Putting the Concept of Secession Into Global and Historical Context

Secession as an International Phenomenon

One of the more eclectic works of scholarship in my library was published on the cusp of the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2010 and, as far as I know, has not received the attention I think it deserves. Don Doyle’s edited volume Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements brings together philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, and historians for many useful discussions about secessionist movements around the globe, both past and present. While an entire section of the book is dedicated to the exploration of Confederate secession and the American Civil War, other sections focus on secessionist movements in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, and still another section focuses on the philosophical challenges of developing what we might term an ethics of secession – a set of standards for establishing when and how a separatist group might establish the right of self-determination and be accepted into the global family of nations. For this overview I will mostly focus on a treatment of the essays that discuss the latter philosophical concerns. While discussions of Confederate secession and the causes of the Civil War are of great interest to me and many other scholars, this book’s strength lies in allowing readers a chance to look at secession with a broader focus.

Philosopher Christopher Wellman takes a fairly permissive view towards secession and argues that the sole factor determining when a separatist group can leave an established nation lies in its ability to perform basic political functions. If such a group demonstrates an ability to govern and protect “the human rights of their constituents,” he argues, then that group maintains a fairly solid case for establishing its own sovereignty in a separate state. Significantly, Wellman suggests that any cultural arguments for self-determination based on factors such as a group’s shared language, ethnicity, or religion are irrelevant to the secession process because a group that cannot conduct basic political functions will fail to lay claim to a given territory. This arguments goes against the history of many 19th and 20th century separatist movements that based their claims of self-determination largely on cultural factors, but I think it’s a sound one to make for assessing the political merits of contemporary secessionist movements.

Wellman also takes issue with scholars who simultaneously oppose unilateral secession and advocate for a voting process that allows secession only if a supermajority of voters in an entire territory approve such a measure. He argues that a simple majority in one or multiple elections over a quick period of time is preferable to a supermajority process that can be burdensome and undemocratic, since 51 percent of the population could hypothetically support secession and yet be denied their desire to separate because of the minority’s wishes to maintain the union. Wellman acknowledges that states often posses an amendment process like the one in the U.S. Constitution that requires a supermajority vote before making changes to their governing documents, since such proposals concern the stability and fundamental political concerns of the state. But apparently such a process for secession does not concern the stability of the state in Wellman’s eyes because the root question for him is whether the secessionist group can make the case for its own self-determination. On this point I am not as convinced by Wellman’s arguments.

Historian David Armitage explores the relationship between secession and civil war, and how active separatist movements (especially ones with arms) are frequently accompanied by severe warfare and violence, although that does not always have to be the case. He argues that commonly accepted definitions of secession and civil war today have been largely shaped by how they were defined at the time of the American Civil War, specifically through the legal definitions of lawyer and professor Francis Lieber’s famous “Lieber Code” that attempted to outline acceptable laws of war for pursuing the Union war effort. Armitage points out, however, that many conflicts today that could be considered an act of secession and/or a civil war don’t meet Lieber’s definition of those terms. Moreover, he suggests that a term like “Civil War” is reflective of a Unionist interpretation of a given conflict because it portrays events as a internal war, whereas secessionists would argue that such conflicts are analogous to an international conflict and not necessarily a civil war.

Armitage concludes his essay by arguing that the American Revolution was actually a civil war perpetuated by an act of secession by the American colonies. He asserts that the colonists initially wished to remain in the British empire and that their political concerns against the crown were born out of the perception that their rights as Englishmen were being compromised, not that they were a separate people distinct from the mainland British populace. When those rights were not acknowledged, the colonists presented the Declaration of Independence as an act of secession from the British empire. I personally do not buy most of this argument. While I’m willing to concede that the conflict had characteristics of a civil war, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists were employing their natural right to revolution and not their political right to secession, which did not exist under the British empire. The colonist leaders of the war effort with Britain understood that they were breaking away from the empire through an act of revolution, not secession. Brooks Simpson has a thoughtful explanation of the distinction between revolution and secession here.

