Was Secession Treason?
America was founded on a revolution against England, yet many Americans now believe the myth that secession was treasonable. The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, a declaration of secession. Its final paragraph declares inarguably the ultimate sovereignty of each state:
[T]hat these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.
Following the Declaration of Independence, each colony established by law the legitimacy of its own sovereignty as a state. Each one drew up, voted upon, and then ratified its own state constitution, which declared and defined its sovereignty as a state. Realizing that they could not survive upon the world stage as thirteen individual sovereign nations, the states then joined together formally into a confederation of states, but only for the purposes of negotiating treaties, waging war, and regulating foreign commerce.
For those specific purposes the thirteen states adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1781, thus creating the United States of America. The Articles of Confederation spelled out clearly where the real power lay. Article II said, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” The Article also prohibited the secession of any member state (“the union shall be perpetual,” Article XIII) unless all of the states agreed to dissolve the Articles.
Six years later, the Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, supposedly to overhaul the Articles. The delegates in Philadelphia decided to scrap the Articles and to propose to the states a different charter—the United States Constitution. Its purpose was to retain the sovereignty of the states but to delegate to the United States government a few more powers than the Articles had granted it. One major difference between the two charters was that the Constitution made no mention of “perpetual union,” and it did not contain any prohibition against the secession of states from the union. The point was raised in the convention: Should there be a “perpetual union” clause in the Constitution? The delegates voted it down, and the states were left free to secede under the Constitution, which remains the U. S. government charter today.
After the election of Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist Party in New England was so upset that for more than ten years they plotted to secede. The party actually held a secession convention in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1814. Although they ultimately decided not to leave the Union, nobody really questioned the fundamental right of secession. In fact, the leader of the whole movement, Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, said that secession was the principle of the American Revolution. Even John Quincy Adams, who was a staunch unionist, said in an 1839 speech about secession that in “dissolving that which can no longer bind, we would have to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the center.” Likewise, Alexander Hamilton said, “to coerce the states is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised.” These men, and many others, understood that there was a right of secession, and that the federal government would have no right to force anybody to remain in the Union.
Some people see the Confederates as traitors to their nation because many Confederate leaders swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States when joining the United States Army. However, at that time people were citizens of individual states that were members of the United States, so that when a state seceded, the citizens of that state were no longer affiliated with the national government. Remember, the Constitution did not create an all-powerful national democracy, but rather a confederation of sovereign states. The existence of the Electoral College, the Bill of Rights, and the United States Senate clearly shows this, and although it is frequently ignored, the 10th Amendment specifically states that the rights not given to the federal government are the rights of the states and of the people. But if states do not have the right to secede, they have no rights at all. Lincoln’s war destroyed the government of our founding fathers by the “might makes right” method, a method the Republicans used to quash Confederates and loyal Democrats alike.
After the war, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was arrested and placed in prison prior to a trial. The trial was never held, because the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Salmon Portland Chase, informed President Andrew Johnson that if Davis were placed on trial for treason the United States would lose the case because nothing in the Constitution forbids secession. That is why no trial of Jefferson Davis was held, despite the fact that he wanted one.
So was secession treason? The answer is clearly No.
June 30, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.