Why Ron Paul Is Wrong About Secession

In the wake of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s off-the-cuff comments last week that seemed to suggest he viewed the idea of seceding from the Union favorably, Texas Congressman Ron Paul has waded into the fray.

First, he made these comments in a video posted by his Campaign for Liberty over the weekend:

Then he expanded on those comments in an appearance on CNN’s American Morning:

The biggest surprise to me was the outrage expressed over an individual who thinks along these lines, because I heard people say, well, this is treasonous and this was un-American. But don’t they remember how we came in to our being? We used secession, we seceded from England. So it’s a very good principle. It’s a principle of a free society. It’s a shame we don’t have it anymore. I argue that if you had the principle of secession, our federal government wouldn’t be as intrusive into state affairs and to me that would be very good.

We as a nation have endorsed secession all along. Think of all of the secession of the countries and the republics from the Soviet system. We were delighted. We love it. And yet we get hysterical over this just because people want to debate and defend the principle of secession, that doesn’t mean they’re calling for secession. I think it’s that restraining element of secession that would keep the federal government from doing so much. In our early history, they accepted the principles of secession all along.

In response, Timothy Sandefur does a fairly good job of raking the Congressman — and by extension others who have taken up the secession banner as if it were an actual solution to our problems — over the coals:

Excuse me, Congressman, but the United States did not “secede” from Britain. The nation had a revolution. The difference between secession and revolution is, of course, one which paleoconservatives like Paul insist on ignoring, but it is a crucial one. Secession is the notion that a state may unilaterally leave the American union, consistent with the Constitution of the United States. Obviously since the revolution occurred in 1776, eleven years before the Constitution, it can’t be called “secession.” And perhaps that’s why the word was not used by the founding fathers when they engaged in the revolution or even afterwards.

Secession is and always has been unconstitutional and illegal, for reasons discussed in my paper, How Libertarians Ought To Think About The U.S. Civil War. The people certainly do retain the right of revolution, but revolution, of course, can only be justified on the basis of self-defense. As the Declaration put it, only after a long train of abuses evince a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism may they throw off such government and implement new safeguards for their safety and happiness. That is the principle of a free society: that government exists to protect individual rights and has no value aside from that protection.

I made a similar argument several years ago when I argued that the Southern Rebellion of 1860 was, morally and legally, unjustifiable:

In the most important part of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth the criteria for when armed rebellion is justified:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, ? That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security

In other words, taking up armed rebellion is not something that should be done for light or trivial reasons. Nor it is something that should be done when there are other, less violent methods for effecting political change.


Lincoln had said nothing, and certainly in the months prior to his Inauguration, had done nothing, to indicate that such a threat existed. Moreover, if the South had stayed in the Union and sent its Congressmen and Senators to Washington in 1861, they would have represented a voting bloc large enough that they would have been able to block any legislation they didn’t like, especially in the Senate.

I’ve quoted, rather approvingly, much of what Ron Paul has had to say over the past several months about the bailouts and Obama’s economic policies, but on this one he’s just plain wrong.

H/T: Jason Pye

C/P: Below The Beltway