As part of the ongoing discussion of libertarian views on the Civil War and secession, Jason Kuznicki of Cato and David Drumm of the Jonathan Turley blog have argued, in Kuznicki’s words, that “[s]ecession is the decision to step out of an existing political order, so it’s a category error to try to justify it legally.”
I generally agree with Drumm’s and Kuznicki’s condemnation of libertarian defenses of Confederate secession. But I don’t think that legal secession is necessarily a “category error.” Like many other legal relationships – partnerships, clubs, corporations – a federal system of government can incorporate rules that provide for its own dissolution. For example, the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that Canada’s Constitution allows Quebec to secede so long as the secessionists prevail in a referendum and negotiate certain issues with the rest of Canada. If Quebec does secede in the aftermath of a secessionist referendum victory, the resulting secession will be perfectly legal under Canadian law. There are other federal constitutions that explicitly provide for a right of secession. The most famous recent example is Article 72 of the Soviet Constitution, which numerous constituent republics seceded under in 1990-91.
The US Constitution, of course, is one of many where secession is neither explicitly banned or explicitly permitted. As a result, both critics and defenders of a constitutional right of secession have good arguments for their respective positions. Unlike the preceding Articles of Confederation, the Constitution does not include a Clause stating that the federal union is “perpetual.” While the Articles clearly banned secession, the Constitution is ambiguous on the subject.
Even if state secession is constitutionally permissible, the Confederate secession of 1861 was deeply reprehensible because it was undertaken for the profoundly evil purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery. But not all secession movements have such motives. Some are undertaken for good or at least defensible reasons. In any event, there is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of a legal secession.