Secession has been in the news lately. Well, not the mainstream news, for the most part, but local, Internet and alternative news outlets have been reporting a growing number of signatures added to secession petitions submitted to Washington (one has it at over 750,000 signatures). This began almost immediately after President Obama’s reelection, and while no one really expects this particular movement to go anywhere, people on both sides of our political divide take it somewhat seriously as a sign of how polarized and unstable our situation has become.
I’m going to tell you what I think about secession, and my hope is that readers will find it somewhat reasonable. In short, I reject the absolutely hysterical and frothing narrative that comes from some leftist quarters about the evil of secession. I don’t much appreciate the haughty dismissal and contempt that comes from some on both the left and the right, as if only a mental patient would want to secede from what America has become. Lastly, I don’t agree with the secessionists, but it has nothing to do with any sort of moral or philosophical objection to the principle of secession (I don’t think it is racist or crazy, in other words). Now to the meat and bones.
Lincoln, in his war address to Congress on July 4, 1861, made his views regarding secession clear and, I believe, is his longest treatment of the topic. It has always struck me as interesting that Lincoln thought it necessary to clearly distinguish between secession and rebellion, and took up so much time in an address to Congress to do so. Lincoln always understood that the war of ideas was just as important as the war on the battlefield, something some of our Presidents have failed to understand to their cost. A good summary by Mackubin Thomas Owens of how Lincoln’s position on secession had a long heritage among American statesmen prior to the Civil War may be read here. My own views on secession are set forth in the comments here. Lincoln on secession:
“It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They know their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and Government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any State of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.