American secessionists and states’ rights advocates are rightly disappointed by the outcome of the September 18 Scots Independence Referendum. Given the decisiveness of the outcome, the result was probably never in doubt. The Queen didn’t even have to break a sweat, in keeping with her lifelong abstinence from productive labor. I’ll bet she’s never even broken a fingernail polishing the royal silverware. But I digress.
Americans of every political persuasion have every reason to be troubled by the Scottish plebiscite. Not because of the outcome, but because we do not have the same right to secede from our Union by peaceful means. Americans should be asking themselves and their government, “Why do the Scots have the option of leaving their political union by referendum, but our own states do not?” Indeed. This is a valid question and an issue I believe we’ll be hearing a lot more of.
Recent polls indicate that given the opportunity to leave the Union, the outcome today in just about any state would likely resemble the outcome of the Scottish Referendum. But that’s today. What about two, four, or ten years down the road? Political and economic conditions change—happy campers today are crying in their beers tomorrow. While unpopular, even ridiculed today, secession could well have broad popular support at some point in the future. But unfortunately, our states have no right to peaceably secede.
Self-determination is a fundamental right. Well, at least in Scotland and Quebec. In this regard, we are hardly better than the Chinese with respect to their western Muslim minorities, or the Russians and Ukraine. How dare we call out Putin on issues of Ukrainian sovereignty, when any serious moves toward sovereignty by a U.S. state would be smothered by any means fair or foul, or if necessary, violently quashed? We have only to look at our own history for precedence in this matter. So much for that “land of the free” rubbish.
The United States was founded by secessionists. The moral justification for secession was powerfully articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration could just as well have been called the Declaration of Secession; the War of Independence could just as accurately be termed the American War of Secession.
Despite the Founders’ support for secession in 1776, the Constitution written 11 years later is silent on the issue. While the Founders made provisions for the admission of new states (Article 4, Section 3), the issue of secession was unaddressed. Proponents of secession and states’ rights advocates have long held that since the Founders themselves were secessionists in 1776, they could not possibly have been opposed to it afterwards. But this is huge leap of faith. Politicians, as we know, change positions all the time, sometimes overnight, sometimes gradually over the course of many years. Today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s reactionaries. The political circumstances in 1776 were very different from those in 1787. By then, many of the Founders had become disillusioned with revolutionary ardor and the Articles of Confederation. As we know, the Founders’ failure to address secession, intentional or not, had tragic consequences four score and seven years later.
Today, one hundred fifty years after the Civil War, our states still do not enjoy a constitutionally-sanctioned mechanism for exercising the fundamental right of self-determination, to peaceably secede from the Union. While the Constitution grants us no legal recourse, the moral and philosophical case for secession remains indelibly articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration culminated the centuries-long struggle begun at Runnymede in 1215 that witnessed man’s tortured journey from subject to citizen, and government from master to servant. It marked the dying gasp of feudalism and one of the first fruits of the Enlightenment. Jefferson’s impassioned words remain a source of inspiration to all who yearn for liberty.
Secession is the ultimate check on the power of an oppressive state. Our government has long since forfeited any claims to legitimacy or the allegiance of its citizens. The “long train of abuses” so eloquently and meticulously detailed by Jefferson should should serve as the template for nascent secession movements across the country.