The Nature of Government and of the United States as Affecting the Right to Secession


The question of Secession was raised immediately after the first Southern states began to leave the Union. President Abraham Lincoln ordered Federal troops to invade the South in hopes of unifying the nation. Following the war, Orestes Brownson wrote on the issue of whether or not Secession was in fact legal or constitutional. Secession is not constitutional, as Orestes Brownson argues in the American Republic, on the grounds that government itself is indissoluble.

Orestes Brownson divides his argument against Secession into four major themes: the origins of government, the constitution of government, the United States, and the United States Constitution. These four main arguments supply the basis upon which Brownson argues that secession is unconstitutional. In order to understand why secession is unconstitutional, it is necessary to examine Brownson’s four main arguments first.

The circumstances surrounding the secession of the southern states in 1860 stem from a long argument concerning which was superior, the state or federal government. The necessity of government and man’s place in society is self evident according to Brownson who argues, “Hence as man is nowhere found out of society, so nowhere is society found without government.”[1] As such, the question over whether or not man belongs in society and whether or not society requires government is put to rest by Brownson. From the ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle to the Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau the question of the origins of society and government have been argued.

Yet these philosophers do agree on at least a handful of axioms of government and man’s loyalty to government. Brownson sums up the responsibilities of government by stating:

“[Government] defines and protects the right of property, creates and maintains a medium in which religion can exert her supernatural energy, promotes learning, fosters science and art, advances civilization, and contributes as a powerful means to the fulfillment by man of the Divine purpose in his existence.”[2]

These axioms are agreed upon by most political philosophers throughout time, although the specific aim of government may be different. But as long as these are maintained and protected, the individual person in society is obligated to remain loyal to the society and government. As Thomas Hobbes might agree, a duly instituted regime has the authority to do as it pleases. However, if it fails to protect the people it is no longer legitimate. Tyranny is never legitimate. We are required to remain loyal as long as our liberty is secure.[3]

Yet, while the majority of political philosophy agrees that there are certain responsibilities of both society and the citizen, the origins of government differs drastically from one philosopher to the next. The six origins of government according to Brownson include:

Government originates in the right of the father to govern his child.

It originates in convention, and is a social compact.

It originates in the people, who, collectively taken, are sovereign.

Government springs from the spontaneous development of nature.

It derives its right from the immediate and express appointment of God.

From God through the Pope, or visible head of the spiritual society

From God through the people

From God through the natural law[4]

The first of these origins is taken directly from two sources, the first is Aristotle and the second is Sir Robert Filmer. Aristotle’s argument, stemming from book one of the Politics, demonstrates that the origins of society and government come from the family. Aristotle argues that because people wish to mimic the gods, they favor monarchy as their choice of government with the family ruled by the father, the village ruled by the eldest male, and the city ruled by the king. While Aristotle admits that other forms of government do exist, and may in fact be more desirable than monarchy, people will still naturally yearn for monarchy. This argument is also connected to Divine Right of Kings set forth most completely by Sir Robert Filmer.  Sir Robert Filmer, in his Patriarcha, makes an argument in favor of Divine Right monarchy stemming first from Adam’s sovereignty over his children. Brownson, however, disagrees both with Aristotle and Filmer by rejecting monarchy in favor for republican government. . “The distinctive mark of republicanism is the substitution of the state for the personal chief, and public authority for personal or private right.”[5] Governments based on the principle of fatherhood are despotic. Republicanism is the true government because the rulers rule for and on behalf of the state. Rulers who are proprietors of the land are not rulers. Aristotle is most famous for putting forth the argument that government stems from the family, is critiqued with the moderns who reject paternal rule. One must rule for the sake of the commonwealth.

Following the classical understanding, Brownson critiques the modern understanding of government as being a social compact. “The state, as defined by the elder Adams, is held to be a voluntary association of individuals. Individuals create civil society, and may uncreate it whenever they judge it advisable.” Brownson rejects the concept that society can be established and abolished at will and calls America out, “Prior to the Southern Rebellion, nearly every American asserted with Lafayette, ‘the sacred right of insurrection’ or revolution…”[6] However, sovereignty cannot be relinquished, neither by a state/nation nor by a person. The Enlightenment holds that people are sovereign in a state of nature and that they give up part of that sovereignty when they enter society. “But individuals cannot give up what they have not, and no individual has in himself the right to govern another.” Modern political philosophers suppose a state of nature, which supposes a social contract. Brownson rejects the social contract because man cannot willingly forfeit his rights and because man is bound into society. Furthermore, men in nature fail to be able to acquire the knowledge necessary to create a civil society.

