The Rev. Joseph Darby, in responding to a column by Kirkpatrick Sale on why lessons from the Confederate Constitution have salience for us today, had occasion to take a potshot at the Abbeville Institute, which he says advocates “secession of the individual States from the United States.” That is not true. The institute has no political agenda. Its task is to explain and to understand, not to recommend conduct.
It was formed 12 years ago at the University of Virginia by a group of academics concerned that the Southern tradition is no longer taught in colleges and universities except as a function of the needs of political correctness. We conduct conferences and seminars for college and graduate students, academics and the public. Over 150 academics in all fields of the liberal arts are associated with the institute.
I took up the topic in 1995 while teaching philosophy of law at Emory University. I was surprised to discover that in the Philosopher’s Index, which publishes all articles in philosophy in five languages, there were only seven articles on secession. Five were reviews of what was the only philosophical study of the topic in English, Allen Buchanan’s “Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec.” Two other articles were on Quebec’s recent 51-49 vote not to secede.
In short, the learned world in the West had suppressed any thought about secession.
Why? Because since the French Revolution, every modern state has defined itself as “one and indivisible.” So secession was ruled out absolutely. But that is absurd. Nothing made by mortal man is “indivisible,” and especially nothing political.
Today, those “indivisible” modern states ruling tens and hundreds of millions with one-size-fits-all policies have come into question. Ever since 15 states peacefully seceded from the Soviet Union, legislators and jurists have been scrambling to frame national and international law, which acknowledges that the right of self government entails a limited right of secession. Not having thought about the matter at all for so long the discussion is awkward and ongoing.
Clearly secession is not a panacea. There are times when centralization is a good thing, but there are also times when it is tyrannical and suffocating. When the latter happens, division is required. But it takes wisdom to know the difference.
And any division that occurs should be done under law not revolution. The scholars of the Abbeville Institute were among the first to explore the moral and constitutional issues of downsizing the oversized, post-French Revolutionary modern states whose legitimacy is now in question — and even in the United States.
A Public Policy Poll December 2012 found that of those 18 to 29 years old, 29 percent favored secession of their state. Of Hispanics, 27 percent. Of those classed as “very conservative,” 37 percent. A later poll showed that 25 percent of Americans favored secession of their state; that is around 80 million people in a nation said to be “one and indivisible.”
Whether this is a good or bad thing, it is a reality that thoughtful people cannot ignore.
Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
President, Abbeville Institute