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.

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81 thoughts on “The American Revolution … Not the American Secession

  1. wgdavis October 11, 2012 / 12:17 pm

    Thank you for that. For what it is worth, I fully concur.

      • John Foskett October 11, 2012 / 12:26 pm

        Aroid – or Payrod as he’s known in the Emerald City – joins you.

  2. John Foskett October 11, 2012 / 12:36 pm

    This analysis is, to coin the over-used Internet vernacular, “spot on”. Use of the AWI as an analogy for what happened in 1861 appeals to the simple-minded who need to squeeze the Southern secession into something which has a veneer of justification. They were, um, “colonies” which, as we know, lacked representation in the body imposing laws upon them. They were not constituent elements of a nation, each of which was fully represented in the legislative body. Secession was nothing more than disagreement with the results of a democratic process in which the side which garners the most votes for a proposition prevails on that issue. In short, use of the AWI to legitimize secession is just another toy in the sandbox, similar to its mate “the war was caused by the Morill Tariff and northern aggression”.

  3. Ned B October 11, 2012 / 12:59 pm

    However, I think it is interesting how some secessionists in 1860-1861 tried to use the same argument, claiming that they were following the example of 1776. One could draw the same conclusion — that secessionists in 1860 were “seeking legitimacy for their position at the expense of an understanding of history and political philosophy.”

    • SF Walker October 12, 2012 / 5:20 pm

      “that secessionists in 1860 were ‘seeking legitimacy for their position at the expense of an understanding of history and political philosophy.'”

      I was just thinking the same thing while reading this, Ned. I find it interesting that both the North and the South in 1861 argued that their respective causes embodied the true ideals of 1776.

  4. wgdavis October 11, 2012 / 1:04 pm

    Egads! Conflating of a term for the original Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, followed by attributing a long time British term for ‘Exactly right”! What is a logophile to do?

  5. michael confoy October 11, 2012 / 1:46 pm

    Never heard this argument before. However, when the lost causers (and they are surely lost) say that it was inevitable that the Union would win because they had a bigger population, more industry, larger army, larger navy, etc., the American Revolution can be used to point out the fallacy of that argument.

    • John Foskett October 11, 2012 / 4:18 pm

      There are a number of boomeranging arguments made by those folks. The whole thing involves a lot of artful dodging. But that’s inevitable ehen you’re constantly making it up.

  6. Mark October 11, 2012 / 1:54 pm

    Secession could have been a revolution, but the American Revolution could not have been a secession for the reasons detailed in this post.

    • Mark October 11, 2012 / 1:57 pm

      Oops. My comment was incomplete. I didn’t know that Lee said “secession was nothing but revolution”, nor that others on his side objected to this characterization. Interesting.

      • wgdavis October 11, 2012 / 9:45 pm

        What Lee said was irrelevant. It may have been such to him personally, but secession was NOT a revolution. At the risk of committing sacrilege, Lee was simply wrong, as he never attempted to alter the form of government of the United States, either within the law or outside it.

        Secession could not have been a revolution. The two terms are mutually exclusive. Apples and oranges. Doesn’t matter which direction you start it with, secession is not revolution and revolution is not secession.

        Do not understand why you are having such a hard time grasping this. Not even you can turn secession into a revolution, or a revolution into a secession. But don’t feel badly, Lee couldn’t either.

  7. Mark October 11, 2012 / 2:15 pm

    I used to make the same arguments that secession wasn’t a revolution because of the way it started, but I now think that is misguided. So what if it began as a disagreement with the results of a democratic process? So what if there reasons were transparently fraudulent? Where is it written that revolutions can’t start that way? If the AWI started with a tax revolt do we have to define it that way?

    None of this serves as justification of the CW. To say it was a revolution doesn’t justify it. Justification could only be done on the merits, but that comes back to understanding the causes and cultures in enough depth to do that.

    • Francis Gallo October 11, 2012 / 6:55 pm

      I have a few questions, if you will suffer my ignorance. From what I have read, which isn’t much, the “disagreement” wasn’t punctual but durative. While it is impossible to argue that the course of political actions the Southern states took usually had something to do with the institution of slavery, is it not equally possible to argue that the political actions of the Northern states usually took on a intentional tone of righteousness?

      My second question: The South tries to diminish the importance of slavery as a cause for secession, replacing it in stead with the argument for states rights. I hear from many sources on Crossroads that this is patently untrue and that the definitive cause, if not the only cause, for secession was the issue of slavery. If this is true why did the seceded states continue fighting after January 1st, 1863? If they were fighting solely to keep slavery alive in the South, one would have thought that the emancipation of all the slaves in the rebellious states would have left them with nothing to fight for.

