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Secession is the act of withdrawing territory from a state and converting it into an independent state or joining it to another state. In the latter case, secession is combined with irredentism. Secession is a negative term, one that is more likely to be used by its opponents than its advocates. Supporters of secession prefer to describe themselves as struggling for something positive. For example, those who support Quebecs secession from Canada describe themselves as sovereigntists or independentists, not as secessionists.

Secession can usefully be distinguished from three other terms with which it is often confused. First, it is not a synonym for self-determination but one form that a struggle for self-determination might take. Second, it is different, particularly in the minds of international lawyers, from decolonization, which involves the separation of a colony from its metropole, with a colony typically defined as a racially distinct territory separated from the metropole by saltwater and whose people do not enjoy metropolitan citizenship rights. Secession, by contrast, is seen as withdrawal from a state, with the territory involved usually a contiguous piece of the states territory or a nearby island. Third, secession is an act that is initiated and carried out by those who want a new state of their own. It should be distinguished, therefore, from partition, which implies the fresh division of a territory by an external (third-party) actor (OLeary 2005). Irish nationalists sought the secession of Ireland from the United Kingdom, but the latter partitioned Ireland, as they later partitioned India and contributed to the partition of Palestine.

Secessions are generally attempted by minority nations that want their own state (or to be joined with another state), though Russia, with a significant majority of the states population, seceded from the Soviet Union. There is no prospect of immigrant ethnic groups, such as the Chinese community in British Columbia or the Koreans in California, seceding from their respective states, as these are not mobilized as nations. Nor is it foreordained that a minority nation will become secessionist. There is evidence that the timely accommodation of minority nations, involving territorial autonomy and, in the case of sizable minorities, inclusive power sharing (consociational) politics at the center, can reduce support for secession.

States almost invariably oppose secession. Many states explicitly rule it out in their constitutions. Some, such as Ukraine or Turkey, even make it impossible to change their constitutions to allow secession. In these cases, the unity of the state is a higher value than popular sovereignty. Americans need no reminders that states are often prepared to resist secession with considerable force, even if it costs many lives.

As international law is written by states, it is hardly surprising that its provisions on secession are very restrictive. International law recognizes a legal right of peoples to self-determination, but this right was intended to apply only to historic European colonies, that is, to acts of decolonization. It was developed, moreover, at a time when significant numbers of acts of decolonization had already occurred. The right is a once-only right, to be exercised at the point of decolonization, and does not extend to minority regions within colonies or to minority or majority regions that intersect colonial frontiers. Oddly, then, the international legal right to self-determination is built on the constructs of imperialists. Since World War II (19391945), there has been only one clear example of a successful, internationally recognized secession that was opposed by the states authorities, the case of Bangladesh, which seceded from Pakistan with Indias help in 1971. With one questionable exception, all other secessions have either been agreed to by central authorities (East Timor, Eritrea, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) or have been recognized after central authority had collapsed (the fifteen republics that seceded from the Soviet Union). The Soviet Unions republics had the additional advantage of a constitutional right to secession. The questionable exception is Yugoslavia. The secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina were opposed by Belgrade (Serbia and Montenegro), but the Badinter Commission nonetheless ruled that Yugoslavia was in a state of dissolution. To bolster its case, the commission also cited a clause in the Yugoslav constitution that gave its republics the right of secession.

The unwillingness of the states system to sanction secession is underlined by a number of de facto secessions (Bahcheli, Bartmann, and Srebrnik 2004). Here, secessionist authorities have failed to win recognition from other states even though they have succeeded in monopolizing the sovereign functions of government on their territory, often for years or even decades. These regions include Transnistria (Moldova), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan), Somaliland (Somalia), the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (Cyprus), and Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia). The strangest case of a de facto secession is Kosovo, which was liberated from Serbias control by an international military alliance in 1999. In spite of this, the international community has so far refused to recognize Kosovos independence. If it does, it is likely to do so in a way that does not set a precedent for others. It may help Kosovos case that, while it was not a full republic of the former Yugoslavia, it enjoyed equality with these republics within federal institutions and a similar level of autonomy. This may allow other states to argue that Kosovo is a special case, sufficiently like the full republics of the former Yugoslavia to enjoy similar rights.

