How Would You Teach Secession?

Today my Civil War class will continue to discuss the background leading up to Lincoln’s election and the first wave of secession that took place between December 1860 and February 1861. My students are pouring through a collection of documents related to the secession conventions as well as speeches by Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis. For Monday they will read a selection from Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

Those of you familiar with the documents in question and Dew’s study in particular know that collectively they place slavery – or the fear that the new Republican administration constituted a direct threat to the expansion of slavery and even its future in the South – at the center of the narrative.

This post is for those of you who find this narrative to be problematic for one reason or another. Perhaps you want to hear about states’ rights, tariffs, etc. If this resonates with you my question is if you had to choose one or two documents that date from the period referenced above to introduce to students what would they be? Please provide a link if the document is available online and feel free to sketch out your own interpretation of the document.

83 responses... add one

Teach it factually, but dispassionately. It happened. Here’s why, based on the secessionists’ own words. Don’t excuse it or justify it, but do place it in the context of the society that existed then, as opposed to the one that exists now.

Exactly. Which is why I am hoping that I get some responses from folks that would use documents that reflect a position other than one that places slavery at the center. Again, what are those documents and what do they tell us about the process of secession?

It would be best to approach secession from a strictly political and constitutional perspective. Present and review the constitution, paying careful attention to Article I, section 10. Ask the students to identify, by article, section, and clause, where the constitution prohibits secession. Also remind the students that the United States was formed by a series of secessions; the American Colonies seceded from the British Empire, the States seceded from the “Perpetual” Articles of Confederation, Mexico seceded from Spain, and then Texas seceded from Mexico. Open a discussion which also considers secession in a broader, more global context. Remind the students that in order to obtain rights to the Panama canal, the United States sponsored the Panamanian secession from Columbia, and when the various republics within the U.S.S.R. seceded from that political union, it was universally celebrate as a triumph of political liberty. It is reasonable to conclude that when secession is viewed as a pragmatic solution to political differences, it will be viewed as the harmless and natural phenomena that it is.

Thanks for the comment, Terry.

Also remind the students that the United States was formed by a series of secessions; the American Colonies seceded from the British Empire

Americans engaged in Revolution and not secession from England. There is a difference.

Your welcome Kevin. Still, I am not sure why you think that secession and revolution are mutually exclusive concepts. They are not, and no less an authority than Pulitzer-prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, among a great many others, routinely refer to the American Colonies as having seceded from Great Britain. I also have a suggestion. Today in class, tell all your students that they are never, under any circumstances or for any reason, permitted to leave the Gann Academy. Tell them that they enrolled in the school voluntarily, and they can now never leave. Ever. And tell them if they do try to leave, great violence will used against them to force them to stay. See how they respond.

I am loathe to get into a debate with someone who has a position that know about of logic and facts will dislodge them from. And no doubt what I am about to say here will be met with resistance, and I will refuse to get dragged into a silly and unwinnable debate. BUT, I can not let this assertion go without a response. And it is a simple one. The American Colonies revolted against a government in which they were not represented. The south was represented in the United States government, and (some insisted) actually had controlled it for most of its existence. When they seemingly lost that control, they decided to leave it. But they were still fairly represented in it. So yes, Terry, there is a MAJOR difference between what happened in 1776 and 1860-61.

And obviously I meant “who has a position that NO amount of . . .” That is a pretty embarrassing typo!

I hope you turn up some good documents, Kevin. Maybe you’ll find the ever-elusive soldier letter that says “tell my folks I died for lower tariffs!”

If you find that letter, can you please put it next to the letter that says “please tell my folks I died to preserve slavery!”

Terry, pick up a copy of Chandra Manning’s book and you’ll find a treasure trove of them.

Absolutely, and if you are still not convinced you can read the first chapter of my book on the Crater, which contains the clearest statements on the need to preserve slavery from Confederate soldiers that you will find.

Gd, pick up a copy of Mcpherson’s “For Cause and Comrades” and you too, will find a treasure trove.

