The Jeffersonian Secessionist Tradition
By Thomas DiLorenzo
July 5, 2014
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Nov 13, 1787
Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s July 4, 1776 Declaration of Secession from the British empire, was a lifelong advocate of both the voluntary union of the free, independent, and sovereign states, and of the right of secession. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1801, “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.”
In a January 29, 1804 letter to Dr. Joseph priestly, who had ask Jefferson his opinion of the New England secession movement that was gaining momentum, he wrote: “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern . . . and did I now foresee a separation at some future day,, yet should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family . . .” Jefferson offered the same opinion to John C. Breckenridge on August 12 1803 when New Englanders were threatening secession after the Louisiana purchase. If there were a “separation,” he wrote, “God bless them both & keep them in the union if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.”
Everyone understood that the union of the states was voluntary and that, as Virginia, Rhode Island, and New York stated in their constitutional ratification documents, each state had a right to withdraw from the union at some future date if that union became harmful to its interests. So when New Englanders began plotting secession barely twenty years after the end of the American Revolution, their leader, Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering (who was also George Washington’s secretary of war and secretary of state) stated that “the principles of our Revolution point to the remedy – a separation. That this can be accomplished without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt” (In Henry Adams, editor, Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815, p. 338). The New England plot to secede from the union culminated in the Hartford Secession Convention of 1814, where they ultimately decided to remain in the union and to try to dominate it politically instead. (They of course succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, beginning in April of 1865 up to the present day).