Secession in the United States

Secession in the United States

Attempts or aspirations of secession have been a feature of the politics of the United States since the country's birth. The line between actions based on a constitutional right of secession as opposed to actions justified by the extraconstitutional natural right of revolution has shaped the political debate. [Farber p. 87. Ketcham pp. 644-646. Remini pp. 21.]

Except for the American Revolution which created the United States, no such movement, revolution or secession, has succeeded. In 1861 the Confederate States of America attempted, and failed, to achieve secession by force of arms in the American Civil War.

A 2008 Zogby International poll revealed that 22% of Americans agree while 73% disagree that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic." [ [ Middlebury Institute/Zogby Poll: One in Five Americans Believe States Have the Right to Secede] , [ Zogby International] , July 23, 2008.] [Alex Mayer, [ Secession: still a popular idea?] , St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 25, 2008.]

American Revolution

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence opens with one long sentence:

Historian Pauline Maier writes that this sentence “asserted one right, the right of revolution, which was, after all, the right Americans were exercising in 1776.” The chosen language was Thomas Jefferson’s way of incorporating ideas “explained at greater length by a long list of seventeenth-century writers that included such prominent figures as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke, as well as a host of others, English and Scottish, familiar and obscure, who continued and, in some measure, developed that ‘Whig’ tradition in the eighteenth century. [Maier p. 135]

Antebellum American political and legal views on secession

The issue of secession was discussed in many forums in the years before the American Civil War.

ecession and the United States Constitution

Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar notes that the permanence of the United States changed significantly when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the adoption of the United States Constitution. This action “signaled its decisive break with the Articles’ regime of state sovereignty.” [Amar p. 29-32] By creating a constitution instead of some other type of written document, it was made clear that the United States was:

Patrick Henry represented a strong voice for the Anti-Federalists who opposed adoption of the Constitution. Questioning the nature of the new political organization being proposed, Henry asked:

The Federalists would point out that Henry exaggerated the extent that a consolidated government was being created and acknowledged that states would continue to serve an important function. However on the issue of whether states retained a right of unilateral secession from the United States, the Federalists made it clear that no such right would exist under the Constitution. [Amar pp. 35-36]

Natural right of revolution versus right of secession

Debates on the legality of secession often looked back to the example of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Law professor Daniel Farber defined the borders of this debate:

In the public debate over the Nullification Crisis the separate issue of secession was also discussed. James Madison, often referred to as “The Father of the Constitution”, spoke out against secession as a constitutional right. [Ketcham pp. 644-646] In a March 15, 1833 letter to Daniel Webster congratulating him on a speech opposing nullification, Madison discussed “revolution” versus “secession”:

Also during this crisis, President Andrew Jackson, in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”, made the case for the perpetuity of the Union while also contrasting the differences between “revolution” and “secession” [Remini pp. 21] :

In the midst of the secession crisis that would lead to the Civil War, President James Buchanan in his final State of the Union Speech acknowledged the South would “after having first used all peaceful and constitutional means to obtain redress, would be justified in revolutionary resistance to the Government of the Union”, but he also reiterated the difference between “revolution” and “secession” [Farber pp. 87-88] :

New England Federalists and Hartford Convention

The election of 1800 saw Jefferson's Republican Party on the rise with the Federalists in decline. Federalists became alarmed at what they saw as Republican threats. The Louisiana Purchase was viewed as a violation of the original agreement between the original thirteen states since it created the potential for numerous new states that would be dominated by the Republicans. The impeachment of John Pickering, a Federalist district judge, by the Republican dominated Congress and similar attacks by the Republican Pennsylvania legislature against that state's judiciary further alarmed Federalists. By 1804 the viable base of the Federalist Party had been reduced to the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware. [Buel pp. 22-23]

A few Federalists, led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, considered the creation of a separate New England confederation, possibly combining with lower Canada to form a pro-British nation. Historian Richard Buell Jr. characterizes these separatist musings:

The Embargo Act of 1807 was seen as a threat to the economy of Massachusetts and in late May of 1808 the state legislature debated how the state should respond. Once again these debates generated isolated references to secession, but no clear cut plot ever materialized. [Buel pp. 44-58]

