What did the founders think of secession?

James Madison

James Madison

The conventional story goes something like this: The founders donned their powdered wigs, put their knee breeches on, and cheered as George Washington applied the requisite amount of boot leather to the necessary number of British posteriors. Thirteen colonies turned into thirteen free and independent states. They did not constitute, in any meaningful sense, a nation. The founders shared with the people of the several nations an abiding suspicion of central authority. Only the Revolution had united them and with it done they could all go back to those nations and have nothing more to do with one another. They never intended to create a consolidated republic and always imagined association between their states as strictly voluntary and subject to unilateral termination, secession in a word, at any time. To the degree the former colonies associated, they associated like you might associate with someone you met once at a party. Having a good time together did not make them married. This vision persisted through the Antebellum until the Tyrant Abraham I, the Hammer of Dixie, enslaved us all. Thus they said “the United States are” before the war and “the United States is” after, or even if they didn’t then they held sentiments largely along those lines. Shelby Foote said so.

I cannot improve on Andy Hall’s demolition of the argument from phrasing. Americans did not primarily or exclusively say “the United States are” until the Civil War and take up the singular verb after. The transition happened decades earlier. But that still leaves the meat of the story. Did antebellum Americans, most especially the founders whom the secessionists claimed as their own, consistently understand the Union as inherently voluntary, with states free to depart at will or, failing that, when they felt things sufficiently dire to justify an extreme step? In short: no.

By that I don’t mean to say that secession never crossed the minds of anybody prior to the late antebellum, nor that talk of disunion only arose late in the age. Threats of it go back to the Constitutional Convention. But those threats did not necessarily indicate general approval of the concept. Rather the convention, twelve of thirteen states strong, came together to curb state sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient to the task of governing the nation because the states had much greater power than the national government, even if that government constituted a permanent union. One needn’t interpret the text to drive that conclusion, incidentally, the Articles call themselves perpetual:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

A perpetual union hardly incorporates in itself any right to secession. Finding the power of the central state insufficient, must we think that the founders got together in Philadelphia to remedy that and then undermined their own work so comprehensively as to nullify it at the whim of any given state? The requirement that all states agree on legislation proved a critical weakness in the Articles, so would they really write it back into the Constitution? People in the past can do things that seem to us perverse and understand themselves instead as consistent with sound principles, but that suggestion would not have made any sense at the time.

The Philadelphia debates bear this out. Just a few days ago I noticed that Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause the Oxford History of the United States volume on the revolutionary era, sold by Amazon as an ebook for all of three dollars. I have not taken much interest in revolutionary history due to all the patriotic myth making. I know that historians do good work there, but the flag waving enthusiasm put me off long ago. All the same, I wanted to check something I’d heard in Mike Duncan’s wonderful Revolutions podcast. So I winced at the title and got my file. I have only read the chapters on the Constitutional Convention and ratification, but they proved a gold mine of information about what the founders thought on the issue. As much of the Philadelphia deliberations concerned representation in the Congress, they naturally dwell upon what states deserve in the way of power. It also made for a really good read. I intend to go back and finish the rest at some point.

I already knew that James Madison came to Philadelphia with a plan to grant the national government a sweeping veto over any state legislation, but the account I got back in high school painted the advocates for equality of the states in the Congress and those who argued for apportionment by population as roughly equal. In fact, only New Jersey and New York favored the former’s equal representation plan when it came down to voting. If a broad consensus existed in Independence Hall, it did not view the states in themselves as the principal components of the new nation. Otherwise one would expect much stronger votes in favor of state equality. What does this have to do with secession? A weak government could hardly prevent it. A strong one could coerce recalcitrant states and wake them from any dreams they had of disunion and nullification alike.

The advocates for state equality touched on the connection themselves. As Middlekauf has it:

Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, all from Connecticut, made the heart of the case for equality of representation with minor, though longwinded, aid from Luther Martin. The essential weakness in the argument for proportional representation, they insisted, was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the Confederacy. The states in reality were joined together by an agreement much like a treaty; they were free and sovereign. Now they were asked to give up their equal voices in the Union, in effect to be consolidated out of existence

James Wilson

James Wilson

Ellsworth further insisted that every confederacy in history had equality among its members, a point of history more convenient than correct. Madison and his fellow Virginian James Wilson would have none of this. Middlekauf continues:

Both rejected the small-state contention that a treaty bound the Confederation together. Far from a union of equals, the Confederation possessed some-but not enough-authority over the states. […] Wilson agreed and rejected the Connecticut proposal for a compromise -the lower house to be apportioned according to population, the upper according to state equality-and cited statistics which purported to show that such an arrangement would permit the minority to control the majority. Seven states, Wilson noted, might control six; seven with one-third of the country’s population would control six with two-thirds of the population. “Can we forget,” he asked, “for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”

