A fascinating post-election phenomena is developing in dozens of U.S. states. Using a White House Web site established to acknowledge citizen petitions, proponents for peaceful secession from the United States have collected tens of thousands of signatures backing their call for an exit from the United States of America. According to the White House’s own rules regarding Internet petitions at the “We The People” site, as soon as a petition acquires 25,000 signatures the executive branch must assign staff from the Obama administration to look into the matter. So far, Texas is the first state to gain more than the required 25,000 signatures. (At this writing, the number of petitioners topped 45,000. Yesterday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement saying that Texas will not secede from the Union.) Other states include Oregon, Montana, New Jersey, New York and the Dakotas. Support is running strong for petitions in states of the American South, as well.
Two ideas unite these secession petitions. First, the writers are convinced that the re-election of President Barack Obama heralds the end of constitutional government because of his presumed agenda of pushing forward with the massive healthcare program that will emerge from the Affordable Healthcare Act and other examples of “big government” policies that will continue to expand the scope and power of the federal government. Secondly, the language of the petitions frequently contains rationale based on the language and the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, including the Lockean idea of just resistance and revolution and the implied natural law theory that positive action (the ability to do something independent of authority) are some of the hallmarks of liberty. Whether the proponents of seccession are students of the Declaration, sore losers after a contentious presidential election season, or dangerous radicals will no doubt be judged more by the eye of the beholder than through cool analysis.
But I will offer an effort at dispassionate analysis out of sheer fascination with what is unfolding. Whatever one thinks of the proponents’ politics (be they Tea Party, libertarian, or simply individuals who despise President Obama) the volume of support for the petitions is astounding. Perhaps it takes as much political thought to sign an Internet petition as it does to “friend” someone on Facebook, but the fact remains nearly half a million Americans as of this writing have signed a petition calling for the dissolution of the United States through peaceful secession. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was successful in its efforts with fewer supporters in Tsarist Russia. Actual secession is probably not the goal so much as the effort to turn the tables on the administration in an embarrassing fashion and use their own program against them. Also, so far the White House has not assigned staff to examine even the Texas petition despite the stated policy that the executive branch will address an issue once the threshold of 25,000 signatures is reached.
However, what is also obvious is something that has marked the 21st Century’s “radical Republicans” and consternated conservatives: They know their American civics and political history, including the contents of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. For example, the odious fact the Confederacy was a slave-holding republic does not negate the fact that many Southerners used the language of the Declaration to justify secession and resistance against the North. The Declaration is quite clear: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” What constitutes abuses and usurpations might be in the eye of the beholder, but the arbitrary use of power against a people’s liberty is a clear justification to “throw off” a government that allows or practices that kind of power.
Furthermore, the proponents also know something that the Founders also claimed. It is one thing to declare your independence, defined as the right to pursue liberty, which is the ability to do all things within the law without permission of a higher authority. It is quite another to act on your liberty, and positive action – even secession – is proof of real liberty. It might not be an advisable action, but it is an independent action. At the time of the Declaration, the United States had to prove it was thriving, viable state, not simply a rebellion, not the 18th-century equivalent of Somalia, the Sudan, or some other failed state wracked by civil war or insurgency. Actions do speak louder than words.
At the time the Declaration was written, the world was full of independent states (though they were almost all monarchies), there was thriving international trade, recognition of the importance of state sovereignty (the power of a nation to govern its own affairs independently, free of interference from outside powers) was universal in the trans-Atlantic world, and there was a system of alliances and treaties that reflected both the European balance of power and global commercial interests. Fundamental to any new nation’s ability to engage in these activities was the power to defend its citizens and seek relationships in the national interest. Self-protection was essential to this ability, and a struggle for independence to create a state with good government was justifiable under the laws of nature and nations. All of these positive actions marked independence in a way that the current petitioners of secession would probably accept as goals for, say, an independent Republic of Oregon or Republic of New Jersey. (Please keep the snickering to a minimum.)
The writings of Emerich de Vattel (1714-1767), a Swiss lawyer and political philosopher whose Droit des gens; ou, Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains (The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, 1758) became the standard work on international law that helped shape the Founders’ concepts of statehood and international law. It provided a working definition of the powers of an independent state used by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. Vattel was widely read both in the original French and in English translation by members of the Continental Congress: Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Charles W.F. Dumas (December 9, 1775) wrote, “I am much obliged by the kind present you have made us of your edition of Vattel. It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising state make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations. Accordingly, that copy which I kept, (after depositing one in our own public library here, and sending the other to the College of Massachusetts Bay, as you directed,) has been continually in the hands of the members of our Congress.” As one 18th -century translator rendered Vattel’s definition of a sovereign nation, “Every nation that governs itself, under what form soever, without dependence on any foreign power, is a Sovereign State. Its rights are naturally the same as those of any other state. Such are the moral persons who live together in a natural society, subject to the law of nations. To give a nation a right to make an immediate figure in this grand society, it is sufficient that it be really sovereign and independent, that is, that it govern itself by its own authority and laws.” Vattel also argued that the geographical size or power of a nation (such as one made of 13 constituent states) did not eliminate or dilute the sovereign nation’s right to defend the interests of its people. “Since men are naturally equal,” he wrote, “and a perfect equality prevails in their rights and obligations, as equally proceeding from nature, nations composed of men, and considered as so many free persons living together in a state of nature, are naturally equal, and inherit from nature the same obligations and rights. Power or weakness does not in this respect produce any difference. A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” What does this have to do with a burgeoning secession movement, real or tongue-in-cheek? One of the great truths of the Declaration is a small group of citizens — or one man or one woman — has the same inherent rights to government by consent as large populations. Size does not make one more important than another when it comes to rights. Size only matters in politics. There is a distinct difference between the two.
Although subjects of a sovereign owed him their allegiance and needed to maintain the “political association” even during the worst times to avoid internal and international chaos (“It is, then, an essential and necessary condition of the political society, that the subjects remain united to their prince as far as in their power”) Vattel argued that international law recognized the right of subjects to break away if they have been abandoned by their prince. “If, therefore, the state or the prince refuses or neglects to succour a body of people who are exposed to imminent danger, the latter, being thus abandoned, become perfectly free to provide for their own safety and preservation in whatever manner they find most convenient, without paying the least regard to those who, by abandoning them, have been the first to fail in their duty” – a maxim Vattel justifies with examples of his fellow Swiss breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century because it had never protected them in an emergency. Obviously, the Continental Congress would have heartily concurred with a legal justification for independence that accepted abandonment by their prince. Today’s petition filers no doubt want to determine if they have been abandoned by their “prince,” i.e. the chief executive. I am not sniping at President Obama with that comparison, simply point out that the minority in this last president election, though smaller than the winning side, might be asking if losing means abandonment — in other words, you lost and what you care about does not matter. Such are the reasons why the Declaration makes it clear “alter or abolish” are legitimate courses of action. Abolition of the United States isn’t exactly advisable. However, the Declaration gives a people permission to seek disunity if unity means they no longer count.
The current proponents of secession almost certainly have no familiarity with Vattel or his writings. They do, through the filter of the Declaration, understand his ideas. Probably the most prevalent question successful secessionists would ask is “What now?” But by acting, the proponents are showing their independence within the sphere of liberty. I doubt that secession will happen. But President Obama’s political opponents are promising him four years of action, couched in the language of a document that justified revolution against established power.