      My third question: What does AWI stand for.

      And a side note.
      It was William Lloyd Garrison’s view that the Norther states should secede from the Union thereby separating the righteous of the North from the sin of slavery once and for all. This was the “peaceful” solution of a pacifist. Turn that one around and remember the words of Jefferson Davis-“All we want is to be left alone.”

      Food for thought.

      • Mark October 12, 2012 / 7:18 am

        >> is it not equally possible to argue that the political actions of the Northern states usually took on a intentional tone of righteousness?

        Yes, but I’d argue that it is difficult to say it was merely a pose. They hated slavery for many reasons, including political and economic. Politics always involves taking rhetorical license and trying to make the strongest case. But the righteous indignation of Northern Republicans at being forced to participate in the institution because of Fugitive Slave laws was in NO way a pose. They hated it with the passion of those who are forced to participate in that which they hate. And if you read CW diaries you’d find that even the most hard-bitten Yankee racist was affected by marching through slave states and seeing that some blacks had been so brutalized that the skin on their backs had the appearance of a grotesque river. It is impossible not to wince in horror. The northern Republicans also hated the institution over which the southerners were prepared to “destroy the best government on earth”.

        >> I hear from many sources on Crossroads that this is patently untrue and that the definitive cause, if not the only cause, for secession was the issue of slavery. If this is true why did the seceded states continue fighting after January 1st, 1863?

        Because it had become a war of independence by then. And I think you’re right that many readers confuse the centrality of slavery for the singleness as the cause. The entire world was awash in revolutions at this time, and the South too was rapidly industrializing and changing due in large part to the railroad. The South was feeling its oats and its blood ran high to for independence. To keep their social institutions based on slavery to be sure, but that wasn’t the only reason and you’re right to question that. It was all misguided and wrong to be sure, but if we pretend to want to get inside the Southern mind at the time we have to acknowledge that there were many reasons mixed up in their minds. To acknowledge this isn’t to give anything up in the moral drama. If we seek to understand we must seek to see it as they did. The fact is that both sides had a very distorted view of each other by the time of the war. We must push through that to gain historical understanding, rather than perpetuate it.

        You’ll find no fiercer critic of the Confederate government than myself, and I despise the sanctimony and mythology surrounding it. It’s all hot air. Scholars are only now starting to study many aspects of it. But we shouldn’t be blinded by our own biases such that we can’t see how Southerners thought about it.

        AWI = American War of Independence

        Here’s a great book if I hadn’t already mentioned it. Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism by Mark Neely.

        • Jimmy Dick October 12, 2012 / 8:56 am

          That sort of ties in with the opposition to change that many of the secessionists and elite class slave owners had which I think forms a definite undercurrent to the issue of slavery. Make no mistake, slavery was the 800 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to the cause of the Civil War. There are practically no issues in which slavery was not interwined and I do not believe there would have been a war without slavery serving as the catalyst.

          That said, when we analyze the actions and words of those southern leaders and members that composed what for all intents and purposes in the South was the political power structure we see a resistance to change. Leave the issue of slavery out of the argument for a bit and take a deeper look. There were changes that were occurring in the South and the elite class was threatened by those changes. The elite class is always threatened by change when change is not taking place in a way that benefits them. In the case of the South, the changes were primarily economic and social/political.

          The economic changes didn’t benefit the elite class who were the main slaveowners. The changed actually threatened their way of life. At the same time social/political change was occurring. Don’t think for a minute that the elites in the South didn’t look at the North and see how the expansion of voting rights changed the political make up of the North. There were various reasons in addition to that in which equality changed the power structure in the North. In the South the elites felt threatened by these changes which I think made them ally with the secessionists in a sense of desperation. Had the elites in the South not felt threatened with the changes which were really out of their control, I don’t think they would have joined the secessionist movement to the extent that actually resulted in the formation of the Confederacy.

          • Francis Gallo October 12, 2012 / 6:46 pm

            Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses, Mark and Jimmy. I do appreciate your taking the time to help me wrap my head around this whole disaster. Very informative all around.

          • Mark October 12, 2012 / 7:35 pm

            You’re welcome Frances. Here is another one I recently read that was amazing. I can’t describe here how good it is, but it is very, very good and I learned a great deal by it. It’s just incredible in fact.

