Saturday, January 29, 2011

Secession, Treason, the Founders, and…the “Goonies”

By Bill Vallante

Every time someone writes an article intimating that the South, in seceding, did indeed have a legal leg to stand on, a howling mob of plastic-patriot goons comes rushing out of the woodwork screaming “TREASON!” In a blatantly transparent show of self-righteousness, they go trampling out the vintage where they think grapes of wrath are stored (it’s actually your fellow countrymen that you’re trampling on, not grapes) to show the world what patriotic Americans they are and how loyal they are to the American government. It is a show that long ago went “over the top,” and indeed, has come to disgust me.

To them, “patriotism” means love of one’s government. Patriotism is not love of one’s government. It is love of one’s people, love of one’s home and love of one’s way of life – all of which constitute love of one’s country. And no, I am not advocating anarchy. Washington, who was the farthest thing from an anarchist that there could be, put it perfectly. “Government is like fire. It is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.” Like fire you need government to survive, indeed, you cannot be without it. But it is something that needs to be watched and restrained.  It is not meant to be an object of your love.

Some “goonies” claim that the words “perpetual” (in the Articles of Confederation), and “perfect union” (in the Preamble of the Constitution), indicated a mandate that the government was to be permanent, and that those who would challenge that supposed mandate are traitors. Newsflash – when I married my first wife we both thought it the union would be “perfect” and that it would be perpetual. And we both uttered the words, “till death do us part.” Obviously, the union wasn’t “perfect” and it didn’t turn out to be “perpetual.” Most unions, be they business, romantic or political, don’t! It’s been a long time since that marriage ended, but I do not remember either me or my ex-wife declaring a bloody and protracted war on each other.

Those who built the Republic and drafted the Constitution would never have affixed their signatures to any document which mandated a permanent bond to a union, or which gave that union the right to take up arms against any of its fellow countrymen who sought to break that bond. A quick look at the goings on of the Convention of 1787 would tell anyone that. Delegates fought over every nuance, every word and there was, for a time, a fear that several states might not even ratify that document, and that the new “union” would go on without them. The states, which were “sovereign” by the way, were extremely jealous of their sovereignty and looked warily at anything that might involve them in something that might not ultimately be in their best interests, or, that at some future time, might present a threat to their well being.

In fact, 3 of the states specifically included in their ratifications, clauses which clearly said that they could and would resume complete independence at any future time when they might decide that participation in this union was not serving their interests. For the life of me, I don’t remember anyone else jumping up and down telling them that they couldn’t say what they said:

Virginia: “……the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will…..”


Rhode Island: “We the delegates of the people of Rhode Island and Plantations, duly elected, etc., do declare and make known….that the powers of government may be resumed by the people whenever it shall become necessary to their happiness…..” [2]

New York: “We the delegates of New York…do declare and make known that the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whenever it shall become necessary to their happiness; and that every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not by the said constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States or the department of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several States, or to their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same.” [3]

Other states, while not as clear in their wording, all mention “sovereignty” and clearly affirm their rights in that regard, as in the case of Massachusetts: “. . . all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised. The people of this commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may not hereafter be, by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in Congress assembled.” [4] One of the definitions of “sovereign,” by the way, is “independent; self-governing and not ruled by any other state.”

Judging from what the states said in their ratifications, it sure doesn’t sound like any of them had any plans of surrendering the right to go their own way should the need ever arise. More likely, and this is what’s important here, the belief that a state could go its own way was a belief that held sway in this country until a couple of decades before the Civil War, when the thinking of a large part of America began to change, and an alternative point of view began to emerge. But isn’t that always the way of things? Don’t beliefs in this country change over time, and isn’t there always conflict when they do? If so, where pray-tell is the “treason” in all this?

Judah P. Benjamin, U.S. Senator from Louisiana before the war and Confederate Cabinet member during the war laid it out plainly in 1861 when he resigned from the Senate:

“It is said that the right of secession, if conceded, makes our Government a mere rope of sand; that to assert its existence imputes to the framers of the Constitution the folly of planting the seeds of death in that which was designed for perpetual existence. If this imputation were true, sir, it would merely prove that their offspring was not exempt from that mortality which is the common lot of all that is not created by higher than human power. But it is not so, sir. Let facts answer theory. For 2/3 of a century this right has been known by many of the States to be, at all times, within their power. Yet, up to the present period, when its exercise has become indispensable to a people menaced with absolute extermination, there have been but two instances in which it has been even threatened seriously: the first, when Massachusetts led the New England States in an attempt to escape from the dangers of our last war with Great Britain; the second, when the same State proposed to secede on account of the admission of Texas as a new State into the Union.” [5]

A quick look at the early history of the Republic verifies Benjamin’s contention. The New England states seriously contemplated secession in 1814 at the Hartford Convention. And the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature did, in 1844, pass an ordinance of secession in anger over the pending Texas annexation. And I don’t recall the federal government threatening military force in either instance. One thing old Judah forgot to mention was that Massachusetts, in 1803, threatened secession in anger over the Louisiana Purchase. As I recall, President Thomas Jefferson did not call out the militia and threaten to launch an invasion of the Bay State. Instead, he expressed regret over the possibility of them leaving and wished them well if they ultimately chose to go that route.