No Glenn, no. The British American Colonies most certainly were represented in Parliament, and why you thin otherwise is puzzling. Not that it matters though. Represented or not, those citizens, and their political bodies decided they wished to pursue a different course. Why you think it was OK to perpetrate violence against those people for simply wanting their independence is also puzzling.


Well, I guess you could make the argument that the colonists enjoyed “virtual” representation, but direct representation would have been news to them. They did indeed select a different course, but it was not an act of secession, it was an act of revolution.

“In the summer of 1776, the most dramatic months in the story of America’s founding, the 13 colonies agreed to secede from the British Empire.” -Joseph Ellis (Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian)

Where does he say this in the book? If you Google the quote it takes you to advertisements for talks by Ellis. It would be unfortunate if he did say it in the book.

Wrong Terry, wrong. And the fact that you don’t know that is puzzling and pretty revealing. You might want to pick up a copy of a US history or Western Civilization textbook.

I’m still puzzled/flabbergasted by the idea that the secession of South Carolina and its sister slaveholding states in 1860-61 from the United States can in any way be seen as parallel or equivalent to independence of the Baltic States from the USSR in 1989-91.

And maybe it is a coincidence, but I am seeing a new “strain of thought” among new-Confederates in which the reasons for secession are entirely ignored; indeed, the very idea that one should look at the causes of secession is rejected in favor of a secession-is-totally-always-great argument.

Questions of why the Southern states seceded are thus rendered irrelevant since, according to this argument, it doesn’t matter why any state would secede, those engaged in secession are entirely justified and that’s that and you can’t question it.

It would be best to approach secession from a strictly political and constitutional perspective.
I completely disagree, Terry. The most interesting historical question is why some states wanted to secede, not what the legalities were or are. It would also be illuminating to discuss why some states where slavery was legal didn’t join the rebellion – in particular, the comparison of Kentucky to Tennessee would be fascinating to discuss.

Not at all. The only question to consider is whether the free citizens of the various United States had the legal right to leave a political union they voluntarily joined. That’s all that matters.

Terry, I understand where you are coming from. But are you seriously maintaining that the REASON for secession is completely uninteresting as a matter of history? Whether you think the Federal Government was right to supress the rebellion or not, I would think that anybody interested in 19th century US history would want to know WHY secession was attempted.

I suppose some may have an interest in the why or why not. Nevertheless the question of right is ultimately the most important.

But not in a history course. I was asking for a document that best reflected why secession happened when it did. The Constitution comes up short for reasons already mentioned. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

We are not going to turn this post into another debate about whether secession is constitutional. Thanks again for taking the time to comment, but let’s please stay on task.

I agree with James. A history class is for determining how something happened. Whether secession was legal or illegal has no bearing on the fact that it happened, and it has no bearing on the reasons for it happening. A political and constitutional perspective would be applicable to a college political science class or constitutional law class.

Sure, but how they interpreted the constitution is surely relevant. The problem with focusing on the Constitution (Article 1, Section 10) is that it doesn’t get us to the question of why southerners sought a way out of the Union. It also overlooks the fact that southerners were quite content with utilizing the power of the federal government when they could as in the case of the Fugitive Slave Act. As it stands analysis of the Constitution would not get us very far at all in uncovering why secession occurred when and where it did.

How they interpreted the Constitution is one thing, but whether or not their interpretation was correct is quite another. I can understand including how they interpreted it as a part of the class, but definitely not the primary focus. Whether or not they were correct was, it seems to me, irrelevant from the standpoint of the historian. A focus on the Constitution would also ignore those secessionists who didn’t believe it was legal but supported it anyway.

How they interpreted the Constitution is one thing, but whether or not their interpretation was correct is quite another.

No disagreement, Al. My students have been particularly interested in how southerners interpreted the Constitution as a justification of secession, though I would much rather spend our energies elsewhere for the reasons you mentioned. In addition, it doesn’t get at the fear that was expressed by many, which is why we are taking a look at the Dew article.

