Secession, a term used in political science to signify the withdrawal of a state from a confederacy or composite state, of which it had previously been a part; and the resumption of all powers formerly delegated by it to the federal government, and of its status as an independent state. To secede is a sovereign right; secession, therefore, is based on the theory that the sovereignty of the individual states forming a confederacy or federal union has not been absorbed into a single new sovereignty. Secession is a right claimed or exercised by weaker states of a union whose rights are threatened by the stronger states, which seldom acknowledge such a principle. War generally follows the secession of a member of a union, and the seceding state, being weaker, is usually conquered and the union more firmly consolidated.
The history of Europe furnishes several examples of secession or attempts to secede: in 1309 the Swiss cantons withdrew from the Empire and formed a confederacy from which, in 1843-1847, the Catholic cantons seceded and formed a new confederacy called the Sonderbund, which was crushed in the war that followed; in 1523 Sweden seceded from the Kalmarian Union formed in 1397 of Denmark, Sweden and Norway; and in 1814 Norway seceded and entered into a union with Sweden, from which, in the same year, it attempted to secede but was forcibly prevented; Norway, however, accomplished a peaceful secession from the Union in 1905 and resumed her independent status; in 1848-1849 Hungary attempted to withdraw from the union with Austria but the attempt was defeated; Prussia and other north German states withdrew in 1866-1868 from the German Confederation and formed a new one; a late instance of successful secession is that of Panama, which seceded in 1903 from the Republic of Colombia.
But secession in theory and practice is best exhibited in the history of the United States. Most of the original states, and many of the later ones, at some period when rights were in jeopardy proclaimed that their sovereignty might be exercised in secession. The right to secede was based, the secessionists claimed, upon the fact that each state was sovereign, becoming so by successful revolution against England; there had been no political connection between the colonies;, the treaty of 1783 recognized them as free, sovereign and independent states; this sovereignty was recognized in the Articles of Confederation, and not surrendered, they asserted, under the Constitution; the Union of 1787 was really formed by a secession from the Union of 1776-1787. New states claimed all the rights of the old ones, having been admitted to equal standing. Assertions of the right and necessity of secession were frequent from the beginning; separatist conspiracies were rife in the West until 1812; various leaders in New England made threats of secession in 1790-1796 and 1800-1815 especially in 1803 on account of the purchase of Louisiana, in 1811 on account of the proposed admission of Louisiana as a state, and during the troubles ending in the War of 1812. Voluntary separation was frequently talked of before 1815. Two early commentators on the Constitution, St George Tucker in 1803 and William Rawle in 1825, declared that the sovereign states might secede at will.
In 1832-1833 the Union party of South Carolina was composed of those who rejected nullification, holding to secession as the only remedy; and from 1830 to 1860 certain radical abolitionists advocated a division of the Union. But as the North grew stronger and the South in comparison grew weaker, as slavery came to be more and more the dominant political issue, and as the South made demands concerning that peculiar institution to which the North was unwilling to accede, less was heard of secession in the North and more in the South. Between 1845 and 1860 secession came to be generally accepted by the South as the only means of preserving her institutions from the interference of the North. The first general movement toward secession was in 1850. In 1860-1861, when the federal government passed into the control of the stronger section, the Southern states, individually, seceded and then formed the Confederate states, and in the war that followed they were conquered and forced back into the Union. So, in the United States, secession along with state sovereignty is of the past.
From the historical point of view it may be suggested that neither North nor South was correct in theory in 1861: the United States were not a nation; neither were the states sovereign; but from the embryo political communities of 1776-1787, in which no proper sovereignty existed anywhere, two nationalities were slowly being evolved and two sovereignties were in the making; the North and the South each fulfilled most of the requirements for a nation and they were mutually unlike and hostile.
See Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York, 1881); A. H. Stephens, Constitutional View of the War between the States (Philadelphia, 1868-1870); J. L. M. Curry, Civil History of the Confederate States (Richmond, 1900); J. W. Du Bois, William L. Yancey (Birmingham, 1892); J. Hodgson, Cradle of the Confederacy (Mobile, 1876); B. J. Sage, Republic of Republics (Boston, 1876); W. Wilson, The State (Boston, 1900); A. L. Lowell, Government and Parties in Continental Europe (Boston, 1896); J. W. Burgess, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law (New York, 1895), and C. E. Merriam, American Political Theories (New York, 1902).
See also State Rights, Nullification, and Confederate States. (W.L.F.)
Being the entry for SECESSION in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.