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News :: Politics
Peaceful Secession IS Possible
09 Nov 2004
From 1790 until 1990 there were only a few cases of successful peaceful secession. Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1830; Norway from Sweden in 1905; and Singapore from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. All were negotiated peacefully.

But suddenly after 1990, the number of successful peaceful secessions surged. Fifteen republics seceded from the Soviet Union. A Czech and a Slovak republic were created out of Czechoslovakia through secession.


Donald W. Livingston, PhD.
Department of Philosophy
Emory University
December 1996

The idea of a modern unitary state goes back to the philosophers of the seventeenth century, but its first appearance in the world was the work of the French Revolution. The unitary French republic has since been the model for would-be modern states throughout the world, including the United States after 1865. The modern state was said to be one and indivisible, and so was conceived from the start as a state from which secession was impossible. From 1790 until 1990 there were only a few cases of successful peaceful secession. Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1830; Norway from Sweden in 1905; and Singapore from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. All were negotiated peacefully. But suddenly after 1990, the number of successful peaceful secessions surged. Fifteen republics seceded from the Soviet Union. A Czech and a Slovak republic were created out of Czechoslovakia through secession. With the exception of the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, all the successful secessions since 1990 occurred without violent resistance from the respective central governments. This was true even of Yugoslavia. There was only half-hearted resistance to the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from the central government, then dominated by Serbia. the present conflict is over the Serbian enclaves in Bosnia and Croatia who are not allowed to secede and join Serbia.

...As far as I can determine, the United States since 1865 has initially resisted or failed to support every secession attempt in the world except the secession of Panama from Columbia which it engineered as a means of constructing the Panama Canal. The United States was among the last to recognize the seceding states of the Soviet Union. It did not recognize the secession of Slovenia and Croatia (as had a number of European states), and it persisted, long after it was unreasonable, to think of Yugoslavia as a unitary state. A top Croatian leader, responding to Secretary of State James Baker's arrogant and dark warning against secession, observed that Baker could not free himself from the "American tradition of demonizing the phenomenon of secession. He didn't have an ear for our proposal to establish a union of sovereign states."1 This should not be surprising from a regime whose founding father is not the secessionist George Washington or Thomas Jefferson but the violent suppressor of secession Abraham Lincoln.

Today there are secession and devolution movements of all kinds occurring throughout the world. Indeed, political economists estimate that no more than twenty-five states in the United Nations are free of secessionist or territorial disputes.2 And there are also many secession movements that stop short of claiming national sovereignty. The Eskimos and Cree Indians of Northern Quebec have gained new rights and territory. In January of 1992, twenty-seven northern counties of California introduced into the State legislature a plan to secede from California and form the fifty-first state. Staten Island recently voted to secede from New York, and Coconut Grove voted to secede from Miami.

...All three conceptions of revolution presuppose the modern theory of sovereignty, and each is categorically different from secession. Secession is not revolution in the whiggish sense of the Glorious Revolution because it is not the restoration of anything within the frame of the modern state Secession is the dismemberment of a modern state in the name of self-government. Nor is secession Lockean revolution. A seceding people do not necessarily claim that a government has violated its trust. And even if the claim is made, there is no attempt to overthrow the government and replace it with a better one. Indeed, a seceding people may even think that the government is not especially unjust. What they seek, however, is to be left alone to govern themselves as they see fit. Finally, secession is not Jacobin revolution because it does not seek to totally transform the social and political order. Indeed, secession is conservative and seeks to preserve the social order through withdrawal and self-government.

Nowhere has this confusion between secession and revolution led to greater moral mischief than in the practice of describing the break with Britain in 1776 as the American Revolution The act of the British colonists was simply and solely an act of secession. It was neither whiggish, nor Lockean, nor Jacobin revolution. The colonists did not seek to overthrow the British government. Commons, Lords, and Crown were to remain exactly as before. They wished simply to limit its jurisdiction over the territory they occupied.

