Secession, the withdrawal of a state from the American Union, first appeared as an impulse rather than an articulated constitutional doctrine. Inchoate secessionist movements agitated the southwestern frontier after the
signing of JAY ' STREATY (1794). AARON BURR'S alleged conspiracy was linked to them. Massachusetts Federalists who were disgruntled about the rising political power of the South and the western territories between 1803 and 1814 contemplated secession in correspondence among themselves. Before the CIVIL WAR, Garrisonian abolitionists developed doctrines of disunion, calling for both individual disallegiance and the withdrawal of the free states from a union with the slave states. Southern political leaders, uneasy about the spread of abolitionist and Free Soil sentiment in the north, occasionally voiced threats of secession.
JOHN C. CALHOUN developed the theoretical framework for secession, though ironically, he did so in order to avoid secession through the alternatives of INTERPOSITION and NULLIFICATION. Drawing on the thought of earlier STATES ' RIGHTS ideologues such as JOHN TAYLOR of Caroline, JOHN RANDOLPH, and THOMAS COOPER, as well as the concepts of state sovereignty and the Union broached in the VIRGINIA AND KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS of 1798?1799, Calhoun insisted that SOVEREIGNTY in America resided not in the nation but severally in the people of each of the states. The states created the national government, giving it only limited, specific, and delegated powers. The national government was thus the agent or the trustee for the people of the states, and the federal Constitution was merely a "compact" among sovereign states. If the national government abused its delegated powers by unconstitutional legislation or executive acts, the states could interpose their authority between the federal government and their people and could nullify federal legislation within their territory. But if enough other states ratified an amendment to the federal Constitution that authorized the nullified act, then the states had only the option of submitting to or withdrawing from the Union.
After the election of ABRAHAM LINCOLN in 1860, South Carolina radicals induced the legislature to call a convention to consider secession. The convention voted unanimously for secession, and in the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes [of] Secession" (1860) they asserted that the free states had violated the constitutional...