By John Remington Graham

A lecture delivered at a meeting of the Abbeville Institute

on Seabrook Island, South Carolina, July 9, 2004

John Remington Graham, B. A., LL. B.,

of the Minnesota Bar

         On April 10, 1606, King James I granted letters patent to Sir Thomas Gates and others,1 thereby establishing two companies for the settlement of colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, then called Virginia in honor of the virgin Queen Elizabeth I. The London Company, later known as the Virginia Company, was authorized to settle between 34 and 40 degrees north latitude, and the Plymouth Company was authorized to settle between 38 and 45 degrees north latitude. The first colony was established within the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company at Jamestown on the York Peninsula off Chesapeake Bay on May 24, 1607. 

         Later the Virginia Company granted a patent to the pilgrim fathers who sailed on the Mayflower on September 16, and sighted Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. The colonists were far north of the territory falling within the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, and could not lawfully settle near Plymouth Rock where they had to land for the success of their mission.  On November 11, 1620, forty-one freemen met in an extraordinary convention aboard ship to frame and sign a constitution of government which came to be known as the Mayflower Compact.2  “In the name of God, Amen,” they began, “We whose names are underwritten, loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord James, by the grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc., having undertaken for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian Faith and the honour of our King and country to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together as a body politick for the better ordering, preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid, and by virtue thereof do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”   

          The Mayflower Compact sounds very pious and respectable, but it was actually a revolutionary act. Yet it was a peaceable act upon the ordinance of a convention of the people, meeting under the protection of the common law, and in deference to the very King whose grants of lawful jurisdiction they willfully disobeyed. The instrument was promulgated, ironically enough, in keeping with a constitutional custom which allowed them, under those circumstances, to disregard existing forms of law and establish a new government. The reality of this constitutional custom became manifest in a particularly noteworthy way sixty-eight years after the signing of the Mayflower Compact. 

         For on November 27, 1688, King James II met in London with the House of Lords, which sat on this occasion as a Magnum Concilium, — i.e., a council of titled nobility and reverend bishops summoned to give advice the Crown in a season of grave crisis. The realm was in a state of upheaval against repeated acts of royal misgovernment and repeated infractions of fundamental law. William of Orange, a prince of royal blood, marched his troops forward, and the King’s armies melted without offering resistance.  The lords temporal and spiritual advised the King to grant pardons with liberality, to meet for negotiations with William of Orange, to call a free Parliament, and to endorse constitutional reforms which were by then long overdue in England. The King failed to act upon this advice. He fled from the Kingdom, and joined his Queen and royal heir, Prince James Edward Stuart, at the Palais de St-Germain in France.  

          A number of eminent peers and subjects then met with William of Orange, who issued a writ calling for the election and assembling of a Convention Parliament which met and deliberated. On January 25, 1689, a body calling itself the House of Commons passed a resolution which read,

      “That King James the Second, having endeavoured to subvert the constitution of the kingdom by breaking the original compact between the between King and people, and by the advice of Jesuits and other wicked persons having violated the fundamental laws and withdrawn himself from the kingdom, hath abdicated the government, and that the throne is thereby vacant.”                                                        

        On February 12, 1689, the House of Lords agreed.  On February 13, 1689, the Crown was tendered to and accepted by William of Orange and his wife Mary who thereby became King William III and Queen Mary II of England.  The occasion was commemorated by the Acts of      the Convention Parliament in 1689 and the Act of Settlement in 1701. These several organic statutes instituted constitutional reforms and established a new succession of the Crown which, excluding the heirs of James II, has continued without interruption to the present day. Had it not been for this transformation of government, fondly called the Glorious Revolution, there would have been no lawful government in England over the past three hundred years, King George III could not have proclaimed British government in Canada in 1763 or conceded American independence in 1783, Queen Victoria could not have given her royal sanction to the British North America Act of 1867, nor would there be any legal order in Canada today, and      Elizabeth II would not presently be Queen of Great Britain and Canada. Yet the transfer of the Crown from James II to William and Mary occurred contrary to all ordinary forms of law existing at the time.    

         By constitutional custom, only the King of right by royal blood could assemble a lawful Parliament.  The lawful King did not call the Convention Parliament of 1689.   

          The accession of William and Mary was predicated on the abdication of James II.  But James II never abdicated in fact, and claimed to be King until his death, as he undeniably was by ordinary forms of law.  

         And even if James II had abdicated in some constructive sense, his son was his lawful heir, and would immediately have become King in his place.