Nor were they, in Jacobin fashion, seeking to totally transform society. On the contrary they wished to preserve the order they had, and they succeeded; the social classes and members who successfully seceded lived to govern afterwards. But something very like a Jacobin reading of the Declaration of Independence was given by Lincoln, and is an essential part of the Lincoln myth that followed him.3

...To the modern response that divided sovereignty is absurd and must lead either to political impotence or to violent strife, David Hume replied in an essay entitled "Of some Remarkable Customs" that the most energetic and illustrious republic in history (the Roman republic) functioned quite well with a system of divided sovereignty. The comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa were distinct legislative bodies; both were sovereign; neither was subordinate to the other; and both were capable of giving laws that could contradict the laws of the other. Yet such contradictions never occurred. Hume goes on to show that what cannot be reconciled in an abstract theory can be united in the soul of an amiable character or in the soul of a loyal and skillful participant in an inherited political tradition.9 The Swiss republic is over six hundred years old, and it operates with a system of divided sovereignty; indeed, it perfectly exemplifies what Calhoun called the principle of concurrent majority.10

...Benjamin Constant, a keen observer of the French Revolution, put his finger on the tendency to totalitarianism of all modern states (including liberal regimes): "The interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand.14 Tocqueville gave melancholy witness to the process since repeated over and over: "The old localized authorities disappear without either revival or replacement, and everywhere the central government succeeds them in the direction of affairs.... Everywhere men are leaving behind the liberty of the Middle Ages, not to enter a modern brand of liberty, but to return to the ancient despotism; for centralization is nothing else than an up-to-date version of the administration seen in the Roman empire."15 By "medieval liberty" Tocqueville meant what I have called a federative polity of independent social authorities, and he hoped in vain for a modern version of such a polity.

,,,What we must begin to do is throw into question the legitimacy of the modern consolidated state itself. We must stop working on the Tower of Babel. Constitutionally, this means that the states must reassert their sovereignty under the Ninth and Tenth Amendments and recall those powers they have allowed to slip out of their hands to the central government. We must restore the Jeffersonian and Madisonian tradition of state interposition.22 The States must once again become constitutional members of a genuine federative polity as they were during the ante-bellum period and beyond when states throughout the union interposed their authority and even nullified actions of the central government that they judged unconstitutional. History textbooks present nullification as a wild and unpatriotic policy of John C. Calhoun. But a genuinely federative polity, designed to preserve distinct social and political societies, must allow some form of legal corporate resistance. Calhoun is distinguished only in having provided the deepest philosophical justification by an American for a federative polity and for some form of nullification.23

The Canadian Federation allows Provinces to nullify actions of the central government in the area of civil rights.24

...There is a profound lack of political imagination in America. We still look superstitiously to the central government as the object of all our hopes and fears. Many Americans do not know their own constitutional history; they do not know the constitutional authority States have exercised and can exercise again. For over a hundred years we have been taught the ideology of the modern state in the version that Lincoln seared into the national consciousness with a writ of fire and sword. It teaches that divided sovereignty is a horror; that consolidation is a good thing and that secession is a bad thing. It tells us that sovereignty originally resided in the American people in the aggregate and not in the people of the several states, and that the central government created the states as administrative units of itself. All of these teachings are false.26

The Lincolnian myth must be refuted with the Jeffersonian account that the constitution is a compact between the people of the states creating a central government as their agent and endowing it with only enumerated powers; and, further that the central government is not and cannot be the sole authority in determining what powers were delegated and what reserved. The Jeffersonian story is one of dynamic federalism and the self-government of distinct political societies. The Lincolnian story is one of increasing centralization, consolidation, and political ossification. That we have fallen under its sway explains the surprising lack of political imagination in America today.

As part of expanding this imagination, we must work to remove the moral and philosophical prejudice against the very idea of secession. America was born in secession; secession is essential to the idea of a self-governing people; and until 1865 was widely considered an option available to an American state in all parts of the union.27 But secession short of national sovereignty is also possible. Parts of cities and counties may secede. A part of a state may secede and form another state as twenty-seven counties in northern California proposed to do in 1992. The mere discussion of the merits of such proposals, whether or not they succeed, will serve to detoxify the idea of secession and re-awaken in Americans the long slumbering notion of self-government induced by the opiate of the Lincolnian ideology of a modern unitary American state.

