“What was James Madison’s view on secession? I read some of his letters and he states that a state cannot secede at will but only by consent of the union or by intolerable abuses. Does the (Constitution) support the idea that a state can secede at will in light of the ‘Father of the Constitution’s’ words?”

The Response

From the 1780s on, Madison’s chief concern was that the Union of the states be preserved. He, more than many of his contemporaries, viewed the Union as essential to maintaining order, happiness and prosperity. Thus, when he spoke or wrote of secession, or even nullification, he often did so with great concern that the states not be disunited. This is critical to understanding his position on these issues, because he was at points willing to compromise on principle in order to maintain the Union.

With that said Madison, in his advocacy for ratification of the Constitution and later in his objection to Alexander Hamilton’s Bank Bill, stated that understanding the Constitution required reliance on what the states understood it to mean when they ratified it. This is interesting because Madison’s home state of Virginia stated that the powers that the states delegated “may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” New York and Rhode Island expressed similar sentiment. So, the ratification convention which Madison participated in clearly expressed its right to secession, and Madison repeatedly affirmed this understanding of the Constitution.

In general, we can’t rely on what one person said about the Constitution or the rights that the states have since individuals have a tendency to be – or at least appear to be – inconsistent. This is true even of James Madison. Madison was right that we need to rely on what the states understood the Constitution to mean when they ratified it, and they certainly did not understand it to mean that they were committing themselves to be endlessly subservient to the national government.

We also would do well to pay attention to Madison’s view that nullification would render secession unnecessary. The states have it perfectly within their power to enjoy the benefits of the Union while keeping the federal government confined to its constitutional boundaries.

For more on Madison’s views of the Constitution, we highly recommend Kevin Gutzman’s James Madison and the Making of America, available in the TAC store.