An astute and active reader of my blog should recognize and ponder the enigma of my selective support of separatist movements. It is fair to ask whether my particular stance on the right of revolution (or secession) depends purely on my own perspective or whether there is a genuine criterion upon which my conditional support of separatist regimes is based. I am at least mildly surprised that my writings on Somaliland and the Civil War have never prompted this precise question on what my grounds for supporting or opposing separatist regimes are, but as it is a worthy question on historiographical grounds, I thought it fair to answer anyway in case anyone is curious to know.
I don’t particularly like the word secession. I am of the belief, like Abraham Lincoln, that secession is a word that seeks to sugarcoat the reality of rebellion and to make it more palatable to those who consider themselves to be law-abiding citizens, to get them to do what they would not do if it were honestly and starkly named. In reality, no genuine nation has a constitutional right of secession for any of its parts. Only the most fragile of confederations give their constituent parts this “right”, because they are not genuine nations to begin with. On the other hand, even the most tightly connected nations have sectional cleavages on account of religion or language or culture or history or economics, and so the threat of revolution is never entirely absent from a nation either.
So, what is so special about the right of revolution? For one, it represents a tradition both biblical and historical (especially Chinese, it must be admitted) where people can resist both anarchy and tyranny (or an oscillation between the two) by making an appeal to heaven and strengthening their own efforts to be rid of an intolerable situation, where their illegitimate government seeks to reduce them to some state of slavery. When constitutional efforts (like elections) have proven useless, and when negotiations have been pursued and are fruitless, the right of revolution is an appeal to heaven to support the side of the oppressed against their oppressors, a trial by ordeal between the military capabilities of the two sides to reach a verdict on the battlefield that will stand for God’s own verdict in the matter, as the arbiter of nations and the enforcer of the legal and moral order of the universe.
What does this mean? It means that there are conditions that must be met before one can legitimately claim the right of revolution. For one, there must be a situation of either anarchy or tyranny to rebel against. For example, in 1776 the American colonies declared their independence from a colonial empire that sought to keep them as dependents unable to internally develop, sought to imprison them in ever-increasing debt to the metropolitan merchants of London, and denied them any representation in the Parliament that decided their taxation and restricted their freedom to purchase and settle property. These proved to be intolerable conditions of tyranny for the American colonists, who then appealed to heaven. The behavior of the imperial Britons met the standard of tyranny.
On the other hand, both Texas and Somaliland can be said to have desired independence from an oscillation of tyranny and anarchy. When Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, it did so after a violent struggle against a brutal dictator who bombed his own restive citizens. This, like America’s revolution, was a revolt against tyranny. In the 20 years since Somaliland declared and successfully won its independence by force of arms, Somalia has fallen into a state of anarchy where there is no legitimate rulership at all, only a pirate cove (Puntland), some sharia courts (Al-Shabab), and an impotent and toothless Transitional Federal Government that makes the American government under the Articles of Confederation to be a mighty and powerful national government. The same is true of Texas, which rebelled against a Mexico that had a revolving door of dictators and weak ‘democratic’ governments, a constant tension between the interests of Mexico City elites and powerful regional governments, and an inability (that continues to this day) to form a coherent national identity and a legitimate government that has an effective monopoly of force within its borders. In such a circumstance of governments that alternate between brutal dictatorships and impotent anarchy, any area (like Texas or Somaliland) that is powerful enough to declare and win its independence has the full right to do so.
So far, so consistent. As we have discussed, the first threshold that must be met for myself for a revolution to be acceptable is that the conditions of tyranny or anarchy that are rebelled against must be felt as intolerable. But the tyranny or anarchy itself must be objective. This is where the Confederate States of America fails to meet a just standard. There was not a single tyrannical act that the Confederate States of America could point to in the Lincoln administration when they succeeded. Seven states “succeeded” before President Lincoln even took office, merely for the offense of having won a legitimate democratic majority, and the other four followed when it became clear that he would defend the territorial integrity of the United States by military force. Neither of these are remotely tyrannical, as the right of self-defense is an inalienable right of both individuals and institutions, and clearly a nation with a functioning system of voting and the willingness to defend its territory cannot be called anarchial in the least. To make a just appeal to heaven, there must be a just cause to appeal. One can make a just appeal on the cause of a denial of rights, or the imposition of taxes, or theft of property (so long as it is not stolen property). One cannot make a just appeal on the fear of bad things happening at some point in the future, but must wait for actual evil to revolt against. And that evil must be greater than the mere loss of political power, but must include an objectively hostile and tyrannical act. The Confederate States of America could not meet that standard, and so despite my general willingness to grant nations the right of self-determination, that is one revolt I cannot support.
There is a second matter as well that must be addressed. When one has engaged in an appeal to heaven, the righteousness of one’s appeal is decided on the battleground. For example, the United States, Texas, and Somaliland were all successful in their military operations to win independence from the tyrannical regimes that oppressed them. God heard their appeal, steeled their arms, and they won their independence. Their cause was therefore justified by the objective historical results of their revolution. They won the war, therefore their appeal to heaven was granted by God, which means their cause was just. Not perfect, necessarily, but just. Those appeals to heaven that fail as military efforts (the Biafran Civil War in 1967-1970, the cause of the rebels in the American Civil War, the Jewish Wars of 67 and 132 AD, and so on) fail because they were denied by God in heaven for one reason or another. Either the supposed tyranny was not unjust, and may have been a just punishment for national sins, or the people making the appeal did not do a good enough job of steeling their own arms and fighting to win. Either mistake can be fatal in making the appeal to revolution.
Once one loses an appeal to force, one’s case has been heard and denied. It is best for the losers to stop whining and deal with the results. Future repentance may lead to a divine reversal of the decision, as God has the right to reverse His judgment in future appeals. However, a denial of the appeal to revolution means either that those making the appeal had failed to make their efforts strong enough (in which case building a greater coalition is necessary) and/or the cause itself was unjust, which means that a future appeal must be based on a just cause rather than a continuance of existing unjust and selfish appeals. Each of these possibilities could be discussed in far greater detail depending on the specific situation. Sometimes we know precisely why God has rejected an appeal (see Jeremiah, for example, for God’s rejection of the rebellion of Judah against Babylon because it was God’s plan to punish Judah for their sins, and because Judah, even with the help of Egypt, was no match for the Babylonians on the field of battle).
To make an appeal to heaven and declare the right of revolution in the first place implies that one believes that God has the power and the authority to decide historical controversies through the trial by ordeal on the battlefield. It also implies a willingness to accept the verdict of God in the absence of sufficient common ground between the participants in the controversy to come to any sort of fair and just covenant. In addition, to appeal to the right of revolution implies that one has done one’s necessary preparatory work to build a strong enough coalition to win on the field of battle and that one believes and upholds a consistent and just standard of morality by which one has been aggrieved. Throughout the melancholy course of human history it would appear that those causes which make explicit and public those implicit claims do a better job at winning their appeals. Let us therefore learn from the examples provided by history if it becomes our dangerous obligation to declare the right of revolution for oppression that we suffer in our own lives, for the appeal to heaven is fraught with dangerous risks that may last for generations and centuries. It also helps to replace the tyranny or anarchy one rebels against with a more just and moral order in its stead. But that is a subject for another time, perhaps.