...something of what Acton had in mind can be discerned in the European Union which has incorporated into its treaties the principle of "subsidiarity," a doctrine framed by medieval philosophers in an era when Europe was an order of federative polities. The principle states that as much social and political policy as possible should be carried out by the smallest unit. The larger the unit the less there will be to do. The final story on the European Union is yet to be told, and the doctrine of "subsidiarity" appears to be as much a mask for consolidating power as a genuine federative practice. Nevertheless, the Union has unleashed centrifugal forces of devolution, transforming what were once modern unitary states into something approximating federative polities. For example, the highly centralized state of Spain has devolved power to seventeen autonomous provinces which negotiate with the center about their rights and obligations. This has moved the Basque provinces and Catalonia closer to independence. Indeed the European Union has now recognized Catalan as an official European language. Belgium, once a unitary state, has devolved power to four states in an order called asymmetrical federalism, meaning that the states have unequal rights, privileges, and obligations. And it is highly likely that we will soon see a new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The Nobel Laureate James Buchanan has urged that the European Union include in its constitution the right of a member state to secede; so far this has not been done, and its omission will probably one day cause serious problems. But as things stand now, the trend to devolution brought on by divided sovereignty, which is made possible by a supra-national authority with which the member states must negotiate, is transforming Europe into the morally superior condition of a federative polity. The danger, of course, is that a powerful faction may one day seize the central authority (as happened with the United States, 1861-1877) and attempt to transform the whole into a unitary state.

Finally, the modern state, from the very first, was thought of as a large state. Hobbes rightly called it "Leviathan." Its main goal was what Hobbes called commodious living, and it was thought that economic integration required political integration into a larger polity. But economic viability should not be confused with self-sufficiency. Few if any states are self-sufficient. Japan is not self-sufficient. It imports ninety-eight percent of its oil, and it cannot feed itself. Little Singapore is a city state that seceded from the Malaysian federation, but it is integrated into a world economy and is not only viable, but flourishing.

Even the United Nations now understands this. Upon its founding, it insisted that member states have a certain size. Today it has abandoned that requirement. There are fifty-five member states with populations under a million, and a number of these have populations under 100,000. There are twenty-three states smaller than New York City, and some smaller than Central Park.29 There is no reason today why, here and there, an order of city states cannot again flourish. The little city state of Athens, in three generations, produced such a flourishing culture that much of Western civilization may be said to be a series of footnotes to it. The city state of Medici Florence produced the Renaissance; the free cities of Germany produced Goethe, Hegel, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The modern state is not a fated existence; it is a human artifact only two hundred years old. And it no longer has the authority it once had. The secession and devolution movements in the world today, along with the demonstrated viability of small states, raises new and exciting possibilities. Americans have not rejected these possibilities; they simply have never occurred to them. The reason is that they are still under the spell of the centralized modern state founded in the Lincoln myth. Ours is the uphill task of refuting that myth both as an historical account of the American polity and as a moral and philosophical account of the best form of political association. That form is and has always been some form of federative polity with the right of secession. Its primal symbol is the Exodus from Egypt. And, as Mel Bradford has taught us, we must refute also the blasphemous puritan ideology of the Lincoln myth which pretends to speak the speech of God and, in the Cromwellian "Battle Hymn of the Republic," teaches slaying and laying waste in the name of the Lord. The Union was not in 1861 and is not now the last best hope on earth. We must teach Americans to lay down their tools, stop building the Tower of Babel, and return to their respective homes.

...10. In the Swiss federation decisions are reached not by majority vote but by Calhoun's "concurrent majority," i.e., by a kind of consensus. This principle operates at each level of government: parish, canton, and central government. And even when the central government enacts a law, it is subject to veto in a referendum. Though the central government has repeatedly tried to bring Switzerland into the European Union and into the United Nations, it has failed because the people have vetoed the legislation by using the referendum. The Swiss government, like any other, seeks to cut an expensive figure in the world; its power to do so has been checked by the veto of the referendum.

...24. Section 33 of the Constitution Act of 1982, known as the "notwithstanding clause." The use of this section has enabled Quebec to nullify legislation by the central government in the area of civil rights which was intended to consolidate it into a Canadian version of the "melting pot."

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