As a people, we’ve seldom been more divided. And since that doesn’t look about to change, maybe it’s time to look at the possibility of secession. Nearly every country is staring down a secession movement, so why should we think we’re exempt? After all, 1776 was our own secession from Britain.
It’s not as though we’d fight a civil war over secession, as we did in 1861. For one thing, the stakes would be a lot lower today. The Civil Rights Revolution has taken hold, and there’d be no going back to the bad old days of Jim Crow in any seceding state. So instead of a war, what we’d see is the kind of sorting out of people that happens today, when people move from California to Texas. That’s how moderns settle these things.
Some think that secession is a constitutional impossibility. They’re wrong. If a state wanted out, I don’t think we’d see a president sending in the troops, and I don’t think the U.S. Supreme Court would want to hand him a loaded pistol either. In 1868, when the Civil War was good and over, the court held that there was no right of secession, but they based this on the 1781 Articles of Confederation, which in 1787 the Framers thought were no longer in effect. So the court’s originalists would likely take seriously a vote on secession.
That doesn’t mean that states have a unilateral right of secession. They’d have to negotiate the terms of exit, including how to divide federal property and responsibility for the public debt. But so long as democracy is a foundational value in our Constitution, a successful democratic secession referendum in a state couldn’t be ignored. Instead, it would begin a set of negotiations on how the exit might happen.
In that case, we’d have the same kind of conversation the Framers did about the optimal size of a country. Most of the Framers thought that small was beautiful, and they were right. In my book “American Secession,” I found that smaller countries are happier, freer and less corrupt. And today America is one of the biggest countries in the world in terms of population.
We don’t need to be big to defend ourselves. As it is, we spend more on the military than the next 21 countries put together. In his Farewell Address, George Washington said that we were happily isolated from Europe and all its wars, and that hasn’t changed. If California were to break away, who’s going to invade it?
Granted, we don’t want to see customs barriers erected between the states after a break-up, but if that’s what bothers you then you want a customs union, not a country. And we won’t want to need a passport to visit Disneyland, but then Europeans don’t need that either when traveling between different countries in the European Union.
And here’s the kicker: This time secession would be politically correct. It’s progressive California that wants to opt out of our immigration laws. Tell them that, if they secede and stop paying their share of the military budget, they’ll save enough to fund their own national health. And then pose the same question to them when President Trump is reelected and has a few more nominations for the Supreme Court.
Forget MAGA. Let’s Make America Small Again. And buy stock in U-Haul.
• F.H. Buckley is a professor at Scalia Law School and the author of “American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup” (Encounter Books), upon which this op-ed is based.
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