The American Revolution … Not the American Secession

One of the comments I see frequently when people who defend the right of secession seek to gain support for their position is that the American Revolution was an act of secession.

It was not.

The two situations were not comparable in critical ways. The colonies of Great Britain in North America were not equal partners within the British empire or contracting agents agreeing to a contract. Their legal existence came from above (the empire); they did not form it as a founding party or join it as an independent state. Indeed, if you know anything about the coming of the Revolution, you should know that during the period 1763 to 1775 American colonists insisted that they enjoyed the rights of Englishmen while the empire said otherwise. But one looks in vain to assertions that Virginia was equal to England, for example, or that New York was equal to Scotland. The links were drawn on the individual level: that is the language of the Declaration of Independence, which was not called the Declaration of Secession. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” refers to people as individuals, not to colonies aspiring to be states. The social contract was between individuals who established a government, not between member states. By definition, the colonists did not establish the empire, although they were a part of it.

What is clear, moreover, is that the American revolutionaries knew they were committing an act of treason … as in Patrick Henry’s comment that “If this be treason, make the most of it!” Benjamin Franklin likewise conceded that the revolutionaries should “all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The revolutionaries understood what they were doing and why.

Defenders of secession try to deny that secession was an act of treason (after all, if secession’s a legitimate constitutional right, then exercising that right can’t be an act of treason). Where secession was, indeed, an act of treason depends on whether on sees secession as constitutional. In contrast, the revolutionaries grounded their argument on a right to revolution, a natural right (not a constitutional right) and accepted the possible consequences.

One can, of course, agree with Robert E. Lee that secession was nothing but revolution (and why advocates of secession or the Confederacy would denounce Lee as a liar or stupid is best left to them to answer). But no one seriously argued that revolution was nothing but secession.

Those who claim that the American Revolution was an act of secession are simply seeking legitimacy for their position at the expense of an understanding of history and political philosophy. One need not treat the content of their argument seriously  one must understand instead the extent to which some people will go in their effort to make a case that pleases their personal preferences, desires, and needs.