The Natural Right of Secession: An American Political Philosophy

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Published on: July 23, 2015

Any people whatever have a right to abolish the existing government and form a new one which suits them better. –Abraham Lincoln in Congress 1847

We neopopulists have rejected the “conservative” label because the contemporary conservative seems to be willing to accept almost any amount of change as long as it is orderly.  And he has become relatively comfortable with a large and powerful central government as the price he has to pay for this so-called order.  Conservatives are becoming the cowards of American history.  They are all whine and no action.

In this dialogue, Nick the neopopulist calls a conservative radio talk show host who has made a good living, for many years, telling us that the central government is tyrannizing us.  He has provided the case for radically altering our government.   But then he also asserts that we should not, cannot, do anything about it except keep listening.  He often argues that even peaceful secession, which is all we expect him to propose, is morally absurd and consequently non-viable.  If he took any other position he would go out of business and/or be persecuted by the government.  Nick wants to see if he can stiffen the man’s spine a bit.  

Nick: Our revolutionary forebears seceded from England.  Why do say that secession is morally absurd and impossible?

Conservative: They did not secede, they abolished a government in which England played a very large role.

Nick: So abolishing a government is morally coherent and responsible while seceding from one, like the South did in 1861, is somehow morally absurd?

Conservative: Yes.  In abolishing a government, a moral majority agrees to stick together and reform the government, not just walk away from an existing government, refusing to take responsibility for it.  Secessionists are like kids who just want to take their ball and go home when they start losing the game.

Nick: But our revolutionary forefathers, who seceded from England, were not a moral majority.  Only about a third of the colonists actually rebelled during our revolutionary war.  It was our first civil war with some colonists fighting for the crown.  The Southern secession in 1861 appears to have been more popular by far, in the region of secession, than the revolutionary war we fought against Britain.  At first it was somewhat popular even among Northerners, like the Copperheads.  And clearly the whole purpose of the revolutionary war was to secede from Britain.  Each state did so individually.  King George signed a treaty with each state, letting them go.

Conservative: Be that as it may, the American Revolution was essentially conservative.  The colonists were just trying to secure their rights as Englishmen.  Secession was incidental to the reformation of the government — to its abolition and reformation.

Nick: So characterizing a revolution as conservative justifies a minority prosecuting a revolutionary war of secession.  Fine.  I like that.  The South in 1861was trying to conserve state sovereignty and millions of people today just want to conserve their traditional American rights — like freedom of religion and the right to keep and bear arms.  So call it conservative if you want.  Sounds like you are finally willing to support a secession movement as a conservativeContemporary secession would be a conservative movement just like the revolutionary war. 

Conservative: NO!  The South had no right, moral or otherwise, to secede, and neither does any state today.  The South and North, working in concert, should have abolished the whole government and started over again.

Nick: So our revolutionary forefathers should have gotten together with King George to abolish and then reform the whole British government — essentially overthrowing it even for the people living in England?  That sounds real conservative and practical – not.  When are guys like you going to finally admit that our forefathers were not conservatives?  They really were revolutionaries.  They did not care about any legal right to secede or some more proper way to abolish any government.  Obviously they believed they had the moral right to secede from England, and that that is all they needed to act.

Conservative: Totally different circumstances.  No state has the moral right to secede.  Not in 1861.  Not now.  The South had representation.  The colonists did not.  

Nick: The South’s argument for secession was not that it was taxed without representation, although it saw the handwriting on the wall with the Tariff of Abominations.  It was paying eighty percent of the taxes with thirty percent of the population.  And it is completely hypocritical for a conservative, who believes that democracy can easily turn into tyranny, to criticize the South for coming to the same conclusion.  Today, you have representation in congress and this has not kept you from complaining about tyranny.  As you very well know the South seceded because of a whole host of problems making the government in Washington unsuitable from its point of view.  But let’s get back to basics.  Don’t you agree, as a conservative, that there is a moral right — what you would call a natural right — which may trump any positive, legislated law?

Conservative: Yes.  But there is no natural right to secession.

Nick: That seems like an odd thing for a conservative to say given so many other things conservatives seem to believe in – like the natural right to abolish a government.  Modern American conservatives promote many ideas and principles, including the notion that legitimate government is always by the people and for the people, but do not believe these ideas are worth fighting for except under perfect, orderly circumstances.   This is what defines a coward.  In any event, how can there be a natural right to abolish a government and not a natural right to secede from one which is exactly what our revolutionary forebears did?  Secession just is abolition and reformation. 

Conservative: Abolition is paradoxically more orderly than secession.  It is conservative.  It keeps the country together.  That is the sense in which Lincoln was a conservative.  First, keep the country together.  Then think about changing the government.  

