Did you know that 11 states peacefully seceded from the Union in 1789?
The other two states decided to join the seceding states within the following two years.
The Constitution was designed to be a document of secession from the Union if less than 13 states ratified it by the time it went into effect. This is indeed what happened. The subject of secession is covered in the Constitution here: Article VII reads, “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” Notice that it says that when 9 states ratify it, the Constitution will only apply to those nine. In 1787, the Framers of the Constitution had reason to believe that not all 13 states would ratify it, because Rhode Island rejected the Constitutional Convention and its delegates did not sign it.
Additionally, the ratifying convention in Rhode Island in 1788 chose not to ratify the Constitution. Yet six states chose to ratify the Constitution after that rejection. Those states were willing to leave the 13-state union to create a new union that did not include Rhode Island.
Ratifying the US Constitution was a declaration of secession from that 13-state Union that had been established by the Continental Congress and formalized by the Articles of Confederation. How can anyone say that secession from the Union is unconstitutional, when the Framers wrote the Constitution as a declaration of secession from the Union?
The Articles of Confederation described the Union as a “perpetual union.” In case anyone doubts that the states were “United” or in Union before the Constitution was ratified, Article 1 reads: “The style of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America.’” Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation stated that any alteration to the Union must be “agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State”. The reason this was not followed by the 11 states is presumably because unanimous consent seemed out of reach. The act of creating and ratifying the Constitution did not follow any process spelled out in any other document. When there is sufficient support for secession, neither the basic law of the land nor a minority faction can block the exit of “sovereign, independent states.” Their sovereignty was only temporarily (and partially) submitted to this basic law.
Still, after Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790 (after almost 15 months outside the Union), all 13 states had finally given their consent to it. Thus, the Constitution is authoritative today because the states consented to it, even though it is in violation of the previous basic law.
The ordinances of ratification passed by the state legislatures of New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island stated that those states reserve the right to secede, and recognize the right of any state to secede. It was not necessary to make explicit the right to secede though, as it is implied by the fact that the states retained their sovereignty and merely delegated some authority to the central government (the federal government). Indeed, the Constitution does not give the central government the authority to send troops to a state without its permission, so the Constitution prohibits the central government from preventing secession by invasion. The Constitution also states that all new states enter the Union with the same status and privileges as the first states.
The end of the term of the last President of the Congress of the Confederation was in November 1788. But if North Carolina and Rhode Island had wished, they could have continued to operate the Articles of Confederation as a confederation of two states. We know that the 11 ratifying states did not remain in the 13-state union because the government of the 13-state union was dissolved in 1788.
North Carolina went for a year without a president or Congress, and Rhode Island a year and a half. Modern readers might be surprised that these states would be without any central government for so long. But it’s doubtful that citizens suffered, as the Articles of Confederation had not delegated many powers to the central government. All 13 states had been operating as more-or-less independent countries since their founding. That had only changed when the French & Indian War (1754-1763) caused Great Britain to become more involved as it needed more taxes from the colonies to pay for the war.
How can people say that states can’t secede from the Union today, when they have done so peacefully and successfully in the past? How can people say that state secession is unconstitutional, when it was the writers of that Constitution who led 11 states to secede in 1789? And these Framers included a plan of secession from the Union in Article VII! Could the Framers have implied anywhere that state secession from the Union is unacceptable, in a document that proposes state secession from the Union?
Another example of the secession of an American state is Vermont, which seceded from New York in 1777. Although it considered re-joining the British Empire and merging with the Province of Quebec, it remained a totally independent country for 14 years until it re-joined the United States in 1791. Dave Benner explains “When New York Governor George Clinton called for Congress to wage war on Vermont in 1784 to assert his state’s claim over the region, he was rebuked. Congress insisted instead that Vermont was independent and could join the Confederation on its own accord. More tellingly, Congress held that using force to coerce a region into a government they wanted no part of was a terrifying prospect that was wholly antithetical to republicanism.”
The American experience of secession has been mostly a good one. And dozens of nations overseas have peacefully seceded in modern times.
Ten American Secessions:
1774 Every county in Massachusetts except Boston throws off the king’s governance, which is never restored.
1775 May 20 North Carolina declares independence from British North America/Great Britain (if most historians are correct)
1776 March 26 South Carolina secedes from from British North America/Great Britain
1776 May 4 Rhode Island secedes from British North America/Great Britain
1776 May 15 Virginia secedes from British North America/Great Britain
1776 June 15 New Hampshire secedes from British North America/Great Britain
1776 June 15 Delaware secedes from Pennsylvania and from British North America/Great Britain
1776 July 2 The remainder of the 13 colonies secede from British North America/Great Britain (leaving behind Canada, Florida, Bermuda, the British Caribbean, etc)
1776 July 6 Maryland issues its own declaration of independence.
1777 Vermont from New York and from the USA
1789 11 states left the 13-state union, leaving behind NC & RI, but NC & RI joined the seceded states within two years.