Sorry to bust your bubble, all you plastic patriots out there, but the early history of the United States clearly shows that while most Americans did not see secession as something positive, that they at least believed it well within a state’s purview.

Historian Kenneth Stampp took note of it as Judah Benjamin did. In “The Imperiled Union,” he points out that it is impossible to say that secession was illegal, at the very least because the language regarding it was vague, and it was never directly addressed in the Constitution or in law until after the Civil War. He pointed out that "the case for state sovereignty and the Constitutional right of secession had flourished for forty years before a comparable case for a perpetual Union had been devised." [6]

A quick look at America’s early history would tell you this.

James Madison, at the Virginia ratification commission of 1788: In response to fears that Virginia, in joining the union, might get in over its head, he said, “If we be dissatisfied with the national government, if we choose to renounce it, this is an additional safeguard to our defense.” [7]

Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, 1804, in a letter to George Cabot: “I do not believe in the practicability of a long-continued union. A Northern confederacy would unite congenial characters, and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left to manage their own affairs in their won way. If a separation were to take place, our mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable.” [8]

Senator Plumer of New Hampshire – The eastern states must and will dissolve the union and form a separate government of their own; and the sooner they do this, the better. [9]

The Hartford Convention: “…..Whenever it shall appear that the causes are radical and permanent, a separation by equitable arrangement will be preferable to an alliance by constraint among nominal friends, but real enemies. [10]

Senator James Hillhouse, Connecticut, 1803: Echoing Senator Plumer’s statement almost verbatim, he urged that the northeastern states dissolve the union and form a confederation of their own. [11]

Governor Strong, Massachusetts: Prior to the Hartford Convention Strong called a special session and called for secession claiming that the union had failed to protect Massachusetts from invasion. He called for a “separate New England alliance.” [12]

Rep. Josiah Quincy, Massachusetts,1811: Publicly and loudly advocated “dissolution of the union” over the admission of Louisiana into the Union. Still alive and kicking 50 years later, he wholeheartedly supported Lincoln’s decision to invade the South. It seems that one changes one’s tune according to whether or not the condition suits or does not suit them. In 1811, secession suited his interests. In 1861, when someone else was seceding, it did not. [13]

George Washington hoped more than anyone else that this union would indeed be perpetual. In his farewell address he encouraged Americans to work hard toward this end. He advised them that “it is well worth a fair and full experiment.” Take note of the word “experiment.” It is a word that implies truth vs. falsehood, success vs. failure, proof vs. disproof. In no way is it indicative of something that is written in stone. It is, indeed, indicative of the exact opposite. [14]

James Wilson, Constitutional Delegate, used the same word when he said, “…Let the experiment be made; let the system be fairly and candidly tried, before it is determined that it cannot be executed." [15]

Washington’s and Wilson’s words lead into my ultimate point, the ability to differentiate between “hope” and “mandate.” Clearly, both men, along with many of their contemporaries, hoped that the system would work. But their words also indicate that they were unsure of the eventual outcome. The question is not did they hope it would be so, but did they MANDATE that it be so?  I submit that their very words give us the answer “yes” to the first question, and a resounding “no” to the second. I also submit that their actions give us the same answer. They governed this country for 30 years after the Constitution was ratified. To my knowledge, they made no effort to cast the permanency of the union in stone using legislation or constitutional amendments.

William Rawle, whose 1825 book, “A View of the Constitution,” was used at West Point, devotes a chapter to the possibility of a state leaving the Union. He is clear in saying that such a thing does not represent a desirable state of affairs. He does however, maintain that such a thing is within the purview of a state, “It depends on the state itself to retain or abolish the principle of representation, because it depends on itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is, that the people have in all cases, a right to determine how they will be governed” [16]

Nearing the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson addressed the same issue. Again, note the difference between “hope” and “mandate.” “Whilst the General Assembly thus declares the rights retained by the States, rights which they have never yielded and which this state will never voluntarily yield, they do not mean to raise the banner of disaffection, or separation from their sister states….. They know and value too highly the blessings of their Union…. They would, indeed, consider such a rupture as among the greatest calamities which could befall them; but not the greatest. There is yet one greater, submission to a government of unlimited powers.” [17]

