Secession Movement (U.S. Civil War)

secession (in political science)

secession, in political science, formal withdrawal from an association by a group discontented with the actions or decisions of that association. The term is generally used to refer to withdrawal from a political entity; such withdrawal usually occurs when a territory or state believes itself justified in establishing its independence from the political entity of which it was a part. By doing so it assumes sovereignty.

The U.S. Civil War

Perhaps the best-known example of a secession taking place within the borders of a formerly unified nation was the withdrawal (1860–61) of the 11 Southern states from the United States to form the Confederacy. This action, which led to the Civil War, brought to a head a constitutional question that had been an issue in the United States since the formation of the union. It was the principal point in the controversy over states' rights.

The secessionists argued that the union created by the Constitution was only a compact of sovereign states and that power given to the federal government was only partial and limited, not paramount over the states, and effective only in the specific fields assigned it. The states, being sovereign, had the legal right to withdraw from the voluntary union. The opponents of the right of secession believed that the Constitution created a sovereign and inviolable union and that withdrawal from that union was impossible. Prior to the Civil War secessionist sentiments were evidenced in both the North (see Hartford Convention) and South, but as the North grew more powerful, talk of secession became more common in the South.

The nullification movement, which held that any state could declare null and void any federal law that infringed upon its rights, was an attempt to eradicate the need for secession by giving the states complete sovereignty. Measures such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 were merely delays in resolving whether the states or the federal government was to possess sovereignty. Desiring to maintain the slave system and threatened by the North socially and economically, the South finally seceded from the Union soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The defeat of the Confederacy in the bloody war that followed settled the constitutional controversy permanently.

Other Historical Examples of Secession

An early example of secession is that of northern Israelite tribes from the larger Davidian kingdom after the death of Solomon (933 BC). Venezuela and Ecuador were created in 1830 when they seceded from Gran Colombia. Military action by Finnish nationalists enabled Finland to secede from a weakened Russia after 1917. In the 1960s the attempts of Katanga to secede from the newly independent Congo and of Biafra to break away from Nigeria were both crushed in long and bloody civil wars. By contrast, the secession (1971) of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) from the state of Pakistan was accomplished successfully with the help of India, the Baltic states regained independence from the USSR immediately before its dissolution, and Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after the overthrow of the latter nation's government.


See J. T. Carpenter, The South as a Conscious Minority (1930); D. M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942); K. M. Stampp, And the War Came (1950); D. L. Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860–1861 (1931, repr. 1963); U. B. Phillips, The Course of the South to Secession (1939, repr. 1964); L. C. Buchheit, Secession (1978); G. Craven, Secession (1986); J. A. Rawley, Secession (1989); R. J. Cook et al., Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854
William W. Freehling.
Oxford University Press, vol.1, 1991
The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861
William W. Freehling.
Oxford University Press, 2007
At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis
Shearer Davis Bowman.
University of North Carolina Press, 2010
Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
Russell McClintock.
University of North Carolina Press, 2008
Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia
William A. Link.
University of North Carolina Press, 2003
Love of Order: South Carolina's First Secession Crisis
John Barnwell.
University of North Carolina Press, 1982
Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860
William W. Freehling; Craig M. Simpson.
Oxford University Press, 1992
Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis
Daniel W. Crofts.
University of North Carolina Press, 1989
Minute Men, Yeomen, and the Mobilization for Secession in the South Carolina Upcountry
West, Stephen A.
The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 71, No. 1, February 2005
The Critical Signpost on the Journey toward Secession
Cooper, William J., Jr.
The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 77, No. 1, February 2011
"The Sport of Folly and the Prize of Treason": Confederate Property Seizures and the Northern Home Front in the Secession Crisis
Siddali, Silvana R.
Civil War History, Vol. 47, No. 4, December 2001
Revolution or Counterrevolution?: The Political Ideology of Secession in Antebellum South Carolina
Sinha, Manisha.
Civil War History, Vol. 46, No. 3, September 2000
Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861
Jon L. Wakelyn.
University of North Carolina Press, 1996
Southerners against Secession: The Arguments of the Constitutional Unionists in 1850-51
Huston, James L.
Civil War History, Vol. 46, No. 4, December 2000
Rethinking the Secession of the Lower South: The Clash of Two Groups
Egnal, Marc.
Civil War History, Vol. 50, No. 3, September 2004
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