Over in Tennessee they’re trying to pass a law regarding how history and the study of the Constitution is taught in schools. They want the strict Constitutionalist version taught. Now, if you go by that version, secession is not allowed because it is not in the Constitution. But, then again the argument that because it is not in the Constitution, therefore it is legal comes right back up. There is no answer if one only goes by the Constitution. The Constitution really doesn’t answer a lot of questions and we have to look at other things to get an idea of what the Founders were doing. What we find is a big grab bag of conflicting information and some pretty clear messages from some of them that it will always be up to the people of whatever time period to make the government work for them.
Also, the strict construction view is really codespeak for the conservative view of the Constitution and whatever they want it to be at any given point in time. Oddly enough, over the years all kinds of politicians have interpreted the Constitution to fit their political agendas and that cuts across the entire political spectrum. Secession is just one aspect of that. The issue of secession’s legality has been solved. It just wasn’t solved the way some people wanted it to be. Texas v. White sums it up pretty clearly.

I’m still waiting for these documents myself. I’ve asked for them quite often. All I ever got in reply is a lot of talk, but no documents. I think it is odd how quite a few books can be written detailing how the conflict began over slavery and why secession took place over slavery, and those books contain thousands of pages of documents, yet those that want to advocate state’s rights can’t supply any facts to support their claims. Those that claim the tariff have nothing to show at all.

One of the puzzling things to me about secession and the beginning of the war is how public opinion changed so rapidly: secession was very controversial in many states, but once the war started white support quickly became very strong. The case I know best is Virginia, which I learned about from Ed Ayers’ great book The Valley of the Shadow. The Marble Man himself is an examplar of this: Robert E. Lee opposed secession, but needless to say played a big role in sustaining the rebellion once Virginia voted to secede. One side effect of this, I think, is that Lincoln and others overestimated Unionist sentiment in the South once the war began – they didn’t realize that many bitter opponents of secession had become equally fervent supporters of the Confederacy.

I guess if I were teaching secession this change in white southern public opinion is something I’d want to discuss and analyze.


What is the target of the class? Would this be a general survey course?

Nathan Towne

for my freshmen college survey class I have them read South Carolina’s declaration of December 1860, plus the Cornerstone Speech. I also break them into smaller groups and have them report back on the declarations issued by the other states that were part of the initial group.

Conclusions the students should draw: Separation, confederation, and expansion were the goals. African slavery and white supremacy were the reasons. Upside-down states’ rights were the arguments. Lincoln’s election was the trigger.
Show the Civil War Trust graph, this graph at the Atlantic (reference there) and perhaps this graph by me (using data reproduced here, original reference there) as well as political cartoons from the era and records of the secession conventions, for example Georgia.
Read Lincoln’s house divided speech (“Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States.”), excerpts of the Dew book, the SC Declaration of Secession, the 1776 Declaration of Independence (for reference and comparison), and both Lincoln’s First Inaugural (“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”) and July 4th message to Congress (“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. With rebellion thus sugar coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years….”).

Kevin, what is the difference between secession and revolution? I’m not debating … I literally don’t know.

Leaving the British Empire seems like “secession” as defines it (“to withdraw formally from an alliance, federation, or association, as from a political union, a religious organization, etc.”). Revolution is defined as “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed,” which seems incorrect since the Colonists didn’t actually overthrow or replace the British government.

I always thought that the Revolution and Civil War were quite similar, as slavery was a power motivating factor in the revolution and Britain offered freedom to slaves who fought for the crown. Neither war actually changed the lot of the average citizen on either side. This is just my knee-jerk assumption, I don’t have scholarly sources.

