Ben Stein’s recent article at The American Spectator, Secession Is for Morons, is unsurprisingly critical of California’s recent surge toward independence. Stein’s main argument is an old, tired formula: trot out the failure of the Southern Confederacy over 150 years ago and pretend it has something – anything, really – to do with the question of secession today. The article appears to be thrown together rather hastily as well, for it contains this strange paragraph:
The amazing thing is that there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding secession. Plus, there has never been a Supreme Court case saying secession is illegal. Look for it. Go ahead. You won’t find it.
The first sentence is absolutely true – secession was and is perfectly legal. Stein deserves a lot of credit for honesty here, since there is no shortage of hacks claiming the opposite when arguing against secession.
However, the second sentence is demonstrably false. In Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not unilaterally secede, and that the secession ordinances were “absolutely null.” Now, it’s important to note that this ruling does not settle the issue in the least. Not even the Supreme Court believes its own rulings are final, because the Court has reversed itself many, many times. The point is, Stein threw down the gauntlet and a total nobody picked it up without even using Google. Wasn’t this guy a Yale Law School valedictorian? “Yes California”, the organization pushing for an independence referendum, even cites the case, which means that Stein didn’t really do his homework before deciding to weigh in.
Perhaps Stein would reply that this ruling does not preclude the possibility of separation by constitutional amendment or other act of consent by the States, and therefore does not make secession illegal per se, only unilateral secession. If so, that would seem to indicate even greater confusion and ignorance on his part.
Stein clearly worries that California’s secession risks civil war, and cites the relevant historical precedent. But there is no risk of war if the other States consent to California’s independence.
The first seven of the eleven Confederate States to enact secession did so unilaterally, over a period of three months in 1860 and 1861. The other four – Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas – also left unilaterally, but only after Lincoln had announced an invasion of the South would take place. Without the prospect of Federal invasion, these four states would have remained in the Union and there would have been no war.
In other words, it makes zero sense to attribute the horrors of the Civil War to the acts of secession – even unilateral secession. But it makes less than zero sense to insinuate the possibility of war over a state seceding with the consent of the other States, as “Yes California” is proposing.
Ben Stein asks rhetorically, of California’s current situation:
Obviously, there is no issue on the table remotely as morally compelling as ending slavery…What is even remotely worth even the possibility of fighting another civil war?
And that’s just the point. Ben Stein himself recognizes that such a conflict would be moronic. What is astonishing is that he doesn’t seem to grasp that secession – even unilaterally – is not a sufficient condition for civil war.
Ben Stein is big on history. But history based on rote memorization of ideological talking points is no substitute for critical thinking.