Only once in the history of the United States has secession been seriously attempted by any state or any number of states. Following the election of 1860 and the selection of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States, eleven states – led by South Carolina – approved measures to withdraw from the Union. Far removed from the atmosphere in which members of Congress would bash in the heads of their colleagues with their walking canes, secession has reentered public political discourse. However, it is not for the likelihood of a twenty-first century exodus of states from the Union that this issue deserves analysis. Rather, the increasingly frequent appeals to secessionist rhetoric from America’s conservatives, libertarians, and the religious right run the risk of distracting the public focus from the issues at hand or of obscuring more appropriate solutions. Thus, the issue of secession is in need of examination from a rational perspective.
The phenomenon of secession occurs when one or several regions of a given country make themselves politically distinct from said country by rejecting the authority of the previous national or federal government in favor of a new or established regional government to defend the sovereignty of the dissident regions. Acts of secession do not aim at the destruction of the previous government, as that government will maintain its integrity over whichever regions choose to remain with it. In this sense, the American Revolution is best understood as a secessionist movement – the former American colonies ceased to recognize the authority of the British crown over their territory, creating a new government for themselves without seeking to impinge on the monarch and Parliament’s jurisdiction over the British Isles.
Were the American Revolution the only example of a secession movement in the United States, then the case for moral secession (a kind of secession not currently offered by the modern “secessionists”) would be less unpopular to make. The short-lived push for secession in New England in the early history of the United States concluded in failure and was ultimately of little significance. The push for southern secession during the Civil War, however, is much more tragic.
Slavery, the sin which dominated American political discussion for the greater part of the nineteenth century, had finally reached a point in which it could not continue as it had been allowed to do throughout America’s young history. Following numerous political battles over the spread of slavery into the territories, the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling, and the election of Abraham Lincoln – a member of the anti-slavery Republican Party – to the presidency, the feudal slave states in the South fled the Union. Equating their cause with that of the Founding Fathers several decades before, they declared they had the “right” to leave the Union. After all, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist, No. 39, “Each State in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.” As far as the southern Confederacy was concerned, the southern states were merely withdrawing their voluntary consent.
In fact, they were invoking a right they did not possess. The South is did not secede to escape abuses of liberty, but to continue them.
Secession is a transitive concept, devoid of any moral value independent of its context. To say that secession is a “good” in and of itself is equally absurd as arguing that killing is an intrinsic “good” as well. Though one man could certainly fire a gun at another man, killing him for an entirely rational, moral reason (e.g. self-defense, stopping a crime, etc.), it does not follow that each and every time one man shoots another, it is a rational, moral act (e.g. murder) — indeed, it is neither rational nor moral in most situations. Secession is of the same status. Though secession in the name of individual liberty could be rational (indeed, individual liberty is the only rational reason for secession), supporting secession in epistemic isolation – severed from the context of the government being abandoned and of the one which will take its place – is irrational and wholly undeserving of the public attention and conversation it has garnered as of late.
In light of the reelection of President Obama and the ever growing number of statist policies pursued by the federal government, some (albeit a minute few) have begun arguing that the future of individual liberty on this continent lies outside of the current Union. It would better assist the cause of individual liberty to disband America’s republican empire, forming instead a new nation (or multiples) out of seceded states.
Following the election, several petitions were filed on WhiteHouse.gov requesting that various states be allowed to peacefully secede from the Union. The original petitions (from primarily southern states) garnered negative coverage from the media, which decried them as “racist” or “unpatriotic.” Both charges are smears which need not be taken seriously – neither these accusations nor the secessionist sentiments embodied by the petitions are reflective of most citizens within the states these petitions were filed, nor are they reflective of President Obama’s rational opposition. As the number of petitions expanded to include all fifty states and as governors began voicing opposition to the petitions (as if such declarations were even necessary), the irrationality of this flare of secessionist discussion was brought into full focus. The only reasonable conclusions one can draw from this phenomenon are that irrationality is not geographically confined in the United States and that the media relishes a good opportunity to smear the right.
Make no mistake, the modern calls for secession deserve every ounce of rational criticism which can be mustered against them. But the coverage offered by the media and many others is far from rational. Theirs was rooted in the same collectivist ideology which led to the two-time selection of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the same which demands of women and minorities to vote uniformly for the Democratic Party, and the same which demonized Eduardo Saverin for his very cogent decision to defect to Singapore.
To them, every individual’s “duty” is to “the great We,” the fabled whole which is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The American people should not work towards the advancement of their own self-interests, but instead subject themselves to the “public good”. It is entirely irrelevant whether or not an individual (or a group of them) do not consent to being robbed of their life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness – “the great We” has spoken, and all must submit no matter the edict. Such is, after all, the nature of democracy.
