The Perpetual Union: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many important political debates in American history, but the nature of the perpetual union is amongst the most serious. In this lesson, we'll examine this concept and see what it's meant across US history.

The Perpetual Union

Indivisible. That's what the United States is supposed to be: one nation, indivisible. While that's a nice sentiment, it doesn't actually mean that the nation should never divide. Legally, it can't. It's not allowed. The concept that the states are forever bonded to the Constitution is known as the theory of perpetual union. Basically, we are unified, perpetually. It seems like a pretty straightforward concept, but is it?

The Articles of Confederation

In 1776, the 13 colonies came together, agreed to leave the British Empire, and declared their independence. There was just one problem. In the Declaration of Independence, they identified themselves as 'united States of America', with a lower-case ''u''. So were they 13 different states, or were they one united nation? It was unclear, even to many of them.

Soon, however, the Americans knew that this issued needed to be resolved. To fight the war, they had to create a single government that could lead them all as one nation. So, in 1777 they drafted a document called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This document was essentially the first constitution of the new nation, which created a government and gave it the authority to rule, based on the consent of the governed.

The Articles of Confederation defined the concept of perpetual union
Articles of Confederation

The name of this document is important. The USA was a confederation (a collection of states), now formally described as being in perpetual union. What's that mean? Article XIII says that every state recognizes Congress as their legitimate government and that this document ''shall be inviolably observed… and that the Union shall be perpetual.'' There it is, right there. The Union, the nation of conjoined states, shall be perpetual. It cannot be undone.

The Constitution

After the Revolution, the United States tried to act like an established country, but the government created by the Articles of Confederation was too weak. So, they tossed it out and made a new one. The new government was outlined in the United States Constitution, drafted in 1787. So, how does the Constitution begin?

'' We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…''

Again, there's that concept of the Union. However, the Constitution never once uses the word, ''perpetual''. Why not? Most legal historians agree that the concept of the Union was understood to be implicitly perpetual by this time. Still, the omission left room for people to question that assumption.

Testing the Union

Over time, the concept of a perpetual union, in which states cannot legally leave without the consent of the other states, became assumed. However, the nation was dividing along economic, social, and ideological lines in the mid-19th century, and these tensions finally snapped in 1861. South Carolina seceded from the Union, and others followed suit.

At this point, the concept of the perpetual union became pretty important as politicians in Washington D.C. scrambled to figure out if the Southern states actually had the legal right to secede. Lincoln's assertion, which he voiced in his inaugural address, was that the Constitution guaranteed a perpetual union. Therefore, the South could not legally secede and Lincoln did not have to recognize the Confederate States of America as a sovereign nation. This meant that the South was not its own country, and Lincoln did not have to ask Congress for a declaration of war against them. Instead, he had the authority, and the obligation, to send the military into the South in order to uphold the Constitution, which it was his legal duty to do.

Lincoln reasserted the concept of perpetual union during his inauguration
Lincolns Inauguration

Can you see why this was such an important question? If the Union was not legally perpetual, the South could secede and Lincoln would have to respect their secession and status as a foreign nation. The Civil War would become a war of conquest, the imperial invasion of another country, which the US would have to morally justify to the world.

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