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Some thoughts about secession

Updated on October 13, 2020
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Charleston Mercury’s December 20th 1860, “The Union is Dissolved” issue.
Charleston Mercury’s December 20th 1860, “The Union is Dissolved” issue. | Source

Do you think secession is legal under the U.S. Constitution?

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The talk of states seceding from the United States goes all the way back to even before the United States were the United States. Lately, with the re-election of President Obama, many disgruntled people are signing petitions at a breakneck pace to have their respective states secede from the Union. As of the writing of this hub, every state has a petition submitted (remember these are by private citizens and not the state governments themselves) and at least seven have enough to warrant a response from the White House per their statement on the "We The People" petition site.

Lets just start by saying that there is never going to be a clear answer on this. Ever. New York, Rhode Island and Virginia made it a stipulation to signing the Constitution in ratification documents that they have the right to back out. Virginia's reads,

“The People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.”

New York and Rhode Islands are almost identical. Pennsylvania and New England early in the 19th century attempted to seceed and when John C. Calhoun spoke of secession in South Carolina, President Andrew Jackson threatened to send Federal troops down there and put a quick end to that sort of talk.

Then the Civil War happened and for four years the United States was indeed divided. In 1869, Texas brought a case to the Supreme Court that challenged the secession right and lost. In 1870 the last state that formed the Confederate States of America was readmitted to the Union (Georgia, July 15, 1870). It seemed that the notion of secession had been settled.

Over the years since the Civil War, many citizens have pushed again for secession when their political ideologies were not fulfilled, when they felt they were not being heard by the government, or when they were just plain mad that their candidate lost.

Now, with renewed talks of secession other things need to be looked at. The polarization in America is divisive as it was during the Civil War. The double-talk of politicians, the want/opposition of government intrusion into almost every portion of Americans lives, the blaming of both parties on the current financial cliff the country is teetering on, the threat of terrorism and of course, war. Many Americans quite honestly are fed up and feel helpless and want the government to listen to them, not tell them what to do.

So, lets look at secession, the pros, the cons and the in's and out's of it and what it means.

Will Texas be the first seceed?
Will Texas be the first seceed? | Source

The first question that is going to be asked is "Is secession legal?" As I said before, I don't believe this question is black and white and contains many shades of gray and will never be ultimately defined. The Constitution says, in no clear-cut words, anything about the legality of secession. It does talk about admitting new states, but not leaving. So the argument is that under the Tenth Amendment, silence in a matter means there is no Federal power. However, in Texas vs White, the Supreme Court made it clear that secession was illegal, and that the inference that there is a provision for admitting states and not for leaving, seems to prove that you can join, but you cannot leave. It seems that the wording of the Constitution was created in such a way that it leaves a backdoor for both viewpoints, ergo, I don't believe this question will ever truly be answered. It seems that secession is legal and illegal - depending on individual interpretation.

The Supreme Court has always made it clear that when they rule it is law. John Marshall even went as far to imply that it is so because the Supreme Court says so. However, there are a number of times where there seems to be emotional, political and ulterior motives at work in some of their decisions. Look at the current Health Care Reform Act. The President says "it is not a tax", the Supreme Court says it is. If the Supreme Court is right, then fundamentally Obamacare is illegal. Secession falls into the same category. There appear to be more instances of secession being permissible than not in regards to the Constitution.

Secondly, what is secession? Merriam-Webster defines it as "withdrawal into privacy or solitude. formal withdrawal from an organization." Oxford Dictionary defines it as "the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state." Is that what the original 13 British colonies did? They "seceded" from the organized, political body known as the British Empire. So one has to wonder - why was that called a "revolution" and it's perpetrators considered patriots and the Confederate states considered traitors? Were they not both withdrawing from a pact they felt did not serve their purposes? The parallels are the same. One group of people, using the foundations of the previous government, creating a new nation that represented it's people in a manner better suited to their needs.