While lawyers have debated the legal right to secession, philosophers have argued about the moral right. As liberals are committed to the idea of a legitimate state, it is difficult for them to rule out secession under any circumstances, although some suggest the priority should be to make the state legitimate, not to break it up. The two main liberal schools of thought on secession are based on just-cause and choice theories (Moore 1998). Just-cause theorists have traditionally taken a restrictive view of secession, arguing that a right to secede exists only when the state has been egregiously abusive. One of their most prominent representatives has recently offered a softer version of this: Minorities can secede if they are denied autonomy (Buchanan 2003). Choice theorists, using democratic arguments based on consent, analogize from marital to political divorce: Minorities should be able to leave if they want to and not just if they have been abused or not accommodated (e.g., Beran 1984).

Some scholars believe that states, particularly Western democracies like Canada and the United Kingdom, are becoming less resistant to secession and less likely to oppose it by force (Kymlicka 2001, pp. 387393). In 1998, the Canadian Supreme Court established a process whereby a province can secede, providing there is clear support for breakup, and after negotiations with the federal authorities. The prime minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, opined in the early 1990s that Scotland could secede if it wanted to, and in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, London confirmed that Northern Ireland could join the Republic of Ireland, provided that this was approved by referendums in both jurisdictions. Ethiopias republics have also been given the right to secession, and recent peace settlements in Sudan and Papua New Guinea have extended this right to South Sudan and Bougainville, respectively. From the other side, one academic has argued that minorities, particularly in western Europe, are no longer as insistent on secession, provided they are given autonomy and are included in international (European Union) institutions (Keating 2001). Neither of these trends is universal. In most parts of the world, states are at least as insistent on maintaining unity as they ever were, and there are still many secessionist movements.

The record of secession as a method of conflict resolution has been mixed. In some cases, the transition from one state to two, or several, has been relatively smooth (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Norway/Sweden). In other cases, breakup had disastrous consequences (Yugoslavia, with respect to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but so far not Slovenia or Macedonia). These contrasting cases suggest a straightforward point: Secessions that are opposed by the center and/or a significant community within the secessionist region are more likely to be violent (McGarry 1998).

SEE ALSO Borders; Confederate States of America; Conflict; Decolonization; Ethnicity; European Union; Partition; Quebecois Movement; Self-Determination; Sovereignty; U.S. Civil War


Bahcheli, T., B. Bartmann, and H. Srebrnik, eds. 2004. De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty. London: Frank Cass.

Beran. H. 1984. A Liberal Theory of Secession. Political Studies 32: 2131.

Buchanan, A. 2003. Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations of International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keating, M. 2001. Nations Without States: The Accommodation of Nationalism in the New State Order. In Minority Nationalism and the Changing International Order, eds. Michael Keating and John McGarry, 1943. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kymlicka, W. 2001. Reply and Conclusion. In Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported? Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe, eds. W. Kymlicka and M. Opalski, 347413. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGarry, J. 1998. Orphans of Secession: National Pluralism in Secessionist Regions and Post-Secession States. In National Self-Determination and Secession, ed. Margaret Moore, 215232. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, M. 1998. Introduction: The Self-Determination Principle and the Ethics of Secession. In National Self-Determination and Secession, ed. Margaret Moore, 113. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

OLeary, B. 2004. Partition. In The Social Science Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., vol. 2, eds. A. Kuper and J. Kuper, 708710. London: Routledge.

John McGarry


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The secession of seven Southern states in 1860 to 1861 set in motion the train of events that led to the American Civil War. The war ultimately cost 620,000 lives, precipitated the internal collapse of slavery, prompted President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, changed the Constitution, and transformed the American union of states into a nation. The destruction of slavery was arguably the greatest social revolution in American history, and it removed the most glaring contradiction to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Union victory ensured the inviolability of the Union and supremacy of the federal government. Secession, in short, inaugurated the most transforming crisis in American history. More than any other single event, the Civil War defined modern America.

secessionist theory

As early as the 1820s, some southerners raised secession as a last resort to defend slavery and southern rights. The notion that any state could voluntarily leave the Union was based on the state compact theory of the Constitution, articulated first in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799. The states existed before the Constitution, this argument ran, came together to create the national government, and therefore were ultimately superior to it. This theory was the basis for nullification and secession, neither of which are mentioned in the Constitution. Southerners sometimes voiced an abstract commitment to the ideal of states' rights, but most regional spokesmen understood it as a means through which they might protect slavery. As the South's share of population, and thus its political power, shrank within the Union, the drastic step of secession became more attractive and likely as the last gamble of an increasingly out numbered minority.