That argument sounds downright twentieth century. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court rejected malapportionment of state legislatures in the 1960s on the grounds that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” I have heard that decision, which articulated the “one person, one vote” standard, damned as a grievous offense against state sovereignty. This sovereignty forms a necessary prerequisite for unilateral secession as practiced by the Confederates and admired by their various descendant movements today. Madison, back when the states had a far better claim to sovereignty in matters save for secession,

denied flatly the states were sovereign-“in fact they are only political societies. There is a graduation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.” The states, Madison argued, “are only great corporations, having the power of making by-laws, and these are effectual only if they are not contradictory to the general consideration. The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government-at least as much as they formerly were under the King and British Parliament.” And from these propositions about the character of the states-devoid of sovereignty, mere corporations, properly under the thumb of the national government-it followed that since America was a republic, representation must be based on the people.

A state which does not have final sovereignty, which constitutes a mere corporation and with laws that hold only as by-laws of its particular interests rather than paramount legislation, could hardly secede on its own initiative alone.

Madison further opined, implicitly, on the nature of state governments in The Federalist, Number 10:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

A state government must, by definition, constitute a smaller society than the general government. A local government would constitute one still smaller. Madison considered the smaller a far greater risk to the rights of others, a position often born out in twentieth century Supreme Court cases. One could also reach further back and look at the sort of oppression and outright persecution that the slave states indulged in to protect slavery. If one counts up state-level emancipations and exempts states built out of territories which had nationally imposed bans on slavery in their bounds prior to statehood, we have to stop counting states that ended slavery on their own and without war forcing matters at the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania-Ohio border. This gives us only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

From these nine we could subtract Maine as it had a Massachusetts-imposed slavery ban before it became a state, and Vermont, where slavery had never been practiced and so eliminating it took little exertion. This leaves us with seven states to live up to the laboratory of democracy reputation. Against them, we could count both the fifteen slave states of 1860 and the two slave territories of Utah and New Mexico. I would not say that states necessarily and always take the low road, and some have gotten out in front of the national government often enough, but the overall example does not give much encouragement when concerns go beyond simple things like traffic laws and into questions of minority rights.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

We know how the dispute worked out in Madison’s day, just as we know how it did in the case of Lee v. Grant. Adherents to other theories of national composition certainly existed. They had enough strength, when the advocates of state equality made it into a make-or-break issue, to force compromises. But the notion that the founders acted with one mind, however always borderline absurd, and that this mind fixed on the sovereignty of states simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. National supremacy flowed not from Lincoln in Washington, but from the convention Washington chaired in Philadelphia.

But, the conventional story then goes, whatever happened at Philadelphia ratification came contingent upon various undertakings. Most famously, the states only ratified with the promise that the Congress would pass a Bill of Rights and with some kind of tacit understanding that if this did not work out, the states could quit the union and resume their independent sovereignties.

This point came lately to my attention via a video Al Mackey posted over at Student of the Civil War. It begins with Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Yale, discussing the legality of secession. The secession discussion only consumes the first portion of the run time, but in it Amar makes some important points.

Madison did not get his global veto of state enactments for the Congress, but he did get the Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

By definition, sovereignty rests with whoever has the final say. The Constitution did not grant that power to the states, nor hazily delegate it to them by not granting it to the nation. It instead strips them of any such power to make laws, even state constitutions, contrary to the laws of the United States. Note that the provision does not limit itself to the national Constitution or treaties, but reaches to any federal legislation whatsoever. Even if the states had sovereignty before ratification, they ceded it then. This leaves no room for nullification either of one law or, in its ultimate form, the nullification of all federal laws by secession. A state could pass a law nullifying the tariff or the Fugitive Slave Act, as respectively South Carolina and Wisconsin did, but such laws existed only on paper and until a federal court declared them void at the latest. Roger Taney’s Supreme Court agreed on the second point when it tossed Wisconsin’s act of nullification, to the thunderous silence of most of the usual states rights enthusiasts. What part of this did South Carolina miss? Presumably the part where its nullification must meet with general approval as such a nullification would strengthen and preserve slavery whereas Wisconsin’s would not.