Now, while I do not condone secession, I also do not think that pushing it under the carpet and saying "that can and won't ever happen" or that it was solved after the Civil War is wise or prudent. The matters that bring about the idea of secessions - the underlying problems, obstacles and issues - HAVE to be addressed in the context of secession. If one group simply states it is illegal and we will not allow that to happen without dialogue with the other party is inviting a replay of America in the mid-nineteenth century.

Both sides of the debate will list ones pros as the others con. I do not think there is a pro to secession in the long term. States as of today are in no way prepared to carry the burden of sole ownership of their state. They have too much invested in the Union. National Guard units that are raised for state needs are done so by the authority of the Federal government. This means the states have zero rights to their state guard units. The highway systems that connects America is a Federal project, that would be a huge problem. What about airlines? Would you need a passport to travel into individual state-countries? How about Federal grants? Subsidies? Banks? Law enforcement? Foreign relations? Labor? Taxes? It has become such a more complex situation as opposed to when the country was still in it's infancy. Splitting now would prove disastrous for everyone involved.

And don't think that the other countries, especially those who would absolutely love to see America fall apart, are not watching. America and it's former comrades all would be ripe for all sorts of anarchy.

In the end change in this country is way beyond overdue. Secession is not the answer. Instead of running away, the people of the nation need to become more involved at a personal level and be the architects of change. Americans need to educate themselves in not only domestic issues put foreign policy and be part of the change that allows the country to once again cause the world to understand why Americans are a different breed of people who became a world power in such a short time by our fortitude. Our youth need to understand responsibility, self sacrifice and our history to be prepared to lead in the future. We need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and right a ship that is perilously close to sinking. Jumping overboard will just cause those jumping to drown and the ship to sink.

Would you join your state in secession or choose to remain in the Union?

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      7 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think Lincoln had it right: the very principle of secession is incompatible with nationhood. And certainly the outcome of the Civil War settled the legal issue. Had the Confederacy won, secession would be a legal right. They didn't, and it's not.

      It's ironic that those who so fervently asserted their right to secede from the US adamantly refused that right when Western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee wanted to secede from the Confederacy. I've always thought that if the Confederacy had won and established the right of secession, there would now be about 172 "nations" on the North American continent. What principle allows Georgia to secede from the US, but not Atlanta from Georgia?

      Anyway, I enjoyed reading your hub.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      In the two months since I wrote the comment above, I've started to think that the secession of certain states would not be such a bad thing. I will refrain from saying which ones.

    • Connie120 profile image


      7 years ago

      The trouble is that the people in the US are idealogically opposed. The majority don't want a free country. They ridicule and denigrate anyone that wants to go back to the principles of independence that made America great. They don't mind living in a nanny state, as long as the government promises them handouts and security. This is the exact opposite of what made Americans at one time stand out from the rest of the world. I don't think there is any way that more involvement by the common people will help anything. The two sides want completely different governments. It is not a simple matter of Republican or Democrat; in fact there is really not much difference between the two parties. How do you have a representative government when the two sides want fundamentally opposite things? You can't represent both. Of course, if the federal government was really limited by the Constitution as it was supposed to be, with the majority of power being given to thestates, there would not need to be reconciliation. As long as the fedearl government did not overstep its bounds, the individual states could make laws that would vary based on what it's citizens wanted or needed. But in "saving the Union" by brute force, Lincoln actually destroyed the concept of representative government. Now, the states have no power to stand up to an overreaching federal government, and that government can only become more and more dictatorial to try to hold opposite factions together.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      One of the ironies of the Civil War was that President Lincoln, in an effort to save the concept of representative government, saved the Union by brute force. In the end, the issue of the legality of secession was settled on the battlefield, not in the halls of Congress or the courts.

      One of many terrific scenes in the new movie "Lincoln" has the President speculating with his cabinet about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation. And more generally, he seems to be speculating about the legality of the many extreme actions he had taken to save the Union. He says himself (in the scene) that he still had doubts about the legality of many of his actions, but he interpreted his re-election as evidence that the majority of the people agreed with him. So when dealing with issues that are not clear cut, the voice of the people is the clinching factor. The only problem with this argument was that the South did not have a voice.

