Monday, April 25, 2011

Who was the "Father of Secession"?

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

       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. 

Josiah Quincy

       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?

James Buchanan

       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." 

Thomas Jefferson

       President Thomas Jefferson said, "If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers 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.


  1. Great post Tom! Thank you for speaking the truth! As I remember, several New England states threatened secession because they refused to participate in the War of 1812 as well. They said it would threaten their economy.

  2. And as always money is at the bottom of the conflict!

  3. Your understanding of Lincoln's comments is incorrect.

    {1} It's vital to understand the context of Lincoln's comments. They were made during an 1848 speech in the House of Representatives on the Mexican War, where Lincoln was speaking about a disputed boundary between Mexico and Texas. The speech was not in any way a discussion of the legal, political, or constitutional relationship between the US federal government and the states; that is, it was not a reference to the legality of secession.

    {2} It's essential to understand that Lincoln is explicitly talking about the "right of revolution." The right of revolution has nothing to do with the issue of the legality of secession. Indeed, THE AMERICAN COLONIES INVOKED THE RIGHT OF REVOLUTION, AND THEY WEREN'T EVEN STATES YET!!! Even non-citizens with no official standing in their polities have the right of revolution. So we need to avoid mixing or confusing apples (right of revolution) with oranges (legality of secession).

    In three or four words, the right of revolution refers to right of any peoples to throw off the yoke of despotism. That right does not confer the status of sovereignty to those who invoke it.

    Meanwhile the United States has every right to protect itself against those engaging in armed rebellion against it.

    {3} So, believing in the right of revolution IS NOT the same as
    • believing that the states have a legal right to secede;
    • believing that the cause of a particular rebellion is just; or
    • believing that the president should do nothing to prevent the dissolution of the Union by insurrection. In fact, the Constitution specifically give the US government the power to "suppress Insurrections."

  4. It's also useful to note that the first president to note that secession was unconstitutional was a Southerner and a Democrat - President Andrew Jackson - in 1832.

    In the early 1800's, the US was embroiled in what is called the Nullification Crisis. The state of South Carolina, angry at the level of tariffs, declared that it had the right to "nullify" laws that it did not believe were in its interests. Along with the assertion of the right to nullify the law, SC also said it might leave the Union, the better to protects its rights and sovereignty. (South Carolina's November 24, 1832 Nullification Ordinance, in the next to last paragraph states that if necessay, SC would "henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do.")

    However, the Tennessean president saw things a different way. On December 10, 1832, he issued a proclamation which said that South Carolina lacked the constitutional right to nullify laws. And he offers a stern rebuke to the idea of secession.

    These are excerpts from Jackson's 1832 proclamation:

    "The States severally have not retained their entire sovereignty. It has been shown that in becoming parts of a nation, not members of a league, they surrendered many of their essential parts of sovereignty. The right to make treaties, declare war, levy taxes, exercise exclusive judicial and legislative powers, were all functions of sovereign power. The States, then, for all these important purposes, were no longer sovereign. The allegiance of their citizens was transferred in the first instance to the government of the United States; they became American citizens, and owed obedience to the Constitution of the United States, and to laws made in conformity with the powers vested in Congress. This last position has not been, and cannot be, denied… it has been shown that in this sense the States are not sovereign, and that even if they were, and the national Constitution had been formed by compact, there would be no right in any one State to exonerate itself from the obligation.

    "So obvious are the reasons which forbid this secession, that it is necessary only to allude to them. The Union was formed for the benefit of all. It was produced by mutual sacrifice of interest and opinions. Can those sacrifices be recalled? Can the States, who magnanimously surrendered their title to the territories of the West, recall the grant? Will the inhabitants of the inland States agree to pay the duties that may be imposed without their assent by those on the Atlantic or the Gulf, for their own benefit? Shall there be a free port in one State, and enormous duties in another? No one believes that any right exists in a single State to involve all the others in these and countless other evils, contrary to engagements solemnly made. Everyone must see that the other States, in self-defense, must oppose it at all hazards...

    "But the dictates of a high duty oblige me solemnly to announce that you cannot succeed. The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject-my duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution, deceived you-they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled.

    "Their object is disunion, but be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?"

  5. Actually, in 1848 Lincoln was speaking of New England's right to leave the Union because they were threatening secession in protest to the war with Mexico. Andrew Jackson was against secession. Also James Buchanan, a northern born president refused to try and prevent the Southern states from seceding before Lincoln took office saying he had no constitutional right. We can argue until judgement day and never agree. If you truly believe any war is about anything other than money, you are gravely mistaken friend. This entire country today is based on the almighty dollar. Just look around.