I use the same secession declaration documents in my community college US survey course as well, but I’m wondering if newspaper articles wouldn’t be useful as well as one tended to get a rather wide range of discussions even within the slaveholding states. For example, although South Carolina didn’t mention the tariff as one of the justifications for secession, the Rhett’s _Charleston Mercury_ did spent quite a bit of ink during the secessionist winter discussing the Merrill tariff and so forth. But then, the _Mercury_ also nicely declared, “Slavery is the immediate cause of the existence of the Confederacy” (March 6, 1861).

I’m going add another document this semester, which is an argument by the Memphis Daily Appeal on why non-slaveholders should (must) leap to the defense of slavery (Feb. 19, 1861). The article, I hope, will illuminate for students some of the ways in which slavery was understood and discussed and how the institution shaped the Southern response to Lincoln’s election, secession, and, ultimately, war.

The problem with the Morrill Tariff is that it could not get out of the committee that the southern senators had placed it in until six states had seceded from the Union. Those twelve senators were no longer in the Senate and that gave supporters of the proposed tariff a majority. They pulled the tariff out of the committee and voted on it with the final passage on February 20th, 1861 with the vote being 25 to 14. The two senators from Texas did not vote as they were awaiting the results of a state referendum on secession. Eight Democrats and one republican abstained while four Senators were paired off as they could not be present. Pairing off meant senators found someone who would vote the opposite way on a particular issue and both would be absent during the final vote. Often several senators were away at any given time and this was a common practice in that era when travelling was still a long time consuming process.

These votes are important to note because the next Senate in the 37th Congress would still have been controlled by Democrats albeit an exceedingly small majority if eleven southern states had not succeeded. The South was not the only area of the country that opposed the tariff. The Pacific coast states opposed it as did some Senators from the North who were Democrats. While it is obviously speculation, there seems to be no possible way the Morrill Tariff would have passed that Congress either. However, the secession of eleven states created enough of a difference for the bill to pass. That same vacuum also enabled other pre-war Republican sponsored bills to be enacted in the following year such as the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant College Act, and the Pacific Railway Act. The Congressional records show that none of these acts were able to pass Congress until after those states seceded. The post war claim that the tariff was responsible for the Civil War is with absolutely no merit whatsoever.

So while Rhett’s paper may have brought up the tariff, the question of when he brought it up needs to be considered. Prior to February 1, 1861 it was stuck in committee led by a Virginian. After that and only after that could it get pulled from the committee and passed. Basically the secession itself is responsible for its passage. The facts remain…without secession the Morrill Tariff would not have become law. Also, note the Lower South left before it became law. The tariff itself is a joke because the North paid for more than the South ever did. The tariff protected the South just as much as it did the North. The real issue with it is that the men of means (slave owners) didn’t want to pay tariffs on anything because that would have freed up more money to buy more land and slaves.

Goodness, please don’t think I was suggesting that the tariff was responsible or a motivation for secession! What I meant was that the newspapers contain all sorts of discussions that didn’t make it into the “official” documents. (e.g. the Memphis article is a no-holds-barred the Confederacy-is-ALL-about-slavery argument which suggests that the defense of slavery was indeed on the minds of ordinary men of the South).

Rhett’s writings have a kind of “Ah ha! I told you so” feel to them as if the South had dodged a bullet in getting out of the Union before the tariff passed, which further highlights the often-bizarre arguments made by the secessionists (and completely ignores the reality that had the slaveholding states remained in the Union, the tariff would not have been enacted.

I wasn’t aiming that at you, Tom. I understood what you were saying. Rhett used his paper to advocate his views quite well. It would be like FOX being ran by Glenn Beck and turned so far to the right that the Tea Party would be saying it was to the right of their views. Rhett didn’t mince words and neither did the DeBow’s Review and many other papers in the South. They said it in print multiple times. It’s all there in black and white.