growth of secessionism

Prior to the 1850s, the actual threat to slavery remained slight, although southerners watched closely the steady growth of abolitionism in the North. The turning point in the sectional conflict (and ultimately the real beginning of widespread support for secession) was the birth and rapid success of the free soil Republican Party. Increasingly dominant in the North after 1856, Republicans threatened slavery because of their commitment to its non-extension. Most southerners believed that slavery needed to expand in order to survive—to preserve its economic viability by finding productive ways to use slaves, to maintain racial control amidst a growing slave population, and to add slave states to preserve the South's political power within the national government. Finally, the success of Republicanism, for southerners, represented an insult to their equality within the Union. If their slave-based way of life were not allowed to expand, most southerners considered it an insult to their standing as good Americans and good Christians. In addition to the threats posed by the concept of free soil, more and more Republicans actually were abolitionists and, although still a minority, they gained rapidly in New England. Thus, by the late 1850s a large number of southern whites considered a Republican president unacceptable.

The most important event that preceded the much-anticipated election of 1860 was the confused raid led by abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia). Apparently planning to start a regional slave rebellion, Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal in the small town in October 1859. Brown was quickly captured, convicted by the state of Virginia for inciting slave rebellion, and hanged. Although most northerners condemned his violent methods, Brown became something of a martyr and symbolic victim of southern arrogance and violence. For their part, southerners often failed to distinguish Brown from Republicans or northerners generally. The Harpers Ferry raid panicked southerners, heightened tensions across the country, and invigorated secessionists who preached disunion if a Republican was elected in 1860.

Throughout the 1860 presidential campaign, southerners debated potential responses to a Republican victory. By October, Abraham Lincoln seemed certain to win after he carried crucial early elections in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio. The bottom line for Southerners, as always, was how best to protect slavery and the southern way of life based on the peculiar institution. Immediate secessionists called for southern states to leave the Union as soon as Lincoln's election was certain. Others counseled a more moderate course, possibly a cooperative movement in which states would withdraw as a group.


Secessionists moved quickly in November and December 1860 to capitalize on the public outrage over Lincoln's victory and to maintain the momentum toward disunion. The popular mood across the lower South where slavery was so widespread favored immediate secession, and local "vigilance committees," Minute Men clubs, and volunteer militia units pressured and intimidated Unionists. Leaders in South Carolina acted first. Following the procedure used for nullification in 1832, a special election was held for delegates to a special convention that would decide the state's course of action. On December 20, the South Carolina convention unanimously approved an Ordinance of Secession, declaring "the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States under the name of the United States of America is hereby dissolved." Six other states in the deep South followed South Carolina out of the Union early in 1861. Everywhere, secessionists emphasized the dangers of a Republican administration hostile to slavery's growth and future within the Union; spokesmen painted a bleak picture of potential slave rebellions, racial warfare, and the violation of southern women. With their homes and women threatened, leaders invoked the language of honor and masculinity when they called on southern men to support immediate secession—a "bold and manly move," as hundreds of editors and politicians phrased it. Or, as Mississippi's Governor John Pettus declared: "Can we hesitate! when one bold resolve, bravely executed, makes powerless the aggressor, and one united effort makes safe our homes?"

Among scholars the popularity of secession remains in dispute. In nearly all southern states, convention delegates rejected proposals to submit secession to a popular vote, prompting some historians to conclude that they feared being rejected by the masses. On the other hand, Southern Democrats preached secession throughout the 1860 presidential campaign, and their candidate, John Breckinridge, received nearly two-thirds of the vote in the lower South. Immediate secession candidates controlled the conventions in each of the first seven states to leave the Union.

The remaining eight slave states rejected secession before Lincoln took office. Only after the surrender of Fort Sumter and the President's subsequent call for volunteers to ensure "the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government" did four more states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) secede and join the Confederacy. The Republicans' refusal to accept secession signaled the beginning of civil war.


Barney, William L. The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Channing, Steven A. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Crofts, Daniel W. Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Ford, Lacy K. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Olsen, Christopher. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thornton, J. Mills, III. Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Christopher J. Olsen

See also:Confederate States of America; Lincoln, Abraham.


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In response to the election of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), eleven slaveholding states officially seceded (withdrew) from the United States of America in 1860 and 1861. Citizens of the seceding states feared that Lincoln's government would try to abolish slavery in America. The eleven states united to form a new nation called the Confederate States of America .