While there are still four other origins of government according to political philosophy, the first two are the most important for the United States. The United States was born out of the modern understanding of government, the only enlightened government. The United States, as a result, was an independent nation and a republic before it declared independence from England. Brownson’s arguments against the ancient and modern assertion of the origins of government indicate that the United States as a society had to exist prior to the revolution. However, the question is not whether there is a United States but whether it formed as a collection of sovereign, independent nations or whether it formed as a single whole. The same principle applies to the society as it does to the individual: a sovereign society cannot give up its sovereignty. If this is the case, then the several states never gave up their sovereignty and the United States as a single entity never existed. Brownson argues against the individual sovereignty of the states by stating, “The colonies were all erected and endowed with their rights and powers by one and the same national authority, and the colonist were subjects of one and the same national sovereign.”[7]However, if the United States exists as a single entity it would be impossible for the states to be independently sovereign.[8] Thus, if the United States is a society, then the states would be inferior to the federal government. In this instance, the states would not be capable of secession from the Union because they are not sovereign nations in themselves.

The American Constitution, therefore, is the only element left in determining whether or not the southern states had a right to secession in 1861.   As discussed in his chapter on the origins of constitutions, a constitution is not something created, as man is a creature not a creator. Under the auspices of this same argument, the U.S. Constitution is understood by Brownson as, “Two-fold, written and unwritten, the constitution of the people and the constitution of the government.”[9] This unwritten constitution is what Brownson refers to as the Providential constitution. To Brownson, this Providential constitution is not something created but rather comes into existence along side the nation.[10] The American Providential constitution is unique to the United States and never seen elsewhere in the world. Our Constitution is made up of both sovereign and dependent states, and is neither a confederacy nor centralized state.[11] We are still yet one people divided into states but still united. “The Union and the States were born together, are inseparable in their constitution…”[12] The United States Constitution declares the American people as, “We the people of the United States…” And as such, the American people are united together rather than a loose confederacy of sovereign nations with mutual interests.[13]

The origins of the American system and the nature of the American Constitution are seen most clearly through Brownson’s understanding of territorial democracy. The thirteen original colonies that formed together as the United States of America did not exist under their own authority. They were created by the authority of the King of England and joined together as United Colonies under the authority of the Continental Congress. The various states that have come into the Union since the creation of the United States Constitution can only do so under the authority of the United States Congress.[14] The individuals living within a given territory are granted democracy within their given territory, but that territory does not have sovereign authority. Rather, it is subject totally to the United States Congress. The people living in the territory, “are subjects of the United States, without any political rights whatever, and, though a part of the population, are no part of the sovereign people of the United States.”[15] Or more simply put, are not citizens. The people of the territory are given the authority by the United States to, “meet in convention, draw up and adopt a constitution declaring or assuming them to be a State, elect State officers, senators, and representatives in the State legislature, and representatives and senators in Congress, but they are not yet a state.”[16]

Thus, when a territory becomes a State and the people of that territory go from being subjects to citizens of the United States that State only exists by the will and authority of the United States Congress. None of the States exist by themselves with sovereign authority. Brownson demonstrates this time and again as showing that society and government are not created and that the United States is the sovereign and not the individual states. As a result, Secession of the various states in 1861 could not be legally permitted as they had no authority independent of the United States to secede from the Union. From the time the first colonies were settled to when the territories became states, the individual states depended upon an outside authority for their creation. As such, outside the Union they are not states.

[1] Brownson, Orestes. The American Republic. ( Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003) pg. 12

[2] Ibid. 13

[3] “But it is never lawful to resist the rightful sovereign, for it can never be right to resist right, and the rightful sovereign is the constitutional exercise of his power can never be said to abuse it.” Ibid. 17

[4] Ibid 19-20

[5] Ibid. 23

[6] Ibid. 34

[7] Ibid. 136

[8] “If the several States of the Union were severally sovereign states when they met in the convention…” Ibid. 127

[9] Ibid. 141

[10] Ibid. 141, “It is Providential, not made by the nation, but born with it.”

