“Secession” refers to the act of withdrawing from a formal organization, most commonly a political entity. Although secession movements have occurred throughout the world, when used in the American context, secession refers to the point in history (1860–61) when the southern states severed diplomatic and political relations with the rest of the Union as a precursor to the Civil War.
The idea of secession was very much a part of Whig political theory. Philosophers like John Locke, the intellectual forbear of the American Declaration of Independence, supported the right to secede if one suffered under despotic rule. In the Second Continental Congress (1776), delegates from South Carolina threatened the other colonies with secession if slaves were not counted as a portion of a state’s population. Eventually, the Continental Congress gave in and South Carolina won the standoff. Whether a state had a right to secede was an issue of controversy and ambiguity at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The result, in part, was a federal system of government that divided political powers and responsibilities between the federal and state governments.
In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively) argued that a state had the right to annul a federal law that it deemed unconstitutional. Whether this also gave the state a right to secede was not clearly articulated by these two authors.
Afterwards, secessionist threats arose sporadically in early American history. In 1804, a few New England Federalists briefly considered secession out of fear that southern slave interests would dominate Congress if new states from the Louisiana Territory were admitted to the union. In 1814 the Boston Gazette editorialized that secession was a legitimate state action worthy of consideration by the Hartford Convention, which would shortly convene to discuss how to protect New England states’ rights. Moderates prevailed in each of the above instances, and calls for secession quickly subsided.
John C. Calhoun, a dynamic southern senator from South Carolina, revised the concept of secession to unite the South and create an atmosphere that eventually led to the breaking away of the southern states and the U.S. Civil War (1861–65). Calhoun’s extension of secession came in the form of granting individuals “original undivided sovereignty” while acting through the state. This extension of the doctrine of secession served to further bifurcate the country between the free and slave states, since many people in the free states viewed the Constitution through the lens of a nationalistic point of view in which the Constitution acted directly through the states on the people.
South Carolina seceded from the Union six weeks after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. The South Carolina secessionist ordinance formally dissolved any ties between South Carolina and the Union. South Carolina was the first to secede in 1860, and within a few months 6 other states followed: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Following hostilities that began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, the final 4 states that would make up the Confederacy (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) seceded from the Union.
Abraham Lincoln refused to acknowledge the southern states’ right to secede. He claimed that in 1774, the Union formed under a compact that could only be broken if all states agreed to rescind it. The Supreme Court endorsed that idea in Texas v. White (1868) when it claimed the Union is “an indestructible union” and stressed that Texas never ceased to be a state in the Union. Secession is no longer regarded as a viable means for a minority section of the population, or states, to escape from a federal government they perceive as unjust.
Max Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1966); John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 2003); Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio 1776–1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000); and David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).
Matthew K. DeSantis and Kyle Scott
Last Updated: 2006