            When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 by Steven V. Ash

          • Francis Gallo October 12, 2012 / 7:53 pm

            They want twelve dollars for that one, Mark. I’ll see if the Library has it. Thanks

          • Jimmy Dick October 12, 2012 / 7:42 pm

            Looking back at your post, Francis, about why the South fought on, they hadn’t lost the war yet in 1863 or at least they didn’t feel like they had. Despite the victory at Gettysburg, the North had not been able to sustain a campaign south of the Rappahannock nor would they until Grant began the Overland Campaign in 1864. I know there are those who have different turning points in the war or even multiple ones, but after having read several works on the war, I have chosen a turning point that is featured in most of those books. The following is an excerpt from a discussion post I wrote earlier this year which is purely my idea of a turning point which might explain why the South thought it was not defeated as of this point.
            Following the Battle of the Wilderness on the evening of May 7th Grant began to slide his army to the left and south as he tried to maneuver around Lee and continue the Overland Campaign in a fight that was more conducive to the Union. The key here was going south. Three times this army had been in a heavy fight as they moved south and following the battle they had retreated back to the North and the war dragged on. Not this time. The Union had a commander who wanted to win and wanted to fight. Ulysses Grant himself inspired his men on a road in the dark of night as he went south with his staff to prepare for the next battle. With apologies to James McPherson I’ll give you a paragraph from Bruce Catton’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Stillness at Appomattox that I feel describes what for those men was the turning point of the war.
            “This army had known dramatic moments of inspiration in the past- massed flags and many bugles and broad blue ranks spread out in the sunlight, with leadership bearing a drawn sword and riding a prancing horse, and it had been grand and stirring. Now there was nothing more than a bent shadow in the night, a stoop-shouldered man who was saying nothing to anyone, methodically making his way to the head of the column-and all of a moment the tired column came alive, and wild cheer broke the night and men tossed their caps in the darkness. They had had their fill of desperate fighting, and this pitiless little man was leading them into nothing except more fighting, and probably there would be no end to it, but at least he was not leading them back in sullen acceptance of defeat, and somewhere, many miles ahead, there would be victory for those who lived to see it.”
            While there were certainly more battles on the horizon and thousands more deaths, Grant was taking the fight to the enemy and that made a difference. The people back home were appalled at the casualties, but Grant knew the only way this war would be won would be by attacking Lee’s men, killing them, and reducing their ability to fight. That’s just what he did and that’s why I think the night of May 7th was the turning point of the war if there was such a thing. The men of the Union Army knew they would be marching to victory under Grant even if it took a while longer. The war did go on for another year and Lincoln’s election was in jeopardy until Sherman took Atlanta, but the Army of the Potomac was on the attack.
            Turning points are misleading because the ebb and flow of war isn’t always just with the military. This war had its political elements, both domestic and international. While Lee’s loss at Antietam probably was the death blow to British and French recognition of the Confederacy, the war still raged and the issue was in doubt. No side wanted to surrender because neither side saw themselves as defeated until late in 1864 when Sherman marched to the sea. At that point I really believe only the diehards thought the South had a chance and even then they may have been hoping for a protracted settlement. I don’t think that was possible after Lincoln’s reelection like I said earlier. One could say Lincoln’s appointment of Grant as the Union commander was a turning point as well, but I’ll stick with that road on May 7th.

          • Francis Gallo October 12, 2012 / 8:03 pm

            Thanks, Jimmy. I’ll have to read about the Wilderness Campaign again to fully understand your perspective. All I remember about it is that that was where a minie ball passed through Longstreet’s throat and lodged in his shoulder. Friendly fire, I recall. I will print out your article so I have it handy.

          • Mark October 13, 2012 / 10:18 am

            Jimmy, I count May 7th as the turning point too, and you described it exactly as I would have if I could say it as eloquently. As you said, other turnings points have been chosen by others and have merit, but it could have all unraveled and almost certainly would have without Grant absorbing the shock of battle and heading South as if he never had any doubt they’d win. In fact he didn’t.

            I believe Sherman thought the entire eastern theater should have been avoided and the South undermined and collapsed from the West. There is a logic to this, and I suppose it might have worked, but Sherman just had a tin ear for politics. I think Grant knew there was no way the country could ever be the same if the Yanks couldn’t match the best rebel army in battle even if they could win the war without doing so. Can you imagine the inferiority complex it would have generated and the stridency of the Lost Causers if the war had been won that way, assuming it were possible? There is no way the country wouldn’t have been fundamentally changed, and not in a good way.

          • Jimmy Dick October 13, 2012 / 4:03 pm

            I used an excerpt from Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox. Mr. Catton was by far more eloguent than I am. As for turning points this is a subject in which there is no right answer, but rather a topic in which much scholarly work is done and shared for everyone’s enrichment.

          • Francis Gallo October 12, 2012 / 7:50 pm

            And thanks for the lead on the book, Mark. I just ordered it on Amazon. $0.70 plus $3.99 shipping from betterworldbooks. Very good condition.