         The accession of William and Mary was an unlawful event, yet it was authorized by the extraordinary forms of English constitutional law. Sir William Blackstone described the constitutional custom upon which the Crown has ever since rested:  

       “If, therefore, any future prince should endeavour to subvert the constitution by breaking the original compact between King and people, should violate the fundamental laws, and should withdraw himself from the kingdom, we are now authorized to declare that this juncture of circumstances would amount to an abdication, and the throne would thereby be rendered vacant.  But it is not for us to say that any one or two of these ingredients would amount to such a situation, for there our precedent would fail us.  In these, therefore, or other circumstances which a fertile imagination may furnish, it behooves us to be silent too, leaving for future generations, whenever the necessity and the safety of the whole shall require it, the exertion of those inherent but latent powers of society which no climate, no time, no constitution, no contract can ever destroy or diminish.”3

         We may define the principle of the Glorious Revolution as a constitutional custom  prevailing over all organic statutes, and all customs and conventions of fundamental law in Great Britain: — in extraordinary circumstances easier to illustrate from history than to define in the abstract, there may be a peaceful transformation of government, even if contrary to existing forms of law, by means of a convention of the people and estates of the kingdom, assembled in as orderly way as possible by a distinguished prince or the natural leaders of the realm for the purpose of reassuming the attributes of sovereign power, repairing  or ordaining the constitution so as to make it operable, and resettling the government of  the land. This principle contemplates a revolution which is peaceable, necessary, and beneficial, — a revolution which, however ironic it may seem, is authorized by the constitution itself.

        The principle of the Glorious Revolution has surfaced again and again in history.  Noteworthy are the circumstances in which of Rhode Island became independent of the British Empire,4 wholly apart from the independence of the United States. On May 4, 1776, the legislature and governor of Rhode Island met in an extraordinary assembly, and adopted a statute which strikingly resembles the first Act of the Convention Parliament transferring the Crown from James II to William and Mary. The statute recited that George III had broken the compact between King and people, and ordained that thenceforward all writs would issue and all laws would be passed, not in the name of the Crown, but in the name of the governor and company of Rhode Island. Not a shot was fired. The next day courts opened and business was conducted as usual. The event was a perfect recurrence of the Glorious Revolution.

         Several other States individually seceded from the British Empire.5   In Virginia, the house of burgesses adjourned, met as an irregular temporary legislature, and issued writs of election for a convention which met in the name of the People, and assumed all the attributes of sovereignty.  And on June 29, 1776, this convention proclaimed a formal constitution of the Commonwealth, whereof the preamble recited the wrongs done by or in the name of George III, then totally dissolved the government previously exercised by the Crown over Virginia.  The event was, again, a perfect recurrence of the Glorious Revolution.6                       

        The first written constitution of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted by the legislatures all thirteen States. The 13th article of the Confederation ordained, “The articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration be made in any of them, unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”

         Once the pressures of the War for American Independence were removed by the restoration of peace, the Confederation proved to be unworkable. Requisitions by Congress upon the several States became massively delinquent. Without an adequate treasury of the Confederation, the enemies of the United States were tempted to take territory which could not be defended, and it was not possible even to pay the interest due on loans which had been advanced by the friends of the United States. Attempts were made to give Congress limited powers of taxation and to facilitate the reckoning and collection of requisitions. But every proposed amendment to the articles was blocked by Rhode Island,7 whereupon the Confederation began to flounder, and the United States fell into mortal danger, yet there was nothing in the existing forms of the law which allowed necessary amendments.  Therefore, resort was had to the principle of the Glorious Revolution.  

         The Philadelphia Convention was called to frame more effective articles of Union. Rhode Island did not even bother to send delegates.  Everybody knew, therefore, that a new constitution would not be adopted by the legislatures of all thirteen States.  In order to deal with this problem, the framers adopted Article VII of the United States Constitution which says,  “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”  The critical debate on this clause was on July 23, 1787, wherein the rationale of the framers was clearly enough expressed.8  In each State, there was to be a convention of the people modeled after the Convention Parliament of 1689, — i. e., a convention of delegates and elected for the special purpose of exercising sovereign power, the power to do anything in law not naturally impossible, the power to abolish one legal order and erect another,  and, yes, the power to secede from the old Confederation and establish  a new Union.  

