Was the American Revolution Secessionist?
By DANIEL MCCARTHY
A few people may be a little unclear about the argument of my last post on secession as a principle of liberty (or not, as I argue). Its inspiration was the fact that it seemed curious for Americans to long for Scottish secession when the Scots themselves had voted against it. Whatever was being expressed was not sympathy for the Scottish people, so what was it? The answer was a general case for secession as an inherently good thing, in radical libertarian theory, because it leads to smaller states, and maybe no states. I pointed out various problems with this notion, which seems to have greater emotional force than reasoning behind it.
Obviously there are cases in which secession or political breakup—we’ll get to the difference in a minute—can be good things. In the case of Czechoslovakia, division came peacefully and fulfilled a democratic-nationalistic wish on the part of the constituent peoples to govern their own affairs separately. The relationship between such democratic-nationalistic motives and the individual liberty that is dear to U.S. libertarians is complex, but it looks as if there are cases where the former doesn’t harm the latter and may even advance it. That does not mean the two things are always compatible, however, and nationalism—including of the Scottish variety—very often involves policies abhorrent to the advocates of free markets.
Ironically or not, criticizing a general enthusiasm for secessionism elicits a certain amount of patriotic ire from some individualists who play the American Revolution as their trump card. Is the argument that secessionism is generally good because the American Revolution was good, or is it that the American Revolution was good because secessionism generally is? There’s a difference here between constitutionalist libertarians, who take the former position, and radical libertarians, who take the latter. But in any case, both are wrong: questions of political union or breakup depend upon the particulars. The American Revolution didn’t derive its legitimacy from radical libertarian arguments about anti-statist secession, and the revolution doesn’t tell us anything about the merits of other breakaway movements.
The American Revolution itself is a very complicated thing and doesn’t in all senses belong in the category of secession. The Declaration of Independence, for example, decribes the break from Britain in terms of a revolution in which an already separate people deposes its monarch and severs its ties with his government in another country. This is framed rather as if the relationship between the American colonies and Britain were akin to the relationship between Scotland and England before theAct of Union. Before that, Scotland and England had a single monarch but separate parliaments and governments—they were, constitutionally speaking, separate countries with a joint head of state. The American colonies had sound grounds for considering themselves a parallel example: they too had their own legislatures, even though they shared a king with the United Kingdom.
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