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IPFS News Link • Secession/States

Thomas Jefferson Still Supported Secession Forty Years After the Declaration of Independence

•, By Ryan McMaken

For example, historian Brooks Simpson in this column splits many hairs attempting to explain (unconvincingly) that the Declaration of Independence had nothing to do with secession. At the core of many of these claims is the idea that since some Americans in the eighteenth century endorsed the current constitution, then all Americans, centuries later, who did not sign or vote for the document are now held to some invisible "social contract."

In other words, whatever right to secession and self-determination might have existed during the war with the British Empire, those rights ceased to exist with the successful end of the war. Lysander Spooner, of course, has explained the deeply incoherent thinking behind this social contract theory. Nonetheless, we might ask ourselves what did the author of the Declaration of Independence think about the idea of secession. If the Declaration had nothing to do with secession—or if the founding of the new republic negated the right to secession—then surely Thomas Jefferson changed his tune on secession after the ratification of the new constitution.

Well, it turns out that he didn't. Jefferson, who was a secessionist in 1776, remained a secessionist at least as late at 1816, eight years before his death. Jefferson never gave any big speeches or wrote any thick books on secession. He may have thought that the Revolution's success spoke for itself.  Nonetheless, in personal correspondence decades after he wrote the Declaration, Jefferson continued to support the idea that member states or constituent parts of the American republic ought to be free to leave. Here are some of his specific comments on the matter.

In 1799, Jefferson wrote to James Madison and concluded that if the states continued to be subject to "abuses" and "violations" by the federal government, then the states would be entitled "to sever ourselves from that union":