Is It Time for Secession?
Are the United States ripe for partition? Francis Herbert Buckley, a lawyer and academic who has taught at McGill and is now at George Mason School of Law, thinks they are. “In all the ways that matter, save for the naked force of the law, we are already divided into two nations just as much as in 1861,” he writes. “The contempt for opponents, the Twitter mobs, online shaming and no-platforming, the growing tolerance of violence — it all suggests we would be happier in separate countries.”
It’s a great step forward that a separatist can find a respectable publisher — even if it claims to sell “books for smart conservatives.” American Secession reports that there is a lot of support for separation and offers good reasons for it but, alas, only hints at the most compelling reason.
Prof. Buckley makes much of a 2018 poll that found fully 39 percent of Americans — including 42 percent of Democrats — wanted to secede. Presumably there would have been fewer secessionist Democrats under President Obama. Another 2018 poll found that 31 percent of Americans thought there would be a civil war within the next five years. I don’t take these numbers very seriously; wild talk is cheap. But I think Prof. Buckley is right to underline a recent Gallup finding that only 44 percent of Americans would be wiling to fight for their country. Surely, he is correct to say that far fewer would fight to stop an American state from seceding.
Many people think that 700,000 dead Civil War soldiers settled the question of secession, but Prof. Buckley disagrees. He argues that the Framers clearly thought the states had the right to secede. James Madison believed any attempt to keep states in by force would be wrong and “would look more like a declaration of war.” Virginia joined the United States with the express proviso that it had the right to bolt. New England states that didn’t like the War of 1812 didn’t debate the legality of secession; only whether to do it.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thought the slave-holding states should be expelled if they didn’t have the grace to leave, and wanted to hold a national Disunion Convention to expel then. On July 4, 1854, he told an Independence Day crowd that because the Constitution implicitly recognized slavery, it was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” He then burned a copy, saying “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”
James Buchanan, who was president when the Southern states began to leave, believed they should not be forced to stay:
The fact is that our union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day parish.
Before South Carolina hotheads fired on Fort Sumter, even Abraham Lincoln wavered: “Would the marching of an army into South Carolina . . . without the consent of her people, and in hostility against them, be coercion or invasion? I very frankly say, I think it would be invasion.”
Prof. Buckley reminds us that even now, there is one way to leave that everyone would agree is legal. The Founders believed the federal government would never give up power voluntarily — they were right — and that’s why they wrote Article V of the Constitution. It lets the states bypass the federal government to amend or even abolish the Constitution. If 34 state legislatures agree, there will be a constitutional convention at which anything goes. If 38 states then ratify the changes, that’s the new constitution — which could recognize secession or even sanction a partition. “Secession cannot be unconstitutional,” writes Prof. Buckley, “when there’s a constitutional way of making it happen, through a constitutional convention.”
I don’t think any of that would be necessary, because the federal government wouldn’t today invade a seceding state. As I wrote nine years ago, Americans don’t have the stomach to slaughter fellow Americans just to keep their corpses within the union. If a state wanted to make a serious go of it — especially for “progressive” reasons — the coast is clear, and as Prof. Buckley notes, these days, it is lefties who promote secession.
One of the best-known breakaway movements is in California, and Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory gave it a boost. The state already has legal marijuana despite federal drug laws and it loves illegal immigrants. The “Calexit” movement is run by people who think: “California loses billions of dollars every day [in federal taxes] supporting states whose people hate us and our culture. Let’s keep our taxes in California and invest in our people first.” Prof. Buckley notes that this sounds like “California first” or even “make California great again” and almost implies an anti-conservative immigration policy. The point is, many Californians hate Donald Trump and want out.
Vermont is so full of goofy liberals it has Bernie Sanders for a senator; it has also long been a nest of secessionists.
The Cascadia movement would make an independent country out of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and would, as Prof. Buckley puts it “unite people with the same kinds of ideas about the environment, Starbucks and yoga.” If the President gets a second term, Prof. Buckley can imagine Democrats calling for resistance in the streets.
They already have. The manager of a Red Hen restaurant proudly refused service to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, and a woman jostled and screamed at White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. Black congresswoman Maxine Waters then urged Democrats to mob and humiliate any Trump cabinet members they saw in public.
This is all part of the nastiness Prof. Buckley says is a sign of irreconcilable differences. Examples he cites are a 2017 article in Foreign Policy — not normally a crackpot magazine — claiming that “for the first time in America’s history, a Nazi sympathizer occupied the Oval Office.” Prof. Buckley also remembers that when Michelle Obama said that “when they [our opponents] go low we go high,” Attorney General Eric Holder corrected her: “No, no, when they go low, we kick them.” When Republican Senator Rand Paul was attacked and suffered six broken ribs and lung damage, MSNBC host Kasie Hunt laughingly said it was one of her “favorite stories.” Reporters routinely write vile stories about Republicans that would have got them fired in more civil times, but the point of today’s journalism is, in Prof. Buckley’s words, to let readers “feast on their hatreds.”
