In these times of political turmoil between two very different peoples (loosely defined as liberal and conservative or christian and nonchristian) who have completely different mores and standards of morality, secession talk is on the rise around the country. Examples include; Californians angry about the Trump administration’s policies recently suggesting that their state would be better off as its own nation and after the election of Joe Biden, Texas congressman Randy Weber posting a pro-secession meme on his Facebook page and state representative Kyle Biedermann threatening to file legislation that would give Texans the opportunity to vote on a secession referendum. This raises the question of whether or not secession is legal under the Constitution or otherwise?
In regard to the Constitution, it is unclear if the right to secede is allowed for in that document. Almost certainly the states would not have agreed to join the Union without that right and three states specifically mentioned the right to secede in their letter of acceptance. Most citizens up until the Civil War believed in the right of a state to secede and the potential of certain states seceding was discussed several times over the course of our nation’s history in both the North and South such as the Hartford Convention and the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. It is unthinkable that a people would be required to remain in a country permanently that was oppressing it without having the right to attempt a separation. However, the Constitution itself is silent on the matter. Outside Constitutional/legal authority there is a second argument that supports the right to secession and that is related to the natural law.
There are thought to be two types of rights enjoyed by people. Legal rights bestowed by a given legal system such as our Constitution and natural rights, bestowed by God, that are thought to be so universal, fundamental and inalienable they cannot be repealed by human laws (a legal system). Natural law is the law of natural rights.
The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, appealed to this natural law to justify the secession of the Colonies from England where the Colonies had no right to secede within the British law of the time. It read in part as follows, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Natural Rights (Law), given by the Creator, gave the Colonies the right to secede from England when they felt it was no longer in their best interests to remain. Governments are instituted primarily to secure the “unalienable” rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness among others and when it ceases serving that purpose, as determined by the people, it is the natural right of the people to alter or abolish it and form a new Government as governments only derive their just power from the consent of the governed. These are basic principles of the American revolution which was the foundation of the Constitution.
John Locke, the great political philosopher, who was a great influence on Jefferson, stated that “the purpose of government is to secure and protect the God-given inalienable natural rights of the people. For their part, the people must obey the laws of their rulers. Thus, a sort of contract exists between the rulers and the ruled. But, Locke concluded, if a government persecutes its people with ‘a long train of abuses’ over an extended period, the people have the right to resist that government, alter or abolish it, and create a new political system. Jefferson listed England’s “train of abuses” in the Declaration of Independence that he thought sufficient to justify secession but as the amount of abuses or lack of effort to secure the rights of the people that are necessary to justify secession are subjective, the people themselves clearly are the arbiters of the appropriate time for secession. This is a natural right of the people, whose consent alone give governments its power and does not need a legal right in a Constitution to be in force.
Even assuming the United States Constitution does not allow for secession, although the strongest evidences suggest it does, a State/People have a natural right to secede from an abusive or indifferent government, which is reserved by all men, and which cannot be given to any Government, and which no Government can take away. Under this principle, the people themselves have to determine when their government has because so oppressive or robs them of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to such an extent that they should pursue secession.
Have the abuses and/or denial of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by the United States government, described often in this journal, become sufficient to make a breakup of the United States a justified/wise action by any State or group of States today? That is up to the people of the States to decide although it is best to first pray for our country and for reconciliation if possible. Also, how does the Biblical mandate to obey the government potentially trump the opportunity for a Christian to appeal to his “natural rights” in regard to justifying secession and what are the arguments for a right to secession under our Constitution if a natural rights appeal is not available? We will explore these questions in a subsequent article.