Interestingly, Todd Andrlik put out a book on Revolutionary War newspapers which really drove home what the people of the Revolution were saying in print in Reporting the Revolutionary War. Now while there was a huge difference between the newspapers of the two periods, the same principle remains. They are still primary sources telling us what was going on in that time period even if the editorials were polemic. Todd’s book was interesting because there were not that many papers and many didn’t survive. Yet, it would be a great book to have in comparing the editorials and front page news stories from the Civil War papers and let them tell the story in black and white. Historians have sort of done this in using them for quotes, but to print the front page of a newspaper for secession winter kind of shows what was going on. Do that with the leading papers in each section and see how they stack up.


Your article reminds me of the time I took my two grandchildren to the Gettysburg battlefield. Paige and Corey were about 10 years old when I drove them around the battlefield. I remember when we stopped at the Devil’s Den and I was describing the fighting that took place there, careful to include the names of the various units, the tactics used, and the number of dead that resulted from that action. I was quite proud of my knowledge of the event and how careful I was to ensure that what I said was accurate.

I was impressed with the silence that followed my little presentation as my two grandchildren gazed about the sight for many minutes. Then Paige turned to me and asked, “But WHY did all those men come here to fight and kill one another Pappaw?”

I was stunned by her simple and direct question. Teach the “WHY” Kevin. Use every resource at your disposal, every source, every scrap of documentation you can lay your hands on. Without knowing the WHY of things, WHY bother?


I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I harp on context, because the WHY is what matters. With this in mind and as people are talking about all the things that led up to secession, one thing teachers could do to teach secession is to dive deep into the SC Declaration. Have groups look at the most specific complaints and write and present what exactly is going on:
(1) In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals.
(2) the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder.
(3) they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.
(4) those [slaves] who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
(5) The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress
(6) they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery
(7) He [Lincoln] is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
(8) This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

Neil, I go out of my way to explain to my students that the WHY factor is the most important thing they can know about history. What took place is important, but why it took place is the most important thing about history. They’re worried about memorizing a bunch of dates and names. I tell them to focus on why something took place and the rest will fall into place. I also tell them that I love essay questions and almost every one of them begins with the word “Why”.

I would suggest the Lee example. Could not raise his sword against his native virginia. One point brought up in the MOOC , history of the world since 1300, is the formation of the nation state. First comes the state then the nation. With the nation comes the sense of nationalism. Seems to me the civil war was the final transistion of the United States to a nation state. At the time people, especially in the south, had nationalistic felling at the state level, common bond by slave societies..

Slavery was the common denominator is why and when states attempted secession.

Order of Secession and percentages of population that were slaves, based on _Preliminary Report on The 1860 Census_:

Date of State Percent Slaves Percent Free Colored
Secession (>1% unless Indicated)

12/20/1860 SC 57%
1/9/1861 MS 55%
1/10 FL 44%
1/11 AL 45%
1/19 GA 44%
1/26 LA 47% 3%
2/1 TX 30%

After Fort Sumter attack:

4/17 VA 31% 4%
5/6 AK 26%
TN 25% 1%
5/20 NC 33% 3%

Non-secessionists slave states with CSA “Government in Exile”:

MO 10%
KY 20% 1%

Non-secessionists slave states with no CSA “Government in exile”:

MD 13% 12%
DE 2% 18%
DC 4% 15%

African-American Populations of Free States:

NY 1%
MA 1%
OH 2%
PA 2%
RI 2%
NJ 4%

All other Free States had less than 1 percent African-American population

Your students might be interested in exactly what the Confederate Constitutional convention (which was identical to the Provisional Congress) did about legalizing secession of any of *their* states. Secession evidently was not something that the Confederates wanted to clarify in their efforts to improve the US Constitution.

Given that the Confederate Constitution was so careful to lay out and explain the rights of slave holders, which the slave states had argued was implicit in the US Constitution, it is odd that the lawmakers did not also implicitly provide for secession.

Old Hickory laughed at the idea of secession.

“To shew the absurdity — Congress have the right to admit new states. When territories they are subject to the laws of the Union. The day after admission, they have the right to secede and dissolve it.”

Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren, 25 December 1832

Bassett, Life of Jackson, II: 579-580

George Washington on the states versus the union:

“I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several states. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me to be the very climax of popular absurdity and madness.”

