I think those of us who love the idea of the republic, natural community, liberty, and proper order need to accept one extremely important fact: the American constitutional republic is most likely gone; the constitution has been dead since at least 1945; and there’s little to no chance of it ever reviving—at least not within our current geographical and political structures.
The theological virtue of hope has not completely left me. As Edmund Burke argued so well, we are never authorized to abandon our country to its fate. As long as a heart still beats, he stated, the possibility of resuscitation exists. There are many, many good and moral folks fighting for a revived constitutional order. And, I want to acknowledge their excellent work. I think of Winston Elliott at The Imaginative Conservative, RJ Pestritto at Hillsdale College, Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame, Mike Church on talk radio, and a number of others.
We can debate when a near fatal blow fell: when Jefferson purchased Louisiana; when Jackson forcibly removed the Cherokees and other tribes from their homelands; when Polk’s army raped Mexico; when Roosevelt concentrated thousands of Japanese Americans into camps; when Nixon lied to Americans about U.S. troops in Cambodia; when Ford forsook our Vietnamese allies; when Bush invaded Iraq; when Obama called in an air blockade of Libya from the beaches of Brazil.
This list of possibilities is far from exhaustive.
For years I’ve defended Abraham Lincoln’s decisions in 1861 and after, always trying to focus on the tragic nobility of the Civil War, and I’ve tried to keep a bit of a distance from the current secessionist crowd, especially those who parade around the Confederate battle flag. I am, after all, a Russian-German from Kansas, and my ancestors arrived well after the Civil War. And yet, something has nagged at me that I’ve not been able to define or clarify. Every time I hear that an individual state—most recently, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas—is trying to defy the federal government, a thrill runs through me.
“Defy, defy, defy,” I think in the depths of my rather cacophonous and admittedly conflicted soul.
Frankly, I find many of the pro-Lincoln scholars about as poor in quality as the anti-Lincoln scholars, each bringing corruption through preconceived, rigid ideological notions to the once sacred realm of scholarship. Each side is so often ridiculous as to demand ostracism or dismissal as simply silly. If they didn’t each hold such powerful positions in the worlds of academia and politics, we could do this with relative ease. But their very power demands we take their arguments seriously. Silliness, therefore, quickly becomes sadness when one realizes the level of scholarly corruption.
I still think Lincoln was right in defending Fort Sumter, a federal fort legally created and owned by the feds since 1816, illegally besieged by South Carolinians in late December 1860. I also find the story of Robert Anderson’s defense of the manmade island one of the most inspirational stories in all of American history. The decision of South Carolina to secede in December 1860 and the decision by several states to follow after was a horrible mistake in almost every way. Challenging a constitutionally-elected president for being. . . well, constitutionally elected is not the best way to go, especially when the man elected is one of the most constitutionally-minded men of his day.
Yes, that’s a lot of constitutionalism and unconstitutionalism.
Without getting into the specifics of the history of the Civil War, suffice it state: 1) slavery finally ended (praise God); 2) nationalism reared its truly nasty head (which also hurt black Americans and, frankly, every non-Anglo-Saxon-Celtic Protestant peoples in the United States); and 3) secession became a synonym of and for racism in the American popular mind.
No matter the cost, the Civil War might well have been worth ending the evils of slavery… but that’s not a debate in which I’m trying to engage here.
Disunion: A Deep American Tradition
In the American tradition, the idea of secession, or, more politely and with less emotional and tainted baggage, disunion, runs very deep.
It’s worth re-examining this tradition. For the purposes of this post, a few thoughts and quotes might suffice.
States as well as the Second Continental Congress declared themselves sovereign in the summer of 1776 by seceding from the British empire. After a long and bloody war of disunion, Britain eventually accepted American independence, presuming the republican experiment would fail.
Real sovereignty, though, now resided with the individual states, as realized in the Declaration of Independence: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and in Article II of the Article of Confederation which promises that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
As the great historian of the period, Forrest McDonald, has written, “Patriots of all stripes accepted the primacy of the states as a fact of political life, but they were far from unanimously happy about it.”
Throughout the Revolutionary War, those who advocated the sovereignty of the states bitterly fought with those who wanted some form of nationalist consolidation. The Articles were a mixed blessing, as under them Congress effectively won a war against the powerful British empire, and it introduced and passed arguably the most republican law in the history of the world (as our own John Willson has so admirably argued), the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Under the Articles of Confederation, however, the Congress also failed to pay off its war debts, and it failed to stop a farming and tax rebellion in western Massachusetts. Further, men such as Alexander Hamilton argued, state officials held too much power and loved power for its own sake and not for the sake of their little republics.
