32. SECESSION. The secession of 11 Southern States of the American Union during the winter and spring of 1860-61 is the most significant fact in American history after the adoption of the Federal Constitution. It was the one great attempt to make of the United States two republics instead of one, and the struggle which it precipitated decided that this could not be and that the Federation of 1787 89 had become a nation.
Whether secession was a reserved right of the original members of the Union is the first inquiry that arises. From the reasoning of the founders of the national Constitution during the decades of fierce political controversy which followed the inauguration of the government one is compelled to believe that such right was considered as still residing with the States, though Madison gives strong grounds for the contrary opinion in the writings of his early as well as his later life. As to whether this right was reserved it should be said that there is to day a marked difference of opinion among his torical scholars. That the States conferred whatever authority the Federal government had and that this central authority was strictly and specifically limited are propositions no longer seriously disputed.
The threat of Virginia and Kentucky in 1798 to prevent the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Laws (q.v.) within their boundaries; the public declaration on the floor of Congress by leaders of New England public opinion in 1807 to 1811 that the commercial States would be justified in seceding from the Union; and the actual meeting of the Hartford Convention in 1814 to consider ways and means of resisting the national authority would all seem to estab lish the point that the right of secession was claimed by each of the two great sections of the Union. These incidents are of further im portance because they occurred within the life time of many of the framers of the Constitution and because many of these "framers" publicly espoused the views thus enunciated.
The Supreme Court of the United States, however, began about 1810 to expound the Con stitution in a spirit of healthy nationalism.
Chief Justice Marshall repeatedly affirmed the doctrine that the central government was that of a nation and that the rights of the States must be subordinated to the requirements of an enlightened national policy. This attitude of the court was vigorously and solemnly opposed by the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1815. In the celebrated lawsuit of Martin v. Hunter's Lessee appeal had been taken to the United States courts by means of a writ of error. Judge Marshall, with the unanimous agreement of his colleagues on the bench, reversed the de cision of the Virginia court and issued a mandamus on the latter to execute the decree of the former. The judges of the Virginia court now entered into a painstaking ex amination of the case and not only declined to honor the mandamus but declared in published opinions that the United States Supreme Court was usurping powers not granted and thereby encroaching on the rights of the States. The policy of the Supreme Court was repudiated and the authority of the State courts even in cases involving the interpretation of treaties with foreign powers was asserted and incident ally the sovereignty of the States was main tained as staunchly as in 1798— the right of a State to judge of infractions of the constitu tions being emphatically reasserted. The right of secession was not advocated in terms, but any one could see that this was only a step fur ther in the process.
During the years 1815 to 1822 the leading men of Virginia, including ex-President Jeffer son, constantly excited public opinion against what they declared to be the dangerous teaching of the national courts. Virginia took the posi tion she had occupied in 1798-99. Madison, however, protested against this later Virginia view, but rather on the grounds of expediency than otherwise. Other States followed the ex ample of Virginia. Clearly then it was not a settled question in 1820 and the aggrieved party, whether North or South claimed rights which, in the last analysis, were equivalent to a with drawal from the general compact.