Much like the aforementioned two essays, law professor Peter Radan’s essay on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address has points of agreement and disagreement with me. In particular Radan focuses on Lincoln’s arguments that the Union preceded the States, that a state could not secede without the Union’s consent, and that a morally justifiable reason was necessary for Confederate secession to be valid. Radan disagrees with Lincoln’s reasoning in a number of ways by arguing that the States came before the Union, that unilateral secession can be justified if the terms of the political contract are altered (he posits scenarios in which both North and South violated this contract), and that a moral justification for secession is unnecessary for it to succeed and gain international acceptance. I believe Radan might be correct on the last point in that secessions and revolutions often occur regardless of their moral implications, but his other points have problems.

Radan points out, for example, that the Declaration of Independence’s wording states that the colonies were “free and independent States” and that “they [had] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” “This assertion,” argues Radan, “can hardly be said to express the notion that there is a union and no independent states [in 1776].” But Lincoln himself gave a pretty convincing argument in his First Inaugural to suggest that some form of a union did already exist. Lincoln acknowledged the “free and independent states” clause of the Declaration, but argued that “even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwords abundantly show.” Indeed, Virginia, New York, or any other state never assumed the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, or generally function as “free and independent states” as Radan conceives the term. Ultimately neither Radan nor Lincoln are completely correct about whether the States or the Union came first because the documentary evidence is complex and contradictory on this point. Historian Kenneth Stampp is closer to a correct answer when he argues that the question is moot because the 1787 Constitution aimed to “form a more perfect union” that established a clear break with all past forms of governance in the colonies and early nation. Stampp simply describes as the 1787 Constitution as “a new and better one” that completely overthrew the Articles of Confederation. What existed before that point no longer mattered, so perhaps Lincoln’s claims of the Union being older than the states may not hold as much weight as he hoped they would.

Radan’s arguments against Lincoln’s position on the illegality of unilateral secession are rooted in the belief that the union is (or was) a compact between states, what James Madison described as the assumption that “every party to a compact, has a right to take for granted, that its construction is the infallible one, and to act upon it against the construction of all others, having an equal right to expound the instrument.” In other words, the states are fully sovereign and can unilaterally break away from the compact at will. But is the Union really a compact of states that can be broken at will by any one of the states, or is it a nation whose powers are vested in the people of the states working in concert as a unified body? Madison himself pioneered the idea of dual sovereignty–that various forms of sovereignty could exist at both the national and state level–but concluded towards the end of his life that a state could not unilaterally nullify a federal law or break away from the Union. In an 1830 letter to Nicholas Trist he commented that “no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect. It will hardly be contended that there is anything in the terms or nature of the compact, authorizing a party to dissolve it at pleasure.” This is not to suggest that Madison is the last word on the subject, but only to suggest that the idea of the constitution granting the right of unilateral secession to the states would have been a surprise to many of the people who played a role in the writing of that very constitution.

Finally, there are two essays by Bruno Coppieters and Aleksander Pavkovic that are worth briefly mentioning. Coppieters focuses on recent separatist movements in Europe and how the European Union has addressed these conflicts within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Slovenia. He demonstrates how the EU has distinguished between separatist movements based on just cause (that the state has committed a wrongdoing against a specific group of people) and movements based on choice theory (that a group should have the right to self-determination simply because they choose to do so, and not based on any moral considerations or wrongdoings). Coppieters concludes that the EU has attempted to mediate secessionist crises in the interest of maintaining peace and has more often supported separatist movements with specific grievances and wrongdoings committed against them rather than movements based solely on choice theory. He suggests that the EU should establish a clearer “institutional framework within which conflict transformation and resolution may take place” for maintaining peace and orderly transitions for new nations when secession is viewed as a viable solution.

Pavkovic offers what is perhaps my favorite and most provocative essay of the book by criticizing all nationalist ideologies because they “privilege, on no justifiable grounds, one group against all other groups and individuals.” He rightly points out that both the anti-secessionist state AND secessionist separatist groups run the risk of committing immoral acts of violence against unarmed civilians and opposition groups in the name of nationalism. Pavkovic wades into territory the other essays leave untouched by asking if “the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession is justified on moral grounds” and whether or not, in the case of warfare, “independent statehood is worth the sacrifice of human lives and misery that attends any military conflict.” Whereas Wellman is primarily concerned about the ability of separatist groups to demonstrate political self-determination and Radan seemingly discredits any moral implications of secession and its potential for prolonged violence, Pavkovic challenges readers to face the moral implications of secession head on and consider whether or not the national allegiances we hold are worth killing and dying for.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and I’ve barely touched the surface on what this great book has to offer. Go out and buy it!



