Secession in the United States

In the context of the United States, secession primarily refers to the withdrawal of one or more States from the Union that constitutes the United States; but may loosely refer to leaving a State or territory to form a separate territory or new State, or to the severing of an area from a city or county within a State.

Threats and aspirations to secede from the United States, or arguments justifying secession, have been a feature of the country's politics almost since its birth. Some have argued for secession as a constitutional right and others as from a natural right of revolution. In Texas v. White, the United States Supreme Court ruled unilateral secession unconstitutional, while commenting that revolution or consent of the States could lead to a successful secession.

The most serious attempt at secession was advanced in the years 1860 and 1861 as eleven southern States each declared secession from the United States, and joined together to form the Confederate States of America. This movement collapsed in 1865 with the defeat of Confederate forces by Union armies in the American Civil War.[1]

The American Revolution

The Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.[2]

Historian Pauline Maier argues that this narrative asserted "... the right of revolution, which was, after all, the right Americans were exercising in 1776"; and notes that Thomas Jefferson's language incorporated ideas explained at length by a long list of seventeenth-century writers including John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke and other English and Scottish commentators, all of whom had contributed to the development of the Whig tradition in eighteenth-century Britain.[2]

The right of revolution expressed in the Declaration was immediately followed with the observation that long-practised injustice is tolerated until sustained assaults on the rights of the entire people have accumulated enough force to oppress them;[3] then they may defend themselves.[4][5] This reasoning was not original to the Declaration, but can be found in many prior political writings: Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690); the Fairfax Resolves of 1774; Jefferson's own Summary View of the Rights of British America; the first Constitution of Virginia, which was enacted five days prior to the Declaration.[6] and Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776):

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; ... mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms ("of Government", editor's addition) to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing ... a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.[7]

Gordon S. Wood quotes John Adams: "Only repeated, multiplied oppressions placing it beyond all doubt that their rulers had formed settled plans to deprive them of their liberties, could warrant the concerted resistance of the people against their government".[8]