The Question of Secession

I haven’t written in a while, breaking my promise at the beginning of the semester to try to write once per week.  My 1000-level class is taking up all of my free time.  Go figure.

Anyway, I was doing research today on the Appomattox Court House and its historical and economic significance when I came across a blog that caught my attention.  Quickly, the Appomattox Court House in rural Virginia was the site of the final major Civil War battle and the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Grant’s Union troops.  The war ended soon after that.  Anyway, the blog post I found suggested that because of the aftermath (meaning, apparently, our current political situation) of the war, the North won the war but effectively surrendered the larger cultural fight to the South.  The writer then goes on to claim that the original Confederacy (and a few like-minded states) should now be kicked out of the Union for various cultural and economic reasons, including the fact that they consume more federal dollars than they contribute.

His conclusion is entirely too extreme, but I don’t quite disagree with the premise.  Obviously, a good portion of the South never recovered from losing the Civil War.  Their slave-based economy was decimated… and rightfully so.  They had very little industry to fall back on… and it serves them right for their purposeful lack of development.  But I can’t completely blame them for their over-reliance on slavery and cotton.  They were only chasing the extremely lucrative market that England and the North demanded.  The North was definitely complicit in the institution of slavery.  If they were so against it, why did they keep supporting the cotton that solidified the institution?

Right or wrong (okay, they were definitely in the wrong), the South has resented ever since being forced to stay in a Union that did not share their values, and every so often, when they feel particularly defensive, a few of them threaten to secede again.  Remember Texas after the Obamacare fight?  The natural reaction is to say, “How ridiculous!  The Union should always endure.”  I’m not so sure that’s true.

I don’t think we should force them out.  That would not portend well for either side, but I do think we should simply let them go if they want to go.  Call their bluff, if they are bluffing, or say “good luck” if they are serious.  Maybe it’s an experiment we should try.  What would happen if Texas actually left the Union?  Would it spell doom to either side?  How about a less prosperous state such as Mississippi, or a group of states roughly equivalent to the Confederacy?

Jane Jacobs wrote a book in 1980 called The Question of Separatism to analyze the results of what might happen if Quebec seceded from Canada (something many Quebecans desire).  She thought that both sides might be better off: Canada because its governance and economic feedback system would be smaller; and Quebec because it would be forced to figure out how to survive on its own.  Remember, secession does not automatically make the two parties enemies, thus cutting economic ties.  The United States seceded violently from Britain, but they remained our largest trading partner.  If Britain had allowed us to secede peacefully, our economies would arguably have been even better tied together, without occasional blockades and such during and after the war.

So, by that logic, if the South were to be allowed to peacefully secede today, perhaps both would be better off, at least economically, and likely politically, too.  There would likely be less cultural division within each new nation.  Northern tax dollars would no longer be needed to support the most backward portions of the South that never recovered, and those backward areas may, in the absence of that support, actually have more incentives to either develop or relocate once and for all.  Perhaps the South could recover and become a legitimate industrial nation of its own if they weren’t so dependent on the support of the North.  The two sides (especially the South) would have no logical reason to discontinue trade, and trade would soon normalize political relations between the two former rivals.  And, bigger picture, I think the economies of both nations would function better because of the less widespread feedback mechanisms.

It would be an interesting experiment.  It may work, and it may not.  I don’t presume to know what’s best in this regard, but I don’t think we should dismiss it automatically because it would be regressive to go from 50 states to 40 or 35.  Maybe, in the end, it would be progressive for everyone involved.