Secession, State & Liberty

A Feast of Challenges to the Conventional Wisdom

JUNE 01, 1999 by GEORGE C. LEEF

Herbert Spencer argued in a famous essay that individuals have a right to ignore the state. If so, it follows that a group of individuals also has the right to ignore the state, and enter into some new political arrangement if they choose. That is, they may secede. Although secession has had a bad press in the United States since the Civil War, with the secessionist cause and slavery almost invariably linked, this book brings together 11 essays which collectively make the case that it merits serious consideration.

The essays fall into three categories—those examining American history for fresh insights on the legality and morality of secession, those taking a theoretical look at secession generally, and those applying secession theory to the contemporary world.

In the first category are Donald Livingston’s “The Secessionist Tradition in America,” Joseph Stromberg’s “Republicanism, Federalism and Secession in the South, 1790 to 1865,” Thomas DiLorenzo’s “Yankee Confederates: New England Secession Movements Prior to the War Between the States,” and James Ostrowski’s “Was the Union Army’s Invasion of the Confederate States a Lawful Act?” If you enjoy challenges to conventional wisdom, these essays are a feast.

Livingston takes great pains to attack “the absurd nationalist theory of the Constitution propounded by Story and Webster,” maintaining that the prevailing philosophy of the Founders was that the country was a voluntary union of sovereign states, each possessing as much right to depart as they had to depart—secede—from the British Empire. Stromberg, traversing much of the same ground, quotes Madison that ratification of the Constitution was “the act of the people, as forming so many independent states, not as forming one aggregate nation.” DiLorenzo makes the historically deft point that talk of secession did not originate in the South, but rather in New England in the years before and during the War of 1812. Hostility to Jefferson’s trade embargo and the war caused leaders in New England to convene in Hartford to discuss secession. The movement fizzled, of course, but DiLorenzo concludes that “there was virtually universal support—from Republicans and Federalists alike—for the right of secession.”

Arguably the most affecting in this group is Ostrowski’s essay, an extended analysis of the arguments advanced by President Lincoln for the legality of sending troops into Confederate territory. Ostrowski finds no constitutional support for any of those arguments. Instead, he marshals considerable support for the opposite proposition, that the war was conducted in violation of the Constitution, concluding that “the purposes of the Constitution do not envision the use of armed force against a state that has concluded it is no longer benefiting from the union.” Ostrowski ends his piece with his thoughts on the present-day legality of secession, holding that the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments did not change underlying legalities: the Ninth and Tenth Amendments still protect the right to secede.

In the second group of essays, Steven Yates asks, “When is Political Divorce Justified?” and answers that because the federal government has ignored its legitimate functions and has undertaken many illegitimate ones, “Americans are morally justified in taking action to restore limited government, including, as a last resort, secession.” Scott Boykin explores “The Ethics of Secession” and, among other things, refutes arguments that have been made purporting to limit the right to secede. The late Murray Rothbard’s “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State” is classic Rothbard. He writes, “One goal for libertarians should be to transform existing nation-states into national entities whose boundaries could be called just . . . that is, to decompose existing coercive nation-states into genuine nations, or nations by consent.” As Clyde Wilson’s “Secession: The Last, Best Bulwark of Our Liberties” argues, “The right of self-government rests on the right to withdraw consent from an oppressive government. That is the only really effective restriction on power, in the last analysis.”

In the third category of essays, Hans-Hermann Hoppe contends that secession is a healthy trend in “The Rationale for European Secession.” Pierre Desrochers and Eric Duhaime examine the case of Quebec. Lastly, Bruce Benson contributes “How to Secede in Business Without Really Leaving,” an essay exploring arbitration as a means of “seceding” from the government’s system of law and courts. Of particular interest here is the battle that the “anti-secession” forces (mainly lawyers who fear the loss of business if arbitration provides an attractive alternative method of dispute resolution) have waged with considerable success to undermine the advantages of arbitration.

A most intriguing book!


June 1999



George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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