19 August 2010

Just In Case?

From Virginia's document ratifying the United States Constitution:

". . . in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression . . ."

From Rhode Island's ratification document:

"That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness."

From New York's ratification document: 

"That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness . . ." 

Is it just me, or does that sound like these three states retained their right to secede from the Union? Did the other states agree by allowing these 3 states into the Union? Not necessarily advocating, just asking.


Chaps said...

The U.S. Constitution did not explicitly mention secession because the Founders assumed that States would have the right to leave the Union. They would have been flabbergasted if someone argued differently. An organization which does not allow members to withdraw without violence and bloodshed is not a nation, it is a street gang.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Whether it was wise or not is debatable, but I believe the Founders, as well as the Confederacy, believed they had the right to secede.

Bob Pollock said...

Just read Kenneth Stampp's "The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War" (Oxford University Press, 1980). He included an excellent chapter entitled "The Concept of a Perpetual Union" that addresses this quite well I think. No doubt, some of the Founders believed they had a right to secede, but of course, there is much more to the story.

Michael Lynch said...

It's an interesting question, because it hinges on whether "the people" refers to the people acting directly, through special conventions, or through the state legislatures.

The Constitution wasn't ratified by the state legislatures, but by "the people" acting through specially-called conventions created specifically for that purpose. The reason for this was because proponents of the Constitution believed that direct ratification by "the people" was necessary to make the Constitution something with more authority than a state statute. The Constitution needed to be drafted and approved by "the people" to give it legitimacy, rather than by a national or state legislature. The references to "the people" and their ability to rescind the power granted to the federal government are, I suspect, in reference to this idea.

I'm not taking issue with the idea that the ratifiers would have condoned secession by the state legislatures; I just don't know that this is exactly what's meant in these cases. State secession might constitute a case of "the people" rescinding the authority they grant to the government, but I think what was intended by these specific statements was more fundamental than state sovereignty. It was the more general notion that the national government was a product of the people, and subject to them.

Could the state legislatures act for "the people" of a state and rescind the authority they granted to the government by ratifying the Constitution? Beats me. Depends on whether you're asking Davis or Lincoln.


Marc Ferguson said...

Maybe they did believe it, but can you show any statements by Federalists that supports this? Also, if they would have been "flabbergasted" at the idea of unilateral secession, how do you explain Madison's response to Hamilton's query about conditional ratification that "ratification was in toto and for ever"?

Marc Ferguson said...

In place of my faulty memory, here are Madison's actual words on the right of a state to unilaterally withdraw ratification:

To Alexander Hamilton

[July 20, 1788]

N. York Sunday Evening

Yours of yesterday is this instant come to hand & I have but a few minutes to answer it. I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification. What the New Congress by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able & disposed to do in such case, I do not enquire as I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success & happiness.

This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection.

I suspect that Madison, at least, would not have been "flabbergasted" at the idea that a state could not withdraw from the Union.

Matt Doylle said...

But did the Southern Confederacy believe those states had the right to secede? Not from the Federal Government, but from the Southern Confederacy. So could Georgia secede from the CSA?

I think Gov. Brown toyed with idea.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - I think you may be splitting hairs here.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Marc - Support, believe? I'm not sure I understand your statement. Certainly there were nuances between the individuals about specifics, but they obviously wanted to retain the right of "divorce", should that need ever arise. What other purpose for the language?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Madison's opinion seems to be contradictory to the document. Not all that surprising as I discussed this subject in the response to David Blight's piece.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Matt - Lincoln believed counties could secede from a state - West VA.

Marc Ferguson said...

Richard - I was responding to "Chaps" assertion that the founders assumed the states had the right to secede, and would have been "flabbergasted" had anyone suggested otherwise. Madison clearly suggested that no such right existed. It may be obvious to you that they "wanted to retain the right of 'divorce'," but it is not at all obvious to me. The references to the people reassuming the powers granted under the Constitution strike me as a restatement of the fundamental Lockean notions of sovereignty originating in the "people" and the "natural right of revolution," not a constitutional right to withdraw a state's ratification.

Opponents of the Constitution warned of all sorts of horrors that would ensue should the Constitution be adopted, such as inevitable tyranny from which they had no escape. Now, it would have been a very effective counter for any Federalist to say that should it not work out, any state could just leave. To my knowledge, no one ever did. So, perhaps the founders assumed they could leave, but I have never seen a statement by one of them to that effect.

One other thing - Lincoln did not believe that counties could secede from a state. The counties that eventually formed West Virginia followed the constitutionally prescribed path, with permission from the government of Virginia that was recognized as legitimate by the federal government. You may take issue with the legality of the process as it was done, but it does not constitute "secession."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"The people" were the citizens of "the states." I believe the documents were referring to a return to things as they were prior to ratification.

Michael Bradley said...

Madison and Hamilton were both practicing secessionists. They had led secession movements which took thirteen colonies out of the Britisn Empire and they led a movement by which states seceded from the Confederation.

By the way, I do not think the reference to "we the people" refers to any sort of national plebecite to form a perpetual union. The plebecite was by "we the people of the united States." The lower and upper case letters are used intentionally.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - great points.

David Rhoads said...