Spurred on by some Federalist party members, the Hartford Convention was convened on December 15, 1814 in order to address both the opposition to the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815) and the domination of the federal government by the Virginia political dynasty. Twenty six delegates attended -- Massachusetts sent 12 delegates, Connecticut seven, and Rhode Island four. New Hampshire and Vermont decided not to send delegates although two counties from each state did send delegates. [Hickey p. 233] Historian Donald R. Hickey noted:

The final report [The Avalon Project ] addressed issues related to the war and state defense and recommended seven constitutional amendments dealing with "the overrepresentation of white southerners in Congress, the growing power of the West, the trade restrictions and the war, the influence of foreigners (like Albert Gallatin), and the Virginia dynasty's domination of national politics." [Hickey p.233-234]

Massachusetts and Connecticut endorsed the report, but the war ended as the states' delegates were on their way to Washington, effectively ending any impact the report might have had. Generally the convention was a "victory for moderation", but the timing led to the convention being identified as "a synonym for disloyalty and treason" and was a major factor in the sharp decline of the Federalist Party. [Hickey p. 234]


Sectional tensions, with the North and New England pictured as the victims of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, arose again in the late 1830s and 1840s over the related issues of Texas Annexation, the Mexican-American War, and the expansion of slavery. Isolated voices of separation from the South were again heard. Historian Joel Sibley writes of the beliefs held by some leaders in New England:

In the May 1844 edition of "The Liberator", William Lloyd Garrison wrote "Address to the Friends of Freedom and Emancipation in the United States." In this strongly disunionist editorial, Garrison wrote that the Constitution had been created “at the expense of the colored population of the country”. With southerners continuing to dominate the nation because of the Three-fifths compromise, it was time “to set the captive free by the potency of truth” and “secede from the government.” [Mayer p. 327] on the same day that this issue was published, the New England Anti-Slavery Convention endorsed the principles of disunion from slaveholders by a vote of 250-24. [Mayer p. 328]

From this point on, with the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso into the public debate, talk of secession would be primarily a southern issue. The southern theme, increased perceptions of helplessness against a powerful political group attacking a basic southern interest, was almost a mirror image of Federalist beliefs at the beginning of the century.

South Carolina

During the presidential term of Andrew Jackson, South Carolina had its own semi-secession movement due to the "Tariffs of Abomination" which threatened both South Carolina's economy and the Union. Andrew Jackson also threatened to send Federal Troops to put down the movement and to hang the leader of the secessionists from the highest tree in South Carolina. Also due to this, Jackson's vice president, John C. Calhoun, who supported the movement and wrote the essay "The South Carolina Exposition and Protest", became the first US vice-president to resign. South Carolina also threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California's statehood. It became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860 and later joined with the other southern states in the Confederacy.

Confederate States of America

:"See main articles Origins of the American Civil War, Confederate States of America and American Civil War."

One of the most famous unsuccessful secession movements was the case of the Southern states of the United States. Secession from the United States was declared in thirteen states, eleven of which joined together to form the Confederate States of America. The eleven states were Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Note that these are not listed by order of secession; South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, on December 20, 1860; Tennessee was the last, and seceded on June 8, 1861. In addition, in Missouri and Kentucky secession was declared by its supporters but did not become effective, and was opposed by pro-Union state governments. This secession movement brought about the American Civil War. The position of the Union was that the Confederacy was not a sovereign nation, but that a rebellion had been initiated by individuals. Historian Bruce Catton described President Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861 proclamation after the attack on Fort Sumter which defined the Union's position on the hostilities:

upreme Court Ruling

Texas v. White, ussc|74|700|1869 was argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1869. The Court held in a 5–3 decision that the Constitution did not permit states to secede from the United States, and that the ordinances of secession, and all the acts of the legislatures within seceding states intended to give effect to such ordinances, were "absolutely null".

