Note: This article is the first of a series on the political concept of secession. The series will explore some historical aspects, and we certainly welcome comments on the historical record. But it will largely focus on contemporary questions of a theoretical and practical nature, striving to shed light on how the principle of secession relates to political life today.
Despite the fact that peaceful secessions have taken place continually throughout human history, mainstream media have convinced many Americans that any secession is an ignoble or even dangerous act. The most common misconception sees a necessary connection between secession and slavery, as if a single historical event in a single country has somehow forged the two concepts together for all time. But this is akin to believing that vegetarianism expresses approval of Hitler, since Nazi propaganda portrayed him as abstaining from meat. Thoughtful citizens cannot take such “arguments” seriously. What, then, are we to make of the naked principle of secession? To begin cutting through the fog and distortion, here is a brief look at five myths about secession we can safely lay to rest.
Myth #1: The Civil War Settled the Question of Secession
This is a common view, but a moment’s reflection shows that it conceals a monstrous moral principle. Wars do not and cannot decide matters of right and wrong. To insist they do is to embrace the legal principle of the Dark Ages known as trial by ordeal. These “trials” consisted of forcing the accused to pluck a stone from a pot of boiling water; if the wound healed then the accused was pronounced innocent. Thus the outcome of the ordeal would determine guilt or innocence. Such knee jerk reactions against modern-day secessionism are not evidence of progress but civilizational decline.
Myth #2: Secession is Un-American
In 1803 a number of New England leaders began contemplating secession over their dislike of the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson, who was President at the time, responded by saying, “[K]eep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.” In 1816 he wrote, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in the union…I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’” Was Thomas Jefferson un-American? The notion is absurd. Further, it cannot be denied that the Declaration of Independence itself was an act of secession from the British Empire. Far from being un-American, secession is a very part of what it means to be an American.
Myth #3: Secession Leads to War
This myth has its origins in the political doctrine of Thomas Hobbes, who taught that the political sovereign must be indivisible and absolute. If Hobbes is right, then political division is bad and secession will lead to anarchy. But is this contention supported by historical fact? There are numerous acts of secession that did not lead to war. In 1905 Norway peacefully seceded from Sweden. In 1990 Lithuania led a group of six republics in first “nullifying” Soviet laws and tax edicts and then finally in seceding. By the end of 1991 fifteen republics seceded from the Soviet Union without civil war of any kind. Most recently, Sudan ended a bloody 22-year civil war by agreeing to let the South hold an independence referendum; rather than the cause of war, secession was the cause of peace! Contrary to this myth, wars are more likely the result of attempts to prevent secession and self-determination.
Myth #4: Secession Will Lead to Anarchy
President Lincoln suggested this in his first inaugural address in 1861, where he stated that majority rule was the only form of government consistent with a free people and that “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” In doing so, Lincoln unequivocally embraced the Hobbesian account of politics mentioned above. But Lincoln was not merely mistaken in this view, he was disingenuous and hypocritical. During the Civil War several counties in Virginia wanted out of the Confederacy and back into the Union. The Lincoln regime helped them secede and create the state of West Virginia, which was promptly admitted into the Union. Lincoln would have us believe that Virginia’s act of secession would lead to anarchy but that a further part of it seceding would not. This is evidence not of sincere argument, but of political opportunism. To put it simply, Lincoln fully supported secession when it suited his majoritarian, nationalist ideology. Outside the American context, the stability of Norway and Sweden for over a hundred years provides further evidence to counter this myth.
Myth #5: Only Right-Wing Bigots Believe in Secession
Even in the American tradition this accusation is pretty far-fetched. The state with the longest-standing and deepest-felt sentiment for independence is arguably Vermont; far from being “right-wing,” many Vermonters are liberals and progressives. I am neither a liberal nor a progressive, but I certainly respect the right of Vermonters to self-determination and freedom if they decide to pursue it. In this case, the real bigots are anti-secessionists who appeal to oppressions that took place a hundred years ago in order to justify a morally and financially bankrupt American nationalism.
Clearly there is a great deal more to be said, and these brief considerations are meant to be taken as a starting point only – the very first baby steps in understanding how and why secession is an important political concept in the 21st century. In future articles, we’ll explore these questions and others in more substantive detail.