Attempts at or aspirations of secession from the United States have been a feature of the country's politics since its birth. Some have argued for a constitutional right of secession and others for a natural right of revolution. The United States Supreme Court ruled unilateral secession unconstitutional while commenting that revolution or consent of the states could lead to a successful secession.

Except for the American Revolution which created the United States, no such movement, revolution or secession, has succeeded. In 1861, the Confederate States of America attempted, and failed, to achieve secession by force of arms in the American Civil War.

A 2008 Zogby International poll revealed that 22% of Americans believed that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic."[1][2]

American RevolutionEdit

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence opens with one long sentence:

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[3]

Historian Pauline Maier writes that this sentence “asserted one right, the right of revolution, which was, after all, the right Americans were exercising in 1776.” The chosen language was Thomas Jefferson’s way of incorporating ideas “explained at greater length by a long list of seventeenth-century writers that included such prominent figures as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke, as well as a host of others, English and Scottish, familiar and obscure, who continued and, in some measure, developed that ‘Whig’ tradition in the eighteenth century.[3]

Antebellum American political and legal views on secessionEdit

The issue of secession was discussed in many forums in the years before the American Civil War. With origins in the question of states' rights, dating to the Nullification Crisis, historian Maury Klein describes the contemporary debate: "Was the Republic a unified nation in which the individual states had merged their sovereign rights and identities forever, or was it a federation of sovereign states joined together for specific purposes from which they could withdraw at any time?"[4] He observes that "the case can be made that no result of the war was more important than the destruction, once and for all ... of the idea of secession".[5]

Secession and the United States ConstitutionEdit

Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar notes that the permanence of the United States changed significantly when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the adoption of the United States Constitution. This action “signaled its decisive break with the Articles’ regime of state sovereignty.”[6] By creating a constitution instead of some other type of written document, it was made clear that the United States was:

Not a “league”, however firm; not a “confederacy” or a “confederation”; not a compact among “sovereign’ states” — all these high profile and legally freighted words from the Articles were conspicuously absent from the Preamble and every other operative part of the Constitution. The new text proposed a fundamentally different legal framework.[7]

Patrick Henry represented a strong voice for the Anti-Federalists who opposed adoption of the Constitution. Questioning the nature of the new political organization being proposed, Henry asked:

The fate ... of America may depend on this. ... Have they made a proposal of a compact between the states? If they had, this would be a confederation. It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing — the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America. ...[8]

The Federalists would point out that Henry exaggerated the extent that a consolidated government was being created and acknowledged that states would continue to serve an important function. However on the issue of whether states retained a right of unilateral secession from the United States, the Federalists made it clear that no such right would exist under the Constitution.[9]

Natural right of revolution versus right of secessionEdit

Debates on the legality of secession often looked back to the example of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Law professor Daniel Farber defined the borders of this debate:

What about the original understanding? The debates contain scattered statements about the permanence or impermanence of the Union. The occasional reference to the impermanency of the Constitution are hard to interpret. They might have referred to a legal right to revoke ratification. But they equally could have referred to an extraconstitutional right of revolution, or to the possibility that a new national convention would rewrite the Constitution, or simply to the factual possibility that the national government might break down. Similarly, references to the permanency of the Union could have referred to the practical unlikelihood of withdrawal rather than any lack of legal power. The public debates seemingly do not speak specifically to whether ratification under Article VII was revocable.[10]

In the public debate over the Nullification Crisis the separate issue of secession was also discussed. James Madison, often referred to as “The Father of the Constitution”, spoke out against secession as a constitutional right.[11] In a March 15, 1833, letter to Daniel Webster congratulating him on a speech opposing nullification, Madison discussed “revolution” versus “secession”:

I return my thanks for the copy of your late very powerful Speech in the Senate of the United S. It crushes "nullification" and must hasten the abandonment of "Secession." But this dodges the blow by confounding the claim to secede at will, with the right of seceding from intolerable oppression. The former answers itself, being a violation, without cause, of a faith solemnly pledged. The latter is another name only for revolution, about which there is no theoretic controversy.[12]

Also during this crisis, President Andrew Jackson, in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”, made the case for the perpetuity of the Union while also contrasting the differences between “revolution” and “secession”[13]:

But each State having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute jointly with the other States a single nation, cannot from that period possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation, and any injury to that unity is not only a breach which would result from the contravention of a compact, but it is an offense against the whole Union. To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive those who are willing to assert a right, but would pause before they made a revolution, or incur the penalties consequent upon a failure.[14]

