A recent Zogby/Middlebury Institute poll shows that 22% of Americans believe that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic." Belief in states' and regions right to secede was especially common among blacks (40%), Hispanics (43%) and people aged 18-24 (40%). Interestingly, political liberals (32%) were more likely to believe in a right to secession than conservatives (17%). 18% of respondents say they would support a secession movement in their own state, including 24% of southerners.
Constitutional law professor Ann Althouse claims that these poll results show that "all these people [who believe in a right to secession] have the law wrong and don't seem to know the basics of the history of the Civil War." She concludes that the pro-secession survey respondents are "fascinatingly stupid."
I certainly agree with Ann that much of the public is shockingly ignorant about American history and constitutional law. This is one aspect of the more general widespread political ignorance that I have often written about on this blog and elsewhere (e.g. here and here). At the same time, I don't think that ignorance is necessarily a sign of stupidity.
I. Secession and the Constitution.
More importantly, I don't think that belief in a right of secession by itself demonstrates ignorance about either law or American history. The Constitution is famously silent on the issue of secession. It doesn't explicitly guarantee states a right to secede, but also doesn't explicitly forbid secession. Interestingly, the Articles of Confederation explicitly stated that the union is "perpetual" (which seems to foreclose secession), but the Constitution which superseded the Articles does not include any such language. This silence has led to ongoing debate over the constitutional status of secession. Prior to the Civil War, many respected scholars and political leaders claimed that secession was permitted by the Constitution. Many were apologists for slavery, but by no means all. For example, political leaders from several northern free states asserted that they had a right to secede at the 1814 Hartford Convention. In light of this history and the ambiguity of the constitutional text, I don't think that belief in a right to secession is at all unreasonable, much less a sign of obvious ignorance or stupidity.
II. Secession and the Civil War.
Many people, of course, believe that the issue of secession was definitively resolved by the Civil War; Ann may be alluding to this when she writes that the survey respondents she criticizes "don't seem to know the basics of the history of the Civil War." There is no question that the federal government defeated the south's attempt to secede. However, superior military might doesn't prove superior constitutional right. There are many instances in American history where federal and state governments managed to get away with violating the Constitution by applying superior force. The imposition of Jim Crow segregation on blacks in the South is the most notorious example.
To avoid confusion, I should emphasize that I think that the federal government was right to suppress the Confederates' efforts to secede. But not because secession is always illegal and impermissible. Rather, the Union was right in that instance because the southern states sought to secede for the indefensible purpose of protecting and extending the evil institution of slavery. Moreover, none of the southerners' constitutional rights had been infringed by the federal government. Things would look very different if a state sought to secede for the purpose of defending fundamental human or constitutional rights rather than continuing to violate them; if, for example, the feds were trying to force slavery on unwilling free states.
During the Civil War, even some defenders of the Union admitted that secession might be justified in some instances. For instance, in his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated his view that the Union is "perpetual," but also that "If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one." Lincoln (correctly) denied that any such thing had happened in the case of the South in 1861, but left open the possibility that secession might be permissible in a situation where the federal government really had deprived a minority of a " vital" constitutional right.
Secession can be used to advance evil ends, such as the protection of slavery. But it can also be used to pursue good ones. After all, the United States was established by means of secession from the British Empire. More recently, the secession of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union, and the secession of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia have caused far more good than harm.
In sum, the text of the Constitution is ambiguous about secession, and nothing in our later history definitively forecloses the possibility that secession might be permissible in some situations. The Zogby poll respondents might be ignorant in so far as they may believe that the federal government will allow states to secede at will. But they are not necessarily ignorant or stupid to believe that states have a right do so - irrespective of whether the federal government is likely to honor that right. Even as a matter of practical political reality, the federal government's reaction to a serious modern secession movement is likely to be dictated more by the immediate circumstances than by the long-ago precedent of the Civil War. Without knowing the background of the future dispute in question, it's hard to predict whether the feds would use force to prevent secession or not.
UPDATE: In addition to criticism from people who think that any form of secession is unthinkable, I also expect criticism from those who claim that the South seceded for more admirable reasons than the protection of slavery. Unfortunately for these people, Confederate leaders at the time clearly stated that slavery was the cause of secession. For example, in his famous 1861 "Cornerstone Speech," Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens emphasized that "slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." He also avowed that the enslavement of blacks was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government and constitution. For most pro-slavery southerners, states' rights were merely a tool for protecting slavery. When slavery could more effectively be promoted through federal power, they were perfectly willing to jettison their states' rights principles, as in the case of their trampling on state prerogratives for the purpose of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act (as I briefly discussed here).
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