Right to Secede

When considering the South’s effort to withdraw from the Union prior to the onset of the attack at Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861, the question comes to mind as to whether or not the Southern states possessed the right to secede at all?  Did the Southern states have the right to secede from the Union?  Because the United States Constitution in no way, shape or form refers to the threat of secession and or whether the states may or may not, the South did possess the power to do so assuming that the Tenth Amendment protected the rights of individual states in dealing with issues not clearly referred to in Article Four (the article designated to listing the powers of each states in the Union) of the Constitution itself.

According to David W. Blight’s book Race and Reunion, Jefferson Davis’ personal memoir stated, “The South’s action was merely to protect its natural rights against the tremendous and sweeping usurpation, the unlimited and despotic power of the federal government.”[1]  The South, feeling threatened by the idea that the newly elected Republican President aimed to remove the institution of slavery, threatened secession while relying on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution to justify their actions.  Dixie’s Daughters written by Karn Cox states that, “The South fought the war not in order to preserve slavery, but rather to preserve the Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment, protecting states’ rights.”[2]  However, the specific right the South aimed to protect was in fact the ability to own slaves.

In addition, the Tenth Amendment states, “All powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”[3]  Again, since the law of the land failed to mention or address the issue of secession, the Tenth Amendment itself was put in place to protect state rights.  In doing so, the right to secede was an issue promised to the states.  Also, Thomas Jefferson’s famous words near the end of the Declaration of Independence stating that it is the right of the people “in the long of train of abuses and usurpations, it is their right, it is their duty, (the right of the people) to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.”[4]  Being that the South felt oppressed and bullied to conform to the policies of the government they considered out of control, they did possess the necessary rights to withdraw from the Union.  That being said, what the South considered to be an abuse of power by the North was an unjust response to a moral issue opposing their own beliefs.  In essence, their justification for seceding was a response by an immoral group of individuals to a moral issue in need of correcting.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), 259.

[2] Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Florida: University Press of Florida, 1999), 12.

[3] Solomon M. Skolnick, American History Pop Quiz (New York: MJF Books, 2005), 157.

[4] Solomon M. Skolnick, American History Pop Quiz (New York: MJF Books, 2005), 128.

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7 comments
  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    I love this question, Mario. Not just of historical significance concerning the Confederate States of America, but because this question has alluded constitutional scholars for so long. Not just in the United States and, not to get to anachronistic, not just during the Civil War. The mind of course searches for a current example and thinks of Greece and the European Union. Several times even in Russian history they have grappled with this concept. At one point the U.S.S.R. actually allowed the secession of member states with Joseph Stalin proclaiming, “the right of free secession from the U.S.S.R. would be to violate the voluntary character of this union.” (Stalin, On the Draft Constitution, 1936) In America we have never had a great settlement of this debate and even the writer of the Constitution seems to question federalism. James Madison in Federalist No. 39 clearly states the Constitution will be ratified by the ‘people’ of the United States and goes on the say, ” assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong.” Madison himself here is claiming that states had sovereignty then ‘created’ the Republic, but its possible he just wanted ratification. If this were true, it would validate the right to secede. I agree with with Stalin (weird words, huh, ah academia) in this matter and any ‘violation’ of the ‘character of this union’ is a clear act of aggression. Abraham Lincoln agrees too. But down to it, I believe that states have entered into a contract and can’t violate that contract. I don’t buy the 9th and 10th amendment argument. Washington is capable of change through election and not tyrannical. “If med were angels there would be no need for government.” (Madison, Federalist 10, 1778) States don’t have a right to secede from the Union of the United States. But then again, perhaps this is a problem members of a Republic must deal with, and be content that it may never be answered to those that favor states’ rights.

  2. jmmblog said:

    Your question poses an excellent topic of discussion!

    I too have pondered on this same question when the topic of secession arises. And I totally agree with your statement, “Being that the South felt oppressed and bullied to conform to the policies of the government they considered out of control, they did possess the necessary rights to withdraw from the Union.” And I have to say that most people who support the Lost Cause would agree with you as well.

    However, what the people who try to defend the Lost Cause always seem leave out you didn’t and discussed it within your closing point that “their justification for seceding was a response by an immoral group of individuals to a moral issue (slavery) in need of correcting.” And I believe that the reason this is usually left out is because they too are immoral or are too ignorant to recognize the facts.

    • jmmblog said:

      M – Thank you for clarifying the definition and my use of the word “ignorant” as “unaware.”

      I would also like to clarify that I do NOT think that people from the South are stupid. I believe that ALL people are born ignorant (without a conscious) and gradually learn from life experiences and formal/informal education. These factors then help in the formation of the person’s individual character, which in turn causes them to have moral or immoral qualities.

      In closure, I want to further clarify that regardless of color there is ONLY ONE RACE and that is the HUMAN RACE.

  3. 10ectim said:

    So “southerners are too immoral and ignorant to recognize facts.” William Lloyd Garrison would have agreed with you. But I don’t think Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, or George Washington would have. To southerners, the idea that the leaders and people of the South are immoral (evil) or ignorant (stupid) is one of the factors that continue to cause resentment in the South toward “Yankees.” In modern opinion slavery is morally wrong and everyone with any education should agree. However, slavery was not a new occurrence or fad that sprang up around the time of the discovery of America. Slavery had existed for thousands of years in a variety of civilizations and was considered a practical and beneficial method of maintaining social, economic, and political order. The Bible instructs “Slaves, obey your masters.” (Ephesians 6:5-8 ) And even though many disregard scripture today, during the 1800s the Bible carried a great deal of authority. So to make the claim that the South was supporting an “immoral cause” is to place the morals of today upon another era. In addition, since when is it the government’s responsibility to regulate morality. Didn’t we try that with prohibition.
    As far as the right of secession . . . it was complicated. Many believed that because the states voluntarily joined the nation, they could voluntarily leave the nation. Do we really want to force states to stay in America if they don’t want to be here? But what if a state like, I don’t know, Utah wanted to secede from the United States. It is right in the middle and could cause major problems. What would happen with federal projects like interstate highways? What is Puerto Rico decided it no longer wanted to be a territory of the U.S. Do we just let them go? I think a like Andrew Jackson’s view of secession: the Constitution is not a contract between states and a national government. It is a contract between the national government and the PEOPLE of that nation. I think the South had a better justification of using the Declaration of Independence to rebel against the U.S. government.

    • zfwerkowitch said:

      Tim, I disagree with the idea that calling the South’s cause immoral is imposing modern values on a nineteenth century society. Struggles against slavery, with roots in secular ethics and in scripture had been around for decades before the Civil War.

  4. They were taught to think it was okay…doesn’t take away from the fact that it was immoral. Still they were ignorant or maybe “unaware” that it was wrong. Doesn’t make them bad…makes them a product of their times.

  5. Kristen Epps said:

    The word “ignorant” is often a touchy term, and I know that it carries a certain power. I would argue that unaware might be a better term, although it might be more accurate to state that white Southerners were turning a blind eye to the true nature of slavery. My ancestors on my dad’s side were slaveholders, so it is difficult for me to say this because of such a personal connection, but I do believe my ancestors were immoral because of their involvement with this immoral system. Were they immoral in other ways? Maybe, maybe not. Yes, we must consider the context, but I’m not comfortable with letting my ancestors get off too lightly.

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