Confederate Emancipation? Part 3: Did Thomas Jefferson Support Secession?

Did Thomas Jefferson favor secession? Would he have supported the Confederacy?

On the surface, it appears so. Donald Livingston offers his readers this quote from Jefferson: “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’” Added to this, one of Jefferson’s many biographers, historian Joseph Ellis, has said that “Jefferson would have gone with the Confederacy.”

As I read Livingston’s article on “Confederate Emancipation Without War,” and his use of the Jefferson quote above as supporting secession, I was reminded of an excellent article published in the Journal of Southern History in 2008 by Brian Steele, “Thomas Jefferson, Coercion, and the Limits of Harmonious Union.” This is now a chapter in his recent book on Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (2012). Steele has a much different assessment than Livingston, and I thought it worth noting here (all quotes and page #’s are from the Journal of Southern History piece, as I have not finished Steele’s book yet).

“Jefferson’s response to them [what Steele calls “crises of union during his own lifetime”], as well as his conception of union generally, suggests a different conclusion than the standard view: Jefferson believed that the executive had the duty to enforce the law throughout the Union and that the Union had a natural right to coerce seceding states and force them back into the fold” (page 825).

His support for his revisionist view? Below is a sample of Jefferson’s words in italics. For the rest, please read the entire article (or, I would assume, Steele’s book).

1. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions “did not advocate – or even broach – secession, and there were substantial qualitative differences between them and the later claims made by some New England Federalists and South Carolina nullifiers” (page 825). UPDATED: 9/4/2014 3:58 p.m. These are Steele’s words, not Jefferson’s. My apologies to my readers.

2. On the Articles of Confederation: “There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shews its teeth. The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. I am persuaded all of them would rejoice to see every one obliged to furnish its contributions [taxes] . . . . Every national citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion” (page 829)

3. On James Madison comparing Jefferson and the South Carolina nullifiers: “Madison cited these letters of Jefferson to reject asserted connections between Jefferson’s views and South Carolina nullification. Madison marveled at ‘how closely the nullifier who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them’” (page 830).

4. On “executive prerogative to preserve the nation”: “[S]elf-preservation is paramount to all law,” he told a correspondent in 1808. “There are extreme cases where the laws become inadequate even to their own preservation” (page 846).

5. Jefferson on secession’s evils: “if on a temporary superiority of the one party, the other is to resort to a scission of the union, no federal government can ever exist. if to rid ourselves of the present rule of Massachusetts & Connecticut, we break the union, will the evil stop there? suppose the N. England states alone cut off, will our natures be changed? are we not men still to the South of that, & with all the passions of men? immediately we shall see a Pennsylvania & a Virginia party arise in the residuary confederacy, and the public mind will be distracted with the same party spirit, what a game too will the one party have in their hands by eternally threatening the other that unless they do so & so, they will join their Northern neighbors. if we reduce our Union to Virginia & N. Carolina, immediately the conflict will be established between the representatives of these two states, and they will end by breaking into their simple units. . . . who can say what would be the evils of a scission and when & where they would end” (page 832-833)?

Regarding the quote Livingston cites about New England secession cited at the beginning of this post, Steele says that “Throughout the War of 1812, Jefferson repeatedly discussed the possibility that Massachusetts would secede from the Union. He often dismissed such worries because he considered secession so quixotic or preposterous” (page 850).

Steele’s conclusion is a masterpiece, and one that all Americans, but especially Livingston and the readers of his piece in the Confederate Veteran should read – and ponder:

“This admittedly brief and tentative examination of Jefferson’s response to several crises of union suggests that he was willing to enforce federal law in the face of opposition by state and local authorities, that he believed the Union was empowered to coerce a seceding state, and that he claimed executive prerogative in cases of national self-preservation or even of national interest. This was hardly James Buchanan’s position in 1860 and appears much closer to Lincoln’s. None of this is meant to imply that Jefferson and Lincoln embraced similar theories of Union. They did not. It is meant to suggest that our reflexive assumption that Jefferson’s approach to disunion would have approximated Buchanan’s or even of the fire-eaters needs careful reconsideration. The argument here should not be misread as a contrary assertion that Jefferson would not have ‘gone with the Confederacy’ but seen rather as a call for historians to reconsider our reflexive tendency to assume this counterfactual.”



2 thoughts on “Confederate Emancipation? Part 3: Did Thomas Jefferson Support Secession?

  1. Thomas Jefferson authored the very document that seceded the thirteen colonies from the British Empire. In this document, the right of a people to “alter or abolish” a tyrannical government is stated. Abolishing a government is a much harsher rememdy than seceding from it. It is hard to imagine then that Jefferson did not view separation from tyranny as a viable remedy. The American Revolution was not a revolution per se, either in the Lockean or Jacobin tradition, but was instead a secession. Jefferson himself was one of the first to use the term ‘secession’ in its American political sense, when in 1825 he described the colonists as having seceded from Great Britain in 1776. Jefferson was a leader of that secessionist movement. It becomes then a spectacular absurdity to hold that Jefferson did not view secession as a rememdy of an oppressed state. Such belief would be tantamount to admitting the illegitimacy of the American nation. There are numerous quotes from Jefferson letters and other documents in which the ultimate remedy of an offended state is in fact separation from the union. Additionally there are quotes from him that clearly indicate that he believed that a state could never be forcefully coerced to remain in the union. That is quite different from coercion for example, to collect legitimate taxes. Anyone who wishes to arrive at a conclusion regarding Jefferson’s beliefs may nit-pick his letters to support their own ideas. But to assert that Jefferson did not support secession is simply an indefensible, if wholly ridiculous assertion.

    • I don’t see that you have addressed the issues (or quotes) I raised in the post. Jefferson and the framers themselves understood what they were doing in 1776 as a revolution and they knew the risk they were taking at that time. Also, You mention so many quotes from Jefferson, but provide not a single one (as opposed to my post). I would suggest reading Steele’s book, not to mention my own. And, thank you for the comment!

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