Did the Southern states have the right to secede from the Union?

Originally posted on August 20, 2011 by Shennan Hutton

The current political debate about the powers of the states versus the power of the federal government often centers around the idea of “big (federal) government” usurping the powers and responsibilities of state governments in areas like education, regulation of industry, taxes, etc. Much can (and is) said on both sides of this issue, and those who argue often use historical examples to support their position. Since the constitution splits ruling power between the federal government and the states, debates over the proper sphere of each are likely to continue as long as our government lasts.

Those who use historical examples do not always pause to explain the historical context. Although the debate over the powers of the states and the federal government has existed from the earliest days of our nation, the historical context and the exact terms of that debate have undergone massive changes over the course of our history. Although no one seriously argues today that the states have the right to nullify federal laws or secede from the Union, these were serious constitutional debates in the mid-nineteenth century. The debate over secession was not settled in court, but by war.

How can teachers get across to students these huge historical concepts? We can explain the differences between the issue of states’ rights in the Civil War era and the issue of states’ rights today, referring to the constitutional issues, and asking kids memorize the names, dates and decisions of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, the Nullification Crisis, the Kansas-Nebraska act, etc. This is a hard sell to most 8th-graders. However, having students analyze the question, “Did the Southern states have the right to secede from the Union?” can breathe a little life into the old debates, and help kids understand historical context.

A lesson developed by the Blueprint Civil War teacher leaders Angela La Torre (of Mount Diablo Unified School District) and Kristi Peckham (of Orange Unified School District) makes it possible for all 8th-graders, even those who are English learners or struggling readers, to analyze the constitutional debate over secession. The students analyze short passages from the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, using the sentence deconstruction strategy developed by Mary Schleppegrell of the University of Michigan. This strategy helps them unpack and comprehend the dense legal sentences, so that they can gather evidence to make an interpretation in answer to the lesson question. After reading and analyzing the passages, the students write out their findings. A highly structured form helps students with this difficult task.

Click here for a small part of the lesson: Secession Primary Sources Writing Activity