Dubiousness of Treason

Daniel Kuehn comments on the topic of secession,

It’s not that I think secession is un-American. It’s thoroughly American. But it’s also traitorous and unconstitutional.

There’s irony in the belief that secession from the United States is “thoroughly American,” since the entire purpose is to cease being American in favor of forming a, or sometimes joining another, community. I’m being facetious, to an extent, since what “being American” means in this case is adhering to a certain culture, defined here by the acceptance of the belief in the individual’s right to self-determination. But, this takes me to my more serious criticism of Daniel’s position.

Treason can exist in many forms, and secession ought not be one of them. At least, if we define secession as an act of treason, therefore implying that seceding American colonists committed treason against Great Britain, we should admit that defining secession as treason is not a good argument against it. If we believe that individuals should have a right to self-determination (a means of emancipating the individual from the State), then they have the right to commit treason in the event that they no longer wish to form part of a given political community. Understandably, this makes the word “treason” less loaded than what it connotes, in turn a good argument for not throwing around terms like “treason.”

As far as the “unconstitutional” argument goes, it’s worth considering that American secession from the British Empire also violated the latter’s political legal code. No less, the American constitution was meant to embody certain ideals, which, as I’ve already mentioned a number of times in this post, includes the notion of the right to self-determination. To me, it seems erroneous to argue that exercising a right that’s considered integral to the United States, and represented by the constitution, is a violation of that constitution. Of course, even if it were unconstitutional, I’m not sure it’s a valid argument (there are countries where secession is unconstitutional, which includes Spain).

14 thoughts on “Dubiousness of Treason

  1. Daniel Kuehn

    re: “There’s irony in the belief that secession from the United States is “thoroughly American,” since the entire purpose is to cease being American in favor of forming a, or sometimes joining another, community.”

    Careful not to confuse nations with states!

  2. Isaac Marmolejo

    Jon, where is the right to ‘self-determination’? Reading The Federalist Papers, which serve as the main set of papers in defending the Constitution and the meanings of certain passages, I can only see that the Constitution was formed to provide for a more unified government than that offered in the Articles of Confederation.

      1. Isaac Marmolejo

        Even if that was the case, given that the Constitution was written to essentially strengthen central government power , where in it, or in its implied power, grants us the right to self determination?

        1. JCatalan

          For one, the fact that states are largely autonomous (including things like “nullification”), except for the powers explicitly reserved for the Federal government. The Constitution wasn’t meant to impose a Federal dictatorship on the states; even if it was meant to strengthen the Federal government, that doesn’t imply that the Constitution was meant to limit individual autonomy. If anything, the Constitution is meant to limit Federal powers.

          Edit: To be clear, I’m not saying that secession is, without a doubt, constitutional. I hoped that paragraph conveyed a degree of ambiguity, where the point is that the U.S. was founded on the right to self-determination and the Constitution embodies these principles that justify U.S. independence from Great Britain. It’s a document separate from independence, but it represents the same enlightened approach to government. (This is especially true if we think of of Americans as having a social contract with the Federal government.)

          1. Isaac Marmolejo


            I am not sure how loosely you mean to use the term dictatorship but the Constitution does grant the government to enforce the laws given in the republic. Article 27 of the Federalist Papers goes into this issue but concludes that force may be needed to enforce these laws because the Constitution serves as the supreme law of the land.

            Furthermore, I do not agree that self determination embodied the Constitution. The main principle embodied when writing and defending the Constitution was the fact that without a vigor government, the Union was bound to crumble. This is why in paper 1, it is written that a vigor government is essential to liberty.

          2. JCatalan

            That a strong government is essential to liberty isn’t mutually exclusive to the right to self-determination. That there are provisions that cede to the states the majority of the decision-making, I think, is ample evidence that there is still a recognition that decision-making goes beyond the State. Like I wrote in my previous comment, any government that basis itself on the idea of a “social contract” recognizes, to some extent, the right to self-determination. Whether the constitution has been used to justify acts that contract the right to self-determination is something else entirely; the same goes for intentions behind the Constitution that didn’t exist in alternative documents.

          3. Isaac Marmolejo


            In part, your first sentence is right but this still doesn’t dent the fact that the result of the Constitution came from the fear that “self determination” threatened the preservation of the Union.

            I admit it is some sort of a paradox for the US to claim that they can justly succeed from Britain but its States cannot succeed from it, but it should also be noted that if self determination is practiced in the US, the preservation of the Union will no doubt be destroyed, which totally defeats the purpose of the Constitution, which is probably why Daniel has no problem in using force to crumble rebellion of this sort

          4. JCatalan

            I guess it depends on how strictly you interpret the Constitution. But, one could also make the case that adding to, or taking away from, the Constitution defeats the purpose of the original. That is, if you can change it, then it makes the original less relevant. But, few scholars would disagree with the ability to do so (except literalists). It seems to me to be a matter of degrees and taste.

            Edit: Also, you obviously know more than me about the intentions behind the Constitution. I don’t mean to argue with you on those points, and I appreciate the comments because I’m learning from them. I’m coming more from a general political philosophy perspective.

          5. Isaac Marmolejo


            if you are interested, my last blog post covers implied powers and how Madison at the time of writing the Constitution, meant for it to have implied powers, and defends it on Article 44 of the Fedralist Papers. So I don’t personally think that “adding on” to the Constitution necessarily defeats the purpose of the original.


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