The Supposed Settling of the Question of “Secession” at Appomattox

I keep hearing the claim that the legitimacy of secession from the U.S. was “settled at Appomattox,” and I wanted to say a few words about why I think that makes little sense.

To begin with, let me stress that I think that modern talk of secession is both foolish and pretty obviously empty posturing, whether it’s some liberals talking that way during the Bush Administration or some conservatives talking that way during the Obama Administration. America has profited tremendously from American union, both in terms of wealth and in terms of liberty from threats both foreign and domestic. It has profited tremendously in terms of national greatness, for those who care about such things, as I sense many conservatives and some liberals do. And its unity has greatly helped the world, especially but not only during World War II and the Cold War.

I doubt that even a fraction of those who on occasion talk in favor of secession are really willing to abandon the benefits of union. I’m confident that they should not, under current circumstances or circumstances remotely like our current ones. In principle, I agree that some sufficiently grave threats to liberty or security may justify secession — if we’re talking about historical locales, think Philadelphia 1776 or Yorktown 1781 — but we’re extremely far from that, especially reckoning the liberty, security, wealth, and greatness costs of disunion. Today, secession is politically a total nonstarter, and for very good reasons.

But at the same time, surely this must be a judgment based on how we see the world today, not based on what happened 144 years ago. A matter is “settled” by political decision only so long as the political decision commands the adherence of the polity. If in 2065 Alaska, California, Hawaii, or Texas (just to consider some examples) assert a right to secede, the argument that “in 1865, the victorious Union government concluded that no state has a right to secede in opposition to the wishes of the Union, so therefore you lack such a right” will have precisely the weight that the Americans of 2065 will choose to give it — which should be very little.

And beyond that, even if there is some precedent of some sort properly set by the Civil War (and I continue to disagree that there is), any such precedent can’t tell us much about consensual secession. The talk I occasionally hear of secession (again, talk that I think is not really serious) is not about departure in the face of military opposition — it’s about creating a political sentiment in some place in favor of seceding, and a political sentiment in the rest of the country in favor of allowing the secession. The results of a bloody civil war tell us nothing about the propriety of a Velvet Divorce.

Appomattox might well have a continuing effect (as does Philadephia) on the psyche of today’s Americans, and of future Americans. Its immediate effect also deeply influenced the economic structure of the nation, and the political structure of the nation’s political institutions; I suspect this also makes future secession less likely.

But that’s not a “settlement” of the secession question for the centuries. And there can be and should be no such settlement. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So the present is different from the past, and the future from the present. Poetic allusions to a peace treaty resolving one particular conflict can’t tell us what is right to do in our country today.