COLUMN: The Constitution allows for secession, but ...

  • Posted: Monday, November 26, 2012 7:18 a.m.

Now, as to this nonsense about secession, let me quote an impeccable authority:

“As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and her institutions, and would defend any state if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union.

“It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.”

The letter was written on Jan. 23, 1861, from an Army officer in Fort Mason, Texas, to his son. The recipient was Custis Lee. His father was Col. Robert E. Lee.

Before the new year had ended, Col. Lee became Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the redoubtable Army of Northern Virginia, which he led in an epic struggle aimed at dismembering the Union. Yet he believed that secession was unconstitutional.

“The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it were intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will,” he wrote to his son.

“It is intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government (not a compact) which can only be dissolved by revolution, or by the consent of all the people in convention assembled.”

Lee could conscientiously take up arms in behalf of secession only by appealing to the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence, which appealed, not to statutory law, but to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” It referred to “unalienable rights” under these higher laws, and declared:

“... Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government ...”

The Declaration of Independence was written to justify secession from the British Empire. It was an extra-legal declaration, since the laws of the British Empire did not permit British colonies to leave the empire unilaterally.

In declaring the right of secession under “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the authors of the Declaration issued a caveat:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

The South of Lee’s generation concluded that the cause of preserving its way of life, including the institution of slavery, was more than “light and transient,” and therefore justified the expenditure of 650,000 lives in a civil war.

The trigger for that bloodbath was the election of Abraham Lincoln as 16th president of the United States.

The re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 has apparently convinced a minority of those who voted against him that the cause of opposing him is worth plunging the nation into another secessionist crisis. Or maybe they’re just being frivolous.

The neo-secessionist movement apparently is an attempt to hoist the president by his own petard: an invitation to petition the administration for action. The administration promised to consider the proposals if enough signatures were acquired. Last time I checked, secessionist petitions were being circulated in 20 states.

If you’re worried about the dissolution of the Union, let me provide a measure of comfort: Wofford stands a better chance of making it to the finals in college football’s Bowl Championship Series than those petitions have of delivering their respective states from the Union.

The simple truth is that secession is beyond the gift of the Obama administration: the U.S. Constitution just does not allow for secession. I’ve heard all the arguments to the contrary, but they were all answered pretty conclusively at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865.

Modern-day secessionists claim that states have a right to secede under the 10th Amendment, which guarantees to states all rights not delegated to the federal government.

But the 10th Amendment was adopted several years after the Constitution went into effect. That document prescribed a clear-cut procedure for admitting new states to enter the Union, but none for their withdrawal. The framers obviously decided against providing a way out of the Union.

When New Yorkers, in their ratification convention, proposed a provision allowing for secession, Virginia’s James Madison – often called the Father of the Constitution – asserted that “the Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever.”

Did the 10th Amendment negate that statement?

The Supreme Court, as recently as 1931, ruled that the amendment “added nothing to the [Constitution] as originally ratified.”

But yes, there is a way for a state to secede. It could secede through a constitutional amendment that could either set up a procedure for secession, just as the original Constitution set up a procedure for entry. Or it could provide for the secession of an individual state.

Such an amendment would require approval by a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress, then ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.

If you like to bet long odds, put your money on Wofford to win the national college football championship.

Readers may reach Gene Owens through email at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.

Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.

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