[11] Ibid 141, “The unwritten or Providential constitution of the United States is peculiar…”

[12] Ibid 144

[13] Ibid. 145 “united, not confederate States.”

[14] Ibid. 145 “Even then it was felt that the organization and constitution of a State in the Union could be regularly effected only by the permission of the Congress; and no Territory can, it is well know, regularly organize itself as a State…”

[15] Ibid. 146

[16] Ibid. 146


4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] … as Affecting the Right to Secession Posted on February 2, 2010 by Bill Miller This article by Joe Connole on FederalistPublicola.com The question of Secession was raised immediately after the first Southern states began to leave the […]

  2. What you state here is not political science; it is pseudoscience, pseudo-religious dogma, charlatan logic, and I can assure you that even my theology is more advanced than your political science.

    States that don’t have the power to secede, also don’t have the power to unite. In fact, US states have even seceded from each other within the unholy union throughout US history. The original 13 colonies today actually constitute the full or partial territories of 18 states. There was nothing sacred or static about the integrity of the states themselves that made up the union. For Native Americans, only tribes existed, and the land was everyone’s, and thus it wasn’t even seen as divided in any way.

    The United States itself was maintained, in the end, by the use of force, far more force than was constitutionally or legally permitted, in fact. If this is legitimate, then it is legitimate tyranny, and there is no such thing. Lincoln today would have been treated no different than Milošević. They both were tyrants, and both almost succeeded in committing genocide.

    A father doesn’t have absolute, unquestionable rights over his children, even the right to kill them, as a father had through Roman law. Except for a few things that come from Justinian I, including that legal quantum leap that is called today the Public Trust Doctrine, Roman law is fundamentally primitive and more barbaric than the Huns, and in fact the same law is still used today to spuriously justify priesthoods made of men only. The Roman Catholic Church would have you believe that it was Christ that wanted a male-only priesthood, when in fact it was (pagan) Roman law which excluded women from holding any public responsibility, and Christ himself said to give to Caesar that which belonged to Caesar (man’s law), and to God that which belonged to God (God’s law), clearly stating that the two had nothing in common with each other.

    The reason why nature itself is in more or less in a state of equilibrium, is because the holistic and the atomistic forces, the syntropy and the entropy, even religion and science balance each other.

    Also, government does not define or protect the right of property. Government in fact does the very opposite all the time today by taxation that is almost never in the general public’s best interest; by creating debt with entities that should not exercise any sovereignty upon a nation’s currency (and banks do, and they even have the license to make money out of thin air, but for some strange reason don’t also create the interest in the same manner); by robbing Peter to order to pay Paul (and while Peter is a natural person, Paul isn’t even a natural person in most cases today, but a corporation!); by eminent domain violations; and by violating the Public Trust Doctrine and impeding the Homestead Principle through supernational entities that have the interests of the citizenry even less at heart than the individual states.

    People like you have never observed that when a person betrays his government he is called a traitor. However, for some strange reason when a government betrays its people, and commits a far greater crime, there is no term in the dictionary that describes that. I say, how convenient for tyrants! I say, how come Webster missed that one?

  3. You’re right; what I posted is not Political Science, it’s Political Philosophy. Wow though, I must admit you are all over the place. Our Constitution does grant the government power to protect against Domestic Insurrection. Not only that but it also grants the President power to take steps to stop it in the event Congress is unable to assemble at the time!

    Lincoln did not attempt to mass execute anyone like any genocidal dictator in history and I beg you to provide proof of your allegations against the President.

    I agree, a Father does not have authority to murder his child. However, that doesn’t relate at all to the issue of Secession. The Catholic Church didn’t up and decide no women Priests, the Orthodox Church doesn’t allow it and neither does Judaism that was in existence at the time of Christ. Islam doesn’t allow for women Priests either. So I don’t quite get where you get your illogical history.