George Washington to John Jay, 15 August 1786

“What stronger evidence can be given of the want of energy in our government
than these disorders? If there exists not a power to check them, what security has a man of life, liberty, or property? To you, I am sure I need not add aught on this subject, the consequences of a lax or inefficient government, are too obvious to be dwelt on. Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole; whereas a liberal, and energetic Constitution, well guarded and closely watched, to prevent encroachments, might restore us to that degree of respectability and consequence, to which we had a fair claim, and the brightest prospect of attaining…”

George Washington to James Madison November 5, 1786

“In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds [at the constitutional convention] led each State in the convention to be less rigid on points of
inferior magnitude…the constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”

George Washington to the Continental Congress September 17, 1787

I have read (although don’t pin me down because I can’t quote it) one of his biographers remarking that in 1775 George Washington considered himself to be a Virginian. But by the late 1780s he routinely called himself “an American” rather than a Virginian. Like his fellow Virginian, Winfield Scott, George Washington would have opposed secession.

Guess we’re just going to ignore the fact that when the moment came in Washington’s own life, and he had to choose between loyalty to his country and leading a lawless, traitorous, violent rebellion, he chose treason. I repeat, Washington the slave-owner, chose treason and secession.

When they bring up “States Rights,” have them check Abelman v Booth and Lemmon v People. There is a good analysis of the Lemmon case at

Among the improvements in the CS Constitution was a “Lemmon” clause to protect their citizens in transit, making it impossible for there to be a free Confederate state: “Article IV Sec. 2. (1) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.”

There were few slave state residents who opposed the Supreme Court when it rejected the right of Wisconsin to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act.

So Old Hickory said this did he:

““To shew the absurdity — Congress have the right to admit new states. When territories they are subject to the laws of the Union. The day after admission, they have the right to secede and dissolve it.”

Let’s see how his logic works when put to the test:

“To shew the absurdity — Congress have the right to admit new states. When territories they are subject to the laws of the Union. When the sun burns out, some five billion years hence, and not a day before, the States may then lawfully leave the Union…”

Talk about absurd.

Belmont, That is about right: once in, no out. As always, A. Lincoln explained it best:

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever—it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself. . . .

Again, if the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade, by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it? . . . .

Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible then to make that intercourse more advantageous, or more [45] satisfactory, after separation than before?

Belmont, one other point: The slave states attempted unilateral secession. Bilateral is another issue: of course the states could call another Constitutional Convention, as they had done in 1787, and dissolve the United States. But the slaves states were not interested in that option.

Bob, exactly where does the constitution say “once in, no out” (and are you sure you’re not confusing the constitution with the code of La Cosa Nostra)? As for Lincoln’s silly little speech, notice how he does not reference any article, section, or clause in the constitution to support his dopey opinion.

Here is a letter from James Madison to Nicholas Trist dated Dec. 23, 1832. Try to recall that James Madison is called the Father of the Constitution and that he wrote the Virginia Resolution. He also may have known Thomas Jefferson better than any other man with the possible exception of John Adams.


Montpellier, Decr 23, 1832.

Dr. Sir I have received yours of the 19th, inclosing some of the South Carolina papers. There are in one of them some interesting views of the doctrine of secession; one that had occurred to me, and which for the first time I have seen in print; namely that if one State can at will withdraw from the others, the others can at will withdraw from her, and turn her, nolentem, volentem, out of the union. Until of late, there is not a State that would have abhorred such a doctrine more than South Carolina, or more dreaded an application of it to herself. The same may be said of the doctrine of nullification, which she now preaches as the only faith by which the Union can be saved.

