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September 11, 2003

A recent biography of Thomas Jefferson contains an amusing statement. It says that Jefferson’s arguments in the 1798 Kentucky Resolutions “brought him dangerously close to secessionism.”

Apparently the biographer doesn’t realize that Jefferson was an explicit secessionist. For openers, he wrote a famous secessionist document known to posterity as the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration proclaims the 13 American colonies “Free and Independent States” — adding “that as Free and Independent States, they have 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.”

Note the plural. Jefferson weighed his words with utmost care, and he didn’t speak of these states as a single thing — certainly not as the single, monolithic “new nation” Lincoln later called them. Each state was independent not only of Britain, but of the other states as well. They were united only in “alliance.”

The Articles of Confederation would soon repeat the point: “Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” The 1783 Treaty of Paris, concluding peace with Britain, spoke of the “free, sovereign, and independent states,” listing them all by name. The Constitution always refers to the United States in the plural and never refers to them as a “nation.”

When the Constitution was presented for ratification, the Union was briefly dissolved. It was reunited as the states ratified the Constitution. Any state that declined to ratify it would have remained outside the Union, but in the end all rejoined. Even so, three states ratified on the express condition that they reserved the right to “resume” or “reassume” the powers they had delegated to the Union — that is, to withdraw from the Union. The right to secede, or “separate,” was taken for granted.

[Breaker quote: Jefferson's forgotten philosophy]In the Kentucky Resolutions, which every thoughtful American should study carefully, Jefferson reminded his countrymen that the nature of the Union was that of a voluntary confederation of those free and independent states. It was not a capitulation to a new sovereign power. The powers of the Federal Government were limited, specific, and delegated; and if it exceeded them the states must have some recourse.

The Resolutions were written in protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Jefferson saw as unconstitutional. It’s now generally agreed that he was right. He stressed that if the Federal Government were to be the final and exclusive authority on what the Constitution meant, it would be free to define the extent of its own powers — which would defeat the whole purpose of a written constitution.

On this occasion Jefferson didn’t call for secession, but later secessionists would draw on his powerful arguments. He treasured the Union, but he abhorred the idea that the states could or should be kept in the Union by force. They were still, in principle, “Free and Independent States.” They could remain free and independent only if they remained sovereign.

In 1816 Jefferson would write that “if any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation ... to a continuance in union ... I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’” He hoped it would never come to that, but he saw that the ultimate right to withdraw from the Union was essential to the Union’s free and voluntary character.

Though he regarded slavery as a great wrong that would have to be corrected, Jefferson would certainly have agreed that the Southern states had the right to secede in 1860. His grandson George Wythe Randolph served the Confederacy as a general in the army and as secretary of war.

In the early nineteenth century there had been many separation movements, most of them in New England, and the right to secede was generally unchallenged. The first president to deny a state’s right to leave the Union was Andrew Jackson, who threatened to keep South Carolina in the Union by force if necessary. The idea of invading a state shocked even strong Unionists like Daniel Webster. But Abraham Lincoln would adopt Jackson’s views in his first inaugural address, and he acted on them ruthlessly.

The curious thing is that both Jackson and Lincoln claimed devotion to Jefferson’s principles, as nearly everyone did in those days. But they ignored the part about “Free and Independent States.” Today it would be absurd to describe the states as independent — or free.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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