November 10, 1860: No right to secede

James Madison
James Madison, 1751-1836. Fourth president of the United States. “Father of the Constitution.”

From an editorial in the New York Times, November 10, 1860. The Times quotes James Madison on the topic of secession:

The Southern Disunionist journals are laying great stress on their assumed right to secede. They are very fond of asserting that this is only a partnership of States from which any one member may secede at will.

They forget, apparently, that this very question was raised and decided before the adoption of the Constitution. New-York was unwilling to accept that instrument and join the Union which it created, unless she could terminate her connection with it at pleasure. Her proposal was to join for five or six years, with the right then to withdraw if she desired.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON was inclined to favor the compromise, and wrote to MADISON in regard to it from Poughkeepsie July, 1788, in these terms:

“You will understand that the only qualification will be the reservation of a right to recede, in case our amendments have not been decided upon, in one of the modes pointed out by the Constitution, within a certain number of years, perhaps five or seven. If this can, in the first instance, be admitted as a ratification, I do not fear any further consequences. Congress will, I presume, recommend certain amendments to render the structure of the Government more secure. This will satisfy the more considerate and honest opposers of the Constitution, and with the aid of them will break up the party.
Yours, affectionately, A. HAMILTON,”

And here is MADISON’s reply:

NEW-YORK, Sunday evening.

MY DEAR SIR: Yours of yesterday is this instant at hand, and I have but a few minutes to answer it. I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw, if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification: that it does not make New-York a member of the new Union, and consequently that she should not be received on that plan.

Compacts must be reciprocal; this principle would not in such case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and FOREVER. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short, any condition whatever must vitiate the ratification. What the new Congress, by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able and disposed to do in such a case, I do not inquire, and I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success and happiness. The idea of reserving the right to withdraw was started at Richmond, and considered as a conditional ratification, which was itself abandoned — worse than rejection.


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9 Responses to November 10, 1860: No right to secede

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for posting this (and for doing the site).

    I would hope that Rick Perry, Sharon Engle, and other tea partiers would read this exchange the next time they call for secession or armed insurrection.

  2. David Tiffany says:

    Excellent history.

  3. Eddie Inman says:

    Yes, the same Madison which wrote the following in the 1798 Virginia Resolution —

    That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid that they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.

    Regardless of Madison’s reply to Hamilton, the ratifications of Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island all included the reservation of the right to withdraw from the compact, and were duly accepted by the Congress as such —

    Virginia to wit

    We the Delegates of the People of Virginia duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly and now met in Convention having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us to decide thereon Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will:

    • Subnumine says:

      No, Sir.

      The people do have the right to remodel their government, if a long train of unremedied grievances require it; but the government of Commonwealth of Virginia is not the people of the United States.

      Madison was aware of the Declaration of Independence; he did therefore make that distinction. I leave it as an exercise to the reader what sort of person does not.

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  5. Eric says:

    Madison is not saying that secession is illegal or that once a State joins it loses its sovereignty and right to withdraw. He is simply saying that such a condition like the one new York proposed, a literal temporary ratification, was not acceptable. If a state ratifies the Constipation and joins the union, they are forever bound to obey the Constitution as long as they choose to remain in the union. That is the whole context of Madison’s words.

    • Eric says:

      ha ha. Sometimes spell check let’s us down!! I was not calling the constitution ‘the constipation’. My apologies.

    • Allen Gathman says:

      I disagree with this interpretation. Madison explicitly states “The idea of reserving the right to withdraw was started at Richmond, and considered as a conditional ratification, which was itself abandoned — worse than rejection.” He’s saying that there is no right to withdraw from the Union.

      • Rusty Robertson says:

        Richmond did not reject secession, they just merely abondoned the idea of having it as a “conditional ratification”. Regardless of any compact, treay, or Union, Sovereignty remains to the States and to the People.

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