             And since each State acting by such a convention could secede from the old Confederation, notwithstanding any provision in the then-existing constitution, each State necessarily enjoyed the reserved right, by means of such a convention, to secede even from the new Union whenever extraordinary circumstances might make such a revolutionary but peaceable and lawful act necessary.  In the Virginia Convention of 1788, a young lawyer and politician by the name of John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, articulated the principle as it was understood by all, — “It is the people who give the power, and can take it back.”9 The same right of secession was expressly and publicly conceded in those days by such ardent federalists as Alexander Hamilton,10 Edmund Pendleton,11 and James Madison.12  And when the United States Constitution was adopted following the Philadelphia Convention, the right of the people in convention to secede  from the Union was declared in  ordinances of several States.13

          Before the fateful year 1860, the strongest movement for secession from the Union was agitated in New England.  The War of 1812 was imposed by Southern politicians upon the States of New England which had no desire for such an encounter with Great Britain and Canada.  The war was poorly managed to such an extent that the States of New England saw the need to provide for their own defense and negotiate a separate peace with the British Empire. The ultimate aggravation was a proposal by the secretary of war to conscript armies for an invasion of Canada, which was regarded, not only as oppressive, but unconstitutional.  For in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress was granted powers to raise armies for any and all military purposes, and call forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions, subject to important rights of the several States. If Congress could conscript armies, the elaborate limitations and reservations on the militia would be pointless.  And the power to raise armies was actually intended by the framers as a power to raise regular troops by enlistment only and never by conscription, and the power to regulate and call forth the militia was actually intended by the framers as the exclusive means of compelling citizens to render military service.14

           Reacting to the crisis, the legislature of Massachusetts invited the States of New England to meet in a convention similar to the First Continental Congress which had met before the American Revolution to petition the King for redress of grievances. Delegates from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 14, 1814, and deliberated until January 5, 1815, when they promulgated their report and resolutions.15 Notwithstanding the florid denials of Daniel Webster in his reply to Robert Hayne some years later in the United States Senate,16 the Hartford Convention met to consider secession from the Union, and actually concluded that secession from the Union might be the best course.  It is no less true that the Hartford Convention, not the Battle of New Orleans, brought the War of 1812 to an end, and restored peace between the United States and the British Empire. 

          While the Hartford Convention has been largely overlooked or left unmentioned, if not actually concealed for one reason or another, most students of American history have at least heard of the nullification crisis in South Carolina. 

        From the presidency of George Washington, there had been some dispute over whether Congress is constitutionally limited in levying tariffs or import duties solely to raise revenue or could also levy such taxes for the purpose of regulating commerce to achieve desired effects beyond the activities of trade.17 Throughout the antebellum period, revenues of the United States were raised principally by tariffs, but occasionally tariffs were imposed to protect domestic manufacturing and agriculture from foreign competition.  The idea was that protectionism would enable the country to become a self-sufficient common market within a strong Union.  The theory was plausible enough, until the so-called “tariff of abominations,”18 which was enacted not so much to raise revenues or to promote industry, as to engineer the election of Andrew Jackson as President. The original plan was to set rates so high that the incumbent John Quincy Adams would veto the bill, then to blame Adams for failing to protect industries in the mid-Atlantic States whose electoral votes Jackson sought. To the surprise of all, Adams signed the bill. John Randolph of Roanoke asserted that the “bill referred to manufactures of no sort or kind, but the manufacture of a President of the United States.” Still benefiting from his image as the “hero of New Orleans,” Jackson was elected anyway. Under this illicit manipulation of the power to tax imports, duties were raised as high as 50% ad valorem on an expanded list of dutiable items. 

          The legislation triggered a recession in the Southern States. The problem became serious, but was addressed successfully by constitutional processes which saved the Union. The people of South Carolina met in convention, and on November 24, 1832, adopted an ordinance which declared the tariff of abominations unconstitutional and threatened secession from the Union if the obnoxious tariffs were not repealed or if the Federal government attempted to enforce them within the State. President Jackson issued a proclamation denouncing the resistance as treason and threatening to send Federal troops into South Carolina. The legislature of the State passed resolutions defying Federal authority, and prepared armed forces to meet armies of the Union at the border.  Daniel Webster and John Calhoun faced each other in a memorable oratorical encounter in the United States Senate, while Henry Clay engineered a compromise tariff,19 which expanded the list of duty-free goods, and gradually reduced duties over the next decade to levels no higher than required for the raising of revenue, 20% ad valorem on an agreed list.  Thereupon the crisis passed, and the Union waxed strong again.  

          Next, the War for Southern Independence.  The question of causes leads us into murky waters.   It will be important to identify what the causes were not.  

