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.