Southern movement

The idea of secession from the United States was not new. At various times in the nation's history, other states had threatened to sever ties to the Union in protest of federal policies. As Northern and Southern economies grew in very different ways, however, the slavery issue began to create particularly severe disagreements between the states.

When United States territories expanded westward during the first half of the nineteenth century, the spread of slavery became the subject of national debate. Southern slaveholders, whose economies depended on farm labor, proposed that slavery be allowed to spread if those in control of new territories wanted it. Many Northerners argued for the protection

of slavery where it already existed, but prevention of slavery in new territories. Northern economies depended on free immigrant labor rather than slaves, so expansion of slavery was not in the interest of Northern states. Voices for the nationwide abolition of slavery were in the minority and had little influence on federal policies. Slaves fought for freedom as best they could while still in bondage, but they had no political power to fight for their rights.

By 1860 Congress had legislated compromises that allowed slavery in some new territories and disallowed it in others. The compromises prevented the nation from splitting apart over the issue. Continued expansion to the west, however, kept alive discussion concerning the future expansion of slavery.

The Republican Party came into power in the 1850s on a platform opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories. Although they believed in protecting slavery where it already existed, many Republicans also hoped for the eventual elimination of the institution. One of those men, Abraham Lincoln, was the Republican presidential candidate in 1860.


Southerners feared that President Lincoln and the Republicans were planning to abolish slavery throughout the Union. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina called a secession convention at which delegates voted to dissolve the state's relationship to the Union. Over the next two months, six other states in the deep South followed with their own votes to secede: Mississippi , Alabama , Florida , Georgia , Louisiana , and Texas .

Secession debates in eight other Southern states were slower thanks to large concentrations of non-slaveholders who resisted secession. When violence erupted between Southern and federal forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina , in April 1861, however, the Civil War (1861–65) began. President Lincoln's call for troops to quell the rebellion spurred four more states to secede: Virginia , Tennessee , Arkansas , and North Carolina .

The other four Southern states—Kentucky , Delaware , Missouri , and Maryland —either stayed with the Union or declared neutrality. The northwestern part of Virginia also remained part of the Union, eventually becoming the state of West Virginia . Although Kentucky and Missouri did not vote to secede, the Confederate States of America claimed them as member states, and both had representatives in the Confederate Congress.

Political right or wrong

Most Northerners viewed the act of secession as rebellious and those who supported it as traitors under the law. Southerners argued that secession was legal, consistent with the belief that the people of each state have the power of self-government to organize as they see fit. Each state had willingly entered the Union with a vote to ratify the Constitution . That decision could be reversed through the same process of calling a convention to withdraw ratification. Northerners argued that state sovereignty had been surrendered with membership in the Union, and that therefore the legal right of secession did not exist.

Debate over the legal nature of the Union was as old as the Union itself. In writing the Constitution in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled to compromise between states that wanted a strong central (federal) government and those that sought to preserve state powers. Ambiguity of power was necessary to provide a middle ground on which both sides could agree to ratify the document. Power divided between the federal and state governments provided that necessary compromise.

Ambiguity, however, allowed both sides to use the Constitution to support their views on the legality of secession. As each side sought either to preserve or to dissolve the Union, the legal debate evolved into the bloodiest war in American history. Some people consider the North's victory in the Civil War a confirmation of the view that states do not have the legal right to secede from the United States. Others believe that no government, through war or otherwise, can take away the people's right of self-government, which includes the right to decide whether to be part of a nation.


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SECESSION in American history is best defined as the removal of a political entity from the federal Union. It is closely related to, but not synonymous with, nullification; it can only be understood in contrast with Unionism.

The precedent for secession had, in the eyes of its advocates, been established with the American Revolution (1775–1783). Thus the possibility of secession from the federal Union was broached almost as soon as that union was formed. In 1790, faced with the economic threat of Alexander Hamilton's proposal for an assumption of debts, the Virginia legislature warned that it might be necessary at some future point to sunder ties. In 1798 and 1799 the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (drafted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) proclaimed the rights of states to nullify federal legislation. This right was based on a "compact theory of union" that held that the union was simply an agreement between the sovereign communities of states. It indicated to many federalists that republicans were prepared to sever the union.

