Is Secession “Legal?”


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In his final chapter, Wilentz discusses the various political ideas supporting secession. I think that we sometimes have the tendency to group all Southerners and secessionists together and not realize the political complexity of secession, so I’m glad that Wilentz addressed this in detail. However, ANBURTON pointed out the “debate between ‘the preservation of a traditional Southern heritage and states rights vs. the preservation of slavery’ as the main cause for secession,” but also asserted that they are “completely interconnected.” I agree with this, but would also like to look at the idea of secession itself.

The first group mentioned is the militant secessionists, or the fire-eaters.  Their stance was based on the idea that “secession was perfectly legal and represented nothing radical” (Wilentz 439).  They believed that when a state secedes, it is only exercising its right to act as a sovereign state, exactly as the states did when they signed the Constitution and formed the Union.  The only difference would be that the states are breaking away from the alliance with USA instead of Great Britain in order to form a different sovereign nation.  In a way, these secessionists were acting in defense of the Constitution.  They saw the Northern Republicans as the aggressors who violated the “original constitutional agreement that left slavery undisturbed” (439).

A different group of secessionists fully embraced the illegality of secession, but they did not believe that this lessened their right to do so.  “Secession was a replay of the American Revolution, a new War of Southern Independence that aimed to vindicate, not repudiate, the struggles of the founding generation” (439).  Just as the colonists did not have the legal right to rebel from England, the Southerners also did not have this right.  Nevertheless, the American colonists rebelled successfully.  According to this view of secession, the Southerners shared the aims of their revolution with the colonists: to preserve their definition of liberty.

Even though they recognize its illegality, I see a much more legitimate justification for secession in the second, more moderate viewpoint.  The fire-eaters claim their rights as sovereign states, but to me it seems like they gave up a significant part of that sovereignty when the US switched from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution with a more powerful federal government.  It would be more difficult to argue or prove their sovereignty to either the Northerners or Southern Unionists.  On the other hand, the colonies did rebel against England, so these secessionists have a similar success story at which to point.  It would be easier to convince fellow Southerners of the legitimacy of this cause.  Moral issues on slavery aside, I believe that either on the grounds of state sovereignty or right to revolution, individual states have the right to withdraw from the Union if its citizens deem it necessary, but that the idea of “a new War of Southern Independence” would be more successful at gathering public support for secession (439).