      Today, many would argue that the Southerners were traitors but American revolutionaries were patriots. You could make the case, however, that the only real differences between the two was that one of them lost and the other was successful. Legality is defined by the winners.

      It's nice to read a nuanced hub. But like you, I agree that secession today would create a host of complex problems for any states that chose to secede that would far outweigh any benefits.

    • grayghost profile image


      8 years ago

      Nick, What a great piece of writing! You've presented a balanced and very coherent view on a complex and emotional issue with exceptional clarity. You really get to the heart of the matter.

      I believe the new sentiment toward succession is a needed jolt to our political class, and for that reason I like the effort. "We the People" showing a little grit, you might say. But I wouldn't support a serious effort for many of the reasons stated above.

      However, what the political class doesn't understand is that "America" isn't the United States Government, it IS the American people who as free citizens, and at their will, employ politicians and bureaucrats to perform certain services. It seems now, though, that we are quickly becoming servants to the will of that same political class and the whims of those same bureaucrats and regulators. There is virtually no part of our lives that is unregulated or un-taxed by Government. And freedom ends where regulation and taxation begins.

      Add to that an administration (and apparently the lock-step approval of one political party) that has systematically pillaged the national Treasury (in reality, none now exists) in a way that has never been seen before, while simultaneously strangling the very part of our unique economic structure, our Free enterprise system, that is our only hope for economic recovery. Runaway hyper-regulation, higher taxes, forced Government intervention, demonizing success, created demand for public dole, class warfare, and the assault on domestic energy production are all game pieces for this crowd.

      Add to all that, the shameless effort to deliberately divide us into various cultural, racial, social, gender, and economic groups and then make overt efforts to pit these groups against one another to win an election and you begin to understand the unrest and the succession sympathy.

      While succession my not be perfectly defined in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is clear that the people have the right and the duty to alter or abolish oppressive government. That, I am fully in agreement with. The people need to step up and force by ballot the changes we need to preserve our great Republic. Otherwise, we deserve exactly what we're getting.

    • Nick Burchett profile imageAUTHOR

      Nick Burchett 

      8 years ago from IL, MO & KS

      J Michael I think that is exactly the point that the people signing the secession petitions. I would agree the chances of succeeding are slim to none and that the petitions are the first steps towards making their voices heard.

    • gmarquardt profile image


      8 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      As one of my professors astutely observed. "It is not perfectly defined in the Constitiution whether or not a state can secede from the Union. However, based on history, I think we know what happens if one were to try!" I think he was dead on!

    • J Michael McGuire profile image

      John Michael McGuire 

      8 years ago from Washington D.C.

      I feel like if a whole state is so angry with the state of the Union they should have some recourse. Secession is obviously quite extreme. I doubt any nation will succeed in secession, and I would assume that it would require a referendum with a super majority to make a petition to withdraw from the union even partially legitimate. I will almost guarantee that won't happen. However, what a great message that would send to the fat cats on the Hill, about how Americans really feel?

    • gregas profile image

      Greg Schweizer 

      8 years ago from Corona, California.

      I agree with you on that one Nick.

    • Nick Burchett profile imageAUTHOR

      Nick Burchett 

      8 years ago from IL, MO & KS

      Appreciate your opinion Greg. I agree... regardless of the legalities, just as Lincoln knew, breaking the Union apart would be the death knell for the Union and those who seceeded. I firmly believe that"united we stand, divided we fall." I do however think more people need to become educated and take an active role in their government instead of just letting it run amuck.

    • gregas profile image

      Greg Schweizer 

      8 years ago from Corona, California.

      I am an American and this is called the United States of America. If someone else doesn't like being an American let them go find a country where they will be happy. We will be strong as a United country. As soon as you start breaking it up, see how fast other countries, Iran for one, will come in and take over. From state to country there is no army or military for protection. As a United country we can make US strong again, but not bickering like a bunch of children on a playground. Just think about that one. My opinion, Greg


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