Do states have the right to secede?
That is one of the questions currently being discussed in the U.S. History to 1865 class that I am taking. The vast majority of the class feels that states do not have the right to secede under any circumstances. That makes me sad. When the majority of the population of any geographic area is no longer being served by the dominant government, then citizens not only have a right to secede, they have a moral obligation to do so.
There are two major facets to the secession question: 1) morality and 2) self-interest. These two items do not necessarily align with one another. When the U.S. Civil War began, the rationale for war on both sides was highly complicated. The North entered the war for two primary reasons: 1) Keeping the Union from dissolving by force and 2) forcing the issue of slavery. The first reason was immoral and the second was moral. Yet the first reason was Abraham Lincoln’s primary reason for using force to bring the Confederacy back into the Union. Lincoln felt slavery was morally wrong, but he did not declare war because of slavery. He declared war because he believed the federal government should be the highest authority in the land, and that states had no right to self-determination. Abolition was not his primary goal. Lincoln himself said this:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
Some Southerners, to be sure, fought in the Civil War to preserve the immoral institution of human slavery, but many enlisted in the war effort because they felt that the North was trying to dictate how they should live.
The outcome of the Civil War was never really in doubt. The North had vast superiority in numbers and had the industrial base. Technology is amoral, and the North held the technology – it was therefore destined for victory. While the end of the war settled the question of slavery, it did not grant equality to blacks. That issue would not be settled for another one hundred years, when the Civil Rights movement of the 1960′s forced Americans to reexamine racial inequalities in their society.
What the Civil War did accomplish was the growth of government, and the mitigation of liberty for all American citizens and residents. From the end of the war until the present day, the Federal government’s role in decision making for all Americans has grown to the point where a large segment of the American population is completely or partially dependent on theft by taxes for its well-being.
Back to the original question, though! Do states have a right to secede? What circumstances, if any, justify a declaration that a state no longer wishes to be a part of the union called the United States of America?