TAMPA, August 20, 2012 – I know what you’re thinking. A southern, conservative talk radio host produces an audio special called “What Lincoln Killed – Episode One.”
He must be another “neo-confederate” trying to use the states’ rights argument to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1964, re-segregate the schools, bring back Jim Crow and generally undo a century’s worth of civil rights victories.
The problem with any discussion of states’ rights or limitation on the power of the federal government in general is that it is inextricably linked to slavery and racism. Neither advocates nor opponents generally help matters in this respect.
Implicit in the arguments of both sides is that either the north was one hundred percent right and the south one hundred percent wrong in the Civil War, or vice versa. Common sense should tell us that after approximately six hundred thousand Americans were killed by their own countrymen, there must have been plenty of wrong to go around on both sides.
For what it’s worth, I am a Yankee. I was born and lived over eighty percent of my life in New York State. I even pull for the Yankees in baseball (Forgive me, they got to me young). I think Dixie is a catchy little tune but I don’t choke up when I hear it. The only positive association I have with the “stars and bars” is a mildly entertaining 1980’s television series with a very pretty girl in some now-famous shorts.
Yet, I still believe that Mike Church is onto something important.
Church’s story is set within the framework of him helping his daughter with a school assignment. She is working on an essay and tells Church that her teacher said that “the states gave up all of their sovereignty when they signed the Declaration [of Independence].”
Serious proponents of this position argue that the states gave up their sovereignty upon ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Church sets out to disprove that argument. Episode One does not discuss the Civil War, but rather the nature of the federal government created in the U.S. Constitution.
Church’s story within a story is a highly entertaining “docudromedy” with dramatizations of many of the founding fathers’ writings and speeches concerning states’ rights and the limits on federal power. To keep things lively, Church intersperses them with a heavy dose of anachronistic humor, including characterizing John Lowell, Jr., who wrote under the pseudonym “The Refederator,” as a modern professional wrestler and James Madison as Bill Murray’s character Carl in Caddyshack.
“…revolutionary story, kid from nowhere, about to become the father of the constitution…”
Lowell is particularly important because he advocated the New England states seceding from the Union during the War of 1812. New England was especially hurt by Jefferson’s Embargo Act, which was ramped up under the Madison administration. “Mr. Madison’s War,” as Lowell called it, only made matters worse. Lowell and others proposed a “Northern Confederation,” which could only occur after the northern states first seceded from the current union.
Apparently, the idea that the states are sovereign and retain the prerogative to withdraw from the union was not held exclusively by slaveholding southerners. Church makes a compelling case that this opinion was held by most Americans at the time. The New England states also advocated state nullification, with Connecticut effectively nullifying the Embargo Act and all of the New England states virtually boycotting the war.
Obviously, no one would conflate the northern nullification and secession movements with slavery or racism.
To add some scholarly muscle, Church brings in Kevin Gutzman, Ph.D., whose James Madison and the Making of America revolved around precisely this question. Madison and other Federalists had gone into the constitutional convention hoping to construct a national government, with the states reduced to administrative subdivisions. However, none of the states would agree to it, so a federal government was constructed instead, with a few, limited powers delegated to it and the rest retained by the states.
The important principle here is consent of the governed. Americans believe that since we are all created equal, no one can exercise power over another unless the latter has consented to that power. In theory, Americans consented to certain powers given to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution. Their descendants tacitly consent to those powers by not amending the Constitution to remove them.
To a libertarian, calling this “consent” is flagrant abuse of the English language, but it’s better than nothing at all. However, if Church is right, then the federal government exercises most of its powers without any consent at all. That was the founders’ definition of tyranny.
It might also be one reason that the federal monster consumes almost $4 trillion per year, has run up $16 trillion in debt, tens of trillions more in unfunded liabilities and shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe it’s time to give the states’ rights advocates a chance and strip a few federal powers away. What do we have to lose?
To at least get acquainted with the subject, you won’t find a more enjoyable vehicle than Mike Church’s “What Lincoln Killed – Episode One.”
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.
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