Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

Secession: Was it legal for the South to secede?

Was there any Constitutional, moral, or legal basis for the South's secession from the United States?

Controversy between the North and South raged for years over administration and enactment of tariff laws. A new wrinkle was added when the North began to openly defy fugitive slave laws. Northern states refused to honor warrants for capture and return of slaves to the South. The North's attitude was in direct defiance of federal law and of the Constitution which clearly mandates that each state of the Union must recognize Constitutional laws of all other states. Additionally, the federal government refused to intervene on behalf of the South. During the elections of 1860 Abraham Lincoln made it clear that he would not enforce fugitive slave laws and that he supported existing tariff laws and administration.

A present day analogy would be if those states which do not have the death penalty refused to enforce fugitive warrants for murderers because the states issuing the warrants have the death penalty. If the non-death penalty states refused to honor such warrants in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, AND the federal government sided with the defiant states, we would have a Constitutional crisis similar to the one which existed in 1861. Would the question then be over the death penalty, or would the question be over obeying the Constitution and the laws of the land?

The beginning of the Civil War was inevitable when in December, 1860 and January, 1861 six Southern states, led by South Carolina, seceded from the Union. On March 2, 1861 Texas joined them. The argument was over states rights. Specifically, whether the federal government had powers to interfere with the right to own and trade property including slaves. Great compromises had been reached in the drafting of the Constitution. Article I, Section 2, recognized that slavery existed and provided for a fractional head count of slaves as the basis for determining representation in congress. Article I, Section 9, gave congress the power to enact laws restricting or forbidding importation of slaves after 1808 but the Constitution did not give congress power to interfere with ownership of slaves in those states which allowed ownership when the Constitution was adopted.

The Constitution did, however, give congress powers to make laws in territories of the United States, notwithstanding the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott, and to admit new states to the Union. Congress, especially the Republicans, had become pro-active in abolishing slavery in territories and failing to admit states which were not free states. The South viewed the territories as economic opportunities for the sale of slaves and other "property" and saw the Federal activity as an encroachment into their rights.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was inaugurated. Lincoln had not given any indication that he was opposed to slavery within those states where it was legal under the Constitution. He had, however, given several signals that he regarded secession as illegal. He had further indicated that he would not recognize secessionist decrees and would continue enforcement of Federal law everywhere within the United States. The South bitterly opposed his election.

Lincoln, to assert the concept of federal authority over tariffs, sent ships into Charleston, SC, harbor to supply the U.S. Army post of Fort Sumter and to assure that the United States Flag flew over the fort. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter. The Union troops surrendered on April 13 and evacuated the fort the next day.

Robert E. Lee had been a loyal and dedicated patriot soldier with 32 years of military service when secession began. On April 15, 1861 Virginia joined Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee in seceding. Lee was anti-slavery but was devoutly loyal to God, his family and to Virginia. The next day he was offered command of the Union Army but declined, lamenting "...I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States... [I] go back in sorrow to my people and share the misery of my native state." He resigned his commission on April 20, and accepted command of the Virginia forces for the South on April 23, 1861.

The history of the Civil War is clear. Forces under Lee fought courageously and honorably and Lee was a magnificent military commander but the Union forces were overwhelming. On April 9, 1865, almost four years after he had assumed command of the Virginia forces, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. On April 10 he issued his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia and on June 13 he applied for a pardon which was quickly granted. On August 4 he was elected president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. In 1867 Lee declined to be a candidate for governor of Virginia and he died at Lexington on October 12, 1870.


From a recent issue of The Charlotte Observer, -- A Knight-Ridder newspaper, in a small, virtually inconspicuous box-note on page 9:

"College Station, Texas --
A portrait of a former Texas A&M University president has been removed from a campus building named after him because the picture's background included Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"The painting of Gilbert "Gibb" Gilchrist was removed from the lobby of the research building of the Texas Transportation Institute after institute officials received a complaint that Lee's image [in the background] carried racist overtones..."

The entire article was about four inches long in a single column.

If, -- instead of a painting with a faint image of Lee -- that wall hanging had been a sack of cow manure, placed there by a self-proclaimed artist, and then ordered removed as offensive, The Charlotte Observer would have reported it on the front page above the fold as an example of public institutional infringement on first amendment rights. Rest assured, also, that all of the TV networks would have carried a story of outrage on the evening news.

A couple of weeks after the Texas A&M story the same newspaper carried another story that was about 10-12 inches long over two columns, for a total of 20-24 inches of print space. This second article reported the practice of restaurants buying generic brand catsup in large containers and then transferring the catsup into small bottles with well known labels for use on dining tables. Apparently The Charlotte Observer is determined that the public is fully informed of all important current events.


The question at the beginning is far from benign and it is easily answered. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution or any other legal document which precludes any state or group of states from seceding from the United States. This was also true in 1861. Today, countries are split and otherwise reconfigured almost daily and the United States has evolved as the world's moral leader in supporting rights of peoples to declare themselves independent. This is a comfortable position for politicians to take... as long as it takes place somewhere else. Suppose New Mexico decided to secede? We know well what the response of national politicians AND the people of the remaining states would be.

The one constant since 1861 is that secession was not and will not be tolerated. Politicians will reach deep into their grab-bag of excuses (national security, minority rights, etc.,) and go to war if necessary to stop it. But when it happens in Yugoslavia, watch the American politicians change their tune.

Philosophos Historia

As a citizen we would object strongly to New Mexico seceding from the Union because over the past few days [Nov. 2000] it has become clear that New Mexico is the only state with a sane way of settling an election dispute. There, they flip a coin or play a hand of poker. Now that's fair!

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