Secession: armed vs. peaceful



Lots of people celebrate July 4. I do not.

The Declaration of Independence justified armed secession. It was signed by a handful of lawyers on July 4, 1776. Secession was a way of transferring a great deal of power to colonial legislatures, where most of these lawyers were members. It was a way of replacing governors appointed by the King with governors elected by men of the colonies.

Then the law of unintended consequences once again made itself felt: higher taxes, hyperinflation, price controls, default on state debts, and (in 1788) a new centralized government that dwarfed the power of the British Empire’s distant sovereignty in 1776. Finally, a new firm of democracy arose, a democracy of nine Supreme Court justices. The sovereignty of “we the people” — the most rhetorically powerful and most misleading phrase in American history — morphed into the sovereignty of five justices.

Surprise, surprise — but not to the Anti-Federalists of 1787, and surely not to the loyalists of 1776, who had their property stolen by the new national government after 1783. A hundred thousand of them were in Canada in 1788, living under a far less centralized government.


I am a great believer in secession. I just do not believe in the armed form. Armed secession is sometimes valid as a defensive measure against an illegitimate invasion by the central civil government, but only rarely in history has armed secession not strengthened the political power of the secessionists more than the central government from which the secessionists are seceding.

Secession is first of all a moral rebellion. People perceive that the civil government under which they operate had become inherently immoral. Also, the government shows no sign of reforming itself.

Secession begins when someone offers a moral critique that begins with the individual. Moral reform is above all self-reform. If it is not grounded in a call for self-reform, it is just one more call for a transfer of power to a new group of power-seekers.

Next, this reform impulse spreads to institutions that use private funds and individual talents to begin to reform society. If this program of reform is confined to politics, I recommend the following strategy: keep your hand upon your wallet, and your back against the wall.

Until there is institutional evidence of superior moral performance and superior practical performance in a wide variety of voluntary associations, especially the family, do not commit your money and your emotional commitment to any political reform movement.

Armed rebellion requires arms. Arms require money. Money requires taxation. Taxation has three main forms: direct (income, property, retail sales), indirect (wholesale sales), and monetary inflation.

Armed rebellion requires loans because revenues are never enough to buy the arms.

Armed rebellion requires a top-down chain of command: military ranks funded by centralized taxation.

Armed rebellion throws up — in both senses — new leaders. Their claim to fame during and after the rebellion is their successful management of a new central government.

We can find defenders of armed rebellion who live to regret its outcome. The most famous example in American history is Patrick Henry, a rhetorically skilled lawyer whose political career began with a series of lies and culminated with a profound truth: his famous comment on why he refused to participate in the Constitutional convention. “I smelt a rat in Philadelphia.”


There is no turning-point speech in American history more verifiably false than his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. None comes close.

First, there were no notes of it. It was reconstructed by William Wirt and published in 1817 — 43 years after Henry gave his speech, whatever he said. Second, here was its central core (we are told by Wirt):

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.

Slavery? Under Great Britain? Parliament had been cutting colonial taxes ever since 1766. It had cut taxes on tea so much that the price of much-favored British tea — by way of India — fell below lower-quality Dutch tea. Against this intolerable act of tax-cutting, the failed former collector Sam Adams in late 1773 organized what we call in retrospect the Boston tea party. It was a revolt against lower tea taxes and lower tea prices. (As Casey Stengel used to say: “You can look it up.”) Paul Revere & Co., in their disguises, tossed privately owned tea off of a privately owned ship.

Sam Adams organized the revolt through his branch of a secret society, the Sons of Liberty. The Sons had been created in 1765 to resist the stamp taxes. They kidnapped tax officials, stripped them naked, poured liquid tar over them, and then covered them in feathers. They threatened any tax official with more of the same. Then Britain abolished the taxes. But the organization persisted, as violent secret societies usually do.

Adams mobilized the remnants of the Sons of Liberty to oppose the reduced tea tax in 1773. The Sons organized the tea party in December. The British closed to port of Boston in response to what was clearly criminal activity by a revolutionary secret society. In response, Adams began mobilizing the inter-colonial committees of correspondence. Henry gave his speech as an extension of Adams’ mobilization.

Slavery? OK, here is a pop quiz. Write down the names of three nations that offered its residents greater liberty than Great Britain did in 1775. I will give you a hint: a mountain nation that never goes to war and which is not known for any inspiring political rhetoric. Name two more.

