[Update: Welcome, LGF readers. I've actually been saying WTF about Ron Paul for some years now. Here's an index of some of my criticisms of him. I am not, however, attacking the Tea Party movement, which I do not think has been successfully coopted by the Paul kooks.]
Congressman Ron Paul has made a handy video to put forth his lies, distortions, and ignorance on the subject of secession. Let’s see what he has to say.
[Rick Perry] was restating a principle that was long held, at least in the original time of our country, and that is, that there was a right of secession.
One searches in vain for any evidence to support this assertion. It’s not in the Federalist Papers. It’s not even in the Anti-Federalist Papers. It’s not in the debates at the Constitutional Convention, or at the ratification conventions. In fact, the word “secession” does not appear in these places because secession was an idea developed by southern intellectuals in the three decades or so prior to the Civil War. Yes, the founders spoke at length about revolution, but revolution is categorically different from secession. Revolution is an inalienable individual right: it is the right of the people to throw off government that systematically violates their liberties. Secession, on the other hand, is a purported right of sovereignties—of collective entities (i.e., states).
It is characteristic of paleoconservatives like Paul to confuse the rights of individuals with the purported “rights” of collective entities. Paul, for example, came out against the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas—which held that government has no legitimate authority to send its armed agents into private bedrooms to break up private adult consensual sex—because he said that a state has the “right to establish its own standards for private sexual conduct,” and that states have “the right to decide for [themselves] how to regulate social matters like sex, using [their] own standards.” So it is not surprising that Paul would ignore the difference between revolution—that is, the right to overthrow oppressive government, which the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration of Independence—and secession, which is the alleged power of states to unilaterally and lawfully leave the federal union. The former was certainly the foundation of the American nation. The latter was never any part of it, and was never articulated during “the original time of our country.” As Akhil Amar has pointed out, one of the most telling pieces of evidence against the secessionist position is that nobody ever said at the time of the founding, “Don’t worry about the Constitution—if it doesn’t work you can just secede!” Had that been an option, you can bet it would have been put forward as an argument. It never was.
...all the states that came into the union before the Civil War believed that they had a right to secede.
Where is there any evidence at all for this claim? There is not a single scrap of it. Some people have argued that three states—New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island—ratified the Constitution while “reserving the right to secede.” But of course, they did no such thing. They simply reiterated the right of revolution, which nobody denied then and nobody denies now. They said “powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States [note: not from the states themselves, but from the whole people of the U.S.], may be resumed by them whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” Certainly! If the federal government perverts its powers to oppress the people, they do retain the right of revolution to throw off that government. But nothing in this or any other document at the time of ratification asserted that a state may lawfully leave the union unilaterally. And for Paul to claim that “all” of the states “believed” this is preposterous. I would like to see a single piece of evidence to back up this claim.
...and New England in the early part of the Nineteenth Century actually considered it, and nobody questioned them about whether they had the right to do it or not.
As I pointed out earlier, this is simply untrue. The Hartford Convention did not call for secession. And one of the big reasons that it did not call for secession was because of the enormous amount of controversy sparked by even the suggestion that they would.
It’s very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came into being. Thirteen colonies seceded from the British.
Here again we have the conflation of the right to revolution with the purported legality of secession. At no time did the American founding fathers ever claim that what they were doing was lawful according to the British Constitution! The whole point of the Declaration of Independence was that they were throwing off the British Constitution pursuant to the laws of nature and of nature’s God. It would have struck them as insane to suggest that they had a lawful power to leave the British empire—i.e., that they were “seceding” from it. They were not; they were rebelling against it.
If Ron Paul wants to call for revolution—for the forcible overthrow of the federal government—he has a constitutional right to do so. But he ought to do it openly—not through the seductive silliness of secession theory.
What about all the strong endorsements we have given over the past decade or two of those republics that seceded from the Soviet system?
I do not know whether the Soviet constitution was a treaty between sovereignties, or what—perhaps it was lawful for Soviet republics to leave the USSR. That is irrelevant to whether secession is constitutional under the United States Constitution, which is not a treaty between sovereignties, but a constitution of the whole people of the United States. Nor would there be anything inconsistent with supporting the revolutionary overthrow of the Soviet Constitution while opposing the revolutionary overthrow of the U.S. government.