          Slavery was not a cause.  For there was in the old South a powerful abolition movement. And this movement, fathered by Thomas Jefferson and fostered by James Madison, was highly prestigious and influential. By contrast, the abolition movement in the North became so enfeebled by pathetic eccentricity that it had to be reinvigorated by James Birney of Alabama who, after freeing his slaves, moved to New York to lead the Liberty Party as their candidate for President in 1840 and 1844.20  

        Nowhere in any of the Northern States during the antebellum period was there ever a debate over slavery so important and eloquent as was held during the proceedings of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1832. The often magnificent speeches in this debate were published by newspapers in Richmond at the time, and have since been conveniently preserved for interested scholars.21 Noteworthy about these proceedings is that Southern abolitionists were dominant and carried important votes, including a resolution which lamented “the great evils arising from the condition of the colored population of the commonwealth.”22 The Southern abolitionists made no further progress at that juncture because of uncertainly on how to proceed with emancipation of slaves en masse.  In one of his noted speeches before the war, Abraham Lincoln himself said of slavery, “If all earthly power were given to me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution.”23 He did not know what to do, because in those days nobody really knew how to make abolition humane, practical, and beneficial. There was only one solution as Lincoln himself saw, — gentle nudging and letting time pass.   

          Moreover, the issue agitated between the North and the South was not so much slavery itself, as the extension of slavery into the Federal territories.  But that whole question dissolves into insignificance when it is appreciated that, in 1860, there was no real possibility that slavery could or would expand into the territories, for the institution was prohibited in the territories by geography and modernization.24 Nor were planters in the Dixie States interested in moving west, although they were free by law to do so. There were in 1860 exactly seventeen slaves in all the Federal territories, two of them in Kansas which entered the Union the next year without slavery, and the rest in Nebraska.  There were no slaves in any of the territories eventually claimed by the Confederate States.   

         We all know that considerable uproar was generated by the infamous opinion of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 19 Howard 393 (U. S. 1857). Yet most students fail to understand that, before the cause reached the highest court of the land, Dred Scott and his family had actually been freed by a Southern judge in Southern court upon a large and respectable body of Southern jurisprudence under which countless thousands a slaves had been liberated.25  Most people, not only in the North, but in the South as well, thought that Scott and his family should be freed. And, in fact, almost immediately after the case was decided by the United States Supreme Court, Scott and his family were actually emancipated by their master.26 How, therefore, could the question of slavery have ignited a civil war?          

          Secession was not a cause of the War for Southern Independence.  For while it is true that there was a strong secessionist tradition in the Southern States, the same was also true of the Northern States.  And, in fact, an important text used for instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point during the antebellum period, written by a distinguished Northern lawyer, freely conceded the right of a State to secede from the Union.27   

        When the guns opened fire on Fort Sumter, there was a conscious belief all over the country that, under the United States Constitution, a State had a right to secede from the Union.  Many Northern newspapers editorialized in 1860 and 1861 that the Southern States should be allowed to withdraw from the Union in peace.28  In less than two weeks after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, the Cincinnati Daily Press trumpeted, “We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy to dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an independent position is absolute.” Particularly striking were editorials soon following in New York City.29 “If the cotton States decide they can do better out of the Union,” said the New York Tribune, “we insist on letting them go in peace. The right to secede may be a revolutionary right, but it exists nevertheless.” And the New York Herald added, “Each State is organized as a complete government, possessing the right to break the tie of the Confederation. Coercion, if it were possible, is out of the question.” The day after Jefferson Davis was inaugurated provisional President of the Confederate States, the Detroit Free Press editorialized, “An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful, could produce nothing but evil, — evil unmitigated in character, and appalling in extent.” A month later, the New York Times observed, “There is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of  letting the Gulf States go.”  Again, how could there be a civil war about an issue on which both sides agreed? 

          Many want to believe that the war was caused by the oppression of the Southern States through the imposition of unjust protective tariffs.  The idea has a sophisticated sound, but is not supported by the facts.  For on the day before James Buchanan was inaugurated as the last antebellum President, all lingering protective tariffs were abolished,30 and the only tariffs allowed were limited to raising necessary revenues of the Union, 20% ad valorem on an agreed list.  The Southern States had never asked for more concessions, and had been willing to live with something short of that ideal.  Not only were there no protective tariffs in 1860, there were also no Federal taxes on income or exports.  And commercial ships carrying Southern cotton to Europe were amply protected by the United States Navy.  So unjust productive tariffs could and did not cause an eruption of hostilities.         