In the midst of the secession crisis that would lead to the Civil War, President James Buchanan in his final State of the Union speech acknowledged the South would “after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union”, but he also reiterated the difference between “revolution” and “secession”[15]:

In order to justify secession as a constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties. If this be so, the Confederacy is a rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States. In this manner our thirty-three States may resolve themselves into as many petty, jarring, and hostile republics, each one retiring from the Union without responsibility whenever any sudden excitement might impel them to such a course. By this process a Union might be entirely broken into fragments in a few weeks which cost our forefathers many years of toil, privation, and blood to establish.[16]

New England Federalists and Hartford ConventionEdit

The election of 1800 saw Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party on the rise with the Federalists in decline. Federalists became alarmed at what they saw as threats from the Democratic-Republicans. The Louisiana Purchase was viewed as a violation of the original agreement between the original thirteen states since it created the potential for numerous new states that would be dominated by the Democratic-Republicans. The impeachment of John Pickering, a Federalist district judge, by the Democratic-Republican dominated Congress and similar attacks by the Democratic-Republican Pennsylvania legislature against that state's judiciary further alarmed Federalists. By 1804, the viable base of the Federalist Party had been reduced to the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.[17]

A few Federalists, led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, considered the creation of a separate New England confederation, possibly combining with lower Canada to form a pro-British nation. Historian Richard Buell, Jr., characterizes these separatist musings:

Most participants in the explorations — it can hardly be called a plot since it never took concrete form — focused on the domestic obstacles to consummating their fantasy. These included lack of popular support for such a scheme in the region. ... The secessionist movement of 1804 was more of a confession of despair about the future than a realistic proposal for action.[18]

The Embargo Act of 1807 was seen as a threat to the economy of Massachusetts and in late May 1808 the state legislature debated how the state should respond. Once again these debates generated isolated references to secession, but no clear cut plot ever materialized.[19]

Spurred on by some Federalist party members, the Hartford Convention was convened on December 15, 1814, to address both the opposition to the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815) and the domination of the federal government by the Virginia political dynasty. Twenty six delegates attended—Massachusetts sent 12 delegates, Connecticut seven, and Rhode Island four. New Hampshire and Vermont decided not to send delegates although two counties from each state did send delegates.[20] Historian Donald R. Hickey noted:

Despite pleas in the New England press for secession and a separate peace, most of the delegates taking part in the Hartford Convention were determined to pursue a moderate course. Only Timoth Bigelow of Massachusetts apparently favored extreme measures, and he did not play a major role in the proceedings.[20]

The final report[21] addressed issues related to the war and state defense and recommended seven constitutional amendments dealing with "the overrepresentation of white southerners in Congress, the growing power of the West, the trade restrictions and the war, the influence of foreigners (like Albert Gallatin), and the Virginia dynasty's domination of national politics."[22]

Massachusetts and Connecticut endorsed the report, but the war ended as the states' delegates were on their way to Washington, effectively ending any impact the report might have had. Generally the convention was a "victory for moderation", but the timing led to the convention being identified as "a synonym for disloyalty and treason" and was a major factor in the sharp decline of the Federalist Party.[23]


File:William garrison.jpg

Sectional tensions, with the North and New England pictured as the victims of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, arose again in the late 1830s and 1840s over the related issues of Texas Annexation, the Mexican-American War, and the expansion of slavery. Isolated voices of separation from the South were again heard. Historian Joel Sibley writes of the beliefs held by some leaders in New England:

Texas annexation, the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy argued when the issue first arose in 1836, was “a long premeditated crusade — set on foot by slaveholders, land speculators, etc., with the view of reestablishing, extending, and perpetuating the system of slavery and the slave trade,” John Quincy Adams had made a similar argument on the floor of the House of Representatives then. Other expressions of the same theme — or accusation — had been heard throughout the decade that followed, whenever Texas was mentioned.[25]

In the May 1844 edition of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison wrote "Address to the Friends of Freedom and Emancipation in the United States." In this strongly disunionist editorial, Garrison wrote that the Constitution had been created “at the expense of the colored population of the country”. With southerners continuing to dominate the nation because of the Three-fifths compromise, it was time “to set the captive free by the potency of truth” and “secede from the government.”[26] on the same day that this issue was published, the New England Anti-Slavery Convention endorsed the principles of disunion from slaveholders by a vote of 250-24.[27]

From this point on, with the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso into the public debate, talk of secession would be primarily a southern issue. The southern theme, increased perceptions of helplessness against a powerful political group attacking a basic southern interest, was almost a mirror image of Federalist beliefs at the beginning of the century.