Amar further argues that if the founders intended the Constitution to come with a free trial period and sovereignty-back guarantee, then they did not act it. During the ratification debates in New York, with the vote very close and Alexander Hamilton not sure he had the votes, the anti-federalists suggested that they would give way for the promise of a Bill of Rights. Failing delivery on that front, New York would secede. Hamilton asked Madison for his opinion of such a deal. Even at this critical juncture when New York’s refusal would bisect the Union, possibly fatally, Madison declined to endorse compromise:

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.


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

If Madison would have broken principle in the name of pragmatism, one must imagine he would have done it then. The Constitution already had the nine states it needed to go into effect, plus an extra, but the loss of New York would have meant a great blow. Unlike Delaware, South Carolina, or other states which desperately needed a union to sustain themselves, New York with its great port and generous hinterland might have been able to go it alone. Its bad example would weaken the new union from the start, hence his, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s writing of The Federalist to begin with.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Lest one think Madison and Wilson alone, or necessarily extreme, in looking into the future and cursing the names of John C. Calhoun and his unruly brood of nullifiers and disunionists, despite the votes at the convention and final Constitution arguing very much otherwise, Hamilton himself got into the act in The Federalist, Number 11:

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Strict and indissoluble, not loose and easily broken.

The framers did not envision anything like what Lincoln called the dreams of the Confederates:

In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement,—[laughter,]—to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction. [Continued laughter.]

I don’t know how the founders chose to organize their private time save for the evidence given by their progeny, acknowledged and otherwise. In their political acts they present a clear record favoring not states, with the national government as a kind of necessary evil, but rather saw it as a necessary and positive good and, moreover, as a clear way to suppress contrary movements in the states. That doesn’t mean we would necessarily find all their motives for doing so appealing or in line with those who favor a stronger national state today, but they did what they did and wrote what they wrote.

This myth, like the myth of the antislavery Lee, will endure this and many other blog posts. It will survive the scorn of historians. The supposed advocates of original intent will read it, as they do all other inconvenient facts, as irrelevant rather than persuasive. They and their more radical compatriots, latter-day secessionists who ask us to believe that just this once the rhetoric they employ lacks the white supremacy which has so consistently informed it in the past, must wrap themselves in a pretend history of original intent. The real one doesn’t have much to offer them.

The framers envisioned the possibility of unilateral secession, as attempted in 1860-1, and nullification as attempted by South Carolina and Wisconsin alike, and foreclosed each in Philadelphia and at ratification. Antebellum Americans knew as much and needn’t live in the cold heart of Yankeedom or on the Illinois prairie to notice it. The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war. Why should we pretend otherwise, unless we aspire to rehabilitate the some of the same politics that they did? Secession for what? States rights for what? If one can get a straight answer from the Confederacy’s latter-day partisans, in itself a major achievement, and they have cleverness enough to not simply say “slavery” with one of the usual codes, then I usually hear preserving the founders’ vision of the Union. It didn’t take a deep look into the founding era to find out what that vision entailed. One can and should note that it included slavery for at least the foreseeable future. But it did not include secession or nullification at all.


3 comments on “What did the founders think of secession?

  1. kennethalmquist says:

    Nice article. I would quibble with one point: “The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war.”

    The South Carolina declaration of secession[1] did make a case that what they were doing was legal. At the heart of the argument is the assertion: “We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.” The declaration implicitly assumes that the federal judiciary doesn’t count an an arbitrator. With these premises, South Carolina can legally leave the union by declaring personal liberty laws are unconstitutional, even though the federal courts found otherwise (except for one that was repealed after being found unconstitutional), and even though South Carolina fails to identify a single instance where those laws interfered with returning a slave to South Carolina.

    Supporters of secession would like to be able to claim the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers (or at least the Southerners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington), even though the goal of secession was to dismantle the country that the Founding Fathers had created. This resulted in a lot of dubious rhetoric both before and after the war.

    [1] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

    • You’re right; I could have qualified that better. I was thinking too much in the context of later historiography. I’d have done better to say that they considered it revolutionary but also to have historical and at least quasi-legal defenses.

      Of course in alluding to the language of the Declaration of Independence, as they do in your quote, they’re hardly eschewing revolutionary logic. This is very close to the same sentiment as the declaration of causes, which I’m sure South Carolina did deliberately:

      “That to secure these rights, 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”

      I doubt many of them would have considered the American Revolution entirely non-revolutionary, even given South Carolina’s especially reactionary more 18th century England than 18th century England elite political style.

      Others were not so shy at all, of course, from Lee’s prewar declaration that secession was revolutionary to the popular self-identification as “rebels”.

  2. Reblogged this on aliberalthinker and commented:
    Yet another great blog article on the American Civil War. This time, it’s about secession and how the founders viewed it. I highly recommend you check it out!

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