          None of the conventional theories explain the American Civil War.  In order to appreciate why the war broke out, it is necessary understand a view advanced by Henry Clay Dean, a copperhead Democrat from Iowa and an important leader of the Northern peace movement during the war;31Alexander Del Mar, a distinguished economist and monetary historian of the postbellum age;32 and Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., populist Congressman from Minnesota known for his opposition to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.33  They advanced a bold and terrible thesis which may be briefly restated:          

         The divisive antagonisms finally erupting in the War Between the States were not unfortunate historical accidents, nor the result of some inexorable momentum in events. Those antagonisms, rather, were deliberately agitated during the 1850s by great international banking houses with a preconceived motive of provoking secession.  And secession was to be used as a pretext for a bloody and expensive war of conquest which was actually launched and carried out. The war was planned as a brutal slaughter, as it tragically became.  The war was planned to generate a stupendous national debt, mostly represented by bonds, and such a national debt was in fact generated. The private interests acquiring these bonds planned to secure the passage of legislation enabling them to convert the paper by them acquired in financing the war into a new and dominant system of banking and currency under their ownership and control. And those private interests fully succeeded in their sinister plans, and set up a huge financial empire     centered on Wall Street from which they have ever since clandestinely governed the           United States.   

          In any event, given the way things have played out on the stage of history, the constitutional right to secede from the Union has become the solemn legacy of the defeated armies of the Confederate States, — the timeless gift of those gallant soldiers not only to subsequent generations of Southerners if they are worthy of it, but more importantly to whomever is worthy of it among all the nations of the earth.  

           It will here be fitting to reflect on the words of Alexander Stephens, the great Southern statesman who served as Vice President of the Confederate States, yet died in office as Governor of Georgia beloved across the country for his devotion to the Union.  On June 5, 1865, as he lingered in prison at Boston harbor, Stephens wrote these moving words in his diary: 

      “The people of the South conscientiously believed that the old Union was a compact between sovereign and independent States. Only certain powers named in the Constitution had been delegated by the States separately to the central government.  Among these was not ultimate sovereignty, this being retained by the States separately in the reserved powers. Each State had the right to withdraw from the central government the powers delegated by repealing the ordinance that conferred them, and herself resuming their full exercise as a free, independent, and sovereign State, such as she was when the compact of the Union under the Constitution was formed. These principles and doctrines the great majority cherished as sacred and as underlying the whole framework of American constitutional liberty.  Thousands who disapproved of secession as a measure did not question it as a matter of right.  The war waged by the central government against the States, striking at their sovereignty, and causing as it would, if successful, their complete subjugation, these people considered unconstitutional, monstrously aggressive, and utterly destructive of everything dear to them as freemen.”34

          In order to see again this vision of the founding fathers of the United States, you must understand the errors underlying the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Texas v. White, 7 Wallace 700 (1869). 

            After the Confederate surrenders, the defeated South was divided into military districts and placed under martial law as conquered territories of the United States.  And in this setting the military governor of Texas brought suit in the name of the State, invoking the original jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court, and seeking an injunction enjoining those holding bonds owned by the State before the war but sold by the secessionist government during hostilities from negotiating them further, and directing return of those bonds to the public treasury of Texas. In order to invoke original jurisdiction, Texas had to be a State of the Union.  A motion was made to dismiss the complaint on grounds that Texas was not then a State. 

         Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase denied the motion, and allowed the case to proceed.  The old Confederation, he said, was by express terms “perpetual,” which is perfectly true.  And the new Union, he noted, was made by express terms “a more perfect Union.” Which is also true beyond doubt.  And because, under the United States Constitution, there is a perpetual Union made more perfect, Chase claimed that we have an “indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States.”  Therefore, he concluded, Texas always and still was a State, and original jurisdiction could be invoked.  But, Chase held, Texas was usurped from 1861-1865, and thus the bonds were not really sold at all.  The opinion is pure sophistry which contradicts itself, resting on pleas that Texas was indestructible yet insane, sovereign yet incompetent to act.   

         The refutation of this sophistry is not so difficult. The old Confederation was perpetual as a corporation is sometimes said to be perpetual, which means that it exists unlimited by a term of years, and so will exist until lawfully dissolved. And the old Confederation was, after all, dissolved, and it was dissolved without the consent of all the States, even though the articles stipulated that amendment required assent of all the States. The new Union is undoubtedly more perfect, because it was established by the people in each of the several States, sitting in convention to exercise sovereign power which can create or abolish any government or union, whereas the old Confederation was established only by legislatures which did not have sovereign power but were bound by constitutions which the people in convention had established in the several States.  Under the intended meaning of the United States Constitution, then, a right of secession was actually reserved to the several States.   

