How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution

I’m deeply grateful to Timothy Sandefur for causing me to change my mind about the constitutionality of secession. I used to believe that secession is permissible under the Constitution, and that the forcible suppression of an attempt to secede doesn’t negate the right to secede (see this and this, for example). I still believe that secession is permissible, but for a wholly different reason, to which I’ll come in due course.

My story begins with a post at Sandefur’s blog, Freespace, in which he writes:

[I] once believed that secession was legally justified. I thought slavery was evil, of course; that much is obvious. But I had read the Kentucky Resolutions, and that persuaded me that the Constitution is basically a treaty among sovereign states, who retain the right to leave the union if they want. It’s like a club, right? If you’re in a club, and you decide to leave the club, you should be free to go—even if you choose to do that for an immoral reason, right?

Then I started delving into these issues. I read The Federalist Papers, particularly number 15. I read Lincoln’s July 4, 1861, address to Congress. I read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I read Calhoun’s speeches and Douglass’ speeches and the Webster-Hayne debate. I read John Marshall’s decisions. I read Madison, and especially the debate between Madison and Henry at Richmond. And I read the arguments of other scholars—Jaffa, McCoy, Banning, Amar, Farber. These things changed my mind. Turns out it’s not a club. And it turns out slavery can’t be considered a separate question. (“P.S.: A word to my libertarian friends who think secession is constitutional,” Freespace, January 28, 2014)

The last link in the quoted text points to a piece by Sandefur that appeared in Reason Papers several years ago: “How Libertarians Ought to Think about the U.S. Civil War” (Vol. 28, Spring 2006, pp. 61-83). There, Sandefur quotes several writers who had a hand in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution (James Madison, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall), and says this:

These sources reveal how well understood was the central fact that the Constitution was a government of the whole people of the United States, not a league or treaty of states in their corporate capacities, as the compact theory would have it. Contrary to Calhoun’s later claim that “the States, when they formed and ratified the Constitution, were distinct, independent, and sovereign communities,”30 the reality is that, in Marshall’s words, federal sovereignty

proceeds directly from the people; is ‘ordained and established’ in the name of the people. . . . It required not the affirmance, and could not be negatived, by the State governments. The constitution, when thus adopted, was of complete obligation, and bound the State sovereignties. . . . The government of the Union, then . . . is, emphatically, and truly, a government of the people. In form and in substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit . . . . [T]he government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action.31

… The federal government is directly vested with sovereignty of the whole people of the United States. Secession is not, therefore, like a person who chooses to cancel his membership in a club—because the states are not in the “club” to begin with. Only “We the People” are members of the federal club, and only the “people” which created it can change it, by altering the contours of that “people” through amendment, or a new Constitutional Convention. So, while the whole people may allow a state out of the union, or may even dissolve the Constitution entirely, a state cannot claim on its own the authority to withdraw from the union. Lincoln put it with dry understatement when he noted that advocates of secession were “not partial to that power which made the Constitution, and speaks from the preamble, calling itself ‘We, the People.’”33

These sources reveal that in 1787, both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists recognized that the U. S. Constitution was just that—a constitution for a nation, not a league of sovereign states. And, if these sources are not enough, as Akhil Reed Amar points out, “no major proponent of the Constitution sought to win over states’ rightists by conceding that states could unilaterally nullify or secede in the event of perceived national abuses. The Federalists’ silence is especially impressive because such a concession might have dramatically improved the document’s ratification prospects in several states.”34 “[I]f a more explicit guard against misconstruction was not provided,” wrote Madison in 1831, “it is explained . . . by the entire absence of apprehension that it could be necessary.”35 …

… We have seen that the nature of federal sovereignty under the Constitution makes unilateral secession illegal. Since the Constitution is a law binding the People, and not a league of states, states have no authority to intervene between the people and the national government. If the people of a state wish to leave the union, they may not do so unilaterally, but must obtain the agreement of their fellow citizens—or they must rebel in a legitimate act of revolution. (pp. 70-74, emphasis added)

There’s more, but the quoted passages seem to cover the main points of Sandefur’s case against the constitutionality of secession.

It’s my understanding that the Constitution — if it is law — is not just law, but positive law: “statutory man-made law, as compared to ‘natural law’ which is purportedly based on universally accepted moral principles.” Sandefur’s rejection of secession as a contravention of the Constitution therefore strikes me as odd, inasmuch as Sandefur disdains legal positivism. (Just search his site, and you’ll see.)