      • Chazz Adler May 29, 2014 / 7:54 pm

        what? why would the emancipation of slaves in the rebellious states have any meaning for them. The slaves in the south were not free and did not en masse walk off the plantation like some union going out on strike. Really?

  8. Caldwell October 11, 2012 / 2:41 pm

    “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.” Hmmmm…..


    “Definition of SECEDE

    : to withdraw from an organization (as a religious communion or political party or federation)

    Free Online Dictionary:

    “se·cede (s-sd)
    intr.v. se·ced·ed, se·ced·ing, se·cedes
    To withdraw formally from membership in an organization, association, or alliance

       [si-seed] Show IPA

    verb (used without object), se·ced·ed, se·ced·ing.
    to withdraw formally from an alliance, federation, or association, as from a political union, a religious organization, etc.

    Collins Dictionary:

    apostatize, break with, disaffiliate, leave, pull out, quit, resign, retire, separate, split from, withdraw

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 11, 2012 / 4:08 pm

      The colonists were not members of the empire. They were subjects of the empire. You seem confused on that point. The colonies and the colonists were not contracting agents.

      • John Foskett October 11, 2012 / 4:14 pm

        You’d think that anybody who invests a lot of time and effort in finding and posting definitions would also read them. There’s a reason that colonies are called “colonies”. It’s based on what one might generously describe as a “lack of mutuality”.

        • Francis Gallo October 11, 2012 / 7:06 pm

          Want to hear something funny? This story has, I believe, a tacit connection to some of these discussions.
          I lived in Great Britain for several years in the ’80’s and the people I knew there were of the “upper middle class” (snobs, we might call them). Whenever they spoke about the United States (bear in mind this is 1983, not 1783) they always referred to them as ‘the colonies’.

          • John Foskett October 12, 2012 / 7:04 am

            They undoubtedly don’t trace their lineage to Lord Pitt.

        • Caldwell October 11, 2012 / 11:42 pm

          Funny, not a single definition of the word “secession” contained any reference whatsoever to the words “colonies” or ” lack of mutuality”. But that’s probably because these words are completely irrelevant to the definition of “secession”. Accordingly, an individual may secede, a colony may secede, a State may secede, a corporation may secede, a company may secede, a Church may secede, indeed, an entire country may secede. Furthermore, a secession may be illegal or legal, mutual or lacking ” mutuality”, it makes absolutely no difference. And, I agree, one would think that anyone criticizing a definition would actually read the definition.

          • John Foskett October 12, 2012 / 10:09 am

            Nice try.

          • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 10:42 am


          • John Foskett October 13, 2012 / 8:47 am

            Yep. And the other folks in the elevator did notice.

      • Bob January 10, 2014 / 3:28 pm

        Mr. Simpson, the colonists, from their perspective, were members of a contract, hence the drafting of the Declaration of Independence saying the King broke his end of the contract thus freeing the colonists from his rule. You may not share that view but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t their view.

        The colonies seceded, what else is the Declaration of Independence other than a secession document?

        • Brooks D. Simpson January 10, 2014 / 6:46 pm

          Actually, that was Mr. Jefferson’s perspective. You might want to broaden your reading. The fact remains that the structure of the British Empire and the United States are fundamentally different, and I note that Calhoun’s notion of secession was based on an interpretation of the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. What did he know that you don’t?

          After all, in Jefferson’s view the contract was between individuals, not colonies and the empire. You do realize that, right?

    • Francis Gallo October 11, 2012 / 7:34 pm

      I like the last one from Collins Dictionary. Take out the commas and it’s pure Faulkner.

      • Christopher Shelley August 3, 2014 / 1:44 pm

        CAC (Caldwell/Austin/Colleen) has some literary pretensions. Unfortunately, he’s a little too lazy to do the work. Also, he doesn’t seem to possess an actual dictionary.

  9. Joshua Horn October 11, 2012 / 2:44 pm

    I think there is a big difference between secession and revolution in that secession would be revolution through the legally established governments. In that the American “Revolution” would definitely be secession. I do recognize that this definition is not necessarily the historic one. But the traditional one doesn’t make much sense to it. It seems that traditionally people such as James Buchanan held that the difference between secession and revolution was that secession was a legal right, but that revolution was not. (Not necessarily saying that revolution was always morally wrong) However, he also advised that revolution be allowed to proceed peacefully. This makes seems to me to negate the difference in legality. If it shouldn’t be resisted, how is it illegal?

    I would appreciate any thoughts.

