As a Virginian (though born and raised in Michigan), I would like
to remind my countrymen that Virginia is not a part of the United States.
We withdrew from the old confederacy in 1861, joined the Confederate
States of America (currently inoperative, alas), and were forcibly — and
illegally — reannexed to the United States in 1865.
By now most Virginians are resigned to living under the U.S. Government.
Not me. Virginia — the home of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson,
and Robert E. Lee — should be free.
When the sovereign state of Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution
in June 1788, it did so with this proviso: “that the powers granted
under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United
States, may be resumed by them, whenever the same shall be perverted
to their injury and oppression.” That is, the people of the states
could withdraw their consent and “resume,” or reclaim,
the powers delegated to the U.S. Government.
New York and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution with similar
reservations of the right to “resume” or “reassume” the
powers “granted” therein. Either these conditional ratification
acts were valid, and the states retain the right to secede, or the
acts were void, and Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island have never
legally joined the United States! But nobody at that time held that
by adopting the Constitution the states were surrendering their “sovereignty,
freedom, and independence,” which they maintained under the Articles
Lincoln argued against secession on grounds that the Union is even
older than the states. A Union of what, Abe? At most, the Union can
be only as old as the states that compose it. But the federal government
didn’t spring into existence in 1776. That had to await the 1787
The Declaration of Independence, the most famous act of secession
in history, said that the former colonies “are, and of Right
ought to be, Free and Independent States” — that is, 13
sovereign powers, subordinate to nobody. Notice that it didn’t
call those states “a new nation” or even “the Union.” That
kind of talk came much later.
It was long customary to refer to the United States under the Constitution
as a “confederacy” or “confederation,” as The
Federalist Papers often do. Even Lincoln sometimes called it “this
Confederacy,” as I did in the first paragraph. By definition,
a confederacy is a voluntary association whose members are free to
Far from being a new-fangled idea in 1861, the right of secession
was implicit in the very language of American politics — in the
words state, sovereign, and federal — from the beginning. It
was also positively asserted many times, even in the North, before
1861. And an act of secession was neither “rebellion” nor “insurrection,” but
the act of the same sovereign states that had ratified the Constitution
in the first place.
It was not secession that was unconstitutional, but the suppression
of secession. The North fought the Civil War by allowing its chief
executive to exercise dictatorial powers, raising armies and money
and suspending civil liberties without consulting Congress, and even
arresting the Maryland legislature and installing a puppet government.
This was “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
What happened to “the consent of the governed”?
The Northern enemies of secession weren’t always rigid in their
principles: they did allow a pro-Union part of Virginia to secede from
Virginia. That’s how the United States got West Virginia. Since
Virginia never ceded that territory, as prescribed by the Constitution,
that was the only real case of unconstitutional secession. To make
matters worse, the North never admitted that Virginia had legally left
the Union. How, then, could it be split without its legal consent?
After the war, the North forced the seceding states to ratify the
Fourteenth Amendment as a condition of re-admission to the Union. It
insisted they had never legally quit. Yet most of those states had
already ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, so they were apparently
back in the Union after all.
The hypocrisy is dizzying. But wars aren’t necessarily won
by the intellectually consistent.
Still, it’s not too late to set things right. Just give us
our liberty back. And, while we’re at it, West Virginia.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 28, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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