You can’t.

Neither could Henry.

He (or Wirt) then escalated his rhetoric.

Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Ah, yes: temporal salvation through politics. To use Homer’s tale of Odysseus pinned to the mast, this is mankind’s great siren song, right up there with that follow-up lyric: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” As with Lincoln’s hallowed (sacred) ground at Gettysburg, Bryan’s cross of gold, and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 imagery of the flight of the moneychangers from the temple of civilization, Henry’s rhetoric invoked the Bible: idols that hear not and see not.

Then he upped the rhetorical ante: “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.”

Then came the bottom line: a call to political revolution in the name of God. “I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”

And fight they did. To pay for it, Congress printed money: the continentals. This produced America’s only hyperinflation. To stop price inflation, it imposed price controls. Starvation at Valley Forge was the immediate result. Congress and the colonies borrowed. After the war, neither the central government nor the state governments could repay these loans. All of the governments taxed. And taxed. And taxed. The level of taxation after the war was at least three times what it had been before, and it never went back to those pre-war levels again.

Then the young men of the revolution had to settle for political offices in the states. The war was over. Wartime centralization ended. The national government of the United States of America had little influence after 1783. It had to have unanimous support of the states to pass any law, and it could only rarely get this. There were tight chains on national political power. The result was another secession movement organized by the young men of the revolution: secession from the Articles of Confederation.

In the summer of 1787, a closed conclave was held in Philadelphia. No outsider was allowed to attend. It was held on the second floor, so that no citizen could hear the debates. Then the new Constitution was ratified illegally. There was no unanimity required for ratification, and no legislature could vote — a violation of the Articles.

Henry correctly identified the nature of this conclave. I have written a book on it: Conspiracy in Philadelphia. It’s free. Henry did his best to keep the Virginia convention from ratifying the Constitution, but his rhetoric failed this time. Madison outflanked him.


Joseph Brown is not famous. He gets a brief reference in monographs on the Civil War. He was the governor of Georgia from 1857 to 1865.

He was a great advocate of secession. His reason: a defense of slavery. His words were clear in 1860.

First, is the election of Mr. Lincoln sufficient cause to justify the secession of the Southern States from the Union? In my opinion the election of Mr. Lincoln, viewed only in the light of the triumph of a successful candidate, is not sufficient cause for a dissolution of the Union. This, however, is a very contracted and narrow view of the question. Mr. Lincoln is a mere mote in the great political atmosphere of the country, which, as it floats, only shows the direction in which the wind blows. He is the mere representative of a fanatical abolition sentiment– the mere instrument of a great triumphant political party, the principles of which are deadly hostile to the institution of Slavery, and openly at war with the fundamental doctrines of the Constitution of the United States. The rights of the South, and the institution of slavery, are not endangered by the triumph of Mr. Lincoln, the man; but they are in imminent danger from the triumph of the powerful party which he represents, and of the fanatical abolition sentiment which brought him into power, as the candidate of the Northern section of the Union, over the united opposition of the Southern section against him. The party embracing that sentiment, has constantly denied, and still denies, our equality in the Union, and our right to hold our slaves as property; and avows its purpose to take from us our property, so soon as it has the power.

The South seceded. In 1862, the Confederate government instituted military conscription. Brown was appalled at this violation of liberty and state\’s rights. It was a form of slavery, he thought. This was not acceptable. The Georgia Encyclopedia explains.

Governor Brown had been concerned about the growing power of the central government in Washington, D.C. Soon he became increasingly concerned as well about the growing power of the Confederate government, which had moved to Richmond, Virginia, in June after the war started in April 1861. The first disputes over controlling and equipping Georgia forces were ominous, for the Confederacy could hope to win only by a centralized, unified war effort. Soon the disputes escalated, and in April 1862 Brown directly and openly challenged the new Confederate draft. It was the first national draft in American history, a revolutionary but necessary action to mobilize limited Southern white manpower against a vastly more populous enemy. Despite a lack of support by the state supreme court and the legislature, Governor Brown tried to exempt state military forces. As the draft kept expanding and drawing more manpower out of the state, the governor kept resurrecting his forces with Georgians too young or too old for conscription. This became a kind of ritual struggle between the governor and Confederate president Jefferson Davis, accompanied by bitter correspondence, as Brown\’s defiance set an example for other states to further cripple the faltering draft. He also provided exemptions for thousands of Georgia men who found jobs in a rapidly expanding state bureaucracy.

