As a Richmond National Battlefield Park Volunteer, I have spent many Saturdays talking about the legality of secession with Nathan Hall, a historian and park ranger at Richmond. Nathan has been studying the topic deeply for many years. Over the next few days, I’m going to share some of my questions and, more importantly, some of Nathan’s answers.
Nathan earned his Bachelor’s at VCU and received a Master’s Degree from LSU, where he specialized in the legal and cultural history of the early republic. He studied secession in undergraduate school and did Masters-level research projects about Virginia’s path to ratifying secession. I recently asked Nathan to speak at the Richmond Round Table, and people really enjoyed his presentation. I think you’ll enjoy his thoughts, too.
Doug: In the context of American history, what is the difference between “secession” and “revolution”?
Nathan: First, it’s important to clarify that secession and revolution are not the same thing, though they can produce similar results—namely the change of one form of government to another.
Simply defined, “secession” refers to a process of formally withdrawing from any organization. In the context of American history, secession is the assertion that individual states could, if they desired, opt to rescind their political ties to the federal government of the United States that were established upon the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788.
Revolution, on the other hand, encompasses a much broader definition. The dictionary definition calls it any “a sudden, radical, or complete change” with the optional, more narrow definition of “a fundamental change in political organization.” In American history, revolution usually refers to the independence movement of the 1760s-1783. Notably, the separation of the colonies from the British government was not referred to as “secession” by its participants. The revolutionaries of 1776 were under no illusion that their independence would be accepted as legal, in the sense of its being sanctioned by British law. Instead, the Declaration of Independence claimed its authority as drawn from inherent, natural rights that all people possessed (“inalienable” in Thomas Jefferson’s parlance), meaning they did not need to look to the authority of the English king or of British law to justify their right to self-govern according to their preferred method. Thus, their action was not “secession,” because it was not understood to be a legally sanctioned withdrawal process, and was universally referred to by its participants as “revolution.” Herein lies the difference, for the purposes of American history, between secession and revolution. From the republic’s beginnings, revolution was stated to be a universal human right, and secession a formal procedure of law.
When tensions between federal and state governments escalated in 1833, James Madison offered a clear distinction of his view of how secession differed from revolution. He wrote to Daniel Webster, praising a speech that the latter had given in the Senate arguing against South Carolina’s assertion that they could nullify federal law or potentially withdraw from the union. Of the speech, Madison congratulated Webster that “It crushes ‘nullification’ and must hasten the abandonment of ‘Secession.’ But,” Madison cautioned Webster, “this dodges the blow by confounding the claim to secede at will, with the right of seceding from intolerable oppression. The former answers itself, being a violation, without cause, of a faith solemnly pledged. The latter is another name only for revolution, about which there is no theoretic controversy.”
To be continued….