By Ryan McMaken
February 7, 2024
Some modern opponents of a right to secession or self-determination invent a variety of reasons why secession was acceptable for Americans in the 1770s, but not in the 1860s. For example, historian Brooks Simpson in this column splits many hairs attempting to explain (unconvincingly) that the Declaration of Independence had nothing to do with secession. At the core of many of these claims is the idea that since some Americans in the eighteenth century endorsed the current constitution, then all Americans, centuries later, who did not sign or vote for the document are now held to some invisible "social contract."
In other words, whatever right to secession and self-determination might have existed during the war with the British Empire, those rights ceased to exist with the successful end of the war. Lysander Spooner, of course, has explained the deeply incoherent thinking behind this social contract theory. Nonetheless, we might ask ourselves what did the author of the Declaration of Independence think about the idea of secession. If the Declaration had nothing to do with secession-or if the founding of the new republic negated the right to secession-then surely Thomas Jefferson changed his tune on secession after the ratification of the new constitution.
Well, it turns out that he didn't. Jefferson, who was a secessionist in 1776, remained a secessionist at least as late at 1816, eight years before his death. Jefferson never gave any big speeches or wrote any thick books on secession. He may have thought that the Revolution's success spoke for itself. Nonetheless, in personal correspondence decades after he wrote the Declaration, Jefferson continued to support the idea that member states or constituent parts of the American republic ought to be free to leave. Here are some of his specific comments on the matter.
In 1799, Jefferson wrote to James Madison and concluded that if the states continued to be subject to "abuses" and "violations" by the federal government, then the states would be entitled "to sever ourselves from that union":
I will in the mean time give you my ideas to reflect on. That the principles already advanced by Virginia & Kentucky are not to be yielded in silence, I presume we all agree. I should propose a declaration or resolution by their legislatures on this plan. 1st. answer the reasonings of such of the states as have ventured into the field of reason, & that of the Committee of Congress. Here they have given us all the advantage we could wish. Take some notice of those states who have either not answered at all, or answered without reasoning. 2. Make a firm protestation against the principle & the precedent; and a reservation of the rights resulting to us from these palpable violations of the constitutional compact by the Federal government, and the approbation or acquiescence of the several co-states; so that we may hereafter do, what we might now rightfully do, whenever repetitions of these and other violations shall make it evident that the federal government, disregarding the limitations of the federal compact, mean to exercise powers over us to which we have never assented. 3. Express in affectionate & conciliatory language our warm attachment to union with our sister-states, and to the instrument & principles by which we are united; that we are willing to sacrifice to this every thing except those rights of self-government the securing of which was the object of that compact; that not at all disposed to make every measure of error or wrong a cause of scission [i.e., separation], we are willing to view with indulgence to wait with patience till those passions & delusions shall have passed over which the federal government have artfully & successfully excited to cover its own abuses & to conceal its designs; fully confident that the good sense of the American people and their attachment to those very rights which we are now vindicating will, before it shall be too late, rally with us round the true principles of our federal compact; but determined, were we to be disappointed in this, to sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, & in which alone we see liberty, safety & happiness.
In 1803, Jefferson told Joseph Priestly that he would defend the right to secession if the new states of the Louisiana Purchase sought to separate from the mother country:
Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this; and did I now foresee a separation at some future day, yet I should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power.
He said something very similar to John C. Breckinridge in 1804:
The future inhabitants of the Atlantic & Missipi States will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their union, & we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise; and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with our Atlantic rather than our Missipi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, & keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.
Jefferson reiterated his support for secession to William Crawford forty years after the Declaration of Independence. In this 1816 letter, Jefferson refers to the potential damage done by the residents of some states advocating for war and government privileges. Jefferson thinks it better to sever ties with these states in order to free the more peace-minded states from the hawkish ones:
If any state in the union will declare that it prefers separation with the 1st alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying, "Let us separate." I would rather the states should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce & war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace & agriculture. I know that every nation in Europe would join in sincere amity with the latter, & hold the former at arm's length by jealousies, prohibitions, restrictions, vexations & war.
In this case, it is notable that Jefferson is specifically in support of separating with states that advocate for policies with which Jefferson does not agree. In modern debates over secession, we are frequently told that secession must not be allowed if one of the newly independent polities might advocate for "incorrect" policies. Jefferson apparently disagreed.