Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Liberal Right of Secession

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18FVz9hUE02jvU/input 717818PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917717818Political Research QuarterlyWard
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 876 –888
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a
© 2017 University of Utah
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Liberal Right of Secession
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917717818
Lee Ward1
Contemporary political theorists remain divided over (1) whether a right to secede exists, and (2) under what
conditions such a right could be legitimately exercised. This study seeks to shed light on this complex issue by
examining the works of two of the philosophical founders of liberalism: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. I will argue
that while neither Hobbes nor Locke discussed secession directly in terms of the categories political theorists use
today, we can discern important elements of their political teaching that contribute toward the formulation of two
distinct forms of a secession right. In Hobbes’ preservationist and Locke’s institutionalist argument, we find a distinctively
liberal conception of a secession right that can help us frame the parameters of our thinking about secession in the
twenty-first century.
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, secession, democratic theory, constitutionalism
Perhaps one of the most pressing issues in modern political
This article will reexamine these assumptions about
life is secession. Given the dramatic, often violent, impact
the purported silence or dismissive attitude toward the
of secession since the breakup of the Soviet Union,
idea of secession with respect to Thomas Hobbes and
Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s through
John Locke. While the sporadic use of the term secession
to the continuing separatist movements in Chechnya,
in its modern definition “to formally withdraw from an
Quebec, Catalonia, Scotland, and Ukraine, it is not surpris-
alliance, federation or political and religious organiza-
ing that many contemporary political theorists have exam-
tion” dates to the seventeenth century, it was only in the
ined the legal, moral, and philosophical dimensions following century that secession would be used regularly
surrounding the question: when, if ever, does one group in a
to describe phenomena such as opposition members of
recognized state have the right to break away and become
Parliament withdrawing from the House or dissenting
an independent country? Yet, energized theorizing about
groups breaking away from one of the larger Protestant
secession in recent times contrasts with the apparent silence
denominations, such as the “Great Secession” that
about this issue in the long history of political thought. As
occurred in the Presbyterian Church in 1733 (OED Online
Allen Buchanan observes, among the luminaries of the his-
2017). It would be later still, in the nineteenth century,
tory of political philosophy such as “Plato, Hobbes, Locke,
before the use of secession describing an independence
Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Mill,” none of these devoted
movement would acquire purchase in the political imagi-
“any serious attention to secession” (Buchanan 1991, vii).
nation. In Hobbes and Locke’s time, secession in this
In the particular cases of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke,
sense was typically subsumed in the traditional concepts
it is commonly thought that Hobbes’ theory of absolute sov-
of rebellion or revolution (e.g., the province of Zeeland’s
ereignty forbids secession under any circumstances, even as
threatened revolt against the Dutch Republic in the early
many commentators assume that Locke believed member-
1600s or the “Irish Rebellion” of 1641 against England).
ship in a particular society was both voluntary and irrevo-
Arguably, the concept of secession was not an established
cable, and, thus, secession is indefensible (Beran 1984, 22,
feature of premodern thought because a secession “right”
25; Buccheit 1978, 52–54). One commentator goes so far as
is only intelligible in terms of a political vocabulary
to claim that “conscription of natural rights theory and ter-
minology as support for modern separatist movements” is
1University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
“largely illegitimate” (Buccheit 1978, 55). The consensus,
Corresponding Author:
then, appears to be that these classical liberals did not say or
Lee Ward, Department of Political Science, Baylor University, One
think much about secession, but at least they knew they
Bear Place #97276, Waco, TX 76798-7276, USA.
were “agin it.”

created by natural rights thinkers such as Hobbes and
subjects, he also insisted that it is impossible to recognize
Locke, who reduced political association to an agreement
in law because of the logical requirements of absolute
among natural rights-bearing individuals. It is, however,
sovereignty. For his part, Locke developed the theoretical
beyond the scope of this study to demonstrate why the
framework for what I term an institutionalist argument
organic conception of political community in the pre-
for secession that is not simply a conceptual offshoot of
modern natural law tradition was not fruitful ground for
his account of the right of revolution. The major differ-
the development of the idea of secession. Rather, my
ence between a resistance right and a secession right is
focus is to show that the issue of secession is a meaning-
that whereas governments typically do not recognize and
ful, if indirect, concern for early liberals as questions
have a right to put down rebellion, Locke adumbrates a
about the extent and limits of resistance to political
secession right that can conceivably produce an obliga-
authority are embedded into the logic of their ideas about
tion on the part of the government to recognize it as the
natural rights and consent.
basis for negotiation or constitutional amendment leading
Admittedly, this exercise is somewhat speculative
to separation. For Locke, secession is a theoretical possi-
inasmuch as I am not proposing a reconstruction or expli-
bility embedded in the logic of constitutional government
cation of theories that Hobbes and Locke explicitly held.
inasmuch as the solubility of the social compact allows
I am not seeking to elaborate Hobbes and Locke’s theory
for the creation of new, independent communities as the
of secession per se, but rather to shed light on a liberal
institutional expression of a distinct group’s right of self-
approach to the question of secession that has its roots
government, and even national self-determination. I will
and receives inspiration from Hobbes and Locke, but nec-
offer some reflections upon how both Hobbes and
essarily goes beyond what these authors themselves held.
Locke—generally thought to be arch-individualists—
Clearly, while Hobbes and Locke are seminal thinkers in
understood the formation of national or group identity
the creation of the liberal idea of government, there have
presupposed by a secession right. If the basic argument of
been important developments in liberal constitutional
this paper is correct, then it perhaps requires us to recon-
theory and practice over the past three centuries, such as
sider the traditional criticism that liberalism is not con-
the introduction of written constitutions with formal
cerned with or sensitive to claims of group rights
amendment processes, universal suffrage, bills or char-
(Buchanan 1991, xiv).
ters of rights, and independent judiciaries with power of
constitutional review. These developments have more
Liberal Secession Theories
direct bearing on the contemporary debate about seces-
sion than seventeenth-century English thinkers because
It is remarkable that prior to Buchanan’s 1991 ground-
these institutions embody the political reality to which a
breaking study Secession: The Morality of Political
right of secession would pertain in modern liberal democ-
Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec, there
racies. But to the extent that the very existence of a seces-
was no comprehensive treatment of the philosophical
sion right is still debated among theorists who identify
issues surrounding the vexing question about whether
themselves as liberals and early liberal thought is some-
there is a right to secede. As Buchanan himself observed,
times cited as evidence against a secession right, not to
secession would seem prima facie to be the kind of phe-
mention the fact that there is nowhere near universal
nomenon that liberal political theorists would be attracted,
agreement about the nature of this presumed right even
even compelled, to reflect upon a great deal insofar as
among theorists who do recognize it, then returning to
liberalism has long been associated both with a robust
seminal thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke is an impor-
conception of justified opposition to political authority
tant exercise for understanding the contemporary debate
and claims to the right of self-government (Buchanan
about secession in light of our own assumptions about
1991, 4).
liberal constitutionalism.
One reason for the reluctance of political theorists to
I will argue that both Hobbes and Locke limned the
consider a right of secession was undoubtedly the enor-
features of a secession right. In Hobbes, we find what I
mous impact of the American Civil War. The most impor-...

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