The court's opinion was authored by Chief Justice Salmon Chase, himself a former cabinet member under Abraham Lincoln and leading figure in the Union government during the American Civil War. Based on his previous position, many southerners questioned Chase's impartiality and believed he should have recused himself from the decision. While legally binding, the court's decision was extremely controversial and remains so to this day. Many former Confederate officials such as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens as well as legal theorists such as Lysander Spooner rejected the court's reasoning and defended the right of states to secede.

West Virginia

During the course of the American Civil War, the western counties of Virginia making up what is now West Virginia secededFact|date=May 2008 from Virginia (which had joined the Confederacy) and became the 35th state of the U.S. It remained separated after the war ended.

Texas secession from Mexico

The Republic of Texas successfully seceded from Mexico in 1836. In 1845 Texas joined the United States as a full-fledged state. Mexico refused to recognize Texas's independence and warned the U.S. that annexation meant war. The Mexican–American War followed in 1846, and the United States defeated Mexico.

The Commonwealth of the Phillipines

In 1946, the Commonwealth of the Philippines, a United States territory which became a commonwealth, was the only part of the United States to have gained independence. Previously, over a million Phillipinos had died in a war of resistance following annexation in 1898.

Recent efforts in the United States

Examples of both local and state secession movements can be cited over the last 25 years. Some secessionist movements to create new states have failed, others are ongoing.

City secession

There was an attempt by Staten Island to break away from New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s (See: City of Greater New York). Around the same time, there was a similar movement to separate Northeast Philadelphia from the rest of the city of Philadelphia. San Fernando Valley lost a vote to separate from Los Angeles in 2002 but has seen increased attention to its infrastructure needs (See: San Fernando Valley secession movement).

County secession

In US history many counties have been divided, often for routine administrative convenience, although sometimes at the request of a majority of the residents. During the 20th Century over 1,000 county secession movements existed but since the 1950s only three have succeeded: La Paz County, Arizona broke off from Yuma County and the Cibola County, New Mexico effort both occurred in the early 1980s, while during 1998-2001 there was a transition by Broomfield, Colorado to become a separate jurisdiction from Boulder County. Prior to these, the last county created in the U.S. was Menominee County, Wisconsin, in 1959.

The High Desert County, California plan to split the northern half of Los Angeles and the eastern half of Kern counties, was approved by the California state government in 2006, but has never been officially declared in force.

State secession

Several towns in Vermont including Killington recently explored a secession request to allow them to join New Hampshire over claims that they are not getting adequate return of state resources from their state tax contributions.

Advocates in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with off and on intensity, have called for it to become a separate 51st state (sometimes with northern Wisconsin and Northeast Minnesota) called "Superior". Similarly some in the Little Egypt region of Illinois want to separate due to what they consider Chicagoan control over the legislature and economy.

In November 2006, the Supreme Court of Alaska held that secession was illegal, [ Kohlhaas vs. State] , and refused to permit an Initiative to be presented to the people of Alaska for a vote.

In March 2008, the comptroller of Suffolk County, New York once again proposed for Long Island to secede from New York State, citing the fact that Long Island gives more in taxes to the state than it receives back in aid. [ [ Dowling College] Sawicki announced interest in 51st State]

In 1977, the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, tried to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (they also tried to secede from the United States and become an independent nation).

In Florida there have been calls in the past and present to separate the state into north (a more southern culture) and south (a more northern culture).

With the decision of the United States Supreme Court to hear District of Columbia v. Heller in late 2007, an early 2008 movement began in Montana involving at least 60 elected officials addressing potential secession if the Second Amendment were interpreted not to grant an individual right, citing its compact with the United States of America. [An Extra-Session Resolution of individual Legislators of the 60th Montana Legislature and other elected Montana officials urging the United States Supreme Court that any "collective rights" holding in D.C. V. HELLER will violate Montana's compact with the United States, the contract by which Montana entered the Union in 1889. [] .]

Secession from the U.S.

On July 13, 1977, the City Council of Kinney, Minnesota, led by Mayor Mary Anderson wrote a "tongue in cheek" letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance informing him of the city's secession from the Union to form the Republic of Kinney. Vance never acknowledged the letter.

The mock 1982 secessionist protest by the Conch Republic in the Florida Keys resulted in an ongoing source of local pride and tourist amusement.