Nick: So Lincoln making total war on the South was orderly and conservative?!  Mince words all you want.  You are just going to be laughed at.  If we have natural rights then the abolition of a government which is violating those rights might be initiated by a minority.  In that case, the majority will just force the minority into secession and maybe war.  Secession is the only practical route to abolishing the tyranny.  Bad governments, for example socialist governments — say the government of the French Revolution — may be established under the aegis of a majority.  This is why the moral right to secession is so important.  It becomes impossible to abolish the government.  One simply has to leave.

Conservative: Alright.  You sound like you know the drill.  So let’s do it.  The secession of a state is triggered by a clear majority of the people in that state.  They are even willing to fight for it.  Then why not the county?  It too has traditional, historical borders like the state, creating, in that sense a separate people.  Why shouldn’t the counties have the right to secede, or the cities?

Nick: The counties did not create their states.  On the other hand the sovereign states did in fact create the federal government as their servant.  It is an historical fact.  The states own and should be controlling the federal government.  They have the natural right to do what they please with it including seceding from it because of the kind of democratic tyranny you conservatives are supposedly so wary of.  After the ratification of the constitution by the then existing states, new states were considered coequal with those preexisting states becoming co-owners of the federal government.  The states, in turn, established their counties.  But I will let that go.  Let me lay this right on the line, even if it gives you a heart attack.  The natural right of secession exists right down to the individual level.  And furthermore it is impractical only if you believe that the purpose of government goes far beyond securing the rights and property of individuals.

Conservative: Oh my God!  You really are crazy!  You are an anarchist!

Nick: This is when you need to shut up, stop being a hypocrite, and start thinking like a man.  You are the anarchist because you are willing to let government do whatever it wants to as long as there is a purely theoretical way of changing it, no matter how slow and arduous or even impossible.  You won’t face the fact that your own view of government implies the natural right of individual secession.  The left understands this, and this is why it hates your view of government.  Of course you are teaching the left that you do not actually believe what you say.

Conservative: What are you talking about?  My view of government?

Nick: Well, do you believe that the sole purpose of government or, at the least, the primary purpose of government, as the principle around which everything else must cohere, is to secure the rights and property of individuals or not?

Conservative: Yes.  Of course.

Nick: Well then wake up and smell the coffee.  In the liberal, progressive universe, this view of government just is individual secession.  It is the individual opting out. 

Conservative: [Shocked silence.]   

Nick: Try not to choke on the truth.   Good government’s prime directive is to support individual secession.  The law exists to protect his rights and property.  Why do you think the left thinks everyone on the right is such a nut?  The left is clearer about what you supposedly believe than you are.   Individual liberty, in the mind of the left, is individual secession.  And this is largely correct.

Conservative: No.  It’s not right.  This is too extreme.  It is not even practical.

Nick: As usual, you really don’t have a clear analysis.  Just sentiment.  Just reactionary fluff.  This is why the libertarians take you conservatives to the cleaners on this stuff.  Let me explain how individual secession works just fine for any government which is actually established to protect individual rights and property.  What you will see is that the viability of individual secession, let alone county and state secession, is precisely what terrifies liberals, progressives and conservatives.  Secession, right down to the individual level, is the patently moral, orderly, and paradoxically democratic way of abolishing and reestablishing a government.  It is not anarchy.  It is about establishing true order.  This terrifies every socialist who claims we are all “in this together.”  Tyranny is always justified with false, saccharine moralizing.  Hitler was the master of this.  Contemporary conservatives have been corrupted by their narcissistic “compassion.”  They have surrendered to an eternal class of people who want involuntary access to everyone else’s property.  These welfare cowards hate free association.  They know they would be marginalized in a free world – because they deserve it.

Conservative: So how in the world does individual secession work?

Nick: It’s so simple that all the ideologues can do is make it seem complicated in order to obscure the obvious morality of it.  If the government I secede from is there, in the first place, to protect my rights and property, it is certainly not going to confiscate my property or jail me for seceding, is it?

Conservative: So you think a moral government is just going to leave you alone because it is only there to secure your property and rights.  Well now that you’ve seceded it is not going to be there to secure your property and rights any more.

Nick: Correct.  Now I am going to have to secure my own acres, my home, my rights, myself.  Guess what — given the record of modern government, I am very confident I can do it better.  And so are millions of other Americans.  These days we consider the government just as much a threat to our property and rights as the common criminal.

Conservative: But now you are going to be cut off from all government services and products.  Okay, okay, I know what you are going to say – ‘Alleluia!’  But how about just going to town to shop?  Do you get to use the roads? What currency are you going to use?  How do contracts with your neighbors get enforced?

