Secession: An American Tradition

In light of the secession fever currently sweeping rural America, we thought it an appropriate time to look back on the long history of secession movements in these “United” States. In this article, we examine the numerous secession threats lodged by both of the dominant political parties of the Early Republic leading up to the Civil War.

States’ Rights and the Virginian Defiance

Secession in the United States has always been bound up in the question of states’ rights. Essentially, this is a question of the balance of power between individual states and the federal government — hardly uncontroversial in a country formed out of thirteen separately founded colonies which had overthrown British rule on the grounds of the corrupting power of unlimited government.

The conflict between state and federal power erupted again and again leading up to the Civil War, a conflict Confederates fundamentally viewed as stemming from the right to secede from the Union. Thus, although “The War of Northern Aggression” was the most famous and important example of states’ rights-motivated secession, it was far from the only one.

In fact, debate over states’ rights literally divided the country into two political parties in the immediate post-Revolutionary period. On the one hand, Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams wanted a strong central government, supporting the U.S. Constitution over the defunct Articles of Confederation. With Adams’ government’s passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, the opposing Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans, who endorsed the primacy of states’ rights, revolted. In response to the Acts, the future Presidents Jefferson and James Madison constructed the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, passed in these two states’ congresses, which proclaimed the Acts unconstitutional (this while Jefferson was serving as Vice President for the administration that enacted them).

In addition to asserting the rights of states to nullify federal laws, these bills signaled many Americans’ willingness to secede from the union in the face of the passage of laws they did not endorse. For example, in support of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Senator John Taylor called for Virginia to secede, and some scholars have even suggested that Thomas Jefferson quietly supported this move based on a private correspondence between Jefferson and James Madison.1 Such extreme measures were prevented, however, upon Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 when the first Democratic-Republican cabinet allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire.

New England Commerce after the Not-So “Peaceful Revolution of 1800”

Naturally, Jefferson’s election, often known as the “Peaceful Revolution of 1800,” led the Federalists to take a turn at considering secession. According to Thomas DiLorenzo, a group of “Yankee Confederates” within the party became convinced of a Virginian conspiracy to undermine New England prosperity, and, led by Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, attempted to initiate a movement for the creation of a separate New England Confederation.2

In 1804, Pickering struck a deal with Vice President Aaron Burr to support his bid for New York governor in exchange for Burr’s promise that New York would secede upon his election. However, Burr’s failure to win the election set off a chain of events that ended with him murdering Alexander Hamilton in a duel, an event that harmed the Federalist Party and killed this first iteration of the New England secession movement.

The movement was temporarily revived in 1807 when President Jefferson declared an embargo on all foreign trade while Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, which wreaked havoc on the trade-based New England economy. President and Virginia native James Madison, who succeeded Jefferson, exacerbated the resultant sectional tensions of this embargo when he implemented the “Enforcement Act” of 1809, which gave port inspectors the power to search ships suspected of violating the embargo. In response, secessionists released a public statement reminding Americans that when the Constitution was “violated, or its original principles departed from by a majority of the states or of their people, it is no longer an effective instrument, but that any state is at liberty by the spirit of that contract to withdraw itself from the union.” At the same time, the Massachusetts legislature declared the act unconstitutional and promised to nullify its application. As with the Anti-Federalist secession threats beforehand, this movement was tempered when Madison caved to pressure in March 1809, ending the embargo.

This economic controversy erupted again with the outbreak of the War of 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature again nullified a Madison cabinet act, refusing to send its residents to fight. Once the British overtook the capitol, Governor Caleb Strong called a special session of Congress to form a “New England alliance” that would “supplant the Constitution.” Meanwhile, many Federalists called for making a separate peace with England, and the Hartford Convention was convened in 1814 to debate this issue.3 But the convention proved a dead end for secessionists, as once again cooler heads prevailed and convention representatives decided instead of secession to call for more restrictive requirements before the president could declare war.

Preludes to the Civil War

Economic arguments again reared their collective ugly head again during the next series of secession threats, which occurred during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. When Northern Congressmen passed the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to fight the low price of British imports, the South Carolina legislature voted overwhelmingly to reject the bills, leading to the so-called “Nullification Crisis” in which delegates at the South Carolinian “Nullification Convention” warned that enforcement of the tariff within South Carolina’s borders would lead to secession. While President Jackson threatened to send in troops to enforce the tariffs and to hang traitors “from the highest tree,” Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned in support of nullification. Ultimately, Jackson conceded, drastically reducing the tariffs in 1833. South Carolina would threaten secession again in 1850 upon the admittance of California as a free state before finally following through with its promise in 1860, becoming the first state of the future Confederacy to officially secede from the union.

Though it is true that Calhoun was threatening secession on a routine basis by the 1840s as a tactic to slow the anti-slavery movement, Northern abolitionists constituted perhaps the most vocal proponents of disunion at this time. Leading this charge was William Lloyd Garrison, who, within the pages of the radical abolitionist periodical The Liberator challenged the North to reconcile the moral contradiction of accepting the peculiar institution while proclaiming to hold dear the principles of liberty and equality.4

By the time that eleven Southern states seceded from the United States following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, no less than six major secession attempts had preceded it. Each of these attempts was justified by appeals to states’ rights, a legitimate alternative to Federalism, which based its authority in the newly American tradition of rejecting the legitimacy of corrupting political power. Most striking about these seven movements, is the extensive list of prominent leaders who supported them. Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Congressmen from both political parties of the Early Republic felt it necessary and legitimate at times to abandon the American experiment.

Thankfully, the modern secession movements lack such political weight.

(OMG we made fun of Ron Paul on the Internet!)

art: Map (1961) by Jasper Johns

1. Joseph R. Stromberg, “Country Ideology, Republicanism, and Libertarianism: The Thought of John Taylor of Caroline,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies VI (1): 35-48. Also see: Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 586.

2. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, “Yankee Confederates: New England Secession Movements Prior to the War Between the States,” in David Gordon, ed., Secession, State and Liberty (New York: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

3. Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 318.

4. Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 318.