In April, I wrote about the probability of secession talk if Obama won re-election. For a variety of reasons, I never posted the piece. Today, reading about the petitions to secede filed from 23 states I am drawn back to the topic. The Texas petition now has around 40,000 signatures, so, for academic purposes, let us indulge the topic.
Then, I predicted that several states would quickly begin clamoring to secede from the federal union. I also argued that if it actually took place, this time, secession would succeed.
The last time a state attempted to leave the union things did not go so well. Predictably, many of the same states that tried it before are those most openly discussing secession.
With hindsight, the outcome of the American Civil War was never really in question. The advantages in population, wealth, transportation, resources, and industry, make Northern victory seem predetermined. Today, many of those factors now favor the states of the former confederacy aligned with likely candidates to join a second secession attempt.
Still, there are three factors from the 1860’s that perplexed me during graduate school. The answers to all three – I believe – have changed and thus would not only make secession possible, but make its success likely.
Before going further I should clearly state that I do not think secession likely or wise. Nor do I think secessionist talk exists among anything but a very small minority. America is more likely to gain a 51st state (as supported by the Puerto Rican resolution adopted last week) than lose a dozen. Neither am I recommending secession as a good idea. What I am doing is playing with a “what if?” question.
First, I disagree with about every sane and responsible person (from Abraham Lincoln to Antonin Scalia) who maintained that secession is illegal. The Presidential Proclamation of 1866 that declares the illegality of secession is little more than the imposition of will by a military victory, and not binding as it would be superseded by Congressional action and the Constitution.
The constitutional question of secession hinges, as it did historically, on the concept of sovereignty. Secessionists, like John C. Calhoun, argue that the Constitution is a compact among the sovereign states. Unionists argue that the people are sovereign, and once endorsing the Constitution bind states to the Union. I favor the Calhoun argument on this point. However, even if the Unionist position is adopted, I see no justification to revoke the sovereignty of the people, thus leaving them empowered to assert the rights given by Providence at any moment they seem fit. As evidence it should be noted that an individual is free to relinquish citizenship and leave the country. Why then not a preponderance of people who may choose to organize themselves, through the first amendment exercise of free association, by state?
Second, setting aside the issue of human slavery and the moral imperative for abolition, I struggled to understand why a Northerner would much care if a Southerner wanted to leave the union. Many an argument later, I came across James McPherson’s pamphlet length “What They Fought For 1861-1865” and arrived at an understanding of the pride in union, and of the concept later embodied in the pledge of “one nation, indivisible.”
Today, I cannot imagine a plebiscite in California or New York bemoaning the departure of Texas. It seems more likely that coastal elites would fund moving vans to help NRA members or NASCAR enthusiasts leave the North.
Finally, once South Carolina forces fired the first salvo at the merchant ship sent by President Buchanan to supply Fort Sumter, the die was cast. However, if somehow, the shots were never fired, which means the emerging Confederacy did not attempt to seize U.S. government property within its borders, things could have been different.
Were it to happen today, I suspect a more amiable separation could be administered. Without armed fighting, secession would become a de facto reality. Each day that reality persisted, its foundation would harden, and in a relatively short time, secession would become accepted.
For those, like me, who hold the principles of America’s founding sacred, the re-election of Barack Obama is a bitter pill to swallow. We, who may feel marginalized, acknowledge that Obama is not the problem, but rather a symptom of a deeper challenge to our national soul. Yet, secession is not a path that we should embark on. That time may come, but it is not today.