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Separation & Freedom

May 15, 1999

This review of Secession, State and Liberty, edited by David Gordon (Transaction Publishers, 1998, 360 pages) appeared in The Southern Partisan.


Diversity of Secession

Secession is the quintessence of Americanism. Though we speak reverently of the American Revolution, most Americans fail to realize that the so-called revolution was actually a secession. The colonies had no plans of toppling George III and Parliament; they simply wanted to remove themselves from Great Britain's jurisdiction. Of course, American secession did not stop there. The thirteen independent states formed a "perpetual union" under the Articles of Confederation. When the states decided to modify the Articles, they in effect seceded from the "perpetual union" when nine states ratified the Constitution of 1787.

Unfortunately, secession has been given short shrift since the South was coerced back into the Union at Appomattox. The French revolutionaries' cult of equality was written into the Declaration of Independence by Lincoln, and the "Rights of the People to alter or abolish" their government was edited out.

However, the tide may be turning. In roughly the past decade secession has once again become a serious topic of discussion in light of such events as the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the activities of the Parti QuébéHois on our northern border. There appeared in 1991 Allen Buchanan's Secession, a flawed albeit thought-provoking study of the morality of secession, and in 1995 a group of distinguished scholars gathered under the auspices of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, for a conference on the political economy of secession.

From that conference, which I was fortunate to attend, now comes the latest and most comprehensive study of secession. The eleven essays of Secession, State & Liberty, edited by David Gordon, explore secession from a variety of angles including the colonies' secession from Great Britain, the Southern secession of 1860-1861, Northern secessionist movements in the early Republic, the ethics of secession, the need for acceptance of secession in the formation of the European Union, the situation in Quebec, and the secession of business from the government's legal system vis-a-vis arbitration.

Though dealing with a plethora of topics, the books devotes a great deal of attention to the Southern secession and to American precedents upon which the Confederate States stood. In the opening pages of the anthology, Donald W. Livingston traces the roots of American secession, which he aptly praises as our unique contribution to political thought. In supporting his argument that the South correctly interpreted the Constitution as permitting a state to withdraw from the Union, Livingston calls forth a number of foreign and domestic witnesses who have recognized this cardinal principle: deToqueville, Lord Brougham, William Rawle, Fernando Wood, Horace Greeley, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many others. In concluding his essay by examining the work of Lincoln, Livingston observes that "he who looks at Lincoln has seen the consolidationists Bismarck and Lenin."

Of course, Lincoln made a number of legal arguments in defense of his war-time consolidation, and James Ostrowski in his contribution takes the Illinois lawyer to task. Building upon a foundation laid by Daniel Webster and Joseph Story, Lincoln relied on the idea that the states had passed into an indissoluble union even before 1776. Though a few respected scholars like Harry Jaffa have adopted Lincoln's view, Ostrowski convincingly proves such a notion of Union untenable. First, the Declaration of Independence recognized that the 13 colonies became "Free and Independent States." Second, the Articles of Confederation explicitly averred that "Each state retain its sovereignty, freedom, and independence." Third, in malting peace with his former colonies, George III in the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the thirteen "to be free Sovereign and independent States." Under the weight of this and other historical evidence presented by Ostrowski, the pillar of Lincoln's argument quickly crumbles.

With the sovereignty of the states unquestionably documented, Clyde Wilson defends the much maligned states-rights interpretation of the Constitution. According to Wilson, "the government of the people can only mean the people of the states as living historical, corporate, indestructible, political communities. The whole of the Constitution rests upon its acceptance by the people acting through their states." Wilson stands on solid ground. The people acting through the states ratified the Constitution and amendments must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or conventions. The undifferentiated mass of the American people, contrary to popular belief has no power whatsoever to affect the constitutional balance.

In the same vein as Wilson, the late Murray Rothbard recognizes the sanctity of people acting within their communities and lambastes contemporary libertarians for mistakenly assumed that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture." Rothbard's criticism recognizes the tendency of doctrinaire libertarians to reject the obvious lessons of experience in an effort to force reality onto the Procrustean bed of theory.

Unfortunately, the libertarian proclivity identified by Rothbard is exhibited in Scott Boykin's contribution to the book. Boykin postulates that in exercising a just constitutional right of secession "the secessionists must refrain from engaging in unjust forms of market intervention." Though the likes of von Mises and Rothbard have shown the folly of the planned economy, if a group chooses to secede in order to give central planning another try, there is no reason to stop them. According to the Declaration of Independence, when the people decide to alter or abolish their form of government they may "Institute [a] 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" (emphasis added).

If the people believe that monarchy with a free economy, democracy with a planned economy, or any other combination imaginable is likely to result in safety and happiness, then it is their right to institute such a government. Though Boykin sings the praises of a free market in goods and services, he apparently does not believe in the free marketplace of ideas. Artificial barriers, like Boykin's requirement that the secessionists be free-marketers, are unwelcomed fetters on the right of secession.

The final essay of the book, by Bruce Benson, is a nonpareil of scholarship. Benson explores in detail arbitration as "a way of business to escape control of the state." In examining early American experiments with arbitration,

Benson rinds that arbitration decisions had no legal authority. Nevertheless, the decisions of private arbiters were binding because of "individual recognition of potential reputation effects associated with refusing to accept an arbitration decision." If a businessman dared risk ignoring a decision resulting from arbitration, his fellows would censure him by refraining from further business relations. Benson's research reveals that modem arbitration statutes, rather than facilitating arbitration, actually undermined this low-cost method of dispute resolution insofar as the statutes permitted appeals to the law courts. Once in court, businesses found themselves back in the world of excessive legal fees and time-consuming litigation. In the end, Benson suggests getting government out of the arbitration process so businesses may seced[e] from certain aspects of state control without actually leaving."

Just a few years ago, David Gordon's comment in the introduction that "secession is a key issue of our age" would have brought jeers and condemnation. Today, with the emergence of serious secessionist movements across the globe, even a purblind critic must. agree with Gordon's observation. Secession, State and Liberty stands as the most ambitious and comprehensive study of secession to date. Its trenchant essays will be read for years to come as people the world over rediscover and assert their rights, just as our Founding Fathers did, to alter or abolish forms of government inimical to their welfare.

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William J. Watkins, Jr., is a law student at the University of South Carolina and a member of the staff of the South Carolina Law Review.


Other articles on secessionist themes: Split and Prosper by Eric Duhaime and Pierre Desrochers; Birth of an Empire by Thomas DiLorenzo; Towards a Real Federalism by Clyde Wilson; and David Gordon's review of Robert Barro's defense of secession.


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