Aren’t We All Confederates?

A reader just posted this comment in response to the last post that featured a crucial section of Florida’s declaration of causes following its secession from the United States.  One of things that I’ve learned over the years is that differences in interpretation often have little to do with strictly historical concerns, but with much broader assumptions about the nature of power and the relationship between citizens and government.  This is a perfect example:

What do you base your concerns on the Government by? Isn’t it based largely on what has already taken place with a real and present estimation on what might happen? You surely vote. Is not your vote a gamble, on what good or calamity might happen if you choose one candidate vs. another? Consider this has a group, political candidate or party ever threatened your livelihood and well being? Are you so different from being a Confederate, that if a very real threat affected your very livelihood and families well being, that you would not defend them? They did so in accordance with the laws and the Constitution. When their rights were threatened they seceded.

The questions point to a picture of government that I have real trouble identifying with.  While I believe a healthy skepticism about federal power and our elected officials is essential to any democracy, this seems to border on paranoia.  I live in a democracy and I do my best to ensure that my voice is heard through elections and other forms of political activism.  I don’t necessarily view the election of someone I disagree with as a “calamity” since their terms of service are not indefinite.  My government is not my enemy.  Of course I have strongly disagreed with actions taken by my government in recent years that straddle party lines, but at no point have I ever entertained nullification or secession as a solution.  Our system of government is not perfect, but it has served us pretty well so far and I can see no reason to alter it beyond its amendment.

What I now understand is that my disagreement with this individual over how to interpret Florida’s declaration has little to do with whether slavery was or was not central.  What do you think?

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12 comments… add one

  • Andy Hall Jan 11, 2012

    One can go round and round indefinitely over whether or not secession was “legal” under the Constitution in 1860-61. The Constitution itself is silent on the matter; it was an unsettled question then, and remains unsettled for many today.

    What’s important to understand is that heated arguments over the legality of secession, or “states’ rights,” or nullification, never take place in a vacuum. Never. They arise and gain traction with large segments of the population (fire-eaters, segregationists, the Tea Party) when they’re torqued about some specific thing that, in their minds, presents a direct and immediate threat to what they see as the proper order of things. That was true in the 1850s, it was true in the 1950s, and it’s true today. You cannot divorce the philosophical/legal arguments over secession or states’ rights from the current events that happen to drive them at the moment.

    The secession conventions in the (self-defined) “slave-holding states” didn’t act as they did in support of some abstract political principle or some vague notion about unequal “power”; they did so because they had convinced themselves that Northern states, and particularly the new administration in Washington, had become implacably hostile to the institution of slavery, and leaving the Union was the only way they could see to protect it, and the property rights that went along with it. They were explicitly clear about this, over and over again, and modern efforts to gloss that over with vague talk about “power” and “states’ rights” and the supposed legality of secession badly misrepresent their stated beliefs and motivations at the time. Remembering (or honoring, if you prefer) those people and their actions requires that we do so accurately, and that include not not only the legal/political principles they embraced, but also the specific, concrete issues that drove them to do so.

    Modern apologists for the Confederacy go to great lengths to look past Lincoln’s actual words and actions to expose what they claim his “real” motivations to have been; a little of that same scrutiny applied to those below the Mason-Dixon Line would go a long way.

    • Joe Reinhart Jan 11, 2012

      How did the Tea Party get in with fire-eaters and segregationists? They are concerned about high government debt.

      • Andy Hall Jan 11, 2012

        They cite much the same political philosophy regarding states’ rights and nullification. The specific issues at hand change, but my point is that arguments about states’ rights (or secession, or nullification) are always driven by something specific and concrete. When they reach the level of broad public discourse, they’re no longer about a political or philosophical principle, but about something real and tangible that has large groups of people torqued at that moment.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2012

      ML’s argument would have us see ourselves as occupying the same historical space as Americans in 1860-61. Perhaps in some abstract sense we do, but we are certainly not engaged in a debate about the same substantive issues.

