The Perpetual Union is a feature of the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union, which established the United States of America as a national entity. Under American constitutional law, this concept means that states are not permitted to withdraw from the Union.
The concept of a Union of the American States originated gradually during the 1770s as the independence struggle unfolded. In his First Inaugural Address on Monday March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stated:
"The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was to form a more perfect Union."
A significant step was taken on June 12, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress approved the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, following a similar approval to draft the Declaration of Independence on June 11. The purpose of the former document was not only to define the relationship among the new states but also to stipulate the permanent nature of the new union. Accordingly, Article XIII states that the Union "shall be perpetual". While the process to ratify the Articles began in 1777, the Union only became a legal entity in 1781 when all states had ratified the agreement. The Second Continental Congress approved the Articles for ratification by the sovereign States on November 15, 1777, which occurred during the period from July 1778 to March 1781.
The 13th ratification by Maryland was delayed for several years due to conflict of interest with some other states, including the western land claims of Virginia. After Virginia passed a law on January 2, 1781 relinquishing the claims, the path forward was cleared. On February 2, 1781, the Maryland state legislature in Annapolis passed the Act to ratify and on March 1, 1781 the Maryland delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia formally signed the agreement. Maryland's final ratification of the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union established the requisite unanimous consent for the legal creation of the United States of America.
The concept of a perpetual union appeared earlier in European political thought. In 1532, François the 1st signed the Treaty of Perpetual Union (fr. Traité d'Union Perpétuelle), which pledged the freedom and privileges of Brittany within the kingdom of France. In 1713, Charles de Saint-Pierre presented a plan “A project for settling an everlasting peace in Europe,” where in it is stated in Article 1
"There shall be from this day following a Society, a permanent and perpetual Union, between the Sovereigns subscribed."
By itself the word perpetual appears much earlier in the history of political thought. In January 44 B.C., Denarii coins were struck with the image of Julius Caesar and the Latin inscription "Caesar Dic(tator in) Perpetuo".
From the start the Union has carried with it importance in the national affairs. There was a sense of urgency in completing the legal Union during the American Revolutionary War. Maryland’s ratification act stated, “[I]t hath been said that the common enemy is encouraged by this State not acceding to the Confederation, to hope that the union of the sister states may be dissolved” The nature of the Union was hotly debated during a period lasting from the 1830s through the American Civil War. During the Civil War, the United States was called "the Union", which could be seen as highlighting what it was fighting for.
When the United States Constitution replaced the Articles, nothing in it specifically stated that the Union is perpetual. Even after the Civil War, which had been fought by the North to prevent the South from leaving the Union, some still questioned whether any such inviolability survived after the Constitution replaced the Articles. This uncertainty also stems from the fact that the Constitution, technically an amendment of the perpetual Articles, was not ratified unanimously before going into effect, as required by the Articles (two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had not ratified and remained outside the Union when George Washington was sworn in as the first President). The United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue in the 1869 Texas v. White case. In that case, the court ruled that the drafters intended the perpetuity of the Union to survive:
|“||By [the Articles of Confederation], the Union was solemnly declared to "be perpetual." And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained "to form a more perfect Union." It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?||”|
Conveniently, this language from the court was after the Civil War, not prior. Nowhere in the Constitution can language be found that empowers the federal government to coerce States to remain in the Union, or force military action upon other States. During the ratification of the Constitution, ratifications by New York, Virginia and Rhode Island included language that reserved the right of those States to exit the federal system if they felt "harmed" by the arrangement. In Virginia's ratification, authored in part by none other than James Madison, the reservation is stated thus; "the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression... " New York and Rhode Island had similar language. This explains why any mention of "perpetual" was omitted from formal documents. The Constitution was not an amendment to the Articles of Confederation, and these reservations by these States proves any such notion is false and any assumed "perpetual" condition is in conflict with the documents of the day.
- "Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861". AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History. Retrieved 2009-10-27.
- "History of Brittany". Retrieved 2009-11-03.
- Chris Brown,Terry Nardin and Nicholas J. Rengger, eds. (2002). International relations in political thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the 1st World War. Cambridge University Press.
- "Caesars coins". Retrieved 2011-06-13.
- Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 70, folio 453 and No. 9, History of the Confederation
- 74 U.S. 700 (1869)