    As for protecting property rights…we consent to taxation by being citizens of this Country. I find it funny how many ignorant people out there complain about something they willingly submit to. If you don’t like it move out! I can promise you that no other country on this planet does a better job than we do at protecting property rights.

    People like you have never observed anything. When a people are betrayed by their government it is called Tyranny! The Declaration of Independence says it all, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” What the South was crying about was the fact that the North refused to support the Federal Fugitive Slave Law by returning slaves to their Southern masters. In fact, in the South Carolina Declaration of Secession it never once mentions that the Federal government was trampling upon their basic rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. They never once say that the Federal Government was preventing States Rights. It only says that they seceded for one basic reason: the North hated slavery.

    I guess a basic history class would be too much to ask for you to take. As for Theology and Politics; ONLY through Political Association can man achieve his true happiness.

  4. Look at the case of South Carolina and Texas at the outset of the Civil War. South Carolina, unprovoked, attacked the Union installation at Ft. Sumter. Texas, after secession, took control of Federal installations and imprisoned those loyal to the Union. My sir, that is Domestic Insurrection.

    As for your understanding of Political Philosophic terms, you are sorely lacking. According to the ancients there was no such thing as a Republic. And most certainly, a Democracy could fold into a Tyranny. According to Plato in his account of regimes in his work Republic, Democracy becomes Tyranny. A democracy is lacking in virtue and prides itself on the equality of it’s citizens. Oddly enough, democracy is also the one regime with the most citizens. If you want, Citizen is defined by Aristotle as one who can share in the rule of the city. The Democrat’s son becomes a Tyrant because his desires are not tempered. A tyrant properly speaking is not a dictator as you propose, but one who rules for their own self interest.

    A dictator by contrast, according to the ancients, was one who ruled for the sake of the city. Men like Cincinnatus. In ancient Rome when the city was under siege the government would go to a virtuous man and ask that he take control over the city to save and protect it. When the threat was over, the dictator would turn over the power back to the people. A dictator properly speaking rules FOR the sake of the city, not for the sake of their own interest.

    Continuing on our journey, you say there is no word for when the Republican government betrays it’s people..it is called Tyranny or Despotic. From the ancients to the Federalists they all understood this very basic concept that seems to escape you. Rome is a great example of what I am talking about. After the defeat of the Tarquin Kings, Rome established a Republican government. For hundreds of years that Republican government ruled over Rome until Julius Caesar, became the fist man to bring his army into the city. He was named Dictator for Life and upon his assassination Rome was ruled by tyrants. You cannot tell me that the Emperors of Rome were not tyrants, that they did not rule for their own self interest. Men like Caligula and Nero were not virtuous men.

    I never said Jesus came to accept religion as usual, nor was he the first feminist. If you are again unsure, look into the past. Romulus and Remus, the brothers who found Rome were saved by a she-wolf. It was a woman who was ultimately responsible for the creation of the Roman Republic: her name was Lucretia. As for Gandhi admiring Jesus, I hate to break the news to you but Gandhi also admired the Nazis as well. Jesus included women, but there was not a woman who was an Apostle. And why are we bringing up sexism? I never claimed Jesus excluded women. I’m simply stating that women have traditionally never been allowed to be Priests..except in ancient Rome and Greeks..opps I proved you wrong again about Jesus being the first feminist.

    Proves what point? You have three choices, over throw the existing government, leave the country or get over it. Secessionists are cry babies, you don’t have the balls to do what the Declaration states is our obligation when government becomes despotic and want to play rebel when you don’t like something. If there are unjust laws, then it means that the regime is unjust. You can’t love certain parts and hate others when it comes to government. If, therefore, you are right then the only solution according to our Declaration of Independence is to throw off such government and to institute new guards for our future security.

    Finally, so you are saying that we should have continued letting slavery exist because the North had no more moral authority than the South to end it? Sure Jesus said, “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” But he also said to the criminal next to him on the cross, who believed he and the other criminal should be crucified, “For you today shall be with me and my Father in Heaven.” The same Bible that teaches us to turn the other cheek and to love our neighbors as ourselves also commands, “For if man sheds the blood of man, than by man let his blood be shed, for man was made in the imagine of God.” Based on your comments, we have no moral authority to do anything because we are all depraved sinners.


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