This led me to the possibility that the Constitution isn’t “real” law, but just a legal mechanism through which state actors can impose their will on citizens. For enlightenment, I turned to Lysander Spooner, whose The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1860) is cited in Sandefur’s paper (p. 63). Why would an anarchist and believer in natural law, as Spooner was, care a whit about the authority of the Constitution? After all, Spooner’s No Treason (1867) opens with this:

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children. It is not only plainly impossible, in the nature of things, that they could bind their posterity, but they did not even attempt to bind them. That is to say, the instrument does not purport to be an agreement between any body but “the people” then existing; nor does it, either expressly or impliedly, assert any right, power, or disposition, on their part, to bind anybody but themselves. Let us see. Its language is:

We, the people of the United States (that is, the people then existing in the United States), in order to form a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It is plain, in the first place, that this language, as an agreement, purports to be only what it at most really was, viz., a contract between the people then existing; and, of necessity, binding, as a contract, only upon those then existing. In the second place, the language neither expresses nor implies that they had any right or power, to bind their “posterity” to live under it. It does not say that their “posterity” will, shall, or must live under it. It only says, in effect, that their hopes and motives in adopting it were that it might prove useful to their posterity, as well as to themselves, by promoting their union, safety, tranquillity, liberty, etc.

Note well Spooner’s description of the Constitution as a contract (i.e., a compact) — entered into by certain persons at a certain time, for certain purposes. This suggests a possibility not entertained in Sandefur’s Reason Papers essay, namely, that the Constitution is neither a compact between States (as sovereign entities) nor a law adopted by “the people,” but a contract entered into by a fraction of the populace that became binding on the whole populace through state power.

I’ll return to that possibility after I explain how Spooner could defer to the very Constitution that he clearly disdained. The answer is found in Chapter II of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery:

Taking it for granted that it has now been shown that no rule of civil conduct, that is inconsistent with the natural rights of men, can be rightfully established by government, or consequently be made obligatory as law, either upon the people, or upon judicial tribunals—let us now proceed to test the legality of slavery by those written constitutions of government, which judicial tribunals actually recognize as authoritative.

In making this examination, however, I shall not insist upon the principle of the preceding chapter, that there can be no law contrary to natural right; but shall admit, for the sake of the argument, that there may be such laws. I shall only claim that in the interpretation of all statutes and constitutions, the ordinary legal rules of interpretation be observed. The most important of these rules, and the one to which it will be necessary constantly to refer, is the one that all language must be construed “strictly” in favor of natural right. The rule is laid down by the Supreme Court of the United States in these words, to wit:

“Where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, where the general system of the laws is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects.” [United States vs. Fisher, 2 Cranch, 390.]

It will probably appear from this examination of the written constitutions, that slavery neither has, nor ever had any constitutional existence in this country; that it has always been a mere abuse, sustained, in the first instance, merely by the common consent of the strongest party, without any law on the subject, and, in the second place, by a few unconstitutional enactments, made in defiance of the plainest provisions of their fundamental law.

Translation: The Constitution is a fact. State actors have the power to enforce it. The text of the Constitution doesn’t authorize slavery. Slavery is against natural law. Therefore, it accords with natural law to enforce the Constitution against slavery.

What is natural law? Here’s Spooner, writing in Chapter I of the Unconstitutionality of Slavery:

The true and general meaning of it, is that natural, permanent, unalterable principle, which governs any particular thing or class of things. The principle is strictly a natural one; and the term applies to every natural principle, whether mental, moral or physical. Thus we speak of the laws of mind; meaning thereby those natural, universal and necessary principles, according to which mind acts, or by which it is governed. We speak too of the moral law; which is merely an universal principle of moral obligation, that arises out of the nature of men, and their relations to each other, and to other things—and is consequently as unalterable as the nature of men. And it is solely because it is unalterable in its nature, and universal in its application, that it is denominated law. If it were changeable, partial or arbitrary, it would be no law. Thus we speak of physical laws; of the laws, for instance, that govern the solar system; of the laws of motion, the laws of gravitation, the laws of light, &c., &c.—Also the laws that govern the vegetable and animal kingdoms, in all their various departments: among which laws may be named, for example, the one that like produces like. Unless the operation of this principle were uniform, universal and necessary, it would be no law.

Law, then, applied to any object or thing whatever, signifies a natural, unalterable, universal principle, governing such object or thing. Any rule, not existing in the nature of things, or that is not permanent, universal and inflexible in its application, is no law, according to any correct definition of the term law.