The national government did not just draft men. It confiscated animals, goods, and slaves. Brown objected. It did no good, of course. It was too late for that. Jefferson Davis outflanked him.

SECESSION: 1861 VS. 1955

Secession begins mentally. Then it spreads. Citizens simply stop complying with certain laws. Only through self-government of the governed can any government impose its will. No government possesses sufficient resources to compel obedience without self-government.

In the North after 1850, a few thousand people ceased to obey the Fugitive Slave Act. This was a mostly symbolic stand, although personally risky: a $1,000 fine, back when that was two years\’ income. Not many slaves ever escaped or could have escaped. But this act of non-compliance was a major strategy of the abolitionist movement. It gained dedicated supporters. By 1860, abolitionism was a strong minority position in the North, though nowhere near a majority. But it did not need a majority. It had Joe Brown and his peers on its side. The abolitionists cocked the hammer of a derringer, and pointed it at the South.

The abolitionists used a pre-Saul Alinsky Alinsky tactic on the South. They understood Alinsky\’s law: \”The action is the reaction.\” They had no ability to abolish slavery in the South, but they had the ability to provoke the South into a strategic disaster: seceding by force of arms. Half a dozen of them — the Secret Six — funded John Brown. Brown was their derringer. A year later came Lincoln, who cared about three things: preserving the union, preserving Republican tariffs, and grandstanding about blocking slavery\’s extension into territories where slavery could not be extended because of geography. Slavery was uneconomical west of what is today Edgewood, Texas. Cotton requires fertile soil and rain. Both peter out west of Edgewood. That is why it is called Edgewood. It is located an hour\’s drive east of Dallas.

Secessionists picked up a .44, cocked the hammer, pointed it at the the North, and pulled the trigger on April 12, 1861. Four years later, the North conquered the South. Slavery ended. The old South was gone with the wind.

The abolitionists won. How? With that old challenge: \”Let\’s you and him fight.\” The South took up that challenge.

The secessionists did not count the cost. They did not draw up a ledger before secession to see how they would fund the war of secession. Count the cost, Jesus said. Make peace before your nation is invaded (Luke 14:28-30). The South did not heed this warning.

The NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama counted the cost in early 1955. It began a stealth campaign to integrate Montgomery\’s buses. As a symbolic act of non-compliance, a woman would refuse to sit in the colored section. The first two violations failed to gain community support. The third violation did. It was successful beyond their wildest dreams.

Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, refused to stand up and let a white man occupy her seat. This was a strategy of non-compliance. The bus driver called the police. She remained seated. She was arrested, booked, and fined $10. That became the most expensive $10 fine in the history of Southern politics.

Next, blacks started a boycott of the bus company, which was illegal. They ignored the law. Next, they started charging a dime for private car rides, which was also illegal: below the 45-cent fixed price set by the city. Next, they began driving people to work for free. A year later the Supreme Court overturned the Alabama law mandating racial segregation of transportation, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the case that had established the constitutionality of these laws. These laws had been imposed on profit-seeking public transportation companies in the 1890\’s. The states made integration on buses and trolleys illegal; the free market had not.

Rosa Parks in December 1955 seceded from Alabama\’s legal system. She did not secede from the state. Later, she left the state, but by then, Alabama\’s government was in non-compliance mode. It did not succeed. It lost its moral authority on national television in 1963 when Sheriff Bull Connor turned the fire hoses and the dogs on teenagers dressed in white shirts and ties. Rhetoric can be visual as well as verbal. Connor did not understand this. The blacks who organized those kids did understand.

Lesson: better to be on the receiving end of the fire hoses than the delivery end, if your cause is just. In short, turn the other cheek . . . preferably in front of TV cameras.


When someone with an impeccable reputation suggests non-compliance with some federal law, give him a hearing.

If he is part of a movement that is privately funding alternatives to tax-funded welfare programs, give him a hearing.

When someone recommends armed resistance to federal tyranny, take a pass. If he cites Patrick Henry\’s speech and Thomas Jefferson\’s Declaration of Independence, remind him of Henry\’s subsequent clearer sense of smell and Jefferson\’s half of the Virginia and Kentucky resolves. Those resolves ended definitively at Appommatox Court House in 1865.

Both men got the message . . . too late.