Nick: If the government that my neighbors live under is only there to protect their rights and property none of this should be problem.  I may become self-sufficient, off grid.  I can still trade with my neighbors.  I could use the same currency or I could use real money, like gold, or bullets.  My neighbors are willing to take me to town because I pay them for it, or because they pay for the roads and it’s up to them whether or not they want to share it with me in this fashion.   Enforcing contracts is where we start recognizing that secession is just the natural way of abolishing and reestablishing a new government peacefully.

Conservative: So what if the government you seceded from kept you entirely out of its territory? 

Nick: I might survive just fine without that access.  But why, given its limited mission, would it keep me off my neighbors’ property when they invite on to it?  Why would it refuse trade with me?

Conservative: Look, I can see where you going, and all of this is well and good, meaning that I understand that there are nut cases like you who really would be able to survive on even one acre if the government you seceded from did not persecute you.  You will die pathetically happy in a few years.  But the real nonsense in your whole story is that you are seceding from precisely the kind of government you would not secede from.

Nick: EXACTLY!  I WOULD NOT NEED TO SECEDE FROM SUCH A GOVERNMENT BECAUSE FOR ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES IT ENFORCES MY PERSONAL SOVEREIGNTY ALREADY.  This is the libertarian point.  Such a government recognizes the right to secede right down to the individual level, meaning no such secession is practically necessary.  Such a state has not incorporated my labor or property involuntarily.  It makes no claim on me except that I refrain from threatening the rights and property of others.  If I am law abiding in this regard, it does not interfere with any voluntary commerce or association.  It may still enforce a border against people who are not a party to this contract and its discipline.  But this contract is just as basic between sovereignties as it is within them.  It is the one and only “social contract.”

Conservative: So what happens if the government you secede from does decide to persecute you by not allowing any commerce between you and your neighbors, making it difficult to survive?

Nick: Then I try to get my neighbors to secede with me — to form a new government for enforcing contracts between us.  In other words, I am not actually arguing that individual secession is viable over the long haul for most individuals.  It certainly is for some individuals who have enough property.  And this is, by the way, the best argument for making sure that people have a lot of private property, including land.  I am arguing that secession should be a recognized natural right which starts the inherently democratic process of actually abolishing a government peacefully.  Our constitution should recognize state secession, county secession, and individual secession as a natural right which simply begins the process of abolishing and reforming government in a peaceful, orderly manner by growing a new government out from geographic centers of secession.  This is the prevention of total abolition, all at once, as a form of anarchy.  This is a conservative process.  Secession is the peaceful, orderly means by which governments are dissolved and then reformed.  If Lincoln had allowed the South to leave in peace a whole new government over both sections may have emerged in the long run.  Otherwise history would have demonstrated that the sectional differences were so profound that it made no rational sense, in the first place, for both sections to be parts of the same country.  There is no natural law which says that there must be an all-encompassing nation state.  Just the opposite is true.  Our large modern nation states are unnatural.  Still, I am not arguing that there ever was or ever will be a government which makes individual secession, or regional secession, easy.  I am arguing that the natural right to secession, right down to the individual level, exists no matter how difficult historical governments make it and whether or not it is memorialized in any written law.  You must agree because you believe that government is only legitimately established to secure the rights and property of individuals.  The left cannot deny, without making itself ridiculous, that if we do not have the right to secede, then government can do anything it wishes to us and we are obligated to accept it.  This is the truly crazy view of government. 

Conservative: So you think the federal government, in 1861, should have protected the property of citizens in the South even when that property was human beings?

Nick: You know as well as I do that the invasion of the South was not initiated to free any slaves.  It was initiated to deny the natural right of secession; to make the secession of states, counties, and individuals who did not own slaves, impossible.  The North had accepted slavery explicitly in the constitution.  If, undergoing its change of heart, the North had seceded from the South, it is perfectly obvious that the South would have let the North go peacefully.  The South believed in secession as a natural right of sovereign states and individuals and the natural process by which human beings peacefully abolish and reform governments.  It is perfectly natural for this process to start right at the individual level.  It has in fact started at the individual level in our own time.

Conservative: I think I understand what you mean.  I will admit that millions of Americans, today, have already seceded from the federal government in every moral and spiritual sense.  The only thing which is keeping this from being acted out in the concrete is the threat of coercion and violence.  Maybe this proves that the current situation, rooted in the history of the Civil War, is unnatural and the situation you believe in, legalized secession, is much more natural.  I know only that this situation cannot go on much longer.  The government has lost our hearts and minds.  It cannot gain them back by force.  Union, I confess, is either voluntary or a constant state of implicit war.  I would rather see the government let crazy people like you live apart from it to whatever degree possible than prove it is a violent tyrant serving the parasitic class.  It is a bad, unsustainable situation.

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