      His argument comes down to: Southerners seceded to defend their right to secession.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 11, 2012

      “One can go round and round indefinitely over whether or not secession was “legal” under the Constitution in 1860-61. The Constitution itself is silent on the matter; it was an unsettled question then, and remains unsettled for many today.”

      Andy,
      this section of the CONUS Art VI is very clear and unambiguous
      “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

      an ordinance of secession is something in the[State] Constitution and [State] laws that is quite contrary to the CONUS being the supreme law of the land, it need not include the redundancy of saying “and that includes secession”.

      • J. L. Bell Jan 11, 2012

        The Constitution was a revision of the Articles of Confederation—or, to use its full formal title, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Inside that document as well as in the title it said that the union of American states was “perpetual”. The Constitution was designed to make that union “more perfect”. It took force after adoption by only nine of the existing states instead of all because the Articles already bound those states into a single nation.

  • Lyle Smith Jan 11, 2012

    I think secession in 1860 and 1861 was not paranoia. I may be wrong, but I think that is what the guy is getting at.

  • Joe Reinhart Jan 11, 2012

    Andy
    Following is a source that enumerates the Tea Party Principles. Please advise me where it mentions states rights and nullification. In fact, the Tea Party strongly supports the Constitution. I am not a member but believe they are often misrepresented by the media.

    You can see the principles at http://www.thecontract.org/the-contract-from-america/ It has ten planks, articulated as follows: Protect the Constitution, Reject Cap & Trade, Demand a Balanced Budget, Enact Fundamental Tax Reform, Restore Fiscal Responsibility and Constitutionally Limited Government in Washington, End Runaway Government Spending, Defund, Repeal and Replace Government-run Health Care, Pass an ‘All-of-the-Above’ Energy Policy, Stop the Pork, and Stop the Tax Hikes.
    Joe Reinhart

    • Andy Hall Jan 11, 2012

      Joe, you doth protest too much. There’s plenty of Tea Party rhetoric out there about states’ rights, nullification, and so on. A combined search on Google for “Tea Party” and “states rights” gets me over two million hits. Hell, my own governor was going around making jokes about secession until someone pointed out that people weren’t, you know, laughing with him. It’s all there in the mix, regardless of whether it happens to be mentioned in that particular document you cite.

      My point here is not to slam the Tea Party, but to reiterate what I said above — when people undertake large actions en masse, whether it’s secession in 1860-61, or mass rallies on the National Mall in 2009, it’s never driven by simple commitment to an abstract political philosophy; it’s driven by those people’s opposition to something specific and concrete.

      • Lyle Smith Jan 11, 2012

        The Tea Party movement is not seriously secessionist. That’s a nonsensical position. Rand Paul is the closest thing to a Tea Party senator there is and he’s not talking the same talk that John C. Calhoun and fire-eating congressmen did. The movement just doesn’t have a John C. Calhoun or a Preston Brooks; you know, actual elected politicians who are actual elected Tea Partiers.

        Rick Perry’s comment was a one-off hyperbolic statement that’s been over intellectualized by some people. It has aroused absolutely nothing as far as an actual secessionist/nullification movement.

        The Tea Party hardly has a voice in actual politics, be it Federal or state. States just aren’t going to go all South Carolina over debt and balancing the budget.

        So have no fear Andy the State of Texas will not be seceding anytime soon. ;)

        • Andy Hall Jan 11, 2012

          Whew, that’s a relief. But, don’t feel obligated to send Perry back anytime soon. No rush on that one.

          I understand the Tea Party isn’t seriously secessionist. I actually don’t think most “real” secessionists are, either. It’s just easier (and far more fun) to fantasize about how awesome things will be one we’re out from under the oppressive yoke of the empire, than to buckle down and actually fix the various problems we’ve actually got to deal with. I could spend all day thinking about how I want the kitchen in my dream house to be, but that’s not fixing the leak I’ve got right now under the sink, you know?

  • London John Jan 12, 2012

    I’m sure Andy Hall is correct wrt the US, and this is quite off-topic, but I think this headline from a UK satirical website sums up the situation here: “Independent Scotland will be just the same, warn experts”.

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