|True Confederate History
Sponsored by Powhatan Troop, Sons of Confederate Veterans
| Succession in the United States - Part I, II, and III
When you mention secession most people think of the southern states that withdrew from the Union to form the Confederate States of America in 1860-1861. However, that was neither the first, nor last, secessionist movement in the U.S. The first secessionist movement started in New England in 1814 and in 2004-2005 there were more than 20 secessionist movements across the United States from Hawaii to Vermont. This three part series will present some of the major secessionist movements and explain why they occurred.
The first secessionist movement involved five New England states which met in Hartford Connecticut on October 10, 1814 through January 5, 1815. The War of 1812 hampered trade so was very unpopular in New England and these states refused to release their militia to the United States Army to fight the British and also began a secessionist movement. The avowed goal was reportedly to produce an independent country or reach an independent treaty with England. A total of 26 delegates from Massachusetts (Maine was then still a part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont attended the Hartford Convention where the delegates declared that New England had a duty to assert its authority over the unconstitutional infringements of its sovereignty by the federal government. No proclamation of secession was passed, but a report of January 1815 proposed five constitutional amendments that everyone knew would not be accepted. The proposed Constitutional Amendments included: (1) Prohibiting any trade embargo lasting more than 60 days; (2) Requiring a two-thirds Congressional majority for any declaration of war, admission of a new state, or interdiction of foreign commerce; (3) Shifting the bulk of Federal tax payments to the slaveholding south; (4) Limiting future Presidents to one term in office; and (5) Requiring each future President to be from a different state than his predecessor. This latter provision was clearly aimed at Virginia. The report was being delivered to Washington in February 1815, but when the commissioners arrived they learned of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent with England. Presenting the report would have been ludicrous so the delegation returned to Massachusetts. Although the secessionist movement was not successful, the protectionist Tariff Act of 1816 placated many of New England’s concerns since it protected their manufactured products and did indeed shift the tax burden to the agrarian south.
The Virginia Constitution adopted in 1776 granted voting rights to white males owning at least 25 acres of improved land or 50 acres of unimproved lands. This requirement and the creation of larger western counties created conflicts between western and eastern sections of Virginia. A convention was held in Richmond on October 5, 1829 to revise the Virginia Constitution to provide some relief to the western counties. Unfortunately, most of the key issues, including the requirement of land ownership to vote and election of the Governor and judges by popular vote were rejected. As a result, an immediate call for secession was heard across what is now West Virginia. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and in 1850 another convention resolved most of the differences between western and eastern Virginia. Everything changed on April 17, 1861 when Virginia voted to secede from the union. A group of western Virginia delegates marched out of the Secession Convention and started to form a new state loyal to the Union. On October 24, 1861 residents of 39 counties in western Virginia voted to form a unionist state. The U.S. Constitution requires that the formation of any new state be approved by the parent state. Permission was never granted by Virginia, but on May 13, 1862 the western government granted itself permission to form the new state although only 26 of the 150 counties in Virginia were represented. President Lincoln signed a bill into law on December 31, 1862 approving the creation of West Virginia as a union state without abolishing slavery. On March 26, 1863 the citizens of 50 western Virginia counties approved the statehood bill and on June 20, 1863 the State of West Virginia was officially created with provisions for the gradual emancipation of slavery. Additional counties were added after statehood. During many of these “official” votes southern sympathizers were prevented from voting by U.S. soldiers. Only 76 votes were cast in one county having more than 800 voters. It has been said that the creation of West Virginia was both irregular and illegal.
South Carolina was outraged in 1828 when Congress passed the “Tariff of Abomination” which provided strong protective tariffs for the manufacturing north, but virtually removed all tariffs on agricultural products and strongly favored the New England shipping industry. When these unfair tariffs were not repealed in the Tariff of 1832 South Carolina passed an “Ordnance of Nullification” declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void in South Carolina and threatened secession. The tariffs were lowered in 1833 and protectionist tariffs were not a major problem again until the Morrell Act passed the House of Representatives on March 12, 1860. The protectionist tariffs imposed by the Morrell Act and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 prompted South Carolina to secede from the union December 20, 1860. The States of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded shortly thereafter and on February 7, 1861 adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America and established the capital at Montgomery, Alabama. So even before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 seven states had seceded. A Confederate Commission arrived in Washington on March 5, to resolve major issues and pledged their intention for peace. Their offer to pay for seized federal property was rejected and their plea for peace dismissed. President Lincoln rapidly called for troops to put down the insurrection. This prompted the secession of four additional states including Virginia (April 17, 1861); Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. It should be noted that Virginia voted not to secede in February 1861, but reluctantly seceded in April after being ordered to provide troops to use against other southern states. The slave states of Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, did not secede although factions in Kentucky and Missouri prepared Ordnances of Secession and were recognized by the Confederates States of America. An Ordinance of Session was also passes in what is now New Mexico and the area recognized by the Confederate government. Kentuckians held posts in both the Confederate States and United States Government Cabinets.
There were also secessionist movements of lesser note. In 1861 the County of Lunenburg, Virginia proposed to secede from both the State of Virginia and the United States and form “The Old Free State”. One Alabama County also voted to secede from that state.
The legality of secession has been defended based on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 which cited the doctrine of states’ rights, and the fact that sovereign, independent states contracted to join the union and had a right to secede. In fact the textbook by William Rawle titled, “A View of the Constitution of the United States of America” which was used at West Point in a Constitutional Law course in the early 1800’s espoused the right to secede. However, the legality of secession may be resolved in the future. In 2004-2005 there were reports of secessionist movements in at least 20 localities across the United States. The Town of Killington, VT wants to secede from Vermont and become part of New Hampshire, and the State of Vermont wants to secede from the Union. While other localities are discussing secession, Vermont appears to be the most serious. On October 28, 2005 a meeting of more than 400 people met in the State Capital at Montpelier, VT and passed a Resolution of Secession. The bases for secession are similar to those presented by South Carolina in 1860. With more than 20 areas discussing secession our courts may soon be forced to resolve the issue.