Should U.S. states have the right to secede?

There is debate whether members of the Constitutional Convention intended for states joining the United States to maintain the right to secede.

For the purposes of this thread, this debate has two questions:

First, was it intended at the time the Consitution was drafted that states would maintain the right to secede?

Second, regardless of your view of the Framers’ intent, should the right for U.S. states to secede exist?

Please feel free to share both your views and the views of historical figures who address either question above. For example, below is the Introduction of Lysander Spooner’s No Treason, No. 1. A treatise which primarily addresses Question 2. For those unfamiliar with Spooner, Spooner was a Nineteenth Century American political philosopher and abolitionist.

I’m thinking they were unable to reach a consensus on the question; otherwise they would have said yea or nay explicitly in the Constitution.

I don’t know, so no comment on this one.

Not without a Consitutional amendment to that effect, no.

I’m partial to Lincoln’s take on why secession is ruinous to democratic government:

Rather than being self-evidently false, this principle is the bedrock of any and all governments. Consider: if I declare that it’s my natural right to murder those who anger me, is the government justified in compelling me to submit to a prohibition on murder? Absolutely. Resistance to this, indeed, makes me a criminal.

Democracy is rule by the people, not by every person. Each person making their own law is anarchy, and history ably demonstrates that people prosper under democratic government, and suffer under anarchy.

This question should have been settles once and for all by Grant v Lee, 1865.

And it was. There had been a few half hearted attempts at succession before the Civil War (Maine IIRC?) but none had ever pushed the question so far before. The CW settled the question once and for all and Lincoln’s reasoning sums it up very well.

If the Framers had intended this to be a right, they did not make it clear and the question has long been answered.


And in legal terms, by Texas v. White, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the was no Constitutional right to unilaterally secede from the U.S.

When the Constitution was first ratified an escape clause would have seemed reasonable. But it wouldn’t take too long before it no longer made sense. Why would we accept new states into the Union and allow them to opt out at any point in the future? How would such a dissolution work? What happens to Federal property in the seceding states? What happens to the US citizens who live in those states, are they still US citizens? Why should we fund projects in a state that might just leave at the point they’ve received the maximum benefit from their statehood?

OTOH, I have no problem with allowing a state to secede if the rest of the nation approves, and wouldn’t mind if a few did.

Human Action already said it but I’ll reiterate: states do have the right to secede. They just need to get an amendment passed.

If states can secede at whim, then shouldn’t counties be able to? And cities?

If you allow it, then why not allow all individuals to secede from society itself? Is that your concept of civilization?

(The Civil War *was *about the South preserving slavery, btw. That’s why they *did *secede, and why they *did *start the war at Ft. Sumter. The North did none of those things. Trying to base an argument on a premise that is counter to fact is fatal to it.)

States CAN constitutionally secede, all it would take is for a constitutional amendment ratifying the secession to be ratified. Simple.

But can a state secede just because a state legislature passes a bill of secession by a simple majority? No.

A state can also certainly secede extra-constitutionally simply by doing so and successfully resisting any attempts to stop them by force.

First, it was Spooner’s position, not mine. My offering his treatise introduction was not necessarily to endorse his position, but rather to offer a contrarian view from an respected and unexpected source (a prominent abolitionist).

Second, since Spooner was a prominent abolitionist he was fully aware that the South’s attempt to secede was to preserve slavery. None of Spooner’s writings nor his passage above suggest otherwise so his premise, at least in that regard, is not counter to fact.

There’s also the converse question: Should it be permissible for Congress or some majority of states to sever a particular state from the United States?

Article V: …no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

It’s always struck me as curious that, if that case is right, the passage of the 14th Amendment (and most of the Reconstruction Acts) are highly suspect.

Yes, states should have the right to secede. (I have no idea what the framers thought, so no comment on that.) The hurdles to secession should be sufficiently long and drawn out that secession does not and cannot happen on a whim. But if there are significant, lasting, major issues that make one part of a country feel it needs to go it on its own, there should absolutely be a way for that to happen.

I agree. I think the requirementsshould be something like 2/3 majorities in each house of Congress plus ratification by 3/4 of the individual states. :wink:

ETA: Or winning a war, of course.

:slight_smile: Well maybe something like that.

…Or something else. I’d be curious to learn what procedures Czechoslovakia used when it faced the decision on whether to break up or not, or what Canada used when it nearly did the same.

But according to that landslide reasoning… Aren’t you saying that the Colonies did wrong to secede from the British Empire?

The original American “government” was a league of separate states organized as a Continental Association in 1774 which declared independence from Britain in 1776. This group of states formed a new country called the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union in 1781. This document explicitly stated “the Union shall be perpetual”.

So the country was formed but its system of government didn’t work very well. So a new government was formed by the Constitution in 1789. But while it was a new system of government, it was the same country that already existed. That’s why the Constitution says it was forming “a more perfect union” - it recognized that a union already existed.

Some argue that the fact that the Constitution didn’t explicitly state it was perpetual as the Articles had means that the union was no longer perpetual. This isn’t true. The Constitution didn’t addressing the issue because it had already been resolved. The Constitution didn’t declare independence from Britain either but that doesn’t mean the Americans had changed their mind on that. The principle that the union was perpetual had been established by the Articles. If the Constitution had meant to change that principle, it would have said so explicitly.

I’ll also point out that James Madison is recognized as the primary author of the Constitution and he can be considered as a reliable source for what the founder’s intent was. And he wrote on several occasions that states did not have a right to nullify laws passed by Congress or secede from the national union.

Ironically, people with ideological axes to grind often cite Madison as one of their authorities on the supposed right of nullification and secession. They do this by ignoring the man’s own words on the subject.

What the colonies did in 1776 was definitely illegal - under British law. But by declaring their independence the colonies were saying they were no longer bound by British law.

The same principle applies today. If California, for example, declared its independence and became a sovereign nation then the laws of the Republic of California would give it the right to be independent.

But the question we’re debating here is whether the laws of the United States give states the right to secede. And the answer is they do not. There is no right of secession in American law. If a state secedes, it’s doing so illegally. But if that state’s illegal secession is successful then the new country formed out of that former state no longer has to care if what it did was illegal in the United States.

So the secession of the colonies was illegal under British law and legal under American law and the secession of the southern states was illegal under American law and legal under Confederate law. Success retroactively makes secession legal by creating a new body of law.