“Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this; and did I now foresee a separation at some future day, yet I should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power.”
–Letter from President Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestly, Jan. 29, 1804
Lost in all the parades, barbecues, and worshipping of all things military on the Fourth of July is the fact that Americans on that day are supposed to be celebrating their secession from the British Empire. The “free and independent states,” as they are called in the Declaration of Independence, individually voted to secede from the British Empire and form a confederation of states. Each state, the Declaration says, is independent in the sense that Spain, France, and England were independent: “[A]s free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other things which independent states may of right do.”
There was no such thing as a unitary “United States of America.” The phrase is always in the plural in all of the founding documents (i.e. the United States are . . .), signifying that the free and independent (and sovereign) states were united in forming a confederacy. When King George III signed a peace treaty to end the Revolutionary War (Treaty of Paris), he signed it with each individual state, not something called “the United States government.”
That confederacy of states would eventually delegate certain limited powers, for their own benefit, to the federal government, as their agent, in the U.S. Constitution (see Article 1, Section 8). The union of the states was voluntary, as spelled out in Article 7 of the Constitution, which explains that the Constitution was to be ratified not by a national referendum but by votes in individual state ratifying conventions. Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island explicitly reserved the right to “resume” the delegated powers in the future should the government be “perverted to their injury or oppression” so that “every power not granted thereby remains with them [the states] and at their will . . .” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/ratva.asp). Since no one state has more rights than any other under the Constitution, when these three states entered the union it was assumed by everyone that all of the states – and future states — had the exact same right of secession.
This is why, with the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, the New England Federalists felt totally within their constitutional rights to begin planning to secede from the union. A voluntary union is one in which the members of the union are free to join or not join. The New England secessionist movement culminated in the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814, as discussed in great detail in the book, To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815, by historian James M. Banner, Jr.
These New Englanders were extremely indignant and alarmed over being governed by Virginians (and Southerners in general), who they considered to be morally and mentally inferior. They believed that Virginians like Jefferson, Madison and Monroe would use the powers of the state to plunder New England. (That, after all, is what they would do if the shoe were on the other foot). As Banner states, there was a widespread “conviction that the people of New England, and none more so than those from Massachusetts, were somehow set apart from the rest of the nation” (p. 84). “By 1790, few doubted that they were morally superior, ethnically more distinctive, socially more integrated, and economically and politically more advanced than the inhabitants of any other part of the union.” Banner quotes one prominent New Englander as proclaiming that “The God of nature, in his infinite goodness, has made the people of New England to excel every other people that ever existed in the world.” Federalist politician William Stoughton declared that “God sifted a whole Nation that he might send choice grain over into this wilderness” (p. 91). Hence the New England “Yankee” was born in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize slavery in America, and along with it “The Yankee Problem in America,” as Clyde Wilson calls it.
The Federalist Party – the party of Hamilton – was the political vehicle for this institutionalized hyper-egomania and extreme hubris. “One demonstrated his Federalism,” writes Banner, “and signified membership in a select circle by referring to the superior virtues of the people of Massachusetts” (p. 87). The myth of New England superiority “exerted a powerful restraint against accommodation with the rest of the nation.” In other words, if they couldn’t secede, they believed that they must coerce the rest of the nation (if not the entire world) – violently if necessary — to become New Englandized.
The New England Federalists thought that they could eventually “regenerate” the American population and remake the entire country in their own “superior” image. “Rule, New England! New England rules and saves!” was the chant that was recited at Federalist Party gatherings (Banner, p. 87). This in fact is what the “Civil War” and “Reconstruction” was all about – remaking America in the image of the New England Yankees.
But in the meantime, secession and the creation of a separate New England government was their top objective. The Jefferson and Madison administrations (1801-1817) added enormous fuel to their secessionist fire with Jefferson’s national trade embargo (imposed as an alternative to another war with England), the Louisiana Purchase, and the War of 1812, all of which were violently opposed by New Englanders. They were right to complain that the embargo would be unfairly harmful to their region’s shipping industry; they were extreme nativists who despised the idea of the Louisiana Purchase allowing more “inferiors” such as “the wild Irish and sour Germans” into the country (p. 91); and they essentially seceded during the War of 1812 by not participating in it.
The nation should “divide at the Appalachians,” said Federalist Caleb Strong, a two-term Massachusetts governor. Massachusetts state senator Thomas Dawes introduced a “New England Plan” for a new government with “no Negro voters, nor naturalized voters . . .” (p. 114). The most outspoken New England secessionist was U.S. Senator Timothy Pickering, who had been George Washington’s adjutant general and quartermaster general during the Revolutionary War, and his secretary of state and secretary of war afterwards. He called the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson’s “plan of destruction” and wrote to U.S. Senator George Cabot that “the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation” (Henry Adams, Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815, p. 338). “The people of the East [i.e., New England] cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West,” Pickering declared.
In 1804 the New England Federalists began plotting their strategy to secede. Pickering wrote to Congressman Theodore Lyman that Massachusetts would “take the lead” and secede first, after which “Connecticut would instantly join,” followed by “New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania” (Henry Adams, p. 338). Massachusetts would do what South Carolina did a half century later, in other words, and lead a secession movement.
Congressman Josiah Quincy (and later Harvard president) was so incensed by the Louisiana Purchase that he wrote that it meant that “the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved; that the States which compose it are free from their moral obligation; and that, as it will be the right of all, so will it be the duty of some, to prepare definitely for a separation, amicably if they can, violently if they must” (Daniel Wait Howe, Political History of Secession, p. 13).
On August 24, 1813 the British captured Washington and set fire to the Library of Congress and the White House. Governor Strong of Massachusetts called a special session of the state legislature to declare that the federal government had failed to protect New England, and that the time had come to separate (Edward Powell, Nullification and Secession in the United States, p. 219). The rank and file of the Federalist Party, and many New England newspapers, were calling for secession. No one argued at the time that the federal government had a “right” to invade, bomb, plunder, and incinerate the cities and towns of any state that seceded, waging total war on civilians in the process, killing them by the thousands. That was Lincoln’s reinterpretation of the Constitution a half century later.
The secession convention was held in Hartford in December of 1814 and was attended by Federalist politicians from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont. These professional politicians were less radical than the rank and file Federalists, leading Federalist politician and author John Lowell, Jr. to warn that the convention “would not go far enough” (Banner, p. 355). He was right. These professional politicians feared that their careers might not be as grandiose in a new confederacy and that “separation would have severed their last chance for preferment at the national level” (Banner, p 353). They sold out their constituents, in other words, out of greed and self-interest. What else should anyone ever expect from any politicians?
The Hartford Convention published a report that called for eliminating the Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution, which added congressional representation to mostly Southern states; a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress to admit a new state; a sixty-day limit on trade embargoes; a two-thirds vote requirement for war; term limits for the president; and federal funding of state militias.
Timothy Pickering was bitterly disappointed, complaining that the convention had been “captured” by political careerists, while Governor Strong predicted that the “western states” would eventually secede and “prefer a government of their own.” And so they did, forty-five years later. Such is the story of America’s second Independence Day that almost was.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; How Capitalism Saved America; Lincoln Unmasked; Hamilton’s Curse; Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government; and most recently, The Problem With Socialism.