Bach: The Union Forever

A discussion on secessionist movements in the United States.

by Jinsung Bach | 2/9/17 12:25am

Like most Americans, I consider any question about seceding from the Union forever settled at Appomattox, Virginia in 1865. In my mind, the Civil War sanctified the United States as an indestructible union, one nation bound by the principles set by the Founding Fathers long ago. The fact that so many American lives were lost in the name of this ideal is a humbling one and is to this day a reminder of what we stand to lose should our Union ever be so questioned again.

One can imagine my surprise, then, to learn that secessionist movements are gaining traction once again all across America. From the Texas Nationalist Movement to the Second Vermont Republic, it seems that a surprising number of people nowadays are reconsidering their ties to the United States. Even my home state of California has recently dabbled with the concept of secession, using the “Calexit” campaign as a means of expressing its dissatisfaction with the President Donald Trump’s administration.

As one might have already gathered, I regard secession from the United States with utmost revulsion. But as some have pointed out, this seems to be a contradiction. How can I treat state secession with such disdain when the United States itself was born from secession? It seems difficult to reconcile my misgivings with the fact that secession is practically an American tradition.

To that end, let us examine the American Revolution. Here our separation from Great Britain was marked by three particular characteristics: a desire for independence, a willingness to fight for independence against those that would contest it and an ability to maintain independence thereafter. The Thirteen Colonies declared their independence knowing full well that they stood to lose everything, from their economies to their livelihoods to the revolutionaries’ very lives. In doing so in spite of that, they fulfilled the first characteristic. The establishment of a Continental Army to fight the British demonstrated a will to fight, thus fulfilling the second. And subsequently a long war for independence was fought and won, thus fulfilling the third.

It is on these characteristics that I base my criteria for justifying secession. Similar arguments could be made for the countries of the former Soviet Union and their independence from Moscow, as well as India and its independence from the British Empire. Even if their respective fulfillments of the second and third criteria did not end in bloodshed, their resilience and willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of independence constitute a “fight” for independence nonetheless. Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent protests provide a superb example.

By this framework, the Confederacy was not a justified secession. Though it expressed both a desire and a willingness to fight for independence, it ultimately lost and failed to fulfill the third criterion. All moral and legal questions aside, in losing the Civil War, the Confederacy proved once and for all that it was incapable of protecting its own citizens. Thus, Confederate secession was rendered invalid, unable to sustain an independence that could hope to last.

It is because of this framework I have outlined that I regard modern state secessionist movements as so unjustified. There is little reason to believe that even the first of these criteria is fulfilled because such movements remain extremist fringes even by the standards of American politics. It takes little to point out to modern-day secessionists that they stand to lose far more than they stand to gain from independence. There is no doubt in my mind that if one were to point out to left-wing California secessionists that they stood a very real chance of losing everything they held dear — from Hollywood to Starbucks lattes to the very water that produces their vegan foodstuffs — they would reconsider in a heartbeat.

Even if we were to assume fulfillment of the first characteristic, a desire for independence, fulfillment of the second and third criteria are almost impossible in this day and age. Interstate economies are highly interconnected and to sever oneself from them is to destroy one’s own economic future. Ideologically, there is no just cause to separate from a government in which states are already given much latitude to self-govern and in which they are given ample opportunity to influence the nation at large. Moreover, whether secessionists would care to admit it or not, the politics of their own states are inevitably and irreversibly tied to those of the other 49. United or not, theirs is a shared fate from which they cannot pull away. They may either join in an attempt to forge a better future, or they may all go their separate ways and perish one by one.

Most importantly, there are far better ways than secession for states to get what they want. The beauty of a democracy like ours is that there is endless possibility for positive change so long as one has a voice to speak. With the liberties and powers granted to both the states and to individuals by Constitutional law, the door remains wide open for grievances to be addressed. Even in times like these, when many hold legitimate concerns about our federal government, there is hardly any need to turn to secession to be heard.

On a more sentimental note, it strikes me as extremely saddening that so many people may no longer be willingly calling themselves American. It renders meaningless the sacrifices of those who have fought, bled and died in service to the United States. It flies in the face of those who marched in the name of freedom, from Seneca Falls, New York to Selma, Alabama. The wide disillusionment with America’s vision is what troubles me most, and it is this discontent that must be addressed regardless of the outcome of secessionist agendas.

But in the end, perhaps the greatest barrier to secession will be people like myself. Among us there remain people who still believe in a sacrosanct Union, who take former President Abraham Lincoln’s words to heart about a government of the people, by the people and for the people that shall not perish from the Earth. To that end I do not believe any sacrifice too great, nor my own life too sweet, to defend the Union to my very last breath. Can secessionists truly say the same of their own ideals?