         Chase’s conclusion is a spectacular non sequitur in history and law.   But there must have been an overwhelming fatefulness in Chase’s mind.  The country had a population of about thirty-one million, had suffered a million casualties in combat, and had probably lost another four hundred thousand from starvation.35  This enormous conflict had cost something like three-fourths of the assessed value of all taxable property in the United States in 1860,36 and had multiplied the national debt fifty-three times in only four years.37  Chase had been the secretary of the treasury who arranged the financing of this monstrous tragedy. Under the circumstances, he could not write the truth, so he wrote something else.  

         We are fortunate in that, upon this continent, in our own time, the baneful legacy of the American Civil War has been given a judicial rebuke, and the results have been edifying, signaling hope to our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

         Most of us know something of the antagonisms which erupted during the last quarter of the 20th century between French-speaking and English-speaking citizens in Canada.  These antagonisms grew out of  excessive consolidation of the Dominion, arraying the nine provinces of Anglo-Canada against Quebec as the geopolitical bulwark of French Canada.  There was a clash of two civilizations not unlike that which occurred in the United States between the North and the South. The result was a powerful separatist movement in Quebec which repeatedly elected  governments, and offered two referendums on independence, in the second of which the vote for secession from the Union very nearly carried. 

         The question then arose whether the Constitution of Canada permits secession of a province from the Confederation.  Under the organic statutes, there is no express right or formal mechanism for secession.  But Canada is blessed by the customs and conventions of the British Constitution which were conveyed to the Dominion by the preamble of the British North America Act of 1867, including the principle of the Glorious Revolution on which the Crown rests: in extraordinary circumstances, the constitutional right of the people to free, peaceable, and orderly reformation of the government, even if contrary to the usual forms of fundamental law, might take the form of secession from the Union.  Accordingly, in the Reference on certain Questions concerning the Secession of Quebec from Canada, [1998] 2 S. C. R. 217, the Queen’s judges advised that the people of Quebec enjoy a constitutional right to aspire for independence, and a constitutional right to a free and peaceable referendum on independence at public expense whenever their elected government determines; that, if in such a referendum the people of Quebec vote in the affirmative by clear majority on a clear proposition for independence, the  government of Canada will have a constitutional duty to negotiate terms of separation, nor may the government of Canada in such a situation threaten or use force of arms to resist secession; and that, if negotiations fail, and the government of Quebec then unilaterally proceeds to independence recognized by other nations of the earth, a new constitutional order will thereupon be established.  

         The consequences of this judgment have been remarkable: the antagonisms between Anglo-Canada and Quebec have essentially evaporated.  The people of Quebec reacted to the concession of their rights within the Union by electing a federalist government. The Union now waxes strong.  And Canada is loyal to the Crown from sea to sea.   It might first appear that the right of secession will bring anarchy to a federal Union.  Yet by operation of moral causes, the right of secession, which is the essence of Southern Constitutionalism, has exactly the reverse effect.  In commenting upon the Union of Southern States established in 1861, Lord Acton explained why:

       “When the Confederacy was established on the right of secession, the recognition of that right implied that there should never be occasion for its exercise. To say that particular contingencies shall justify separation is the same thing as to say that the Confederate government is bound within certain limits, under certain conditions, and under certain laws. It is a distinct repudiation of the doctrine that the minority can enforce no rights, and the majority can commit no wrong.  It is like passing from the dominion of an able despot to a constitutional kingdom.”38

© John Remington Graham 2004.  Permission is hereby granted to the Abbeville Institute to republish for educational purposes.  Permission is also granted to the Young Sanders Center for the Study of the War Between the States in Louisiana to publish, and grant permission to republish for educational purposes. — J. R. G.



1 –  Found in William Hening (ed.), Virginia Statutes at Large, R., W. & G. Bartow, New York, 1823, reprinted by University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1969, Vol. 1,  pp. 57-66. There were subsequent charters separating the two companies and enlarging or redefining their rights.  On May 24, 1624, the charter of the Virginia Company was revoked and the colony at Jamestown was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Privy Council. The irregularities attending the Mayflower Compact were finally cured by a charter of King Charles I, granted on   March 4, 1629 to the Massachusetts Bay Company, and reprinted in Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History,  Prentice Hall Inc., Engelwood Cliffs, N. J., 9th edition 1973,  Vol. 1, pp. 16-18.

2 – Reprinted ibid.,  Vol. pp. 15-16. 

3 – In the standard edition of Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Edward Christian, London, 1765,  Bk. I, pp. 244-245.  

