The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.
Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession
Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.
Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:
The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.
Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:
“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.
Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.
Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:
He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.
Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.
An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.
Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.
No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.
This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.
Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.
Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.