Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Revolution and Secession


Winter 2002


"The Unreal Lincoln"

Ken Masugi

National Review, Vol. 54, No. 19 (October 14, 2002), pp. 6163


Tom DiLorenzo is well able to look out for himself, but one comment in Ken Masugi's review of his book on Lincoln merits our attention. Masugi, a disciple of Harry Jaffa, whose worship of Lincoln has no limits, naturally reacts to DiLorenzo's skeptical view of King Abraham I with outrage. In the course of his assault, he claims that DiLorenzo has made a basic mistake in political theory: "DiLorenzo maintains that the Declaration of Independence . . . was merely concerned with the independence of the several states, and that the states could therefore withdraw their consent to be governed under the 1787 Constitution. . . . But DiLorenzo is proposing a logical absurdity. Secession is the same as revolution, as secessionists must admit when pressed, and therefore no legal right of secession can exist" (p. 62).


It is not DiLorenzo but his critic who here falls into confusion. A constitution that recognized a right of armed rebellion against the government it established would indeed be strange. As Ludwig von Mises puts the point: "[A victorious revolution] can never enact a legal 'right to resist oppression.' Such an impunity granted to people venturing armed resistance to the armed forces of the government is tantamount to anarchy and incompatible with any mode of government" (Human Action, Scholar's Edition, p. 284 n.).


As usual, Mises is right: no state can recognize a right to revolt against itself, since a state, by definition, claims a legal monopoly of force. If advocates of secession contended for a legal right to revolt, their claim could not stand.1 Masugi's error is precisely to impute this claim to them. DiLorenzo, as a secessionist in good standing, contends that the Constitution left states free to leave the union. In what way is this a claim that those under the jurisdiction of a state have the legal right to take up arms against it? Rather, it is analogous to the right of signatories of a treaty of alliance to abandon their association.

Masugi will no doubt say that we have ignored the essential issue. Suppose a state does withdraw from the union. Will not the efforts of the central government to compel it to return inevitably result in violence? If so, do we not arrive at just the situation that Mises contends is absurd?


Not at all. The claim that legal secession reduces to an absurd legal right of revolution begs the question. If, as secessionists contend, a state may leave the union, then the central government has no right to stop it. No armed conflict results unless the central government acts ultra vires.


Masugi of course is free to deny that the United States was a voluntary union of the sort just sketched. But if it was, then the secessionists must be acquitted of the charge of absurdity that Masugi brings against them. Masugi, like his mentor Jaffa, is so much a nationalist that he cannot grasp alternatives to his position.


1 It of course does not follow from this definitional point that we ought to establish or support a state.


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