American History

Secession and Independence

The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, less than fifteen months after “the shot heard ‘round the world” was fired in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard ’round the world” commenced hostilities between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the British American colonies in what became known as the American Revolution.

The, “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,” was a united declaration of secession from the British Empire, making clear the colonies were free, separate and independent States. Put another way, the Declaration made clear that each former colony, like New York, or Virginia, was now on equal footing with the state of Great Britain, the state of France or any other country. It helps to think of a “state” as a “country” in modern terminology.

Several colonies threw off their colonial ties to Great Britain prior to July 4, 1776. New Hampshire, New Jersey, Virginia and South Carolina had all declared independence and ratified new state constitutions prior to July 4, 1776.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware

The “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” were ratified in March 1781, several months before the Siege of Yorktown and the end of the Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation expressly stated, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.” It should be noted, in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783 (the American peace treaty with Great Britain), Great Britain acknowledged, “New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, [were] free sovereign and independent states.”

It is important to acknowledge the colonies became free and independent states following their War of Secession with the British Empire. Contrary to the views expressed by nationalists, past and present, the American Revolution did not create a unitary nation state, nor did it create any sort of single government amongst the newly independent states.

Plans for a Federal Union

The first substantive agreement between the states dates back to 1774 and was known as the Articles of Association. The Articles of Association, drafted by the First Continental Congress, were intended to implement a colony-wide trade boycott to force Great Britain to acknowledge and address colonial grievances, including the Intolerable Acts legislation passed by Parliament. The Intolerable Acts legislation was Parliament’s legislative response to the Boston Tea Party. The Articles of Association were merely a coordinated colonial response to British legislation and did not constitute the creation of any new government, nor did it represent the surrender of any colonial (and eventually, state) sovereignty.

The Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to correct alleged deficiencies with the Articles of Confederation. The result of the convention was the United States Constitution, and its eventual ratification on June 21, 1788 (following the assent of the ninth ratifying state). Ratification of the new Constitution was a de facto act of secession from the Articles of Confederation.

True Nature of the Union – The Compact Theory

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the best known foreign observers of America in the 1800s, in his magnum opus, Democracy in America, said the following regarding the nature of the American union under the Constitution:

“If the Union were to undertake to enforce the allegiance of the confederate States by military means, it would be in a position very analogous to that of England at the time of the War of Independence. However strong a government may be, it cannot easily escape from the consequences of a principle which it has once admitted as the foundation of its constitution. The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the states; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so; and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or by right.”

In addition, James Madison articulated the “compact theory” succinctly in his report on the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. According to Madison,

“The Constitution of the United States was formed by the sanction of the states, given by each in its sovereign capacity. It adds to the stability and dignity, as well as to the authority, of the Constitution, that it rests on this legitimate and solid foundation. The states, then, being the parties to the constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal, above their authority, to decide, in the last resort, whether the compact made by them be violated; and consequently, that, as the parties to it, they must themselves decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition.”

Key Point

The key takeaway is each state is its own separate legal entity. The colonies separately ascended to statehood and never at any time did they legally or purposefully forfeit or relinquish their sovereignty to the federal government. To understand American History, and the subsequent pages on this site, having an understanding of the true nature of the union is essential.