Secession as a strategy for states of the United States of America that resist imperial federal power has not been a successful maneuver for those who have attempted it. In the political context secession is the unilateral voluntary withdrawal from the federal compact. Actually, though, secession was successful in the short term for South Carolina and the other members of the Confederate States of America (CSA). It began to unravel as the numerical superiority and industrial advantages of the Union began to grind away the Confederacy. The secessionist movement was handicapped, too, because the abolitionists of the North used slavery as a rallying cry for inspiring the citizens and creating support for the war.
The secessionist argument was not only prevalent in the years leading up to the War Between the States, but had been on the burners, both front and back, since before the founding. For example, the slow process for endorsing the Constitution by the respective states is indicative that total membership or unanimity was not a given. If you recall, the first ten amendments (12 were proposed) were a product of some states’ hesitancy to enter the federation. They wanted stronger protection and a more emphatic confirmation for individual rights in the founding document. The clear evidence of the Framing Period is that the Constitution was a document that limited the federal government and provided for a contractual relationship among the various states to join together for those purposes expressly described in the Constitution. The federation was an alliance of convenience. The federal government would be given enough powers and resources to fulfill the functions that were defined for it. All other powers, duties and obligations were “reserved to the states, “or “retained by the people.”
It follows, therefore, that if all parties are legally and constitutionally executing their respective roles, a state may withdraw from the compact. Although the prospect of secession is not explicitly addressed, neither is any penalty contemplated for those states that may choose to suspend their involvement in the federation. The sections of Article I of the Constitution describe some prohibitions for states. Also, Article IV provides a more thorough view of the states’ position within the federation. There is no direct prohibition for seceding, but perhaps some would cite the portion of the Constitution in Article IV, Section 3, as an oblique denial of a state’s right to leave the federation. The clear reality is that for many decades the federal government has violated the Constitution, thus abdicating any contractual claim it may advance to prevent a state from leaving the federation.
Based on our last column (A Salvation Message) which discussed nullification as a means for states to resist unconstitutional federal power, secession is an option only if the state has diligently and consistently attempted to thwart excessive federal intervention via nullification. There are practical problems associated with this progression of response: 1) the state legislature must nullify because if they do not, then it seems rather logical that the political will to secede will not be present; 2) if the state does employ nullification against every instance of federal power abuse, there is no guarantee that the federal government will honor the individual state’s right to withdraw from the federation. We could have a flashback to 1861. The confrontation might be avoided, however, if the state refrained from occupying constitutional federal property such as military installations. One of the most important mitigating factors is that the federal government has become a self-perpetuating entity that seeks to command the states rather than serve them. The feds would, therefore, enforce their own preservation interests even if they did not have the support and acquiescence of the states that remained in the union. It has become a circular conundrum. A state secedes because the federal government exceeds its mandate, and the federal government in turn employs force to require the state to yield to its power and authority.
Although the secession remedy appears as the third alternative in this four-part series, it may be the most difficult to implement. Most states and their political leaders lack the will. If the federal government responds with all the power that it has available, the state may be incapable of any meaningful resistance. On the face of it secession is a lose-lose strategy. Achieving overwhelming support for leaving the union within any given state is probably impossible. A remnant of liberty loving patriots can resist an out-of-control federal government, but to marshal the citizens of an entire state is unlikely. Too many people will watch “American Idol” while the resistance is battling for freedom.
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