Built on Facts

Most Likely to Seceed

A while back, Texas governor Rick Perry made the news for the following comment:

We got a great Union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it, but if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that.

All things considered it’s a very mild statement, consisting of an allusion, a hypothetical, and two caveats. Nonetheless it’s a pretty stupid thing for a governor to say, especially since he’s facing an uphill reelection battle (to put it gently – he’s probably going to get wiped out) against fellow Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Of course it provoked a firestorm of commentary, which I’ve let blow over before commenting myself. Why? Because I think secession is a fascinating topic in the abstract, and I’d like to discuss it a bit removed from any partisan context. In particular there’s two points to be made:

First, is advocacy of secession treason? Lots of those commenting on Perry seemed to think so, but in fact they were quite mistaken – regardless of the detail that in fact he explicitly said he was not advocating it. But let’s say he did. Treason? In fact the crime of treason is the only crime specifically defined in the constitution. Let’s see what it is:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Mere advocacy is certainly not that. Not if you do it, not if I do it, not if a governor does it, not if anyone does it. In fact there’s a pretty solid tradition of populist-but-unserious secessionist rhetoric all along the political spectrum. Lt. Gov. Howard Dean held local straw polls on Vermont secession, Democratic Hawaiian Sen. Akaka introduced a bill which he says could result in secession. After the 2004 election plenty of people on both sides suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that the red and blue states should go their separate ways. None of that is treason, and it’s an affront to free speech to pretend it is. It’s a free country and it’s absolutely your right to advocate that it be split apart. If anyone conservative or liberal tells you that a mere opinion about secession is illegitimate, they are ignorant at best.

Free speech is probably the most important right we as Americans have. Whatever loathsome opinion a person may have is their right to share. And it’s your right to just as vigorously oppose it.

On to the second point, secession itself. It’s just a dramatic topic because two of the signal events in the American legend are attempts at secession. The first – the colonies from the British – was successful. The second – the Confederacy from the Union – was not. It was shadows of the second that dominated the recent discussion, with fevered arguments about F-15s fighting above Houston, National Guards fighting over the Strategic Petroleum reserve, a federal military with divided loyalty, and all kinds of other hilariously stupid speculations. The entire situation is preposterous on its face. You might as well argue about time-traveling lightsaber-wieding Velociraptors invading Australia.

But in the modern Western world there is the occasional secession, but it’s generally done in a peaceful, civilized way. Not so many years ago Canada almost split into two nations by a simple referendum in Quebec. The post-WWII British Empire dissolved with little violence. Czechoslovakia (though not necessarily Western depending on definition) broke apart in 1993 in an orderly and legal way. In fact if Belgium lasts the decade intact it’ll surprise a lot of people.

In the US the legal situation is more complicated. There’s no pre-existing method of secession written into the US Constitution. As such a state can’t just hold a vote to unilaterally declare independence. But the Constitution is not a static thing; there are procedures in place for changing it. Article 5 sets out several methods by which the constitution can be altered. If enough states were interested (either in leaving or in saying “good riddance” to the restless states), they could assert their Article 5 right to propose a constitutional convention with the authority to amend the constitution. It would take the agreement of 34 states to propose the convention, and once proposed it would take 38 states to ratify the changes proposed by the convention. The amendment could either effect the separation immediately or simply authorize a state to hold its own referendum. It’s secession, it’s legal, and it’s bloodless. If it were ever to happen, that’s how it would probably happen.

All this is of course just theory, which as physics types we’re interested in. The engineering question – will any of this happen? – has a pretty obvious “not a chance” as its answer. No state will walk away from the $10,000,000,000/day fire hose of cash that is the federal government, not as long as that fire hose is spraying. The theory is interesting though.


  1. #1 Uncle Al
    May 9, 2009

    As we say in industry, KISS. Texas need only intercept all locally delivered Federal income tax filings and “hold” them pending resolution of state sucession. The Feds then go after individual de facto delinquent filers. This is interpreted as an act of aggression precipitating a declaration of war to protect El gran reino de Tejas‘ citizens. Texas opens its border to massively recruit Mexican mercenaries… and becomes California. Things get a little murkey beyond that point.

  2. #2 Max Fagin
    May 9, 2009

    “You might as well argue about time-traveling lightsaber-wieding Velociraptors invading Australia.”

    XKCD comic strip anyone?

  3. #3 Bill Walker
    May 10, 2009

    While secession may remain a theory, a convention under Article V is not. All 50 states have applied over 750 times for an Article V Convention. As stated by the author, Congress must call a convention if 34 states apply with 34 applications.

    The texts of the applications can be read at http://www.foavc.org.

  4. #4 Paul Murray
    May 10, 2009

    “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

    By that measure, anyone flying the confederate flag is guilty. The confederacy, after all, is a nation that came into existence to make war on the US.

    As for seccession – by definition you are talking about creating another nation, and (unless all the texans intend to shift to mexico) siezing US territory. An act of war.

  5. #5 CCPhysicist
    May 11, 2009

    Texas actually loses money (based on the standard cash flow analysis people use) to the federal pipeline, so they can afford to give it up. South Carolina, unlike the good old days of the war of rebellion, cannot afford to secede these days.

    However, it’s not entirely clear to me how much Texas benefits from the larger umbrella of the US military vis-a-vis border security. Would they have to defend the border with New Mexico as well as Mexico? Or would it become a Spanish speaking country? How much would they have to pay to take possession of I-10 from the US Government so they can put customs stations at each end? And how much would they lose when that traffic moves through Oklahoma instead?

  6. #6 Matt Springer
    May 11, 2009

    In case you may not have noticed, Paul, the Civil War ended 150 years ago. Flying the Confederate Flag is trashy redneck behavior, but to call it an act of war is so ludicrous as to scarcely warrant a response. Keep in mind that flying a full-blown Nazi flag is not only not war, it’s protected speech.

    As for your latter point, well, I don’t know what to say. We’re talking about the perfectly legal expedient of a constitutional convention. Consider a contract for the sale of a house and see how your argument sounds: “As for sale by contract – by definition you are talking about creating another property, and seizing the seller’s territory. An act of theft.” The mind reels.

  7. #7 ToSeek
    May 12, 2009

    You might as well argue about time-traveling lightsaber-wielding Velociraptors invading Australia.

    I’m now fully expecting to see this as one of Sci-Fi Channel’s original Saturday movies. It can’t be any worse than some of the other stuff they’ve put on.

  8. #8 percy
    May 13, 2009

    So it would only take 38 States to kick California out of the Union? Let’s get working…

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