The last go at secession didn’t end well, and perhaps because he was born in Canada, Prof. Buckley understands something about it most Americans don’t: The further we get from the Civil War, the more we are supposed to revile the Confederates. The people who were actually trying to kill each other became friends. President Grant invited Robert E. Lee for a visit to the White House, and on the 50th anniversary of Pickett’s charge, veterans from both sides met on Cemetery Ridge and embraced each other. There was a popular television series, The Grey Ghost, in which Confederates were the heroes, and, as Prof. Buckley writes, “From their defeat, white southerners were permitted to retain some measure of dignity in the memory of their battlefield heroes.” Not anymore. Anything Confederate or even Southern is worse than leprosy, and “if millions of people in one section of the country are told they’re presumptively evil, and that the presumption really can’t be rebutted, they’re going to wonder if they belong somewhere else.”
But as Prof. Buckley recognizes, there is an even more testy divide: “Now the divisions are broader than North versus South. It’s liberals versus conservative and especially progressives versus Trump supporters.” “In our politics,” he adds, “we are already two nations.” One likely split would be to hive off the two coasts and leave the middle, making three countries.
That would make smaller countries, but Prof. Buckley says they would be better countries. He makes much of the fact that the people who claim to be the happiest in the world live in small countries (he ignores the fact that they live in white countries). They have governments that are close to the people and if they are homogenous, they have a sense of community. One disadvantage of big countries is that they spend more than they need to on weapons. America, China, and Russia don’t need anything like all the firepower they have, but their leaders like being able to swagger around the globe. Prof. Buckley thinks their citizens may not care. In the United States, it is the 700 to 1,000 defense-industry lobbyists — about two per congressman — who keep the defense budget fat.
The military-industrial complex is a good example of the dangers of size. Prof. Buckley argues that big countries have a lot of corruption because their governments spend huge sums people love to divert. He makes an interesting point: The kinds of political corruption that are actually illegal — bribery, extortion, mail fraud, vote-buying — are the least of our problems. Campaign contributions and lobbying are far worse, and are perfectly legal. After they leave office, about half of all congressmen become lobbyists, and make much more than they ever did as “public servants.” While they’re in office, they vote on bills with an eye to pleasing their future paymasters.
Prof. Buckley does note one clear advantage of size: free trade. Imagine, he writes, what it was like under the Articles of Confederation, with states taxing goods from other states. However, this problem could be solved through a common market of the kind that has enriched Europe.
Prof. Buckley recognizes that outright secession is unlikely, despite its advantages, so he proposes a middle ground: home rule. States would make all their own laws but leave foreign policy to the feds. All the hot issues — same-sex marriage, gun rights, abortion, public prayer, drug laws — would be thrashed out locally. If Americans were free to move to whatever state suited them, everyone could find a place to be happy.
This, is of course, was what the Founders wanted, and until the 20th century, and the federal government touched most people only when they went to the post office. Now, as Prof. Buckley points out, the feds want to run our lives for us. They are helped by a Supreme Court that has become the final arbiter of tough problems and forces the same solutions on every state. Federalism was supposed to be a compromise to get the best of both small and large government, but a ruthlessly centralizing United States is destroying all the advantages of smallness.
Home rule would be much better than what we have now. American Secession is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Prof. Buckley does note that “diversity” is not an advantage for a country, but I don’t remember a single occurrence of the word “race.” Prof. Buckley admits that at one time the country was coherent — British and Protestant — “but if we were ever that, we’re certainly not that today.” He goes on: “Our constitution has been justly admired, but it was made for a citizenry very different from the angry Americans of today.” And on: “The constitution was designed for another country, one in which people agreed on fundamental principles, and that’s not today’s America.”
What happened to yesterday’s America? Prof. Buckley gives us a hint with one of his diagnoses of why the country is splitting apart politically: “With their identity politics, the Democrats have become the intersectional party of racial and sexual minorities, of immigrants and feminists.” This is certainly true, but Prof. Buckley fails to note that the most bitter and enduring fault line is race. Instead, he trots out nonsense: “Other countries have their common cultures or religions. What America has is an idea that constitutes our identity as Americans, and that idea is liberalism in the classical sense.” The Founders would have been astounded to be told that they were starting a country with an identity that was nothing but an idea.
Prof. Buckley also argues that no secession movement would repeal civil rights laws or follow racial contours. That might be true for goofy-liberal secessionists in California or Vermont, but a split along current political-party lines, would be implicitly racial. As the partition was worked out, the racial divide might even become explicit.
It is strange that conservatives are so unwilling to recognize the importance of race while liberals, in their perverse way, are often obsessed with it. Still, this book is progress. Anyone who recognizes that people are better off separate — for whatever reason — is preparing the way for the kind of racial separation that many whites yearn for.