A compromise seemed to be reached between the two forces in the spring of 1787 with the call for a constitutional convention to revise the Articles. Even the means by which decisions could be made proved a compromise. Though the nationalists dominated the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, they could not win every issue. As it turned out, tellingly, each state represented at the convention received one vote. While the Constitution’s preamble spoke in the language of “the people,” the ratification process demanded that each state form a constitutional convention—separate from the state legislature which could initially vote for and later just as easily repeal its support—to ratify the Constitution itself. In other words, “the people” voting for or against the U.S. Constitution did not do so as a national aggregate of Americans, but rather as citizens of a particular state.
Finally, as McDonald has pointed out, when the languages speaks of the United States, it does so in the plural.
Even a nationalist as seemingly solid as James Madison offered conflicting viewpoints (or, at the very least, full of tension) on the relationship of the states to the federal government.
We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour. It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.
The message would not have been lost on the reading public. “A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and only the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states.
And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, federal did not mean the same thing as national, for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state. In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.”
Madison seems a slippery character, and it’s difficult to pin him down on certain issues.
The same Madison, the so-called “Father of the Constitution,” only a decade later claimed the right of a state to “interpose” itself when it deemed the actions of the federal government as illegitimate or unconstitutional. In the Virginia Resolution, he wrote:
That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government as resulting from the compact to which the states are parties, as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact, as no further valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that, in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states, who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining, within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties, appertaining to them.
Inspired, at least in part, by the Virginian, the Hartford Convention in 1814 declared something quite similar:
Resolved.-That it be and hereby is recommended to the said Legislatures, to authorize an immediate and earnest application to be made to the Government of the United States, requesting their consent to some arrangement, whereby the said States may, separately or in concert, be empowered to assume upon themselves the defense of their territory against the enemy, and a reasonable portion of the taxes, collected within said States, may be paid into the respective treasuries thereof, and appropriated to the payment of the balance due said States, and to the future defense of the same. The amount so paid into the said treasuries to be credited, and the disbursements made as aforesaid to be charged to the United States.
Resolved.-That it be, and it hereby is, recommended to the Legislatures of the aforesaid States, to pass laws (where it has not already been done) authorizing the Governors or Commanders-in Chief of their militia to make detachments from the same, or to form voluntary corps, as shall be most convenient and conformable to their Constitutions, and to cause the same to be well armed equipped and disciplined, and held in readiness for service; and upon the request of the Governor of either of the other States, to employ the whole of such detachment or corps, as well as the regular forces of the State, or such part thereof as may be required and can be spared consistently with the safety of the State, in assisting the State, making such request to repel any invasion thereof which shall be made or attempted by the public enemy.
Considering the importance of the persons or moments just cited, it would be strange, indeed, to suggest that the idea of disunion, secession, nullification, and interposition (for the purposes of this article, I’m conflating these disparate but related ideas) was not a part of the American tradition as modern American nationalists (on the left and right) like to claim in this second decade of the 21st century.
But, what strikes me most in 2012 looking back at these documents is how logical disunion is to the very nature, construction, and essence of a republic. If members have the right to join together voluntarily, they should also have the corresponding right (or “duty,” if Madison is to be taken seriously) to dissent as well.
While there are a number of steps in between decision and final action, this dissent is best expressed ultimately by a complete separation.
Those who have opposed the possibility of disunion throughout American history have also possessed a remarkable (and, unfounded, to my mind) faith in the nationhood of the republic and in a providential mission to reform the world. Rarely has this combination of factors produced good in the world. Instead, it has allowed us to reach toward apotheosis, to claim the “mystic chords of memory.”
In the nineteenth century, one finds the most obvious appeals to a mystical American nationalism in the speeches and ideas of Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. Neither appeal is fully logical, and when pushed to the end of their argument, each reaches for a faith in a America that best resembles a Medieval approaching the throne of God. In the end, the Webster and Lincolnian appeal to a secular faith is nothing more (or less) than just this, a claim of faith.