    • Mark October 11, 2012 / 5:46 pm

      Joshua, I’m not sure what a “legally established government” is if it is sovereign as are national governments. The question arises: legally established by whom? The concept of political legitimacy is needed here for modern governments, certainly ours. Government legitimacy must be recognized and established by popular acceptance. “We the people”. Legitimacy comes in degrees; it can be stronger or weaker, and it can be gained or lost.

      >> . . . he also advised that revolution be allowed to proceed peacefully. This makes seems to me to negate the difference in legality. If it shouldn’t be resisted, how is it illegal?

      One has a natural moral right to revolution, but it doesn’t mean any given revolution isn’t morally wrong. But I think a peaceful revolution is another animal entirely. Just not the context we’re talking about. No one has a natural right to an uncontested revolution. Perhaps that would be a social revolution –something very different. Peaceful “revolutions” are negotiated or “fought” for in peaceful ways by escalating non-violent means so the other sides compromises. But war rhetoric is only metaphorical in those cases.

      When a part of a state secedes, and it is recognized as an independent state by the nation, it is a legitimate state because of the popular recognition (at both state and national level presumably). Legitimacy applies to states as well. I think to speak of an “illegal war” war by a sovereign nation is unintelligible. Wars are extralegal by definition, though we can hold people accountable to laws about their conduct. A legitimate government might fight a (morally) unjustified war, or an illegitimate government might even fight a (morally) justified war. Not sure if I’ve answered your question, but you can’t always view things through the lens of a legal framework.

    • Francis Gallo October 11, 2012 / 7:19 pm

      These are good questions to ask. Without reading dozens of books the best and quickest answer to your questions can be found here:
      or Google ‘Constitutionality of secession’ and you’ll get enough links for a dozen books. If you want to have some fun, search for these sites using Google Gravity.

  10. Jimmy Dick October 11, 2012 / 4:12 pm

    It’s interesting how the use of the word secession has come to mean what the eleven southern states did in 1860-61. The proper use should be attempted secession. Had they actually seceded, then that would have meant they left the United States unimpeded through legal methods such as when Kentucky seceded from Virginia or Maine seceded from Massachusetts. Since the eleven states’ attempt to secede failed, they never succeeded in seceding.

    • Francis Gallo October 11, 2012 / 7:31 pm

      Let me clarify something. I may have read this recently on Crossroads or I may have read it recently in one of the books I have piled up in the living room. It doesn’t matter, it’s entirely possible I’m making it all up. The nub is this: Had the rest of the states (those UN-seceding) been inclined to ALLOW the seceding states to do so, everything would have been ooja-cum-spiff, as the saying goes. No war, no civil strife (lasting a disproportionately long period of time), and no shooting of fellows named Lincoln! Which would mean no President’s named Andrew Jackson!!!!!!!! Talk about Paradise-bloody-Lost!!

      • Christopher Shelley May 30, 2014 / 8:26 pm

        Francis, the short answer is that Unionists considered that maintaining the Union was a sacred thing. If the Southern states could secede unilaterally simply because they lost an election–that is, if the minority could ignore the will of the majority–then democracy didn’t really exist. Even if you are new to this discussion, it’s very much worth it to read Lincoln’s first inaugural address where he lays all this out. But the gist is that the success of secession meant the end of popular government; and popular government was truly sacred to Americans of this period–so much so, that the vast majority agreed with Lincoln and were willing to sacrifice their lives. We take democracy for granted; they did not.

    • Caldwell October 11, 2012 / 8:42 pm

      “…Had they actually seceded, then that would have meant they left the United States unimpeded through legal methods…

      I have posted four definitions of secession, from four different sources, and not single one uses the one-sided and decidely partisan definition you use. Please show me a source which defines secession as “an unimpeded legal method”. I rather suspect you will not be able to do this any better than you could find a law of perpetuity in the Constitution.

      • Jimmy Dick October 12, 2012 / 6:36 am

        Why should I argue with someone who fails to comprehend the actual facts of history? You seem to think the colonies seceded from Great Britain which is incorrect. You fail to acknowledge the illegality of secession based on the fact that it isn’t in the Constitution, but when the opposite view is applied you ignore it. Then when the fact that the SCOTUS has made a ruling on secession you try to make that irrelevant when in fact it is the law of the land. Your definition of secession today is not the definition of secession in the past.

        • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 11:21 am

          Couldn’t find a definition of secession which included the language “unimpeded legal method”could you? Well, don’t let it trouble you, I was also told that the definition of secession was dependent upon the phrase “lack of mutuality”. Nor is that all; I am told, rather remarkably, that the definition of secession applies only to “contracting agents”. All of this is patently ridiculous, of course, but it is always infinitely amusing watching the Lincolnites run around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to square the circle.

