The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

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A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

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Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

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.

Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.

 

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American “Patriotic Shopping” and Mississippi’s Rebel Women Consumers

The United States has always had an uneasy relationship between capitalism and patriotism. As residents of the world’s preeminent materialist, consumer-driven society, Americans have often bent over backward to sanctify the act of consumption as a badge of honor and even American identity. After all, what could be more American than scoring a completely necessary 10 gallon tub of processed, imitation mayonnaise from Sam’s Club for the always low price of $15.95? Lets see some communist bread-line society compete with that kind of freedom!

Yet somehow, the notion that patriotism and freedom can be equated with capitalist consumption has never been wholeheartedly accepted by all Americans. This was especially true in Civil War Mississippi, a state where Confederate civilians and government leaders equated material sacrifice with patriotic devotion. Such an ideal meant making homespun, jarring your own food, and, in general, learning to live without as a way of mirroring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their country on the battlefield. If those left on the home front, especially women, couldn’t give their lives, they could at least sacrifice material luxuries by not shopping at cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Natchez. And there was a very particular reason why good Confederate patriots shouldn’t shop at those urban centers: by 1863, all were controlled by the occupying Union forces. Thus, to buy goods at Union lines was colluding with the enemy.

Fast forward a century and the ideals have been reversed: now its seen as patriotic to shop. In fact, it’s so downright American that malls might as well be secular places of worship, where every red-blooded American is baptized with the ring of every cash register and the swipe of every over-maxed credit card. The idea of “patriotic shopping” really took hold after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Heeding President George W. Bush’s urging of Americans to continue shopping lest the terrorists win, publicans like Salon posed the question “Is Shopping the New Patriotism?” In order to bounce back from the attacks, Salon stated, Americans needed to shop:

The question is, how exactly will people bounce back? There is no clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, that can compel citizens to volunteer for the armed forces. There is no pressing need to save every shred of rubber or paper to contribute to the war effort. How can Americans express their patriotic fervor? How will they pull together?

Maybe, by remembering what makes this country’s economy great — shopping. The suggestion may sound facile — but it also carries with it some possibilities for pyschological satisfaction. Resolute Americans can stand tall by refusing to despair, by holding on to their stocks and heading to the mall — by continuing to shop, even in the face of unthinkable terror.

While most Americans seemed all too happy to equate patriotic sacrifice with their inalienable right to super-size their order of six-piece McDonalds’ coagulated chicken globules and update their wardrobes with the latest designer shirts stitched together by non-unionized Third World toddlers, some were nonetheless uneasy about the idea of “patriotic shopping.”  Writing for Mother Jones, Ian Frazier mocked such “all consuming patriotism” as an insult to his patriotic Civil War forebears, especially Union women, who “sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all.” In comparison to this type of material sacrifice, Frazier viewed “patriotic shopping” was utterly hollow to the core. Commenting on his photo collection of American “patriotic consumption,” photographer Brian Ulrich similarly mocked the idea that “We need to call on the nation’s best shoppers to fight the terrorists.”

Frazier’s and Ulrich’s concerns about the absolute non-sacrifice of material consumption when measured up against “higher” ideals such as patriotism would have rang true in Civil War Mississippi. In this Union-occupied state, issues of consumerism and sacrifice were a source of intense wartime debate, particularly regarding how good Rebel women should show their Confederate patriotism.

From the moment the Federal army established itself as an occupational force in 1862, Mississippi women traded commodities like cotton at Federal lines in exchange for Union Greenback notes or other consumer items. They did this in defiance of Confederate law that explicitly forbade trading with the Northern enemy. To staunch Confederate nationalists, trading with the Yankees filled the enemy coffers with valuable cotton, but more symbolically, buying and trading at Union lines evidenced an unwillingness to make material sacrifices for the Confederate cause. Put simply: shopping at Union lines meant you weren’t a good Confederate. This was especially true for women, long idealized in popular culture as the true keepers of the South’s patriotic ideals.

Mississippi Governor Charles Clark said as much in his 1863 inaugural address when he told women that  “the spinning wheel is preferred to the harp, and the loom makes a music of loftier patriotism and inspiration than the keys of the piano.” Confederates like Clark wanted women to show their patriotic sacrifice by relying on homespun rather than committing the treasonous act of buying and trading from Union lines. But Mississippi’s women didn’t abide. By 1864, the Daily Clarion newspaper out of Meridian, MS complained that “the rustling of fresh silk, the snowy handkerchiefs, the love of a bonnet, the light tap of prunella boot heels on our pavements” demonstrated women’s refusal to forgo shopping at Union lines in the name of Confederate patriotism.