The "secession" of the colonies from the British Empire was effected by the right of revolution. That right, of course, resides with the people but it wasn't endorsed by the King and Parliament anymore than the unilateral secession of member states is endorsed by the United States Constitution.

One wonders why, if secession were indeed intended to be a legitimate option under the framework of the Constitution, it wasn't addressed explicitly within the text as were ratification and the admission of new states. A sentence or two would have sufficed.

As to the quoted statements from the ratification documents of Virginia, Rhode Island, and New York, beyond possibly reasserting the generic right of revolution should it come to that, they amount to so much bluster in the vein of having one's cake and eating it too. Madison was certainly correct in his assessment of "conditional ratification".

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"if secession were indeed intended to be a legitimate option under the framework of the Constitution,"

The right was enumerated in the Declaration of Independence as well. I think to suggest that the Founders believed it was ok for the colonies to separate from Britain, but that the same possibility could never exist for the states, is a stretch.

Michael Bradley said...

The Continental Congress, the Continental army, and those who supported them all firmly rejected the concept that they were "rebels." The term was not accurate, they insisted. To the Foundes the war was not a revolution but an assertion of independence.

Southern states saw themselves doing the same thing in 1860-61. George Washington is on the Great Seal of the Confederacy. The act by which Tennessee left the Union is titled a declaration of independence.

Rebel Raider said...


It is important to understand the context of the correspondence between Madison and Hamilton. Neither Hamilton, nor Madison take this opportunity to make a blanket condemnation of secession. Madison was speaking of the transition between the old union under the Articles of Confederation and the new union. When Madison describes the Union as “in toto” and “forever,”it is clear that the language used is referenced in terms of the idea to accede for only a limited amount of time.Madison was objecting to the idea of "conditional ratification" which was a proposal of the New York ratification. The entire question was whether conditions should be allowed to be attached to New York's ratification or should they have to proceed under the same conditions as the other ratifying states. None of this touches on the question of the legality of secession. Of course, the states were not required to accede to the proposed Constitution. Indeed both Rhode Island and North Carolina remained outside of the union retaining all of the sovereignty enjoyed under the DOI. It was Madison's sincere hope that they would eventually accede to the Constitution. In regards to the states that had yet not ratified Madison stated:

"I allude in a particular manner to those two states who have not thought fit to throw themselves into the bosom of the confederacy:it is desirable thing, on our part as well as theirs, that a re-union should take place as soon as possible."

Jefferson Davis stated that "for every wrong there must be a remedy." In this case the "remedy" to the alleged wrong of secession is coercion. However, both Hamilton and Madison condemned the use of coercion against states.

In reference to the notion (that is made often) that the natural right of revolution is different from secession; it is worth noting that Madison addressed this very question. In a correspondence with Daniel Webster in March of 1833, Madison, "The Father of the Constitution", clearly indicates that secession is indeed another name for revolution. He also states that it is without "theoretic controversy." It is clear from the letter that far from condemning secession Madison is in fact stating that it is appropriate in cases of "intolerable oppression."

Michael wrote:
"It's an interesting question, because it hinges on whether "the people" refers to the people acting directly, through special conventions, or through the state legislatures."

A false dichotomy. The reference of "the people" refers(as is stated in Article I, Section II) to the people of the several states. The delegates were chosen by the people of the states to represent their respective states. It was not intended to mean a people in the aggregate sense as Madison makes clear in the Federalist Papers,the Kentucky Resolution,and the correspondence with Daniel Webster. In the correspondence with Webster, Madison states: "It is fortunate when disputed theories, can be decided by undisputed facts. And here the undisputed fact is, that the Constitution was made by the people, but as imbodied into the several states, who were parties to it and therefore made by the States in their highest authoritative capacity."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Very thorough and well-reasoned. Thanks RR.

Marc Ferguson said...

RR - the inclusion of a right to "secede" in a state's ratification would have been a conditional acceptance. Your reference to Madison's correspondence with Webster makes my point - secession is a Natural Right, not a constitutional right. In another correspondence of around the same time, this with Nicholas Trist, Madison specifically stated that nullification had been discredited as unconstitutional, and that secession was but another form of nullification and thus also unconstitutional.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Natural Right, not a constitutional right."

Natural rights trump constitutional rights - every time.

Rebel Raider said...

Marc -
I think your analysis is a bit breezy. In both correspondences, Madison states that single parties can withdraw in the case of "intolerable abuses." Again, no blanket condemnation of secession, as such.Incidentally, I never stated that secession was a Constitutional right. That would imply a right bestowed or derived from the Constitution. I would submit(as I have before) that secession was lawful on the basis of the sovereignty of the states, and as a right retained by those respective states.

You wrote:

"secession is a Natural Right, not a constitutional right."

...and in a previous debate you wrote the following:

"Jefferson was speaking of the natural right of revolution, which is not the same thing as a constitutional right of secession."

Um...care to explain this?

Michael Lynch said...

Where did my other comment go?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No idea Michael. I've posted all but one, and that one wasn't yours. Feel free to repeat.

Michael Lynch said...

Nah, it wasn't that important.

This has been a good comments thread.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael L. - yes it has, thanks for your contribution.