1836 Texas (being populated mostly by Americans) secedes from Mexico and secedes from the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas.
1860 South Carolina secedes. President James Buchanan decides to allow the secession.
1861 Multiple states secede. President Lincoln inaugurated March 4, Union invades May 24.
1862 secession of Liberia from the USA recognized by US Congress
1946 Philippines secedes from USA
Marshall Islands and Micronesia secede from USA
1994 Palau, a Pacific island, secedes from USA
Timeline of America’s First Five Secessions:
1774/09/05 First Continental Congress convenes
1774/10/20 Articles of Association are signed (a coalition of 13 colonies to ban trade with Great Britain until Great Britain might relent)
1776/07/02 Secession from British North America. Declaration of Independence signed by 13 colonies, but not by British Quebec, British northern maritime colonies, Bermuda, or British Caribbean colonies. It is not a revolution because they don’t try to overthrow the government in Britain.
1777/01/15 Vermont Secession from New York & USA. Vermont explores joining the British Quebec but doesn’t. Vermont never joins the Articles of Confederation.
1781/03/01 Articles of Confederation ratified, forming a “perpetual union” of 13 states (that lasted 8 years). Sovereignty and independence of each is “retained.”
1783/09/03 In Treaty of Paris, Great Britain acknowledges each of 13 colonies as “free and independent states”
1784/03/01 Virginia cedes claims to Northwest Territory. First territory held by central government – first “US territory”
1784 New York Governor George Clinton called for Congress to wage war on Vermont in 1784 to assert his state’s claim over the region, but he was rebuked. Congress insisted instead that Vermont was independent and could join the Confederation on its own accord. More tellingly, Congress held that using force to coerce a region into a government they wanted no part of was a terrifying prospect that was wholly antithetical to republicanism.
1787/09/17 Final draft of the Constitution signed by delegates of 12 states and sent to Congress
1787/12/07 Delaware ratifies Constitution
1787/12/12 Pennsylvania ratifies Constitution
1787/12/18 New Jersey ratifies Constitution
1788/01/02 Georgia ratifies Constitution
1788/01/09 Connecticut ratifies Constitution
1788/02/06 Massachusetts ratifies Constitution
1788/03/24 Rhode Island referendum rejects Constitution by a vote of 237 – 2708
1788/04/28 Maryland ratifies Constitution
1788/05/23 South Carolina ratifies Constitution
1788/06/21 New Hampshire ratifies Constitution. Constitution now ratified by 9 states, triggering future secession from the central government and from the Union of 13 states
1788/06/25 Virginia ratifies Constitution by a vote of 89-79 (if it hadn’t, it would have reclaimed the Northwest territory). The act of the Virginia legislature that ratified it reserved the right of Virginia to secede later.
1788/07/26 New York ratifies Constitution by a vote of 30-27. The act of the NY legislature that ratified it reserved the right of NY to secede later.
1788/08 North Carolina state convention votes against immediately ratifying the Constitution, 84-184
1788/11/15 End of the presidency of Cyrus Griffin, the last president under the Articles of Confederation
1789/03/04 The Constitution goes into effect. Two states are outside the new federal union that had been inside the Union of 13 states.
1789/04/30 George Washington’s term begins. Citizens of North Carolina and Rhode Island have no president.
1789/09/25 Bill of Rights proposed
1789/11/21 North Carolina ratifies Constitution after 8.5 months outside the Union
1790/05/29 Rhode Island ratifies Constitution after 14.8 months outside the Union by a vote of 34-32. If it hadn’t, it could still be an independent country today. In fact RI sent a letter to the first Congress asking for good foreign relations. The act of the RI legislature that ratified the Constitution reserved the right of RI to secede later. This vote came after the USA threatened to end commercial relations with RI.
1790 New York acknowledges Vermont’s land claims and sovereignty for the price of $30,000
1791/03/04 Vermont ratifies Constitution and rejoins the US after 14 years of total independence
1791/12/15 Bill of Rights ratified
The following link describes some US states that used to be independent countries: Vermont, Texas, California, Hawaii, Utah, and Oregon/Washington. https://ammo.com/articles/sovereign-states-america-history-independent-states-joined-us-union
The link leaves out the fact that the original 13 colonies were free and independent sovereign countries during the war for Independence, only delegating authority to a central government when they ratified the Constitution. It also doesn’t mention the short-lived State of Franklin (in Tennessee territory). We could also mention AmerIndian nations. Most importantly, the US Constitution says that any state admitted to the Union has the same status and privileges as the original founding states. This means that every state in the Union has the same basis to secede from the Union as the original 13 colonies (states).