"From a legal perspective, I am having a tough time seeing the difference between the secession of the colonies in the American Revolution and the secession of the southern states from the union."
So let's take a closer look...
In the case of the colonists in 1776, you have a class of British subjects living in North America, who are denied the right to elect represents to the legislative body which enacts the laws to which they are subject. They are totally disenfranchised. Add in the fact that in the run-up to Lexington & Concord, the colonists have been subject to, among other things, collective punishments which disregard the question of individual innocence or guilt.
The citizens of South Carolinia & Company can make no claim that they were disenfranchised. Nor can they claim that the representatives that they elected at the Federal level have been denied legislative due process. Thus, there can be no claim that they have been the victims of a breech of the constitutional contract. The most that can be claimed is that they are dissatisfied with the results of certain votes duly arrived at in accordance with wholly constitutional procedures which they voluntarily themselves ratified.
Now, bear in mind that in the Just War tradition, the right to rebel is based upon the right of self-defense against the unjust exercise of unlimited power. Based upon the underlying factual differences between the two cases, the colonists CAN legitimately invoke the right to rebel. South Carolinia & Company CANNOT. They simply don't have the same level of complaints. Moreover, they're also on problemmatic Just War grounds with regard to the requirement for just cause given the announced purpose of preserving the institution of slavery stated in several of their secession ordinances. In essence, the recourse to war cannot be held to be legitimate if its purpose is to effect an unjust objective. That alone would be sufficient to render SC's stated case for any right to defend its secession by force on just war terms a complete non-starter.
What SC & Company could have done legitimately at its lesser level of grievance was to PETITION the other states for a negotiated dissolution of the union. One can always seek to negotiate one's way out of a contract by persuading the other parties to the contract to grant a release. The critical point is that the original contract must be acknowledged as still in effect and legally binding until a negotiated release is agreed. This would have been a lawful means of secession. What you can't do lawfully is to declare a contract dissolved UNILATERALLY. If you do that, the other parties to the contract are within their rights to seek remedies against you. In essence, this is what happened.
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