What’s the problem with secession?

Doug Bandow

As the Scots debated independence, the British government did not threaten to invade. Prime Minister David Cameron was no Abraham Lincoln. There would be no policy of rule or ruin.

So also it appears with Catalonia’s push for a referendum to secede from Spain, though the latter responded far less gently to Basque separatism before. No one threatened military action during Quebec’s lengthy flirtation with independence from Canada. The Czechoslovakian government peacefully, even cheerfully, bid farewell to Slovakia two decades ago.

Still, not everyone is willing to accept smaller territories going their own way. Yugoslavia broke up with an orgy of violence. Georgia resisted separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In international politics the only rule regarding secession is that you get to do it if you can either convince or force the other party to agree. There is no consistency, even within a country.

Today, it is hard to imagine Washington launching drone strikes if Texas voters approved an ordinance of secession.

Yet the national government scorched the Earth during the American Civil War. Why should states and peoples be prevented from severing a political connection which they no longer support?

The victors write the histories, it is said, and so it is with the fighting which tore America apart. Southern slavery was a hideous blight.

People retrospectively assume that slavery could not have been ended without war. Yet only in Haiti was violence used to overthrow a slave regime. Human bondage disappeared peacefully from the rest of the world. Brazil was the last nation to abolish the horrid practice, voluntarily, in 1888.

Even more important, the southern states departed the union in two waves. The original seven exited because of fears over the survival of their “peculiar institution.”

But the outer four, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas, left only after Lincoln called up troops to coerce the others. One North Carolina citizen explained: “Union sentiment was largely in the ascendant and gaining strength until Lincoln prostrated us. He could have adopted no policy so effectual to destroy the Union. ... Lincoln has made us a unit to resist until we repel our invaders or die.”

Washington need not have responded to secession with war. A number of unionists thought the southern states should have been allowed to leave in peace.

For instance, the New York Tribune’s Greeley opined: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Col. Robert E. Lee, who rejected command of the northern forces, similarly explained: “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

For many the prospect of serious combat seemed unlikely. But by the fourth year of war that illusion had been shattered.

In the Virginia summer campaign 150 years ago Ulysses S. Grant’s forces suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, roughly the number in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Unionist Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts admitted that “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’ ”

Today it is hard to imagine how anyone could justify killing 620,000 Americans to prevent a minority from departing what began as a voluntary political union.

The decision to separate should never be taken lightly — for practical reasons, if nothing else.

But an essential element of individual liberty should be the right to choose one’s political future.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.