4 – The definitive account is by Judge William Staples in Rhode Island in the Continental Congress 1765-1790,  Providence Press Co., Providence, R. I., 1870, reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York, 1970, pp. 65-67. 

5 – Aside from Rhode Island and Virginia, New Hampshire seceded from the British Empire in December 1775, South Carolina in March 1776, and New Jersey two days before the Declaration of American Independence in July 1776,  as appears in a commentary by Judge Joseph Story reprinted in Jonathan Elliot (ed.), Debates on the Federal Constitution,  J. B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 2nd edition 1859, Vol. 1,  pp. 65-66. 

6 – The definitive account is found in op. cit. Tucker, Vol. 1,  App.,  pp. 79-95.

7 – The obstructions of Rhode Island to urgently necessary constitutional amendments are made plain enough from the official record as laid out in op. cit. Elliot, Vol. 1,  pp. 92-106.  

8 – The best record of this critical debate is in Madison’s Notes, as set forth in op. cit Elliot, Vol. 5, pp. 352-356.  

9 – Recorded ibid., Vol. 3,  p. 233 (June 10, 1788). 

10 – In The Federalist, No. 9, Mentor Edition by New American Library, New York, 1961, p. 75.

11 –  In the Virginia Convention on June 4, 1788,  recorded in op. cit. Elliot, Vol. 3,  p. 37. 

12 – In the Virginia Convention on June 14, 1788,  recorded ibid., Vol. 3,  pp. 414-415. 

13 – As appears ibid., Vol. 1, p. 327, and Vol. 3, p. 656 (Virginia Convention, June 27, 1788); Vol. 1, p. 327 (New York Convention, July 26, 1788); and Vol. 1,  p. 334 (Rhode Island Convention, May 29, 1790).  


14 – Representatives and senators from the States of New England eloquently advanced this argument in Congress.  The most famous speech in this category was by none other than Daniel Webster, then representing New Hampshire in the  House on December 9, 1814, as recorded in C. H. Van Tyne (ed.), Letters of Daniel Webster, McClure, Philips & Co., New York, 1902, pp. 56-68.  The high water mark of this argument, based on the distinction between armies and militia, appears in the opinions of Lowrie, C. J., and Woodward and Thompson, JJ., in Kneedler v. Lane, 45 Pa. St. 238 at 240-274 (1863), wherein an injunction was granted to enjoin conscripting citizens into the armies of the Union then invading the Confederate States. Likewise, in the Southern States, it was widely believed that conscripting armies was unconstitutional, as appears, e. g., in the opinion of Bell, J., in  Ex Parte Coupland, 26 Tex. 387 at 405-430 (1862). The practice of drafting armies was erroneously approved in the Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U. S. 366 (1918), but serious doubts about that decision have been acknowledged in United States v. Crocker, 420 F. 2d 307  (8 Cir. 1970).

15 – The legislative resolutions, credentials of the delegates, and the journal of deliberations, report, and resolutions of the convention are reprinted in Theodore Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention, Russell Odiorne & Co., Boston, 1833, reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York, 1970, pp. 342-422.  

16 – Herman Belz (ed.), The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2002, at p. 120.  Webster’s reply to Hayne was delivered on January 26-27, 1830. 

17 – In his Opinion on the Bank, Thomas Jefferson maintained that taxes could be levied by Congress only to raise revenue, as appears in op. cit Elliot, Vol. 4,  p. 610 (February 15, 1791).  But in his Opinion on the Bank, Alexander Hamilton held that taxes could by imposed by Congress,  not only to raise revenue, but also to regulate commerce, as appears in Jacob Cooke, Reports of Alexander Hamilton, Harper & Row, New York, 1964,  pp. 98-99 (February 23, 1791).  The debates in the Philadelphia Convention  make is tolerably clear that the framers of the United States Constitution agreed with Hamilton’s view, as appears in op. cit. Elliot, Vol. 5,  p. 447 (Madison’s Notes, August 20, 1787), and,  following his retirement from public life, James Madison expressed agreement with Hamilton’s view in private correspondence which is reprinted in op. cit. Elliot, Vol. 4,  pp. 600-606 (September 28, and October 20, 1828).   

18 – Implemented in an Act of May 19, 1828 (4 U. S. Statutes at Large 270),  modified to suit the demands of  New England while giving no relief to the Southern States in an Act of July 14, 1832 (4 U. S. Statutes at Large 583). 


19 Implemented by an Act of March 2, 1833 (4 U. S. Statutes at Large 629). The episode is related in breathtaking style, with expansive quotations from the speeches in Congress, by Alexander Stephens in his Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, National Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Pa., 1868-1870,  Vol. 1,  pp.  298-388. 

