Secession and American Federalism

By Versluis, Arthur | Modern Age, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Secession and American Federalism


Versluis, Arthur, Modern Age


THE BEGINNING OF THE twenty-first century saw a mostly unremarked development of considerable significance: for the first time since the founding of the Confederate States of America, the United States once again had an extensive secessionist movement. In 2003, author Thomas Naylor founded the movement for a Second Vermont Republic (the first such republic of Vermont having lasted from 1777 to 1791); and in 2006 and 2007, author Kirkpatrick Sale organized two annual North American symposiums of secessionist groups. Within a year, Sale had more than thirty North-American secessionist organizations listed in his directory, the most serious of which were in Vermont, Texas, Alaska, and Hawaii. (1) Of course, it is commonplace across the political spectrum, and certainly in mainstream print and broadcast media, to dismiss such movements as quixotic self-parody. As we will see, that would be a mistake.

In an article in Modern Age, "The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson's 'Little Republics,'" we saw the extent to which Jefferson had emphasized decentralization and the primary political authority of the townships. We also pointed out how the ensuing several hundred years of American history represented a continuous, growing repudiation of Jeffersonian decentralism, and an intensifying nationalist centralism that culminated in the Behemoth of imperial Washington, D.C., in the early twenty-first century, with its far-flung military bases, its ever-greater national bureaucracies, and its extraordinary deficit expenditures. The twenty-first century American secessionist movement emerged out of exactly this historical context--that is, out of conscious rejection of American gigantism.

Historical Context of Secessionism

We should begin with the ur-text of American history, the Declaration of Independence. Taken in a contemporary context, what might we make of this Declaration of the Thirteen States? As we all know, it asserts forthrightly that

  when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people
  to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another
  and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal
  station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them,
  a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should
  declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The Declaration continues that

  to secure these rights [to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of
  Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just
  powers from the consent of the governed,--That whenever any Form of
  Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the
  People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,
  laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in
  such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety
  and Happiness.

These words are or at least at one time were familiar to every schoolchild, but they take on a new significance when placed in the context of a contemporary American secession movement. If secession from Britain during the period of the British Empire was a legitimate act, then, contemporary secessionists ask, why is it illegitimate to consider any subsequent secession from what is widely referred to today as an American Empire?

Such a question seems entirely foreclosed. But is it? Russell Wheeler, president of the Governance Institute, and a constitutional scholar associated with the Brookings Institution, ridicules the idea:

  If Vermont had a powerful enough army and said, "We're leaving the
  union," and the national government said, "No, you're not," and they
  fought a war over it and Vermont won, then you could say Vermont
  proved the point. But that's not going to happen. (2)

This puts it in a nutshell: secession and decentralization are from this sarcastic perspective indistinguishable from violent rebellion, a doomed course of action given the massive resources of the American national government and national military. …

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