          P.S.- Let me know when you find that law of perpetuity in the Constitution.

          • Jimmy Dick October 12, 2012 / 3:44 pm

            Let me know when you learn that there was no secession in the American Revolution or from the Articles of Confederation. We’re not in the old days where somebody could kept repeating falsehoods and have them take the place of fact without being called out for it. Today historians have been working for decades to eliminate the myths folks like you have bandied about such as the Lost Cause. As a result that myth is now part of a mythology class and not part of a history class.

          • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 5:11 pm

            Collins Dictionary:

            apostatize, break with, disaffiliate, leave, pull out, quit, resign, retire, separate, split from, withdraw

            According to you, the American colonies did not “break with” or “seperate” from, the British Empire. You just keep on trying to square that circle…

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2012 / 5:26 pm

            Irrelevant. Jefferson wrote a Declaration of Independence … not a Declaration of Causes for Secession. Your attempts to argue that present-day dictionaries define an event over two centuries ago simply demonstrates your commitment to presentism and wrenching language out of historical context.

          • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 5:47 pm

            Jefferson also did not write a “Declaration of Revolution”, which you insist it was. Must be presentism.

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2012 / 7:19 pm

            Are you saying that Jefferson did not classify what happened in 1776 as a revolution? That is a novel interpretation.

          • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 7:38 pm

            No more novel than you insisiting that it was not a secession, which it clearly was. For reasons unknown, you also insist that the terms “revolution” and “secession” are mutually exclusive. They are not.

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2012 / 7:42 pm

            So what we have here is your denial that Jefferson thought the events of 1776 constituted a revolution while you make claims as to what I believe. Interesting.

          • Caldwell October 12, 2012 / 6:46 pm


            Here’s an 18th century dictionary which contains the definitions for both “secede” and “secession”. Remarkably, the definitions have the same meaning as they do today.. By the way, are those the only words that you will demand be scrutinized by 18th century standards, or are you going to demand that each and every word in the DoI be subjected to similar scrutiny so we can see if you are not guilty of “presentism”?

          • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2012 / 7:17 pm

            Then we would presume that the Founders would have used that word all the time and would have refrained from using the word revolution.

          • John Foskett October 13, 2012 / 1:22 pm

            Was your secession “revolution” a “rebellion”?

          • Francis Gallo October 12, 2012 / 8:31 pm

            Let me try and get something straight here. Following Lincoln’s election S. Carolina decided to secede from the Union. A sort of “knee jerk” reaction but one which was predictable enough (predicted in fact by J.C. Calhoun in essentially his dying breath). After this “secession fever” spread through the south. At some point during this domino effect it seems that the secession movement actually became a revolution because of the size of the movement. The secession of a state is an individual act. One secession does not a revolution make. But when half the country removes itself from it’s contract with the parent government, does this not then constitute a revolution. Potato, potahto, or as Shakespeare said; “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

          • Mark October 12, 2012 / 9:58 pm

            Francis, I like the way you describe the flow. But I’m not sure we can define revolution in terms of size or popular appeal. If revolution means an attempt at violent overthrow of a government, I’m not sure the size really matters in order to call something a revolutionary movement. John Brown’s “raid” probably qualifies.

            Legitimacy of established governments has to do with popular acceptance of authority, and I don’t think says much about their morality. I suspect that legitimacy for a revolution has a greater moral burden. On this view, it isn’t clear to me that a revolution obtains legitimacy on the basis of popular acceptance of authority. Maybe a revolutionary movement becomes a nationalist movement (which I suppose presumes independence) at some point on the basis of popular appeal though.

            How does that strike you? Do you think your fine characterization might be improved by substituting “secession movement became a revolution” to “revolutionary movement (that began with secession) became a nationalist movement”? And I wonder if it is possible to have an independence movement that isn’t a revolution.

          • Mark October 12, 2012 / 10:10 pm

            If it isn’t possible to have an independence movement that isn’t also a revolutionary one, maybe we could say that at whatever point the secession movement changed into a movement for independence, assuming it wasn’t always, it also became a revolutionary movement.

          • Francis Gallo October 13, 2012 / 7:53 am

            John Brown’s raid was actually more an insurrection than anything else, having the qualities of of violence and a specific aim in mind. You could describe Brown as a Revolutionary, I believe, but chasing around the country hacking and shooting is not what I would call a revolution. Besides, it’s more fun to characterize Brown as a loon-ball-religious-zealot-abolitionist-who-was-never-quite-able-to-get-his-groove-on. I Iike to tell people the “war on slavery” was fought by J.B. and only J.B.. That usually gets the conv. going.