What, then, is that natural, universal, impartial and inflexible principle, which, under all circumstances, necessarily fixes, determines, defines and governs the civil rights of men? Those rights of person, property, &c., which one human being has, as against other human beings?

I shall define it to be simply the rule, principle, obligation or requirement of natural justice.

This rule, principle, obligation or requirement of natural justice, has its origin in the natural rights of individuals, results necessarily from them, keeps them ever in view as its end and purpose, secures their enjoyment, and forbids their violation. It also secures all those acquisitions of property, privilege and claim, which men have a natural right to make by labor and contract.

Such is the true meaning of the term law, as applied to the civil rights of men.

Spooner goes on and on, but never defines natural law concretely. Natural law, like natural rights, arises from human coexistence, and does not precede it. But Spooner — like most theorists who address natural law and natural rights — treats them as if they were eternal, free-standing Platonic ideals or mysterious essences. Those less inclined to mysticism, like Sandefur, strive vainly to find natural rights in the workings of human evolution. (Aside: Sandefur and I have gone several rounds on the issue of natural rights: here, here, here, here, and here; see also this.)

If there is any kind of natural law, it is the Golden Rule:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed in the preceding post) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

Is this a recipe for chaotic moral relativism? No. Later, in the post just quoted, I note that there’s a common, cross-national, cross-cultural, and cross-religious interpretation of the Golden Rule which comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

What does all of this mean for secession? Here it is, from the beginning and by the numbers:

1. The Constitution was a contract, but not a contract between “the people.” It was a contract drawn by a small fraction of the populace of twelve States, and put into effect by a small fraction of the populace of nine States. Its purpose, in good part, was to promote the interests of many of the Framers, who cloaked those interests in the glowing rhetoric of the Preamble (“We the People,” etc.). The other four of the original thirteen States could have remained beyond the reach of the Constitution, and would have done so but for the ratifying acts of small fractions of their populations. (With the exception of Texas, formerly a sovereign republic, States later admitted weren’t independent entities, but were carved out of territory controlled by the government of the United States. Figuratively, they were admitted to the union at the point of a gun.)

2. Despite their status as “representatives of the people,” the various fractions of the populace that drafted and ratified the Constitituion had no moral authority to bind all of their peers, and certainly no moral authority to bind future generations. (Representative government is simply an alternative to other types of top-down governance, such as an absolute monarchy or a police state, not a substitute for spontaneous order. At the most, a minimal, “night watchman” state is required for the emergence and preservation of beneficial spontaneous order, wherein social norms enforce the tenets of the Golden Rule.)

3. The Constitution was and is binding only in the way that a debt to a gangster who demands “protection money” is binding. It was and is binding because state actors have the power to enforce it, as they see fit to interpret it. (One need look no further than the very early dispute between Hamilton and Madison about the meaning of the General Welfare Clause for a relevant and crucial example of interpretative differences.)

4. The Constitution contains provisions that can be and sometimes have been applied to advance liberty. But such applications have depended on the aims and whims of those then in positions of power.

5. It is convenient to appeal to the Constitution in the cause of liberty, as Spooner did, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Constitution was not and never will be a law enacted by “the people” of the United States or any State thereof.

6. Any person and any government in the United States may therefore, in principle, reject the statutes, executive orders, and judicial holdings of the United States government (or any government) as non-binding.

7. Secession is one legitimate form of rejection, though the preceding discussion clearly implies that secession by a State government is morally binding only on those who assent to the act of secession.

8. An  act of secession may be put down — through legal process or force of arms — but that doesn’t alter the (limited) legitimacy of the act.

9. Given the preceding, any act of secession is no less legitimate than was the adoption of the Constitution.

10. The legitimacy of an act of secession isn’t colored by its proximate cause, whether that cause is a desire to preserve slavery, or to escape oppressive taxation and regulation by the central government, or to live in a civil society that is governed by the Golden Rule. The proximate cause must be evaluated on its own merits, or lack thereof.

I close by quoting from an earlier post of mine:

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms [the civilizing products of spontaneous order]. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt….

Having been subjected to a superficially benign form of slavery by our central government, we must look to civil society and civil disobedience for morally legitimate law….

When government fails to protect civil society — and especially when government destroys it — civil disobedience is in order. If civil disobedience fails, more drastic measures are called for:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup. (Thomas Sowell, writing at National Review Online, May 1, 2007)

In Jefferson’s version,

when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.

The Constitution may be a legal fiction, but — as I’ve said — it’s a useful fiction when its promises of liberty can be redeemed.

That’s how this libertarian (conservative) thinks about the Constitution.