South CarolinaEdit

During the presidential term of Andrew Jackson, South Carolina had its own semi-secession movement due to the "Tariffs of Abomination" which threatened both South Carolina's economy and the Union. Andrew Jackson also threatened to send federal troops to put down the movement and to hang the leader of the secessionists from the highest tree in South Carolina. Also due to this, Jackson's vice president, John C. Calhoun, who supported the movement and wrote the essay "The South Carolina Exposition and Protest", became the first US vice-president to resign. South Carolina also threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California's statehood. It became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, with the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union and later joined with the other southern states in the Confederacy.

Confederate States of AmericaEdit

File:Confederate States of America.svg
See main articles Origins of the American Civil War, Confederate States of America and American Civil War.

The most famous unsuccessful secession movement was the case of the Southern states of the United States. Secession from the United States was declared in thirteen states, eleven of which joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). The eleven states of the CSA, in order of secession, were: South Carolina (seceded December 20, 1860), Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861). Secession was declared by its supporters in Missouri and Kentucky, but did not become effective as it was opposed by their pro-Union state governments. This secession movement brought about the American Civil War. The position of the Union was that the Confederacy was not a sovereign nation, but that a rebellion had been initiated by individuals. Historian Bruce Catton described President Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861, proclamation after the attack on Fort Sumter, which defined the Union's position on the hostilities:

After reciting the obvious fact that "combinations too powerful to be suppressed" by ordinary law courts and marshalls had taken charge of affairs in the seven secessionist states, it announced that the several states of the Union were called on to contribute 75,000 militia " suppress said combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed." ... "And I hereby command the persons composing the combinations aforesaid to disperse, and retire peacefully to their respective abodes within twenty days from this date.[28]

Supreme Court rulingsEdit

Texas v. White, Template:Ussc was argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1869. The Court held in a 5–3 decision that the Constitution did not permit states to secede from the United States, and that the ordinances of secession, and all the acts of the legislatures within seceding states intended to give effect to such ordinances, were "absolutely null". However, the decision did allow some possibility of the divisibility "through revolution, or through consent of the States".[29][30]

In the 1877 Williams v. Bruffy Template:Ussc decision regarding civil war debts, the Court wrote regarding acts establishing an independent government that "The validity of its acts, both against the parent state and the citizens or subjects thereof, depends entirely upon its ultimate success; if it fail to establish itself permanently, all such acts perish with it; if it succeed and become recognized, its acts from the commencement of its existence are upheld as those of an independent nation." [29][31]

West VirginiaEdit

During the course of the American Civil War, the western counties of Virginia making up what is now West Virginia seceded from Virginia (which had joined the Confederacy) and became the 35th state of the U.S. Although a large number of these counties, constituting about two-thirds the territory of the new state, were unwilling participants in the separation from Virginia, wartime conditions and the defeat of the Confederacy insured their inclusion.[32][33][34]

Texas secession from MexicoEdit

The Republic of Texas successfully seceded from Mexico in 1836. In 1845, Texas joined the United States as a full-fledged state. Mexico refused to recognize Texas's independence and warned the U.S. that annexation meant war. The Mexican–American War followed in 1846, and the United States defeated Mexico.

California Secession from MexicoEdit

The California Republic, also called the Bear Flag Republic, successfully seceded from Mexico in 1846. The Republic was annexed by the United States less than a month afterward during the Mexican-American war. California was not admitted to the Union until 1850, two years after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill.

Commonwealth of the PhilippinesEdit

In 1946, the Commonwealth of the Philippines, a United States territory, which became a commonwealth, was the only part of the United States to have gained independence. Previously, between 500,000 and one million Filipinos had died during a war of resistance (most from an outbreak of cholera that coincided with the war) following annexation in 1898. These figures have been debated over time, and it is not clear that the deaths resulting from cholera should be included as deaths resulting from the war.

Recent efforts in the United StatesEdit

Examples of both local and state secession movements can be cited over the last 25 years. Some secessionist movements to create new states have failed, others are ongoing.

City secessionEdit

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