I partake of the wonder that the men you name should view secession in the light mentioned. The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater fight to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions of –98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it, till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power created. In the Virginia Resolutions and Report the plural number, States, is in every instance used where reference is made to the authority which presided over the Government. As I am now known to have drawn those documents, I may say as I do with a distinct recollection, that the distinction was intentional. It was in fact required by the course of reasoning employed on the occasion. The Kentucky resolutions being less guarded have been more easily perverted. The pretext for the liberty taken with those of Virginia is the word respective, prefixed to the “rights” &c to be secured within the States. Could the abuse of the expression have been foreseen or suspected, the form of it would doubtless have been varied. But what can be more consistent with common sense, than that all having the same rights &c, should unite in contending for the security of them to each.

It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol. 2,1 with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.

I know nothing of what is passing at Richmond, more than what is seen in the newspapers. You were right in your foresight of the effect of the passages in the late Proclamation. They have proved a leaven for much fermentation there, and created an alarm against the danger of consolidation, balancing that of disunion. I wish with you the Legislature may not seriously injure itself by assuming the high character of mediator. They will certainly do so if they forget that their real influence will be in the inverse ratio of a boastful interposition of it.

If you can fix, and will name the day of your arrival at Orange Court House, we will have a horse there for you; and if you have more baggage than can be otherwise brought than on wheels, we will send such a vehicle for it. Such is the state of the roads produced by the wagons hurrying flour to market, that it may be impossible to send our carriage which would answer both purposes.

Madison said that nullification and secession were unconstitutional. The people who wrote the Constitution were pretty clear on secession not being legal. They had the ratification debates at the conventions and it was brought up by Patrick Henry. He said that once Virginia joined the union there was no going back. While the Constitution does not say it in black and white words that it was not possible, we also have to realize that it does not say it was impossible. So at that point we go to the ratification conventions and the Federalist for greater clarity. That clarity resolves the issue.

Is this the same James Madison who led the illegal secession from the Articles of Confederation and “Perpetual’ Union? As for the Federalist, it offers better arguments supporting the right of secession than the DoI.

Only if you read it in a twisted way. And of course Madison did not lead an illegal secession from the AoC. That’s just more garbage from people who are trying to obscure reality.

The consolidation of states into a permanent union under the Constitution was at the core of the Anti-Federalists’ arguments. One of the fundamental reasons for their opposition to it was that it, in the words of “Cato,” was that the Constitution created “a new political fabric, essentially and fundamentally distinct and different from it [Articles of Confederation], in which the different states do not retain separately their sovereignty and independency, united by a confederated league–but one entire sovereignty–a consolidation of them into one government.” (10/27/1787) Indeed, Cato warned his fellow Northerners against this “consolidation of the states into one general government,” because they’d be stuck in the same country with people from the South whose society leads “to luxury, dissipation, and a passion for aristocratic distinction; where slavery is encouraged, and liberty of course less respected and protected.” (10/25/1787)

So, yes the union was/is perpetual and permanent. But there were ways to change that: 1) And amendment under the Constitution, 2) a Constitutional Convention, or 3) revolution.

Perpetual and Permanent. Got it. Now just show me that language in the constitution, and we can all go home.

“If the act of secession cannot be justified the Southern people will be stigmatized as a brave and rash people deluded by bad men who attempted in an illegal and wicked manner to overthrow the Union.” Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, 1815-1903, “Legal Justification of the South in Secession,” _Confederate Military History_, vol. 1. Curry was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives and a volunteer colonel on the staffs of Joseph Johnston and Joseph Wheeler.

I think I get it now:

American Colonies secede from Great Britain: Good secession
American Sates secede from the Articles of Confederation: Good secession
Mexico secedes from Spain: Good secession (we might get Texas)
Texas secedes from Mexico: Good secession (we actually get Texas)
Southern States secede from U.S: Bad, Bad secession (cause secession is bad)
Panama secedes from Colombia: Good secession (we get the Panama Canal)
Soviet Republics secede from U.S.S.R.: Good secession (vindicates the idea of freedom and political liberty)

Looking at the above, “Old Hickory” would get some very deep belly laughs.