Yet it was the federalists themselves who first came to contemplate the possibility of secession. The greatest threat of secession prior to the Civil War (1861–1865) was made by New England federalists. Dismayed by the prospect of Jefferson's reelection, they secretly considered the possibility of withdrawing from the Union, only to be restrained by Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The federalists' fears had new focus with the War of 1812 (1812– 1815). From the beginning, federalists considered it to be "Mr. Madison's War," created by the ineptitude of Republican administrations. With the British occupation of Nantucket, their annexation of Maine east of the Penobscot, and increasingly frequent raids on the New England coast, it seemed to federalists that there was no longer any protection that the federal government could offer states. This led to the Hartford Convention of December 1814, where measures were taken toward the formation of a "Dominion of New England." Secession was not immediately threatened but was intimated. News of peace arrived in Washington on the same day as a list of the Convention's ultimatums, ending New England's flirtation with secession.

Previous dalliances with the idea of secession were overwhelmed by the enormity of subsequent events. The South's long fight to preserve the slave system that its leaders saw as its cohering center, both economically and culturally, did not tend inevitably toward secession. That it did eventually has obscured the tortuous process by which secession came eventually to be seen by Southerners as their only possible relief from Northern domination.

Foremost in the fight to preserve slavery was John C. Calhoun. Yet while Calhoun was the theorist who revivified Madison's idea of nullification for use against tariff acts in 1828 and 1832, he was also staunchly against secession. As a member of Monroe's cabinet, he had pushed for national improvements such as canals and roads. Even when Calhoun no longer advocated federal power for such ends, he ran for president three times. He was not interested in seceding from the Union over which he hoped to one day preside.

Yet Calhoun found himself surrounded by critics of nullification. An aging Madison denounced Calhoun's philosophy and renounced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions that he had drafted. He now claimed that they were only to be understood within the context of federal union. Thus, "nullification" could be nothing more than the appeal of a state to public opinion within the Union. The nullification that Calhoun proposed would only, Madison feared, lead to the dissolution of the Union. A small number of states could not seek to override the desires of the majority. Calhoun's theories could only give

comfort to those in the South seized by "madness," which drove them to look for "greater safety in disunion."

Those who did seek such comfort found no succor from Calhoun. Men such as Robert Barnwell Rhett and Jefferson Davis, who believed with varying degrees of firmness in the right of a state to secede from the Union, found Calhoun's doctrines of nullification to be both mystifying and useless. Nonetheless, he remained an unopposable force in Southern politics until his death in 1850. Unable to muster support across the South for nullification, Calhoun also prevented his more radical juniors from uttering threats of secession. What Southern union there was came only in response to the threats of Northern abolitionists.

With Calhoun's death, South Carolinian politicians once again planned to secede. In May of 1851, a conference of politicians met in Charleston to advocate secession as the only cure for abolitionist corruption from the North. Yet the conference failed; no other Southern state chose to follow South Carolina's lead. It was only the election of Abraham Lincoln that provided the initiative to override the proslavery Unionists in the South.

Secession has thus never had any cohering power inherent to itself at any point in American history. It required great external threats against a regional community to spur them toward secession from the federal Union. Since the carnage of the Civil War, no state or region has seriously contemplated secession.


Banner, James M. Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

McDonald, Forrest. States Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Albert LouisZambone

See alsoAntislavery ; Federalist Party ; South, the: The Antebellum South ; andvol. 9:South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession .


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Secession, the withdrawal of a state from the American Union, first appeared as an impulse rather than an articulated constitutional doctrine. Inchoate secessionist movements agitated the southwestern frontier after the signing of jay ' streaty (1794). aaron burr's alleged conspiracy was linked to them. Massachusetts Federalists who were disgruntled about the rising political power of the South and the western territories between 1803 and 1814 contemplated secession in correspondence among themselves. Before the civil war, Garrisonian abolitionists developed doctrines of disunion, calling for both individual disallegiance and the withdrawal of the free states from a union with the slave states. Southern political leaders, uneasy about the spread of abolitionist and Free Soil sentiment in the north, occasionally voiced threats of secession.

john c. calhoun developed the theoretical framework for secession, though ironically, he did so in order to avoid secession through the alternatives of interposition and nullification. Drawing on the thought of earlier states ' rights ideologues such as john taylor of Caroline, john randolph, and thomas cooper, as well as the concepts of state sovereignty and the Union broached in the virginia and kentucky resolutions of 1798–1799, Calhoun insisted that sovereignty in America resided not in the nation but severally in the people of each of the states. The states created the national government, giving it only limited, specific, and delegated powers. The national government was thus the agent or the trustee for the people of the states, and the federal Constitution was merely a "compact" among sovereign states. If the national government abused its delegated powers by unconstitutional legislation or executive acts, the states could interpose their authority between the federal government and their people and could nullify federal legislation within their territory. But if enough other states ratified an amendment to the federal Constitution that authorized the nullified act, then the states had only the option of submitting to or withdrawing from the Union.

