing Company, 1890), 31.
8 Markinfield Addey, Life of Jefferson Davis: With An Authentic Account With His Private and Public & Jackson Career and His Death and Burial Together With the Life of Stonewall Jackson: Including His Glorious Military Career and His Tragic Death on the Battlefield (Philadelphia: The Keystone Publishing Company, 1890), 31.
9 Markinfield Addey, Life of Jefferson Davis: With An Authentic Account With His Private and Public & Jackson Career and His Death and Burial Together With the Life of Stonewall Jackson: Including His Glorious Military Career and His Tragic Death on the Battlefield (Philadelphia: The Keystone Publishing Company, 1890), 32-33.
10 The Original Declaration of Independence: Constitution of the United States and Miniature Sketches of the Signers (New York: Seaver & Company, 1861), 28.
11 James Brown Scott, The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), 11.
12 William Mack and Howard P. Nash, Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure, Volume 8 (New York: The American Law Book Company, 1901), 399.
13 Elbert William Robinson Ewing, Northern Rebellion and Southern Secession (Richmond: J. L. Hill Company, 1904), 15.
14 The South in the Building of the Nation, Volume 4 (Richmond: The Southern Historical Publication Society, 1909), 657-658.
15 Thames Ross Williamson, Readings in American Democracy (Boston: D. C. Heath & Publishers, 1922), 34.
16 James Brown Scott, The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), 42.
17 The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Volume 24 (SAINTE-CLAIRE DEVILLE to SHUTTLE) (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1911), 568.
18 Albert T. Bledsoe, The War Between the States Or, Was Secession a Constitutional Right Previous to the War of 1861-65 (Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company, 1915), 17-18.
19 James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, The South Was Right! (Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Company, 2008), 219.
20 Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy & Company, 1868), 17-21.