It has been a long time since the last entry in this blog (over a year, in fact) but I have recently encountered a few ideas that have stirred up my need to write on the subject of the Declaration of Independence. The issue is the claim that the Declaration is an example of an act of secession. I’ve come across this claim many times, but in the context of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War it seems worthwhile to offer a few thoughts on the subject.
The necessary starting point, it seems, is to ask an often overlooked question: What is secession? I don’t think the question gets asked because most people seem to view it as self-explanatory. Isn’t secession simply the separation of one polity from another? It turns out that it is somewhat more than this. Google offers a fairly common formulation in the following: “the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, esp. a political state.” So there it is; this is the separation of one polity from another more or less, right?
Doing something “formally” invokes one of two possible senses; something is formal when it is “done in accordance with convention” or when it is “officially sanctioned and legal“. The bone of contention in 1860s America was over the process by which eleven Southern states attempted to dissolve their ties to the Union. According to the secessionists, their actions were both conventional and legal. Some, like John C. Calhoun invoked international law as formulated by the Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel and a particular interpretation of American history to support their position. Unionists deployed a counterargument holding that a state could not unilaterally act in a lawful way to effect a separation from the Union.
What is often missed in studying this debate is that it is really an argument about the difference between secession and revolution. Secession is, by definition, a legal act. It is an oxymoron to speak of secession being illegal. An action either is secession, and thus legal, or it is something else altogether. The History of India affords a example of true secession. In 1947 the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, which divided British India into the nations of India and Pakistan. While it would be a mistake to ignore the essential and powerful role of the people of the Subcontinent in their own independence (which included many acts that could be properly called “revolutionary”) in the end India became independent via a legal process – secession – in which both the British government and the Indian people were participants.
In contrast, the actions of the revolutionaries of 1776 were not done in consultation with the British Parliament. The opening paragraphs of the Declaration frame the actions of the nascent States as the invocation of a fundamental human right to abolish a government destructive to the preservation of their liberty. Unlike secession, revolution is rightly a unilateral act undertaken without reference to a political and legal structure that has become oppressive. In short, revolution is not a legal act and it is not secession; the Declaration of Independence is by nature revolutionary, not secessionist.