Let’s Talk About Secession

By Danielle Jones ‘18

Texit and Calexit—catchy names that have been trending lately over states deciding they don’t want to be a part of the United States. Secession movements are not unique to today. The most famous act of secession involved the eleven states that would form the Confederate States of America, but even at the founding of the United States there were rumors that some states were going to secede and the country would become four different regional confederacies.

The legality of secession has been debated since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When the United States was still under the Articles of Confederation, there were rumors that the United States would break up into multiple confederacies that could govern with more sovereignty than Congress could under the Articles. The move from the Articles to the Constitution was hotly debated. Some, like Judge St. George Tucker in 1803, argued that abandoning the Articles was the same as seceding from them. Therefore, according to Tucker, there was legal precedent for future secession.

“Secession Exploded,” an anti-secession political cartoon from a Unionist newspaper published in 1861. Via Library of Congress.
“Secession Exploded,” an anti-secession political cartoon from a Unionist newspaper published in 1861. Via Library of Congress.

In 1832, the Nullification Crisis that erupted over federal tariffs revamped discussions of secession, with men like President Andrew Jackson stating that “such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation, and any injury to that unity is … an offense to the whole union.” Three decades later, the legality of the Confederate States of America’s secession was hotly debated. The South saw their secession as a revolution, while the United States saw it as illegal. Even during the Civil War, parts of the Confederacy attempted to secede from the newly seceded Confederacy. The Free State of Jones was a county in Mississippi that successfully drove out Confederate troops through guerilla warfare and declared itself as part of the Union.

Debates had been going on for one hundred years, but in 1869, the United States Supreme Court arguably put this issue to rest, declaring in Texas v. White that:

“When Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation except through revolution or through consent of the States.”

This seems like a pretty infallible decision; secession is illegal unless you start a revolution or get permission from ‘the States’. Which brings us now to the 21st century secession movements. Following the reelection of President Barack Obama in 2012, a petition circulated calling for the State of Texas to secede. It was signed by 125,000 people. The Obama White House promised that any petition that got more than 25,000 signatures in 30 days would be looked at. Fortunately—or unfortunately depending on which side you were on—the White House rejected the petition on the grounds that secession is illegal.

More recently, #Calexit began trending on Twitter hours after Donald Trump was elected president. Many people turned towards the Supreme Court ruling and argued there was a way for California to leave the United States; as a matter of fact, it’s up for a vote in 2019. The problem lies in the interpretation of this ruling. As stated before, states can legally leave only if they stage a revolution or if they obtain permission from the States. The capitalization here is important. Many Calexit supporters argue that all they need is the state to decide that it wants to leave and it can. They ignore that ‘the States’ is plural, figuring that this phrase just refers to the singular state that is looking to leave. However, if you look back at history you’ll remember that when eleven states voted to leave, war erupted with the rest of the Union. Therefore, California can’t just vote on leaving the United States. It’s up to the United States as a whole to decide if a state could leave. Whether that requires a 50-state agreement or a two-thirds majority like a Constitutional Amendment has yet to be determined because no one has tried it yet. If California voters choose to secede, it will be up to the United States government to decide whether it will even respond to Calexit in 2019.

Of course, if California or the Pacific Northwest as a whole really wanted to leave, revolution is the other option. Thankfully no one has floated a Californian Revolution. Yet.


Ferling, John E. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Grant, Richard. “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.’” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2016.

Jackson, Andrew. “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina.” Library of Congress. December 10, 1832.

Robinson, Melia. “Californians Are Calling for a ‘Calexit’ From the US—Here’s How a Secession Could Work.” Business Insider. November 9, 2016.

Naesh, Ashitha. “Calexit: California want to leave the US after Donald Trump’s election win.Metro. November 9, 2016.

Robinson, Melia. “Californians are calling for a ‘Calexit’ from the US — here’s how a secession could work.Business Insider. November 9, 2016.

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