Why the Issue of Secession Isn’t “Settled”

In a recent post, co-conspirator Eugene Volokh argues that the Civil War did not settle the issue of the constitutionality and moral defensibility of secession. I made a detailed argument to the same effect in this 2008 post.

I’m not going to restate all my analysis here. But I will say that I don’t think that secession is either clearly unconstitutional or always morally wrong. I agree with Eugene that secession at this particular moment in American history is probably both infeasible and likely to cause more harm than good. I don’t think, however, that that will necessary remain true indefinitely.

In many federal systems, secession is an important safeguard for minority groups and a guarantee against excessive concentrations of power in the central government. Historically, at least some secessions have done great good, such as the “Velvet Divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Norway’s early 20th century secession from Sweden, Finland’s secession from the Russian Empire, and the Baltic States’ 1991 secession from the USSR. The American Revolution was, of course, a violent secession from the British empire, one that most Americans surely believe to have been justified.

Not all secession movements are defensible. As I see it, their merits depend crucially on the nature of the regime they are seeking to secede from and the quality of the one they are likely to establish. For this reason, I am one of the relatively few Americans sympathetic to the general idea of secession who also believes that the Confederate secession effort of 1861 was utterly indefensible. The Confederates seceded for the deeply unjust purpose of defending and perpetuating slavery, a point that I discuss in detail here and here. For that reason, among others, their defeat and the resulting abolition of slavery was a far better outcome than a Confederate victory would have been.

For those who may be interested, I discussed many issues related to the pros and cons of secession in this series of posts in 2008 and 2009. It may be an interesting way to pass the time for federalism buffs confined to their homes by the latest iteration of “Snowmageddon.”