You’ve no doubt read this claim before. Someone makes the claim that Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island reserved a right to secede in their ratification of the US Constitution. A look at the ratifications of each of those states shows clearly such a claim is baseless.
Let’s take Virginia: “Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will”
Clearly they refer to “the People of the United States,” not “the People of Virginia.”
Let’s consider the wording of this ratification. It reminds us of the words of Edmund Pendleton in the Virginia Ratification Convention on 5 June 1788: “There is no quarrel between government and liberty; the former is the shield and protector of the latter. The war is between government and licentiousness, faction, turbulence, and other violations of the rules of society, to preserve liberty. Where is the cause of alarm? We, the people, possessing all power, form a government, such as we think will secure happiness: and suppose, in adopting this plan, we should be mistaken in the end; where is the cause of alarm on that quarter? In the same plan we point out an easy and quiet method of reforming what may be found amiss. No, but, say gentlemen, we have put the introduction of that method in the hands of our servants, who will interrupt it from motives of self-interest. What then? We will resist, did my friend say? conveying an idea of force. Who shall dare to resist the people? No, we will assemble in Convention; wholly recall our delegated powers, or reform them so as to prevent such abuse; and punish those servants who have perverted powers, designed for our happiness, to their own emolument. We ought to be extremely cautious not to be drawn into dispute with regular government, by faction and turbulence, its natural enemies. Here, then, sir, there is no cause of alarm on this side; but on the other side, rejecting of government, and dissolving of the Union, produce confusion and despotism.
“But an objection is made to the form: the expression, We, the people, is thought improper. Permit me to ask the gentleman who made this objection, who but the people can delegate powers? Who but the people have a right to form government? The expression is a common one, and a favorite one with me. The representatives of the people, by their authority, is a mode wholly inessential. If the objection be, that the Union ought to be not of the people, but of the state governments, then I think the choice of the former very happy and proper. What have the state governments to do with it? Were they to determine, the people would not, in that case, be the judges upon what terms it was adopted.” [Elliott’s Debates, Vol 3, p. 38]
“In the same plan” means in the Constitution itself. Pendleton was talking about the People of the United States amending the Constitution, which is how the government can be reformed.
Pendleton was responding to Patrick Henry, who was claiming the Constitution would lead to a tyranny:
“If a wrong step be now made, the republic may be lost forever. If this new government will not come up to the expectation of the people, and they shall be disappointed, their liberty will be lost, and tyranny must and will arise. I repeat it again, and I beg gentlemen to consider, that a wrong step, made now, will plunge us into misery, and our republic will be lost.”
I see Pendleton as assuring him that if such happened the people retained the right to change the government, whether it was the constitutional right to change the government through the amendment process or the extra constitutional right of revolution.
Let’s now consider New York: “That the Powers of Government may be reassumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness; that every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the Government thereof, remains to the People of the several States, or to their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same; And that those Clauses in the said Constitution, which declare, that Congress shall not have or exercise certain Powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any Powers not given by the said Constitution; but such Clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified Powers, or as inserted merely for greater Caution.” When they are speaking of the people within states they use the phrase “of the several states.” Since that phrase is absent when they discuss the powers of government being reassumed by “the People,” they are clearly referring to the people of the United States en masse.
Is there any support for this? Yes! During the New York ratification convention, there was a move to propose amendments, and to reserve a right to withdraw from the Union if these amendments were not accepted. Alexander Hamilton wrote to James Madison about this, and Madison replied, “My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate [sic] the ratification. What the New Congress by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able & disposed to do in such case, I do not enquire as I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success & happiness.
“This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started in Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection.” [James Madison to Alexander Hamilton, July 20, 1788]
Notice how Madison says the idea of reserving a right to withdraw was considered and rejected in the Virginia Ratification Convention. The proposal to reserve a right to withdraw was defeated in the New York convention as well.
Now let’s look at Rhode Island: “That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness:- That the rights of the States respectively, to nominate and appoint all State Officers, and every other power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by the said constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the said constitution which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply, that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said constitution, but such clauses are to be construed as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.”
Notice “the powers of government may be reassumed by the people,” and when they wish to specify the people of the states, either individually or in a group, they say, “remain to the people of the several states, or their respective State Governments” and not “remain to the people or their respective State Governments.” Again, clearly when they are speaking of the people within states they use the phrase “of the several states.” Since that phrase is absent, they are talking about the people of the United States en masse.
We can also consult the rulings of Chief Justice John Marshall, who was himself a member of the Virginia Ratification Convention:
“But Georgia cannot be viewed as a single, unconnected, sovereign power, on whose legislature no other restrictions are imposed than may be found in its own constitution. She is a part of a large empire; she is a member of the American union; and that union has a constitution the supremacy of which all acknowledge, and which imposes limits to the legislatures of the several states, which none claim a right to pass.” [Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87, 136]
“In discusing this question, the counsel for the state of Maryland have deemed it of some importance, in the construction of the constitution, to consider that instrument, not as emanating from the people, but as the act of sovereign and independent states. The powers of the general government, it has been said, are delegated by the states, who alone are truly sovereign; and must be exercised in subordination to the states, who alone possess supreme dominion. It would be difficult to sustain this proposition. The convention which framed the constitution was indeed elected by the state legislatures. But the instrument, when it came from their hands, was a mere proposal, without obligations, or pretenses to it. It was reported to the then existing congress of the United States, with a request that it might ‘be submitted to a convention of delegates, chosen in each state by the people thereof, under the recommendation of its legislature, for their assent and ratification.’ this mode of proceeding was adopted; and by the convention, by congress, and by the state legislatures, the instrument was submitted to the people. They acted upon it in the only manner in which they can act savely, effectively and wisely, on such a subject, by assembling in convention. It is true, they assembled in their several states–and where else should they have assembled? No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the states, and of compounding the American people into one common mass. Of consequence, when they act, they act in their states. But the measures they adopt do not, on that account, cease to be the measures of the people themselves, or become the measures of the state governments.
“From these conventions, the constitution derives its whole authority. The government proceeds directly from the people. . . .
The constitution, when thus adopted, was of complete obligation, and bound the state sovereignties.” [McCullough v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 402-404]
“That the United States form, for many, and for most important purposes, a single nation, has not yet been denied. In war, we are one people. In making peace, we are one people. In all commercial regulations, we are one and the same people. . .. America has chosen to be, in many respects, and to many purposes, a nation; and for all these purposes, her government is complete; to all these objects it is competent. The people have declared, that in the exercise of all the powers given for these objects, it is supreme. . . . The constitution and laws of a State, so far as they are repugnant to the constitution and laws of the United States, are absolutely void. These States are constituent parts of the United States. They are members of one great empire.” [Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264, 413-414]
“When these allied sovereigns converted their league into a government, when they converted their Congress of Ambassadors, deputed to deliberate on their common concerns, the whole character in which the States appear, underwent a change.” [Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 187]
None of these rulings is consistent with the idea that any state could have reserved a right to withdraw from the Union.
Very clearly, no state reserved a right to secede from the Union in its ratification.
Once again, to be a neoconfederate, one has to ignore accurate history as well as an accurate reading of the law.