St. George Tucker, Constitutional Delegate, summed it up perhaps better than anyone. Take careful note that like Jefferson, Tucker would view secession as a calamity. Take note also that he admits that though it would be undesirable, it is nonetheless possible:

"The federal government, then, appears to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations, and with each other. Their submission to its operation is voluntary: its councils, its sovereignty is an emanation from theirs, not a flame by which they have been consumed, nor a vortex in which they are swallowed up. Each is still a perfect state, still sovereign, still independent, and still capable, should the occasion require, to resume the exercise of its functions, as such, in the most unlimited extent.”

"But until the time shall arrive when the occasion requires a resumption of the rights of sovereignty by the several states (and far be that period removed when it should happen) the exercise of the rights of sovereignty by the states, individually, is wholly suspended, or discontinued, in the cases before mentioned: nor can that suspension ever be removed, so long as the present constitution remains unchanged, but by the dissolution of the bonds of union. An event which no good citizen can wish, and which no good, or wise administration will ever hazard.” [18]

No, secession does not equal treason. It is not a desirable state of affairs to be sure. But treason it is not! All one needs to do to realize this is to listen to the words of the Founders and read a bit on the history of early America.

But “goonies” are either too lazy to do these things or they are simply too opinionated. All too often, they are driven by the ancient principle of “might makes right.”

“Goonies” are unaware that nearly 500 of those they call traitors (Confederate soldiers) are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and that they were buried there with the blessings of the very government they struggled so mightily against, for that government recognized them as being American veterans.

“Goonies” have never heard of Public Law 85-425, May 23, 1958, which gave American veteran status to Confederate soldiers.

“Goonies” are unaware that a portrait of Robert E Lee hung on the Oval Office wall when Eisenhower was president, and that Eisenhower urged Americans to honor those on both sides who sacrificed all for what they believed, and who, in doing so, gave us the America that we live in today.

Most “goonies” would call me a liar if I told them that President Harry Truman was a card carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. No matter. Not being the shy type I have a few choice names for them as well, none of which can be printed here.

Finally, it would appear that the treason-screaming “goonies” are cut from the same mold as one William T. Sherman, that wonderfully patriotic American who uttered these infamous words and who apparently believed as the “goonies” do, that “government” is a wonderful thing that one should be mandated to love, honor, cherish and obey….or else!

“I would banish all minor questions, assert the broad doctrine that as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it…that we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, every thing that to us seems proper; that we will not cease till the end is attained; that all who do not aid us are our enemies, and that we will not account to them for our acts.” [19]

Sherman took every life and every particle of property of every Southerner he could in pursuit of his belief that the government had a mandate for permanency. He penetrated into their homeland and sacked it because he deemed it to be proper. And when he was through subjugating them, he went off and did the same to the Native American.

Maybe I’ll let out a good old fashion “huzzah” for the “gooney” version of patriotism…and after that I’ll go throw up last night’s supper.


1 – “A Southern View of the Invasion of the Southern States And the War of 1861-1865,” By Captain S.A. Ashe, 2nd edition reprint from original 1911 edition, Ruffin Flag Company, Page 27

2 – ibid, Page 29

3 – ibid, Page 29

4 – (Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780, Article IV)

5 – “The Politics of Dissolution,” by Marshall DeRosa, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (USA) and London, (UK), Copyright 1998, Page 292

6 – “The Right of Secession,” by Gene H. Kizer, Jr.

7 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution”
By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, page 105

8 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution” By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, Page 232 – (Timothy Pickering on a separate confederation, January 29. 1804, in a letter to George Cabot)

9 – “The Coming of the Glory”, by John S. Tilley, Publisher Bill Coats LTD., Nashville, Tennessee, 2nd printing, 1995, Page 71

10 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution,” By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, Page 199

11 – “Secession, State and Liberty,” David Gordon, Editor, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, (U.S.A. and London (U.K.), Copyright, 1999, 4th Paperback Printing, 2009, Page 135

12 – ibid, Page 148

13 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution,” By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, Page 198

14 – Washington’s Farewell Address 1796

15 – “The American Civil War”, Copyright, 2002, Douglas Harper

16 – “The Southern Side of the Civil War,” by Michael Griffith, Fourth Edition, 2007, all rights reserved.

17 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution,” By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, Page 243

18 – “The American Civil War”, Copyright, 2002, Douglas Harper

19 – “One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution,” By Robert F. Hawes, Copyright 2006, Published by the Fultus Corporation, Page 162

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