In the 1840s, the now relatively obscure William E. Channing understood the inevitability of such poor argumentation in his own writings, reflecting a very Augustinian view of the world:
It is sometimes said that nations are swayed by laws, as unfailing as those which govern matter; that they have their destinies; that their character and position carry them forward irresistibly to their goal; that the stationary Turk musty sink under the progressive civilization of Russia, as inevitably as the crumbling edifice falls to the earth; that, by a like necessity, the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxons. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no Fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder.
Lincoln’s “Mystic Chords of Memory” tragically becomes the blood-soaked fields of Shiloh and Antietam.
What might the U.S. look like in Disunion?
Roughly twenty years ago, I attempted to write a “western” set in an alternative U.S., one that had decided to allow secession rather than fight a bloody war of American against American. Reflecting my loves of the time, I envisioned a of student of Eugen Böhm von Bawerk traveling through the various republics of the Americas and aiding in the secret societies working to end slavery in the Confederate States. Though my novel was a serious failure as a literary work, it had a few interesting ideas about political geography That is, for better or worse, I’m still somewhat taken with my map of what would happen to the U.S. in a somewhat natural form of Disunion. In my fictional world of what might have been, there were four republics:
- The United States (essentially the Union of 1861-1865)
- The Confederate States (essentially the CSA of 1861-1865)
- The Republic of Texas (with much of the Southwest)
- The Republic of Washington (the three Pacific States and some of Idaho, etc.)
- The Great Plains and parts of the Rockies were, for the most part, free trade areas, fee cities, religious communities, or Indian lands.
If the U.S. did actually break up in or after 2012, I would expect some of this to be accurate, but not all of it.
- Perhaps the entire eastern/northeastern corridor, starting in D.C. and working its way north/northeast might form one government (probably not a republic).
- The southern states, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri might form a republic. Texas, though, might well go on its own.
- The northern states of the Great Plains, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, and Wyoming could form a union or join with parts of Canada. They might also confederate, ideally, with the previous grouping. Idaho probably wouldn’t survive, as it would be torn in at least two directions.
- The Mormon areas of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho would join together in new State of Deseret, centered in Utah.
- Hawaii would probably either ally itself with another country, or it might become a part of a Pacific nation of some kind.
Problem states are Ohio and Michigan. If lucky, Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois might accept them into some kind of political union. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that some of the larger cities might either choose or be forced to become independent city-states. One can imagine, for example, Illinois voting to rid itself of Chicago. Anyway, these are all, of course speculations. Once disunion begins, it’s incredibly difficult to know where it might end.
Lincoln might very well have been correct when he suggested that secession is the essence of anarchy. But, frankly, at this point in American history, a little anarchy might very well be preferable to Leviathan.
Fantasy or Possibility?
One objection to all of this, one might claim, is that it violates the very spirit of the founding, what our soldiers have given and sacrificed, etc., over the centuries.
I think, however, it would be even more true to state that the nationalists have violated the spirit of the American republic, in its form as well as in its essence. I would go so far as to state that it is impossible to have a nation and a republic simultaneously. A nation demands just as much centralization as republicanism demands decentralization.
For now, of course, all of this is just fantasy.
But, it’s worth considering, and it’s worth considering sooner rather than later. If the dignity of the human person (male, female, black, white, Asian, gentile, Jew. . .) is to be respected, preserved, and augmented, it will not be so under the existing American federal government. In terms of support of the wealthy (stimuli packages), the growth of the secretive security state, and the decline of American civil liberties, look to the federal government. In every single way, it has become increasingly oppressive. Each political party is guilty—either from sins of omission or commission—and, from the perspective of a constitutionalist, there really is no constitution left.
There is also little (but hope is still not vain) possibility of revival of the one we have—at least not within the existing geographical structure of the U.S. And, if there is a revival, it will come probably not from politics or political science or think tanks or any of the other ephemera of the world. It will come from literature, liberal education, and a proper understanding of man.
There’s probably no stopping Leviathan from within any longer. But if we could simply walk away from the oppression that continues to engulf us and emasculate us, life might just be a bit freer and more humane for our children and their children. There’s almost no chance of secession to succeed, but it’s probably worth the effort.
It’s a terrible and telling comment on America that we can not imagine a state or region or city or area leaving the U.S. without a massive reaction of American military forces. When Quebec almost left Canada over a decade ago, no one expected violence. The same could never be said of a similar movement in the U.S.
But I will conclude with this thought. If the soul was once the Constitution, America’s body is nearly corrupt beyond redemption, would it not be best to find a healthy body for the soul to thrive?
[With grand apologies to JS]
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.