John C. Calhoun
Since the 1830's, John C. Calhoun has been known as the "Father of Secession" because of his strong commitment to states rights, a limited central government, nullification of Federal laws by the state and free trade. This had not always been the case. He had been a proponent of a strong Federal government after the War of 1812.
The Tariff of 1828 or Tariff of Abominations began to change Calhoun's mind. The tariff was passed for no other reason than to protect northern industry and was harmful to the Southern economy. It was at this point that Calhoun stated that any state had the right to nullify any law made by the Federal government which was unconstitutional.
By 1832, the tariffs had become such an issue that the South Carolina legislature declared these taxes unconstitutional and refused to collect them for the Federal government. Congress quickly passed the Force Bill giving the President power to send a military force into any state who did not comply with Federal law. South Carolina quickly nullified the Force Bill. The U.S. Navy was dispatched to Charleston Harbor.
War was averted by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. This gradually lowered the tariff rate to just 20% on imported goods over the course of the next ten years. But, was John C. Calhoun truly the "Father of Secession"?
Timothy Pickering was a senator from the state of Massachusetts and a member of the Federalist Party. In 1803, he got into an argument with President John Adams because the president planned to make peace with France. He then attempted to get the New England states to secede from the Union and form a separate Confederacy.
In 1811, Louisiana was applying for statehood, Massachusetts Congressman Josiah Quincy was bitterly opposed admitting another Southern state. He stated that it was his "deliberate opinion, that if this bill passes, the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the States that 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, amicably if they can, violently if they must." He is given credit as the first person to speak of secession on the floor of congress.
But, what have others said about the right of a state to secede from the Federal government?
Just before the Civil War began, President James Buchanan in a message to congress said, "The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force."
President Thomas Jefferson said, "If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation...to a continuance in union... I have no hesitation in saying, 'let us separate.' "
Did this man believe in secession?
When the United States went to war with Mexico, most Northerners believed the South supported the war out of greed for Mexican land. Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln stood on the floor of congress and announced, "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right — a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit”.
Ironically in 1861, he would change his opinion of the legality of secession. Why? When told by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley that the Southern states should be allowed to go in peace, Lincoln replied by asking where the Federal government would get its revenue.
Also in 1826, the United States Military Academy at West Point had a text book called Rawle's View of the Constitution. This book taught the right of a state to secede.
It's interesting to note that John C. Calhoun wasn't the first man to propose a state's right to secede, but he is the most famous and that is because South Carolina eventually did secede and a war resulted that cost the country over 650,000 lives.