            I’m going to have to give the “nationalist” idea more thought before I comment. I have been adhering to the idea that southern nationalism had risen prior to 1820. The Miss. Comp. was being first act of the legitimacy this nationalism, shall we say. But let me brood some more on this.

            On the last point, independence is not always dependent on revolution. It is necessary sometimes. Belize, for example, is independent of Britain since sometime in the 1970’s.
            India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, all shaking the shackles of British rule or ownership (?) without an uprising

          • Chazz Adler May 29, 2014 / 8:09 pm

            Are the American “revolution” and the French “revolution” the same kind of event?

          • Christopher Shelley May 30, 2014 / 8:33 pm

            Francis, some Southerners did declare they were launching a new revolution. But the majority of secessionists were too conservative to use the term “revolution.” They rejected that they were creating something new, but rather that they were merely asserting their sovereignty. “Revolution” was too dangerous an idea for these reactionaries.

  11. Caldwell October 11, 2012 / 5:21 pm

    No confusion here, that’s for sure. Is it really possible that you are asserting that the colonies were not part of the British Empire? Or are you saying that subjects cannot secede and only a member can? Either way it doesn’t matter, because whether member or subjects, the colonists, in a textbook act of secession, disassociated from the British Crown.

  12. wgdavis October 11, 2012 / 5:48 pm

    I think people get an incorrect fix on Revolution as is Revolutionary War. Our efforts to separate from Great Britain was more appropriately termed a rebellion until the Declaration of Independence was issued. It was a rebellion against the King’s laws that had become increasingly oppressive.

    When the crown doubled down and sent troops, the game changed. Separation [not secession] and independence became the goal. It was a daring, and dangerous attempt by a collection of the worlds great thinkers, and it succeeded. In spite of the great risks, they prevailed, in part because the military could not be defeated, and the British grew increasingly tired of the fighting, suffering a few embarrassing setbacks along the way.

    Note, the military and the congress went by the name of “Continental”, not ‘Revolutionary.”

    Revolutionary as in Revolutionary War and the American Revolution is not an accurate description except in the adverb form. Our actions were revolutionary as pertains to the word being used to describe “something new”. Colonies did not successfully rebel against their owners. We did. And in the process we set loose a wave of nationalism across Europe.

    First up, of course, was the French Revolution and that is exactly what it was: a Revolution. It was an overthrow of the reigning monarchy and the installation of a new form of government, by the people ruled by that monarchy.

    The differences between what we did to gain independence from Britain, and what the French did to change their own government are starkly drawn by contrast. Brooks has pointed out what we did above. Compare it with what the French did.

    But most of all, folks need to stop using the word Revolution in conjunction with the Confederate States of America, and secession. It had nothing to do with the overthrow of the US Government.

    • Mark October 12, 2012 / 6:53 am

      You’re conflating two things. The Revolutionary war could not have been a secession for the reasons Brooks gave, but secession could have been a revolution or part of one. So to say the two things “have nothing to do with each other” isn’t quite right. A could not be B, but B could be A.

      Your definition is too narrow. Brittanica online say a revolution is “a major, sudden, and hence typically violent alteration in government and in related associations and structures”. You are claiming that it must be a major formal change in structure. I doubt that is true. The question comes down to the difference between revolutionary wars and wars of independence. I think the Confederates were definitely fighting a war of independence, at least after it become apparent that there would be no negotiated settlement. That is why they kept fighting and peace negotiations foundered even after it become apparent that slavery could not be sustained anymore.

      Southerners of the time frequently compared the struggle to the American Revolution/War of Independence as did northerners. But both claimed to be upholding the principles that the Founding Fathers fought for and not trying to create something new. Fine, but isn’t that what anyone would say? Does that make it true? Look at Alexander Stephen’s “cornerstone” speech. The Confederacy was self-conciously founded on a vital and revolutionary principle that put it at odds with those of the Founders. The revolutionary principle of the Confederacy was to throw out the “all men are created equal” clause of the Delcaration. And if words matter, Stephens called it a revolution.

  13. Corey Meyer October 11, 2012 / 6:28 pm

    I have argued this point for years but not as well put.

  14. Charles Lovejoy October 12, 2012 / 10:49 am

    If the states that formed the Confederacy had not seceded and created the Confederate government and the people in those states had of rose up and revolted against the US government , then Revolution would apply. Correct? Secession was just secession.