20 – The impassioned speech of James Birney, accepting the nomination of the Liberty Party for President on     May 11, 1840, is reprinted in John L. Thomas (ed.), Slavery Attacked: the Abolitionist Crusade, Prentiss-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J. , 1965, pp. 80-84.  

2l –  The most important speeches in the Virginia House of Delegates on both sides of the question  have been reprinted in Joseph Clarke Robert’s The Road from Monticello, Duke University Press, Durham, N. C., 1941,     App. A,  pp. 57-112.                                              

22 – Quoted ibid.,  pp. 32-33. 

23 – From his speech in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854. The passage is question is found in Political Speeches and Debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, 1854-1861, Scott, Foresman & Co., Chicago, 1896, at p. 9. 


24 – The facts are plainly laid out in Charles Ramsdell’s classic article, The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion,   16 Mississippi Valley Historical Review 151-171 (1929).


25 – As appears in Dred Scott v. Emerson, 15 Mo. 576 at 587-592 (1852), ultimately based on the judgment of Lord Mansfield in Sommersett’s Case, 20 Howell’s St. Tr. 1 at 80-82 (K. B. 177l), in which a black slave from Jamaica was brought by his master to the free soil of England.  Lord Mansfield’s judgment was based on a body of jurisprudence in England on the liberation of white Anglo-Saxon laborers held in villeinage  upon principles rooted in the 29th Article of the Magna Carta of King Henry III.  See, e. g., Pigg v. Caley, Noy 27 (K. B. 1618).  

26– This interesting  fact is recited by Sir Winston Churchill in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Dodd, Mead & Co.,  New York, 1956, Vol. 4,  p. 160.


27 – The text in question was A View of the Constitution of the United States, first edition published by Carey & Lea of Philadelphia in 1825, second edition published by Philip Nicklin of Philadelphia in 1829, by William Rawles, who was appointed by President George Washington as United States Attorney in Pennsylvania In the last chapter of both editions, Rawles concluded that any State “may wholly withdraw from the Union.”


28 – Seventeen such editorials in Northern newspapers from November 1, 1860,  to April 12, 1861,  are quoted by Thomas DiLorenzo in his The Real Lincoln, a New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Random House Inc.,  New York,  2002,  pp. 107-109.

29 – Several such editorials in New York City and the State of New York are quoted by Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman (eds.), The American Civil War, the American Illiad as Told by Those of Lived It, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1956, Vol. 1,  pp. 3-4.

30 – In an Act of March 3, 1857 (11 U. S. Statutes at Large 192). 


31 – Dean expressed his elaborate thesis on the planning, agitating, and financing of the American Civil War in Crimes of the Civil War, and Curse of the Funding System, Innes & Co.,  Baltimore, 1868, republished by Crown Rights Book Co., Wiggins,  Miss., 1998. 


32 – Del Mar wrote of the corruption behind the Presidential election of 1868 and the demonetization of silver in 1873 in A History of Monetary Crimes, 1899 edition republished by Omni Publications, Palmdale, Calif. 1979, pp. 60-76 and 87-91.   


33 – Lindbergh traced the financial empire on Wall Street formalized by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to the financing of the American Civil War in the National Bank Acts of 1863 and 1864 in Banking and Currency and the Money Trust, National Capital Press, Washington D. C., particularly at pp. 93-107.  


34 – Reprinted in Myrtha Locket Avary (ed.) Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, His Diary When a Prisoner in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, 1865, Doubleday, Page & Co., New York,  1910,  pp. 165-166 (June 5, 1865).

35 – The casualties from combat are given, e. g., in Richard B. Morris, Encyclopedia of American History, Harper & Bros., New York, 1953, Vol. 1, p. 245.  The deaths of slaves from starvation can be fairly estimated from the testimony of Judge William Sharkey before the Joint Committee of Fifteen in the spring of 1866, as reprinted in Hans L. Trefousse (ed.), Background for Radical Reconstruction, Selection from Congressional Hearings, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1970, pp. 28-29.


36 – This characterization is found in op. cit. Stephens, Vol. 2, p. 630.


37 – The actual figures are given in op. cit. Dean, pp. 193-194, 405-406.

38 – From the lecture of John Dahlberg, First Baron Acton, before the Literary and Scientific Institution, Bridgnorth, England, on January 18, 1866, entitled  “The Civil War in America: Its Place in History,” reprinted in J. Rufus Fears (ed.), Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1985, Vol. 1,  p. 277.