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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
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Parting Company


For decades, it has been obvious that there are irreconcilable differences between Americans who want to control the lives of others and those who wish to be left alone. Which is the more peaceful solution: Americans using the brute force of government to beat liberty-minded people into submission or simply parting company? In a marriage, where vows are ignored and broken, divorce is the most peaceful solution. Similarly, our constitutional and human rights have been increasingly violated by a government instituted to protect them. Americans who support constitutional abrogation have no intention of mending their ways.

Since Barack Obama's re-election, hundreds of thousands of petitions for secession have reached the White House. Some people have argued that secession is unconstitutional, but there's absolutely nothing in the Constitution that prohibits it. What stops secession is the prospect of brute force by a mighty federal government, as witnessed by the costly War of 1861. Let's look at the secession issue.

At the 1787 constitutional convention, a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, rejected it, saying: "A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound."

On March 2, 1861, after seven states had seceded and two days before Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin proposed a constitutional amendment that said, "No State or any part thereof, heretofore admitted or hereafter admitted into the Union, shall have the power to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the United States."

Several months earlier, Reps. Daniel E. Sickles of New York, Thomas B. Florence of Pennsylvania and Otis S. Ferry of Connecticut proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit secession.

Here's my no-brainer question: Would there have been any point to offering these amendments if secession were already unconstitutional?

On the eve of the War of 1861, even unionist politicians saw secession as a right of states. Rep. Jacob M. Kunkel of Maryland said, "Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty."

The Northern Democratic and Republican parties favored allowing the South to secede in peace. Just about every major Northern newspaper editorialized in favor of the South's right to secede. New York Tribune (Feb. 5, 1860): "If tyranny and despotism justified the Revolution of 1776, then we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861." Detroit Free Press (Feb. 19, 1861): "An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful, could produce nothing but evil — evil unmitigated in character and appalling in content." The New York Times (March 21, 1861): "There is growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go."

There's more evidence seen at the time our Constitution was ratified. The ratification documents of Virginia, New York and Rhode Island explicitly said that they held the right to resume powers delegated, should the federal government become abusive of those powers. The Constitution would have never been ratified if states thought that they could not maintain their sovereignty.

The War of 1861 settled the issue of secession through brute force that cost 600,000 American lives. Americans celebrate Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but H.L. Mencken correctly evaluated the speech, "It is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense." Lincoln said that the soldiers sacrificed their lives "to the cause of self-determination — that government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth." Mencken says: "It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of people to govern themselves."

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




10 Comments | Post Comment
this is an interesting article . i look forward to Mr. Williams column each week. keep up the good work.

God bless.
Comment: #1
Posted by: big Doug
Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:09 AM
This is interesting. i look forward to Dr. Williams column each week.
Comment: #2
Posted by: big Doug
Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:15 AM
This is interesting. i look forward to Dr. Williams column each week.
Comment: #3
Posted by: big Doug
Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:15 AM
Dr. Williams, you are trying to have a conversation that is far more complicated and intelligent than most Americans would like to have. Most would like to say that if you feel that the south had the right to secede then you must be in favor of the ideals and practices of the confederacy and therefore indifferent to slavery and racist. Whether you agree with the policies of the southern states in the mid nineteenth century or whether you abhor slavery has little to do with the constitutional and legal question of "did they have the right to secede?" One could feel that the northern states were morally superior and the southern states were guilty of grave human rights violations but that on its own would not change the issue of whether or not they had the right to secede. No where in the constitution did it say that states do not have the right to secede unless their intentions are pure. I wont get into a discussion of whether or not the north was actually the pure and virtuous side vs the south being the evil side (most history books are already written on that question and most minds are already made up) but whether you are against the reasons that the south had for seceding or not has nothing to do with the right to do so.
Some will say, even if they had the right they shouldn't have because look how it turned out. That is certainly a fair point but there is one problem. Secession and violent secession are not the same thing. If states today decided to secede there is nowhere written in stone that we'd have to fight a war over it. That would be a matter of whether or not the state did so in an orderly fashion and the federal government decided to respond with violence. There would be certain things to work out to make secession fair like how to transition military bases and federal property, how to deal with repatriation of those who wished to stay in the USA and how to compensate them for their land, how to (and whether to) compensate those who had paid into medicare and social security, how the state would pay down its relative portion of the national debt and so on. But these things could be worked out civilly.
For the record, I am not in favor of any of the current secession movements and I think most of them are just sour grapes about losing an election (though I can see circumstances where I'd be in favor of secession.) But once again, whether or not I am in favor of a secession movement or I agree with the intentions of those who wish to secede is irrelevant. They have the right to do so.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Zack
Tue Nov 27, 2012 8:48 AM
Could this secession talk just be an overreaction? Probably. But imagine if Texas did secede and ran its government with free market principles and limited government. It would thrive. Americans would want to immigrate there in droves and people would finally understand that government is the problem, not the solution.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Tue Nov 27, 2012 9:30 AM
I generally admire Prof. Williams, but this article disappoints me. Just as the Confederacy was based on the contradiction that there was a "right" to violate the rights of the enslaved, this revived secessionist movement (as well as this article) is based on an out-of-context legalistic interpretation that contains an implicit attack on the rule of law itself. It is another example of how the libertarians' rejection of a coherent philosophical system leads them to contradictions. I too am greatly disappointed that not enough Americans could see the dangers of four more years of Obama, but the answer is to fight FOR American freedom, not to leave the arena.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Phillip Schearer
Wed Nov 28, 2012 5:50 AM
Wrong Walter quoting dead wrong Mencken. Both libertarian views, both wrong. The Confederates did not fight for the right of people to govern themselves. They fought for the right to govern other people, the slave business.
Walter, there are so many writings on secession and the Civil War and whether secession is Constitutional. Even those who helped draft it from the Federalist papers are divided so why muck with peoples heads over a non question. One doesn't have to just study our history, study the history of secession/civil disturbances in other countries. They all end in bloodshed and strife and having to rebuild after everyone shakes hands and makes nice. If you really want some good Civil War era studies not written with a political, libertarian stance, try the writings of James M. McPherson
Comment: #7
Posted by: morgan
Wed Nov 28, 2012 8:16 AM
To be polite, Mr. Williams article is, at best, the product of substantial revisionist history as well 'selective' incorporation of the historical facts. A cursory examination of the 14th Amendment, section 5, underscores exactly the sophistry being employed by Mr. Williams and those who would leave the Union. If they are so determined, why petition the government? Simply do not send your representative to D.C. What Mr. Williams appears to ignore is that prior to the Civil War it was the "United States are." After the war it is "The United States is." Or is the Pledge of Allegiance (indivisible ??) simply outmoded post modern thought.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Steve D.
Wed Nov 28, 2012 5:06 PM
Posted my comments a while back. Never came up on screen?????
Comment: #9
Thu Nov 29, 2012 2:44 PM
Dr. Williams: I am glad you addressed this.
I have felt for several years that we should divide USA about 50-50 for one conservative nation and one liberal nation. Lots of effort to accomplish and to convince majority of benefits. But it would be better if the big majority of citizens have similar political philosophy for moving toward prospertiy instead of stalemate and polarization.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Chancer
Tue Dec 4, 2012 9:55 AM
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