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The Right to Secede

There are many different views of whether the South's secession in 1860 and 1861 was legal or not. Yet, in the Constitution, no article says that a state cannot secede from the Union. It does say, however, that each state is free and independent, and retains it's sovereignty. The states that did withdraw themselves from the Union were independent and had the legal right to do what they felt was necessary to preserve their homes.

In 1828, Congress imposed a series of high and unfair tariffs, which were taxes placed on products imported from foreign countries, on the South. Because the South's economy depended mostly on farming and trade, these tariffs were very unfair. The tax caused more money to leave the South than to be brought in because their imports cost more than their exports. When this tariff, known as the Tariff of Abominations, was put into effect, the South spend a total of $331 million on their imports while the North paid only $31 million. This great difference existed because the South did more trade with Europeans than the North. Since the tariffs could not be abolished, Southern states passed Nullification Laws, and threatened secession to protect their economy. Northerners would argue that secession is not the proper way to deal with unfair tariffs, and believed that the Nullification Acts were unfair to the North. Yet, as part of the country, Congress had to have known the effects that the tariffs would have on the Southern economy, and never did they show sympathy or offer any exceptions to the tariffs. Also, no one in Congress, or in the North offered any different solutions so they could not argue with the South's means of dealing with the tariffs.

By the early 1800s, the North and South had very different beliefs, life styles, and economies. Northerners worked mainly in factories, manufacturing goods such as tools and clothing to sell to other parts of the country and lived in crowded cities. Most Northerners opposed slavery and believed it to be wrong although many were also strongly racist. In the South, most of the white population lived on plantations and farms, varying in size, and grew tobacco, cotton, and cash crops that they sold mainly to Europe. Southerners supported slavery and the theory of states' rights. All of these differences created a rift that divided the country and grew as time went on. President Lincoln himself said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Had the Northerners allowed the South to secede peacefully and keep their way of life, both countries by themselves could have become quite prosperous; could have continued their trade with one another; and might have eventually formed new alliances.

Many Southerners favored the idea of secession and supported it with the theory of states' rights which says that each state is independent and has the power to decide whether Congress passes laws that are unconstitutional. The supporters of states' rights held that the national government was a league of independent states, any of which had the right to secede.

In the Constitution the Bill of Rights prevents the government from taking a citizen's property from them. Slaves were viewed as the property of the slave holder. Northerners refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, thus denying the South of their property. Southerners used this part of the Constitution to defend their secession.

Northerners referred to Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution. This says that: "No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance or confederation... or coin money." Also, "No state shall lay any Imposts or duties on imports or exports.... and No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war unless invaded..." Although this is understandable for the Congress to pass over states within the Union, each state seceded separate from each other and at different times, and then formed their own country. Because of this, none of the laws and requirements of the Constitution would apply to the South.

These points, among others, can be best summed up by Jefferson Davis in his farewell address to the United States Senate. "Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our government, and inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent anyone from denying that each State is sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made an agent whomsoever."


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Source: Right to Secede