Could a State Leave the Union?

Submitted by mkelly on Thu, 12/18/2008

I finished up my History 103 course yesterday, a course that takes students through the Civil War and slightly delves into reconstruction. The main focal point of the class for the past few weeks has been the southern secession spurred by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the historical question of whether or not the southern states could legally secede if they chose, as they always framed their decision. It was with this backdrop that I came across this TNR article about a secession movement within Vermont.

The movement has two different leaders with different agendas, Rob Williams and Thomas Naylor. While I do not want to spend the time trying to get into the differences between the two men—to me they seem rather similar, just that Naylor is more of a hard-line secessionist and Williams is more of a utopian believer—it is interesting that about 150 years after the south seceded there is, at least, active talks in one state about seceding from the union.

Naylor’s desire for secession is much more interesting than Williams’s, simply because his impulse for secession is seems strictly driven by abhorrence for the American system of government. He seems libertarian in his views and despises both current major parties, highlighted in the article by his criticisms of George W. Bush and Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont. He’s not a leftist who just has hated the past eight years- he will undoubtedly hate the next four, and every year that comes after that.

But, can a state legally secede or would it be a criminal offense against the union, as some historians argue? Before the Civil War, the south argued that though they had joined the union they had not given up their state’s sovereignty and that they relied on the federal government mainly for protection. They argued that if they no longer wanted to be a part of the federal system, they should not have to.

Now, the states that seceded chose to do so mainly because of their desire to keep the institution of slavery intact. They would have stayed in the union if anyone but a “Black Republican”—a Republican who opposed the expansion of slavery—had been elected president. In effect, the south’s secession was a slap in the face of the establishment of the United States- if allowed, it signaled that a state could leave the union if it did not approve of how the national government was configured politically.

Vermont’s case—about 11.5 percent of Vermonters support secession—is based off of different reasons. There is no single social issue that serves as a hot button issue like slavery did. Instead, Vermont’s small percentage of people seem to prescribe to the notion that the United States has become corrupt and too large a power to hear the voices of people. They argue that Vermont can sustain itself, and already is working towards food, energy and economic independence from the rest of the country.

In short, Vermont believes it has the right to secede. But should it?

My personal opinion is that it would be a mistake for a state to leave the United States, but opinions are like belly buttons. The military protection and economic benefits are too great for a state to leave the nation and probably receive the cold shoulder—can you say embargo?—from the United States.

(And, on a side note, isn’t it a little unnerving that a man from Vermont would have been the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2004 if it wasn’t for a poorly timed scream? Not saying that Howard Dean is a secessionist—remember, Naylor is by no means a Democrat, or even liberal for that matter—but the idea that the governor from a state with a budding secessionist movement almost represented a major U.S. party in a presidential election is a little odd to think about.)

But, what about legally? It seems that states entered a contract with each other when they decided to join the union. However, the constitution does not outline any guidelines for the removal of a state, but it also does not have any specific language for a state to need to stay in the union as far as I can see.

So, with my one class of journalism-based law study a year ago, I would speculate it is legally possible for a state to secede, though there is some language in the 14th amendment that could possible be used as a legal argument to suggest states cannot leave the union. But nothing really explicitly says a state could not try to make a go of it on its own.

Just some food for thought.

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