But the United States is not a democracy, nor are individual rights matters of public recognition. They are inherent within man’s nature, inalienable and inalterable regardless of any law, executive order, or constitution. If ever there arises an occasion in which the political authority of any land burdens its citizens beyond what they can bear, they have all authority – endowed to them by the fact that they are men, rational beings – to overturn such authority. Whether through open rebellion or peaceful secession, retaliating when the abuses against man’s rights become so deeply unconscionable and unbearable ought to be revered rather than scorned. This spirit of righteous rebellion lives to this day in the words of the Declaration of Independence:
“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 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.”
This is why the Left hate and fear talk of secession. The notion that men are free to chart their own destinies is antithetical to the collective doctrines of the last century to which they still vainly cling. If the good of the collective is the good, the moral, the righteous, then pursuing the good of the individual is the evil, the immoral, the damnable. They attack secession, republican principles, and the egoistic man because they must; their collective moral doctrine demands it. Without it, their authority crumbles along with their dreams of socialist empire in the United States.
Fortunately for the Left, contemporary talk of secession is driven primarily by emotionalism and intrinsicism offered by libertarians. It is propagated by those who speak only of individual rights rhetorically, unable to define the same concepts they employ to make their “arguments.” To them, secession is a “right” in and of itself, free from any context. Ron Paul sums up this attitude succinctly: “A free society means you can dissolve it voluntarily… [S]elf-determination is a good principle. It’s a very American principle, so to me it’s a shame we can’t discuss this.”
These conclusions follow directly from libertarian ideology. “Liberty” – whatever it means – is good. At any point in which someone initiates “force” – again, without definition – against another man, it violates his “liberty.” The end of this logical chain is anarchy – as liberty is undefined, any criminal or degenerate can assert that force is initiated against them by the very existence of law, and so no government of any breed has legitimate authority. When not followed through to its ultimate conclusion, this kind of subjectivist intrinsicism leads to other conclusions – e.g. that the West would be initiating force against the Islamic Republic of Iran which “voluntarily chose,” per its “right of self-determination,” to create an Islamic totalitarian state, or that American states can and ought to secede regardless of what form of government they will institute following secession.
The libertarians’ rejection of philosophy and ethics has them believe that rational commentators are merely dismissing secession because of its unlikelihood rather than that it is dangerous. “It doesn’t matter that it probably won’t happen!” they exclaim, “It deserves discussion!” No, it does not – not only because it is, again, an example of an irrational prioritization of values, but because the secession they are currently offering would likely do far more to injure individual liberty than to advance it.
Secession is not an end. It is a means. If a state were to secede from the Union, it would have to create a new constitution for itself – none of the current state constitutions allot to the states the powers necessary to act as international sovereigns. Moreover, if the seceded states were to enter into a new union with one another, they would have to create another federal constitution. Thomas Jefferson referred to the group of men who came up with the Constitution of the United States as an “assembly of demigods.” And indeed, it would have taken nothing less to arrive at the government they drafted.
We have no comparable group of public figures today. Would anyone really believe a rational, moral government would result from the likes of Gov. Nathan Deal in Georgia? Or Gov. Rick Perry in Texas? Or Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina? Any ruling protecting social or criminal rights produced under the Warren Court would be thrown out in one fell swoop at both the state and federal level as the religious right, no longer restricted by the U.S. Constitution or left-leaning states, would institute their own version of an American theocracy. The Tea Party, still too young and philosophically unformed to resist such an assault, would not likely play any significant part in forming the new government.
The philosophic atmosphere of the United States, or of any single region of it, is not capable of producing a capitalist government. There is no reason to believe that a secession movement – in all its uncertainty – would turn out well for the secessionists. In actuality, there is significant reason to believe that it would not – merely look at the politicians currently occupying high office across the fifty states. In the case of modern secession, the greatest threat to the secessionists would not be civil war, but self-destruction.
Recognizing that not all movements for secession are legitimate or self-interested, the Founders offered further wisdom in 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 shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Secession is not the solution. The republic established by the Founding Fathers ought not to be dissolved over a single election; especially not when there exists little likelihood of a rational alternative emerging from such an act. For now, Americans still maintain their right of free speech, to bear arms, to free elections of their public officials, and to appeal to the Constitution in seeking redress for their grievances against their government. Whereas the Founders were ruled by a government they did not elect and thus lacked any means of reclaiming lost justice, contemporary Americans are not. True, Americans have unwisely chosen their leaders, but it does not follow that they must or will continue to do the same forever. The United States can be changed for the better, and it ought to be. In the words of the Declaration:
“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.”