Free and Independent
September 11, 2003
recent biography of Thomas Jefferson contains an amusing
statement. It says that Jeffersons arguments in the 1798 Kentucky
Resolutions brought him dangerously close to secessionism.
Apparently the biographer
doesnt 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
Note the plural. Jefferson
weighed his words with utmost care, and he didnt 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
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
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. Its 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
didnt 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 Unions 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 states 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 Jacksons views in his first
inaugural address, and he acted on them ruthlessly.
The curious thing is that both
Jackson and Lincoln claimed devotion to Jeffersons 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.