Thomas Jefferson’s position on secession was complex. In the late 1790s and early 1800s, he thought it was probably an ill advised move, but by the end of his life Jefferson watched with fear as the nationalists had complete taken over the government and had politicized issues that for years had been left to the States.
At that point, secession seemed a viable remedy to the the problem of hostile sectionalism.
But one member of the Republican faction, John Taylor of Caroline, saw early that secession may have been the only way to preserve liberty in North America.
Taylor had been approached by Rufus King and Oliver Ellsworth in 1794 about the prospects of New England secession. Taylor was shocked. The United States Constitution was only five years old and here were two New Englanders suggesting that the document be scrapped and the Union dissolved.
Yet by 1798, Taylor changed his tune. He could now almost see no other remedy to check New England sectionalism–disguised as nationalism–then by secession or a complete overhaul of the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment needed teeth.
Jefferson and Taylor exchanged two interesting letters on the subject in June 1798, just five months before Virginia and Kentucky asserted their sovereignty to block the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.
These are two of the more important letters of the period, for they show that “think locally, act locally” was a founding principle and that nationalism was the antithesis of the original Constitution.
This was the compact fact of the Union.
Jefferson presented an optimistic view of the future, thinking that in time people would vote better as they suffered under the heel of Massachusetts. Taylor disagreed and argued that if they wanted a future for republicans then they needed more republicans to set the standard, not petty nationalists bent on sectional domination. Better to leave than to see liberty destroyed by a hostile culture and people.
That is real federalism, the kind that sealed the deal for ratification and that ensured the Union would be maintained in 1788.
Taylor’s conclusion offers a depressing warning for the future, one that could have been written in 2019:
“But since government is geting into the habit of peeping into private letters, and is manufacturing a law, which may even make it criminal to pray to God for better times, I shall be careful not to repeat so dangerous a liberty.—I hope it may not be criminal to add a suplication for an individual—not—for I will be cautious—as a republican, but as a man.”
Who were the real Jacobins in 1798? Certainly not the Republicans.
I discuss the letters in Episode 266 of The Brion McClanahan Show.
Don’t forget, time is quickly running out to pick up any of these deals on my McClanahan Academy courses. When the clock strikes 11:55 PM tomorrow night, they disappear like a ghost on Halloween.