  15. Matt McKeon October 12, 2012 / 6:05 pm

    I think all the talk about secession is about trying to shift the argument away from the actual reasons for secession. If revolutions are the response of a people oppressed, denied their rights and subject to all the long list of offences laid to the feet of King George III, the focus is on why they are rebelling and why they are justified in taking such a step. Since secession has a crappy cause, its advocates try to shift the focus to a sterile “constitutional” argument. Davis becomes the equivalent of Larry Flynt. It made be disgusting, but its protected by the Constitution.

    • Hunter Wallace October 12, 2012 / 10:06 pm

      King George III was accused of “inciting domestic insurrections” among us. Who does that sound like?

  16. John Foskett October 13, 2012 / 9:57 am

    What’s the difference between “revolution” and “rebellion”, while we’re at it?

  17. Reed July 3, 2013 / 9:57 pm

    Loved this argument. In addition to observing that the 18th century definition of secession was the same then as it is now, and it in no way made equality of membership a criteria of the definition, I would have also mentioned that Thomas Jefferson himself once described the American Revolution as a secession. And of course, so did Horace Greely. But enough of that. Permit me to offer my best wishes to everyone for a very Happy Secession Day. Enjoy the fireworks!

  18. Rob Baker August 28, 2013 / 3:41 pm

    Hey Brooks,

    Ever heard of John Remington Graham? He has some books on this topic. He is definitely pro-Southern. Pelican Press publishes his work and the book flap mentions his guest lectures to such groups as “League of the South, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Southern Party”

  19. Peter Walsh September 24, 2013 / 9:04 pm

    Great article on a tricky subject. Secession refers to a legal process of separation that cannot be unilateral; Revolution is extralegal and always unilateral. The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document that dissolved the connection between the nascent American states and Britain.

    In the 1860s eleven Southern states attempted a revolution that they conflated with secession. The logic of doing so was to seek legitimacy for a revolution founded on dubious pretenses. Secession, a legal process, cannot be unilateral and must be shaped by the Constitution under Articles IV and VI. This was the Unionist position as articulated by Lincoln: “[N]o State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.”

    The Supreme Court reaffirmed this view in Texas v. White (1869): “The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.” Note that secession was not invalidated per se. What the Court said was that secession could only be accomplished with the “consent of the states.” Thus, what Texas and the other ten Southern states did was not secession at all, due to its unilateral quality.

    The American Revolution was not secession, despite the efforts of past and present revisionists to cast it as such.

  20. Neil Hamilton January 24, 2014 / 1:02 am

    Dictionaries make for lousy history books.

  21. charlie January 26, 2015 / 12:19 pm

    Daddy Paul sounds a little confused

    “A lot of times people think secession, they paint it as an absolute negative,” said former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.). After all, Paul said, the American Revolution was a kind of secession. “You mean we should have been obedient to the king forever? So it’s all in the way you look at it.”

    • Andy Hall January 26, 2015 / 9:27 pm

      Daddy Paul was (rightly) famous for playing both ends against the other. He’s the guy who would load up an appropriations bill with earmarks for the Texas 14th (my district, BTW), and then vote against the bill, knowing it would pass anyway. This he called being “principled.”

  22. Talbert January 27, 2015 / 2:42 pm

    The argument that the American Colonies did not secede from the British Empire reminds me of the Church steadfastly denying the truth of the heliocentric model of cosmology and simultaneously insisting upon the correctness of the geocentric model. Pure nonsense. So, among the plethora of accomplished scholars, statesmen, historians, jurists, etc. etc. who routinely, matter-of-factly, and properly recognize that the colonies seceded from Great Britain, there is one who, I think, is my favorite. Jonathan Motley was a 19th century diplomat and historian, and he was also a fiercely passionate apologist for Lincoln and the Union. Early in the war, Motley wrote a lengthy missive to the London Times defending the Unionist cause. In part, this is what he wrote:

    “But it is sometimes said that the American Republic originated in SECESSION (emphasis added) from the mother country, and that it is unreasonable of the Union to resist the seceding movement of the new Confederacy. But it so happens that the one case suggests the other only by the association of contrast. The thirteen colonies did not intend to SECEDE (emphasis added) from the British Empire. They were forced into SECESSION (emphasis added)…but the British Empire was not thrown into anarchy and chaos by their SECESSION (emphasis added)…”

    Motley, to be sure, argues that the colonial was perfectly justified and asserts that the Southern secession was not, but there is no doubt, none whatsoever, that this learned and dedicated Unionist clearly, explicitly, and repeatedly refers to the separation of the American colonies from the British Empire as a secession. Just add him to the list.

    Why are you guys so silly on this issue?

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2015 / 2:49 pm

      Because, Talbert, they are two fundamentally different situations, and to say otherwise is historically inaccurate as well as silly.

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