Now it gets really nasty:
Just think of the benefits that would have come over these last 230-some years if the principle of secession had existed. That means that the federal government would always have been restrained, not to overburden the states with too much federalism, too many federal rules and regulations. But since that was all wiped out with the Civil War, the federal government has grown by leaps and bounds.
Paul doesn’t mean to say that the principle of secession did not “exist” 230 years ago—since he earlier claimed that it did exist at the “original time.” What he means to say here is, just think of the benefits that would have come if the South had won the Civil War. Forgive me if I regard that as a putrid and horrifying thing to say. Yes, Congressman, there would have been fewer federal “burdens”: burdens like the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; burdens like the Civil Rights Acts; burdens like the Ku Klux Klan Act; burdens like Brown v. Board of Education. It’s an awfully safe thing for any white man to say that if secession had been allowed in 1861, things would have been just hunky dory and we wouldn’t have this awful welfare state!
(We’ll put aside for now the fact that it was the South, not the North, that called for overriding federal regulations in the era before the 1860s, and that they seceded in part because the North said no! The South wanted a federal slave code that would have made America a model of totalitarianism for dictatorships to follow in the next century. That they didn’t get it was one reason they started the Civil War.)
There is no denying that the federal government has drastically overstepped its constitutional authority, and routinely violates the Constitution, and intrudes on state authority. But the idea that this is traceable to the Union’s victory in the Civil War is laughable. The expansion of federal authority is due to the work of the Populist/Progressive Era. And the idea that secession would work as a check on federal authority....well, maybe. But I think it far more likely that if Texas ever did secede from the union, it would become a theocratic Christian state which (in conformity with Paul’s views) would ban abortion, establish a religion, censor flag-burning, impose laws against homosexuality, et cetera, et cetera.
Most importantly, any thought about what kind of “restraints” would have been imposed on the federal government by a successful secession in 1860 must also take into account what it would have meant to millions of black slaves and their descendants. Even if one believes (which I do not) that slavery would have withered away like a Marxist state, the legacy of slavery would be far, far worse than it is today. Blacks would have remained even more of a permanent underclass than they actually did under the sharecropping and Jim Crow system. The southern states would have kept legal apartheid in place to the present day.
We came together voluntarily; a free society means you can dissolve it voluntarily.
Very true. And indeed a state may leave the union constitutionally—with the consent of the whole people of the United States. That would be “voluntary” and unobjectionable. Amend the Constitution or pass a statute or something, allowing Texas to leave the union, and there is nothing in the Constitution to forbid it. What may not happen is for a state unilaterally to leave the union.
The benefit of “self-determination” is a good principle. It’s a very American principle.
Here we get to the core of Paul’s anti-libertarian views. Ron Paul does not believe that individual rights are the fundamental principle of all legitimate government. He believes in the “self-determination” of political states. If China or the Soviet Union or Texas wants to oppress people within its borders, nobody else has a right to intervene. Call that what you like; it is not libertarianism. It is collectivism. It is the principle that states come first, and individuals only second. And it is a principle devoutly believed by John C. Calhoun, the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy. The American founders, by contrast, did not believe in “self-determination.” They believed that individuals have rights, and form government only to defend those rights, and when government violates those rights, that government is no longer legitimate and ought to be overthrown. In 1788—during the “original time” of the Constitution that Paul claims was full of secessionist talk—James Madison rejected the primacy of “self-determination” when he wrote,
Was, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished, not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty, and safety, but that the government of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power, and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty? We have heard of the impious doctrine in the Old World, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people. Is the same doctrine to be revived in the New, in another shape that the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of a different form? It is too early for politicians to presume on our forgetting that the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.... [A]s far as the sovereignty of the States cannot be reconciled to the happiness of the people, the voice of every good citizen must be, Let the former be sacrificed to the latter.
After making clear his belief that states, and not individuals, are primary in his political philosophy, Paul goes off on an irrelevant tangent about the Pledge of Allegiance. Okay, whatever. He then says that once the dollar collapses, people will look at secession with new eyes. Well, perhaps. There is no telling what sort of evils may befall our nation in the future. But if the people choose to overthrow the federal government in response to a long train of abuses evincing a design to reduce them under despotism, they will be exercising their inalienable right of revolution, not of secession.
As is usual with Congressman Paul, what we get is a hash of lies, ignorance, breathtaking racial insensitivity, and paleoconservatism masquerading as libertarianism. It’s a terrible shame how many good people take this man seriously.
HT: Liberty Papers.