A revolution is not provided for the Constitution, or by any constitution, really. The revolutionaries of 1776 were aware they were breaking their oaths of loyalty to the King of England, thus Franklin quip “we must hang together, or most assuredly hang separately.” The Declaration of Independence explains the “context” of why such an extreme step was necessary: it is mostly a list of tyrannical actions by the crown that justifies the necessity of revolution.

It certainly wasn’t a bald assertion that “hey, we’re outta here. And that’s cool.”

The attempt to rule the actual motive force for secession; the expansion and preservation of slavery, and by the way, the political and economic clout of the slave holding elite, out of bounds or unimportant, is a sign of how untenable the actual cause has become.

The secessionists of 1860 certainly looked like they were preparing for a revolution, not conducting some sort academic exercise (“we’re seceding because we can secede.”). As for the ‘constitutionality’ of their actions, if only there existed in 1860 some sort of national body, consisting of representatives from the entire country, that could debate the topic. Or perhaps some kind of ‘super court’ of legal eagles tasked specifically with determining if actions were constitutional or not.

Good point. That way the Southern States could have formally requested permission to leave the union, just like the colonies requested permission to leave the British Empire. Oh no wait…

Then just tell everyone, where the constitution prohibits. If you cannot, and you most assuredly cannot, then the answer is yes and yes

But where the Constitution does not allow, you cannot do. Back to square one and reading things in context instead of the narrow minded and erroneous version you prefer.

Art. VI: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. (Note: it does not state: “…excepting Ordinances of Secession.”)

I tell you to your satisfaction — academic; Lincoln told Congress to its satisfaction — reality.

The easy answer is to point out that the Constitution does not authorize secession. Common on chat groups is the claim that not only was secession legal, but that this fact was so obvious that no one really disputed it in 1860-61 nor later. And those who opposed secession were close to being criminal in their opposition.

Those making the argument claiming the legality of secession in 1860-61 ignore the fact that any arguments in favor of secession were and are instantly countered with equally valid and reasoned arguments against the proposition. While the pro-secessionists make good points, they seem to miss the fact that the pro-unionists also make good points. Secession was not obviously legal in 1860-61 – indeed, as it turned out there were a lot more folk who believed that secession was illegal than there were those who believed it to be legal. This is not to deny that secession had – and has –its arguments. Rather it is to point out that the Unionists also had their good points.

And equally important to remember that it was the pro-secessionists who started the war:

“In order to obtain this military advantage of dubious worth, the Confederacy voluntarily accepted the role of aggressor, preparing to open fire, if necessary, on the American flag, on a fortress charged with deep symbolic meaning, and on a soldier who had become a national hero. It would have been difficult to devise a strategy better calculated to arouse and unite the divided, irresolute North. The primary significance of the southern attack on Fort Sumter is not that it started the Civil War, but rather that it started the war in such a manner as to give the cause of the Union an eruptive force which it might not otherwise have been slow to acquire.”

David M. Potter with Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, p. 582.

This is a great story. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. I am going to photocopy it for my students for our last class on Monday on secession.

Mr. Levin:

I accidentally stumbled across your website while surfing the Net and from what I’ve read so far am pleased with what’s here. I hope to begin teaching next year and for now am working on my MA in American History. While I have a lot of time before I have to write my thesis since I can only go part-time at the moment, I have been thinking about it recently. I’m considering a topic of slavery as THE cause of the Civil War. Having grown up mostly in the South (Virginia & Texas), I am very much aware of the Lost Cause mentality that still survives. That is, slavery either wasn’t really the cause or was only one of many with “states rights” being of primary importance. Not knowing any better when I was younger I accepted it without much question. Yet facts are stubborn things and I do enjoy reading, especially when it comes to history, and from all that I’ve read as a grown-up leads me to reject such thinking. I’ve begun assembling some materials for the thesis I’m thinking about writing, such as the Apostles of Disunion I see mentioned here, and would like to ask if you could recommend any others. Thanks.

Join the Conversation