After the election of abraham lincoln in 1860, South Carolina radicals induced the legislature to call a convention to consider secession. The convention voted unanimously for secession, and in the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes [of] Secession" (1860) they asserted that the free states had violated the constitutional compact by failing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Acts vigorously and by enacting personal liberty laws that impeded the recapture of fugitive slaves. The free states also had denied slaveholders' right of transit through their territory with their slaves, agitated against slavery, tolerated abolitionist societies, and permitted dissemination of abolitionist propaganda. They had permitted blacks to vote and had elected a sectional presidential candidate determined to effect the eventual abolition of slavery. Thus South Carolina, in order to protect its people and its peculiar institution, severed the union binding it to the other states and reassumed its status as "a separate and independent state."

Though all slave states were deeply divided over the wisdom and constitutionality of secession, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas also seceded by February 1, 1861. These seven states formed the Confederate States of America in February. After the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded. A proslavery rump session of the Missouri legislature and a convention of Kentucky Confederate soldiers declared their states seceded, but both states, as well as the other border slave states, remained in the Union. After the defeat of southern forces in 1865, most of the Confederate states repudiated secession, but diehards in South Carolina merely repealed their secession ordinance instead of nullifying it. Nonetheless, secession as a constitutional remedy was dead, and the United States was thenceforth "one nation, indivisible."

William M. Wiecek


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The act of withdrawing from membership in a group.

Secession occurs when persons in a country or state declare their independence from the ruling government. When a dissatisfied group secedes, it creates its own form of government in place of the former ruling government. Secessions are serious maneuvers that lead to, or arise from, military conflict.

A secession can affect international relationships as well as the civil peace of the nation from which a group secedes. Most countries consider secession by a town, city, province, or other body to be a criminal offense that warrants retaliation using force. Because the primary mission of most governments is to maximize the comfort and wealth of its citizens, nations jealously guard the land and wealth that they have amassed. In rare cases a government may recognize the independence of a seceding state. This recognition may occur when other countries support the independence of the seceding state. However, for most countries, the involuntary loss of land and wealth is unthinkable.

Most countries have laws that punish persons who secede or attempt to secede. The United States has no specific law on secession, but the federal government and state governments maintain laws that punish sedition and other forms of insurrection against the government. On the federal level, for example, chapter 115 of title 18 of the u.s. code annotated identifies treason, rebellion, or insurrection, seditious conspiracy, and advocation of the overthrow of the government as criminal offenses punishable by several years of imprisonment and thousands of dollars in fines. These are the types of crimes that can be charged against persons who attempt to secede from the United States.

The u.s. civil war was the result of the single most ambitious secession in the history of the United States. In February 1861 South Carolina seceded from the Union, and Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee followed suit shortly thereafter. These states seceded because they objected to attempts by the federal government to abolish the enslavement of black people. The mass secession led to four years of civil war and the death of hundreds of thousands of people. The seceding states established their own government called the Confederate States of America and fought the U.S. military forces with their own army. When the Confederate forces were defeated in April 1865, the seceding states rejoined the United States.


U.S. Civil War.


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se·ces·sion / səˈseshən/ • n. the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, esp. a political state: the republics want secession from the union. ∎  (the Secession) hist. the withdrawal of eleven Southern states from the Union in 1860, leading to the Civil War. ∎  (the Secession) variant of Sezession.DERIVATIVES: se·ces·sion·al / -shənl/·ces·sion·ism / -ˌnizəm/·ces·sion·ist / -ist/ n.


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secession Formal separation from an organized body. The term usually applies to the withdrawal of a political unit from the state of which it formed a part. An example is the secession of 11 Southern states from the USA to form the Confederate States of America (1861).


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Secession the withdrawal of eleven Southern states from the US Union in 1860, leading to the Civil War; the term War of Secession is sometimes used for the American Civil War.


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Secession. See Sezession.