Wasn’t Secession Illegal?

Was secession an illegal act? Secession was entirely legal, because under the U.S. Constitution, individual sovereign states had freely united—for specific purposes and without surrendering their sovereignty. As founding fathers explained in The Federalist Papers, because states maintained sovereignty over their own affairs, they could withdraw from the union and exist alone or in confederation with others.

Though many later adopted the position that secession was illegal, as a way of rationalizing the war, even Northern politicians understood this basic right of states. In 1844, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hardly a bastion of Southern sympathy, passed their own resolution threatening to secede from the Union in protest of Texas being annexed. Clearly, Massachusetts officials believed, less than two decades before the War Between the States, that states had the right to leave the Union.

Many contemporary arguments over secession fail to realize how very different the Union was in 1860 than it is today, largely because the federal government has since been delegated or has usurped powers our founding fathers never intended for a central government to hold.

Anyone pondering state sovereignty during the years surrounding the War Between the States needs to look no further than the fact that states, not a central government, supplied regiments of troops for the conflict, self defense being the primary responsibilities of any sovereign political unit.