6 responses

  1. Nick, thanks for taking the time to write up a summary the arguments of some of the pieces in this book Doyle edited. It’s very helpful in for forming at least a first impression, imvho.

    One thing i would like to comment on, though, is the piece that you linked to that is presumably not in the book — the short discussion by Brooks Simpson on why he thinks that the War of Independence was not an act of secession. I think his argument presupposes that in order for it to be a secession, the party leaving must have equal status to the party left behind.

    I think that presupposition needs to be justified, or at least explained a little.

    Secession, according to the Wiktionary, is the act of seceding; and to secede is merely to “split from or to withdraw from membership of a political union, an alliance or an organisation”. (Secede comes from the Latin se [apart] + cedere [to go].)

    So unless “secede” is a term of art for political theory, i think it should be given its common and ordinary meaning of “split[ting] from”, and would not require that the departing party be equal in any way those left behind. (So the independence America won is, like the independence India or any other colony won, a “secession” from the political organization they were in before.)

    My two cents anyway, and thanks again for providing so much food for thought.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, thoughtful comments, and pushback, Dan.

      Your point about the party leaving not necessarily needing to be on an equal status as the party left behind is a good one, and I’m willing to concede that a further justification is in order to strengthen that argument. All I would add (and this is just me thinking out loud and in no way making a definitive argument) is that it seems like a distinction can be made between secession and revolution from a political perspective in that secessionists typically resort to constitutional and legal justifications within the state’s pre-established political system to give sanction to their movements, whereas revolutions typically acknowledge that they are working outside of the political process to enact change. Both secessionists and revolutionaries resort to legal arguments, historical narratives, political grievances, and abstract ideals to justify their cause, but it seems like a distinction can be made about whether the desired political changes are occurring inside or outside the system. Thus the colonists acknowledged that they were committing treason in their revolutionary war of independence while many Confederates (and their supporters today) argue that they did NOT commit treason and that the actions they took to leave the Union were constitutionally permissible.

      Again, that’s just me thinking out loud, however, so I’m happy to hear what you and others have to add to the discussion. Thanks again for commenting!

      1. Ah, thanks Nick for the explanation

        So i can see that the parallel between the Colonialists and later secession movements is not very perfect — as you say, the Colonialists did not argue that they had a right to leave based on any piece of English law or custom, but rather based on a “divine right not to be ruled” so to speak. I think that’s also what your sources may have been saying, including Simpson, but i was just too dense to get the point. So i appreciate the education.

        But on the positive side, i think a moral argument may be better than a legal one. Hopefully our laws derive from our morals and not the other way round.

        I don’t think the Confederates were in any position to make a moral argument (“He who seeks justice must come with clean hands”), but i think in some ways modern secessionists are in a better position to make a moral argument than our ancestors in 1776. Our 18th century revolutionary forebears, after all, burned down Indian populated villages in the winter night and held Africans in slavery, and part of their grievances against the Brits was that they were being held back in their war against the Native peoples. No modern secessionist is guilty of anything remotely like this, and the wars of the modern American masters against all kinds of countries are surely worse than those of the British masters 250 years ago.

        Anyhow, thanks again for writing and pointing out the Doyle book, and for correcting me on this legal/revolutionary distinction in secession.

        1. Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. One problem I encounter in discussions with Civil War enthusiasts, and lets face it that is what many are, is that they seem unaware of civil war, rebellions, and secession movements in other parts of the world. The break-up of Austria-Hungary, the devolution of Yugoslavia, civil Wars in places from Spain to Central America rarely attract any study from CW buffs in the U.S. This allows an exceptionalist view to predominate.

    1. Exactly. It’s easy to forget how frequently secessionist crises emerge in other parts of the world, and how the separatist groups seeking to leave a given state can at times muster a really strong argument in support of secession. Overall it’s a concept that has been crucially understudied, or has only been looked at through the lens of the American Civil War.

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