Confederate women were all too happy to acquire good from Federal lines, even as they mouthed pro-Confederate sentiments. In a series of letters to her daughter, Raymond, MS native Eliza Sively berated fellow women who traded with Union forces at Vicksburg for being “crazy about Yankee goods” to the point of ignoring their sacrificial duty to the Confederacy. Yet, Sively apparently saw no hypocrisy at work when in June 1864 she told her daughter, Jane, “I will try and…get you some muslins from Vicksburg, you ought not to wear all your clothes and have them all ruined.” A month later, Sively scored calico dress patterns, shoes, corsets, and “a rite pretty pink muslin” for Jane —all from Yankee lines at Vicksburg and Memphis.

Amanda Worthington, a Washington County, MS planters’ daughter, claimed that “rather than go back into a union” with the Yankees, “I would have every man, woman and child in the Confederacy killed.” Nevertheless, when her sister went shopping in Union-controlled New Orleans, Worthington was overjoyed to get a copy of David Copperfield, photographs, linen dresses, two pairs of shoes, handkerchiefs, stockings, perfume, jewelry, fancy hats, and two custom-made silk dresses.

Natchez, MS resident Louisa Lovell, the hard-line Rebel wife of a Confederate colonel, justified her mass consumption in New Orleans by claiming, “we did a good deal of shopping as our wardrobes needed replacing very badly.” These women remained loyal Confederates, but they didn’t accept the notion that equated patriotism with material sacrifice. They recognized a certain absurdity in the idea that shopping had anything to do at all with patriotic devotion to one’s country, regardless of what blustery Confederate boosters advocated.

In the decades after the Civil War, as the pace of American capitalist development accelerated into the twentieth century, the association of American identity with consumerism only became more entrenched. Contemporary Americans now invoke their right to drink a Big Gulp from a 7 Eleven as evidence of their perceived cultural superiority over other nations. Just as it did for women in Civil War Mississippi, however, the notion of “Patriotic Shopping” still rings hollow — at least a few Americans. What exactly constitutes true patriotism is worthy of discussion, and is something I don’t have any easy answer for, but let’s shelve the idea that buying a discount dress from Macy’s is as much a patriotic duty as it is an act of good ole’ American vanity. Seriously, the terrorists don’t care what you wear.

The Rebel Flag, the Drive-By Truckers, and the Duality of the (not so) Southern Thing

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy about music. Music made by people who care about making good music. So I couldn’t resist combining some good music in this entry with a bit o’ southern history. If you haven’t heard of the Drive-By Truckers before, you need to remedy such an obvious personal cultural deficiency and get some of their albums NOW. That said, the Truckers are, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest American rock and roll bands of this or any other generation.

Hailing from Alabama, they often get tagged under the unfortunate banner of “Southern Rock.” While they do focus on the South in much of their recorded output, and make no bones about being proud of their Dixie heritage, their music goes much deeper than the mere Rebel-flag wavin,’ backwoods lifestyle pimpin,’ Murica’ lovin,’ jingoistic slop that Nashville is currently spewing out like a ruptured hernia. Indeed, the Truckers make uncompromising American, not southern, music, and they speak to a broader issue in American history that is well-worth addressing.

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Welcome!

Statue of Confederate General, and all around jerk, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Statue of Confederate General, and all around jerk, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The title of this blog comes from a remark made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. Referring to the notorious Tennessee-born former slave trader, Confederate Cavalry General, and later, prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sherman growled in 1864 that “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”

Forrest proved a constant thorn in the side of Union commanders in the Civil War’s western campaigns, and he remains a controversial figure in American history to this day. As a symbol of the support for the system of chattel slavery and racial oppression that birthed the Confederate States of America, Forrest is simultaneously derided by those who wish to move beyond the uglier events of America’s past and celebrated by those who want to wrap up the past’s wounds in factually relative, revisionist gauze.

Beyond competing memories of the Civil War’s tumultuous legacy, however, Forrest serves as a greater symbol of how the American past, in William Faulkner’s famous words, is “not even past.” History continues to influence contemporary discussions of everything from political debates to popular culture. This is because everyone has an opinion — however well or poorly informed — about American history. Even those who claim ambivalence or outright hostility to the study of the past will have a strongly worded stance on it once you prod them enough on their particular pet issue. Thus, historical figures like Forrest, and the symbols and ideologies evoked by such figures, continue to stir passions among the historically literate and illiterate alike. Depending on who you ask, and depending on the cultural context on which they base their opinions, Forrest is either a hero or a villain — his legacy either embraced or rejected.

In this respect, the symbol of “that devil Forrest” might well be applied to history itself. Indeed, history is that most nefarious of devils whose influence can be embraced or rejected, invoked for good or bad, used to justify peace or murder, freedom or repression. This blog, then, will tackle “That Devil History” warts and all to examine crucial issues in America’s past. Furthermore, it will also connect historical issues to contemporary ones to discuss the ways history is appropriated and refashioned to suit the needs of the righteous and the devious alike, the best and the worst in American society.

Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to looking backward.