The group Republic of Texas generated national publicity for its actions in the late 1990s. There have been repeated attempts to form a Republic of Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest. The Hawaiian sovereignty movement has a number of active groupings which have won some concessions from the State of Hawaii. Founded in 1983, The Creator's Rights Party seeks to have one or more states secede in order to implement "God’s plan for government" and is fielding political candidates in 2007 around the United States.

Efforts to organize a continental secession movement have been initiated since 2004 by members of Second Vermont Republic, working with noted decentralist author Kirkpatrick Sale. Their second "radical consultation" in November of 2004 resulted in a statement of intent called [ The Middlebury Declaration] . It also gave rise to the Middlebury Institute, which is dedicated to the "study of separatism, secession, and self-determination" and which engages in secessionist organizing.

In November 2006 the same group sponsored the [ First North American Secessionist Convention] which attracted 40 participants from 16 secessionist organizations and was (erroneously) described as the first gathering of secessionists since the Civil War. Delegates included a broad spectrum from libertarians to socialists to greens to Christian conservatives to indigenous peoples activists. Groups represented included Alaskan Independence Party, [ Cascadia Independence Project] , [ Hawaiokinai Nation] , [ The Second Maine Militia] , The Free State Project, [ the Republic of New Hampshire] , the League of the South, Christian Exodus, the Second Vermont Republic and the [ United Republic of Texas] . Delegates created a statement of principles of secession which they presented as the [ Burlington Declaration] . [The [ New York Sun] and the [ Philadelphia Inquirer] covered the convention.] The [ Second North American Secessionist Convention] in October, 2007, in Chattanooga, Tennessee received local and national media attention. [Bill Poovey, [ Secessionists Meeting in Tennessee] , Associated Press, October 3, 2007; Leonard Doyle, [ Anger over Iraq and Bush prompts calls for secession from the US] , Independent, UK, October 4, 2007; [ WDEF News 12 Video report on Secessionist Convention] , October 3, 2007.]

Additionally some members of the Lakota people of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakota region are also making steps to separate from the United States.Fact|date=June 2008 The self-proclaimed Republic of Lakotah has made a point to say that their actions are not those of secession, but rather an assertion of independence of a nation that was always sovereign and did not join the United States willfully. They note a failure of the United States government in honoring treaties, and abuse of Native peoples through out its history. A statement of independence was released as of January 2008, and the United States government has not commented on the issue.



* Amar, Akhil Reed. "America's Constitution: A Biography." (2005) ISBN 0-8129-7272-4
* Buel, Richard Jr. "America on the Brink: how the Political Struggle over the War of 1812 Almost destroyed the Young Republic." (2005) ISBN 1-4039-6238-3
* Cain, William E., editor. "William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator." (1995) ISBN 0-312-10386-7
* Farber, Daniel. "Lincoln's Constitution." (2003) ISBN 0-226-23793-1
* Hickey, Donald R. "Hartford Convention" in "Encyclopedia of the War of 1812." Heidler, David S. and Heidler, Jeanne T. editors. (1997) ISBN 1-59114-362-4
* Ketcham, Ralph. "James Madison: A Biography." (1990) ISBN 0-8139-1265-2
* Maier, Pauline. "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence." (1997) ISBN 0-679-45492-6
* Mayer, Henry. "All on Fire: William Lloyd garrison and the Abolition of Slavery." (1998) ISBN 0-312-18740-8
* Remini, Robert V. "Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. (1984) ISBN 0-06-015279-6
* Sibley, Joel H. "Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War." (2005) ISBN 13: 978-0-19-513944-0


(Also see list of secession books here.)
* Thomas Naylor, "Secession: How Vermont and all the Other States Can Save Themselves from the Empire," foreword by Kirkpatrick Sale, Feral House books, 2008.
* Robert, F. Hawes, "One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution", Fultus Corporation, 2006.
* James L. Erwin, "Declarations of Independence: Encyclopedia of American Autonomous and Secessionist Movements," Greenwood Press, 2006.
* David Gordon, "Secession, State and Liberty", Transactions Publishers, 1998.

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