On Dec. 20, 1860, people claiming to represent the broader population of South Carolina met in a convention and unanimously declared that they had withdrawn from the union of independent states which had been established less than a hundred years before. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed.
Early in 1861, delegates from all of those states held a convention in Montgomery, Ala., to set up a new federation for their independent states. The seven states started peacefully taking control of military facilities in their territories. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln said he wouldn’t use force to bring the states back into the old Union. But when he refused to turn over one of two remaining federal forts in southern territory — Fort Sumter in South Carolina — the Confederates opened fire and took the fort by force. The war had started.
After the fighting began, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas also withdrew from the United States and joined the Confederacy. Over the next four years, more than half a million people died in the fighting and from war-related disease.
That’s what happened the first time some people tried to secede from the United States. What insanity makes anyone think the power-hungry politicians of this country would stand for it any better in 2012 than they did in 1861?
Some people are just giddy at the petitions on the White House website over the past week requesting that the president “allow” the various states to secede from the Union. Bizarrely, some news stories are taking the petitions semi-seriously, rather than treating them as the PR stunts that they are. (ABC News is even reporting that the White House will respond to the petitions after they’re evaluated. Yeah, right.) Others are so angry about the petitions that they’ve started their own petition to demand that the president strip the secessionist petitioners of their U.S. citizenship and deport them.
As seems to be usual, I find myself appalled at both sides of this battle.
The vast majority of the secessionists don’t really want secession. They want Barack Obama to go away. They want someone in the White House who agrees with them. They want to wave their U.S. flags and be proud Americans, but they want to obey leaders who speak their language. If they thought secession were something other than a PR stunt, most of them would run from the idea.
The people signing the anti-secession petitions have a different problem entirely. They’re mad that people disagree with them and have the audacity to petition a government, so they want to punish people by throwing them out of the country. Do they understand the fundamental contradiction of what they’re saying — of wanting to strip people of citizenship for asking to be allowed to leave?
I like the idea of secession — for individuals and voluntary groups — but the idea that states are petitioning for secession has two really basic problems.
First, you don’t beg for the right to be free. Slaves didn’t go to their masters and ask permission to be free. The very fact of asking permission shows that you believe that the other person has the right to say, “No.” And if you believe someone else has the right to tell you that you can’t be free, you’re still a slave in your own mind.
Second, I don’t want my state government controlling me any more than I want a federal government controlling me. People who want state supremacy (of any kind) are misunderstanding the root problem. If the state where I lived now withdrew from the United States and otherwise maintained its current form of government, I’d be freer in some ways and less free in others. (I suspect the long-term direction would be populist, actually.) Overall, though, I would still be living at the whim of the majority of the people who happen to live in this territory. That’s no better off than today.
Some form of breakup has to happen in time, but if we just trade in an oppressive federal government in favor of an oppressive state government, we won’t have gained anything (and we might even have lost some things). We need a real framework for individual sovereignty — and some way that groups can band together in cities or enclaves to live under rules of their own choosing.
The breakup of large, oppressive states always brings chaos and opportunity. We need to prepare for the coming opportunity — whenever it arrives one day — not be wasting time with meaningless PR stunts such as these petitions.