Here’s a much more sensible email from someone who disagrees with me about secession.
Reader Steve writes,
First off, I don’t always agree with you, but I truly enjoy your blog. I also enjoyed reading your recent book about property rights in [the] 21st century. Why all the fuss about secession vs revolution? Don’t you think it should be a group of individuals’ right to peacefully opt out of a government that they don’t want, regardless of what the constitution says? You say that we didn’t [secede] from England, we revolted. The way I understand it, we declared our independence and England attacked us, so we defended ourselves. If England had not attacked us, and instead just had wished us well and left us alone, do you think there would have been a war? I think not.
In my mind, to argue about secession vs revolution is pointless. A peaceful declaration of withdrawal (secession) would be much better than a violent revolution. How could you not be in favor of that?
That’s a reasonable question. What real difference does the distinction between revolution and secession make? The answer is, it actually does make an important difference. If it were true that secession were lawful and constitutional, then the Union would have been unambiguously wrong in the Civil War: if secession were a lawful practice, then regardless of the reason for their having seceded, they would have been in the right. The northern states might have disagreed with their reasons for leaving the union, but they would have had no authority to stop it. But because secession is illegal, and because the President has the duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed, it was and remains the responsibility of the President to enforce the Constitution against states purporting to secede from the Union—by force of arms when necessary.
Now, if we accept that secession is illegal, the inquiry does not stop there, because there are certain illegal acts that are nevertheless justified: breaking an unjust law, for example. An act of revolution is, pretty much by definition, lawbreaking that is nevertheless justified. How is it justified? That’s what the Declaration of Independence explains: revolution is a form of self-defense, a rebellion against tyrannical oppression. The problem with this—the reason that antebellum southern intellectuals usually did not invoke the Declaration of Independence (until after the war, and after slavery was gone)—is because the south had not suffered any “long train of abuses” pursuing a design to reduce them under despotism. And southern rebellion was not an act of self-defense: it was an initiation of force by the southern states—and why? To perpetuate slavery. The southern states rebelled against a democracy in which they were legally entitled to participate because of President Lincoln’s plans to ban slavery in the western territories (not in the south). Those plans were perfectly lawful. The south could not plausibly claim that it was oppressed—certainly not by the Buchanan Administration or any previous administration! So the attempt to defend the Confederacy on the grounds that it was engaged in revolution pursuant to the Declaration of Independence (as, for instance, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has tried to do) is unconvincing.
I explain this all much more precisely in my article How Libertarians Ought to Think About The U.S. Civil War.
As to the second question: of course individuals have the right to give up their citizenship, or move to another country, or what have you. That is neither secession or revolution, and it’s perfectly legal and an inalienable human right.
The problem comes when a group of people don’t just give up their citizenship, but do this as part of a plan to oppress others and deprive those others of their rights. Nobody was asking the slaves if they wanted to give up their citizenship—hell, the southern states refused to recognize their citizenship at all! They were essentially being kidnaped, and deprived of their rights, by a group of people who insisted that they were now their own country.
This is not a dead and buried issue, either. Ron Paul has made it clear that he believes the state of Texas should be able to oppress homosexuals, prohibit drugs, ban abortion, et cetera, et cetera—so long as it’s done at the state level. Just as with the Confederates, what Paul wants is for the state to be free of federal oversight so that it can violate individual rights with impunity. This he calls the principle of “self-determination,” allegedly “an American principle.” Well, Abraham Lincoln had the perfect answer for that when he sarcastically referred to “the ‘gur-reat pur-rinciple’ that ‘if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,’ fantastically called ‘Popular Sovereignty.’” And if you believe this—if you believe that states should be free to deprive individuals of their rights without interference—then you may call yourself any number of names, but you may not rightly call yourself a libertarian.
So if you, on your own behalf and in your own name, choose to leave a political community, you may by all means do so. But that is not secession. Secession is the illegal attempt by a state to leave the union unilaterally. It is illegal. People may, of course, rebel against an oppressive government, but they can only do so when their rights have been systematically and routinely violated—which did not happen to (white) southerners in 1861. And while revolution is always and everywhere an inalienable right, it does not justify the violation of other individuals’ rights, either in the form of the CSA slave republic—or in the form of a modern-day Christian theocracy.