Secession, then and now

I was surprised to discover last month that I live in a Congressional district that contains a sizable minority that “supports nullification of unconstitutional federal laws and secession as options to enforce state sovereignty.” This is a question that I thought had been determined a thousand miles and a hundred fifty years from contemporary Minneapolis.

What makes this particular eruption of secessionist opinion especially ironic is that it comes from Minnesota Republicans. A hundred and fifty years ago, it was Minnesota Republicans who raised the first volunteers to preserve the union and settle the secessionist question. After the Civil War, Republicans shaped the political character of Minnesota; it was the Republican Party of the late nineteenth century that laid the foundation for the moderate, pragmatic, and civil politics that has allowed the Minnesota tradition of good government to flourish. Indeed, until very recently, the Minnesota Republican Party has been far closer to the progressive tradition of Theodore Roosevelt than the rightward course the party has been on elsewhere. It would seem that the party has finally caught up to the retrograde tendencies that turned the GOP away from its origins in the 1960s.

This isn’t the only secessionist noise that has been made over the last couple years, of course. The same sort of empty threats have been coming out of areas like Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia, places where secession actually happened (and where one would think, except for the pernicious Lost Cause myth, hard experience would suggest it’s not such a great idea). This secessionist theater is largely an empty gesture, but it’s interesting to contrast it with the actual secessionism that led to the Civil War and unpack what lies behind the resurgence of the rhetoric.

My recent reading in Civil War history has highlighted that, whatever the later objections of Jefferson Davis and the other Confederate leaders may have been, secession was about slavery. It was only after the war that it became wrapped in the highfalutin language of “state sovereignty.” Prior to Lincoln’s election, the South held significant power in the United States; the majority of Presidents were from the states that would secede. And the South was hardly shy about enforcing federal power over “state sovereignty”: the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, was passed to nullify the laws of many Northern states that gave freedman status to escaped slaves on free soil. Lincoln threatened the expansion (though not, until 1863, the existence) of slavery, and it was this threat to the slave economy that prompted secession.

There doesn’t seem to be nearly so compelling an economic origin to the current secessionist rhetoric; Lincoln threatened to curtail and unravel the base of Southern wealth, but Obama has barely threatened even to dent the base of corporate power. I’m enough of a materialist to believe that compelling economic interests need to be lined up behind something drastic like secession for it to come to pass: the Hartford Convention had some good points, but not enough real economic benefit to outweigh the costs of secession. There’s also not enough sectionalism (and certainly not here in Minnesota, where the impulse is decidedly a minority opinion) to make secession very practical; we are a much more interdependent and integrated nation now than we were in 1860, and it’s unlikely that anyplace of any size would be able to mount enough support to really pull of a secession.

So, what could be behind the “state sovereignty” bluster that has compelled people who should know better to hop on the “nullification and secession” band wagon?

At the risk of making the political psychological, it seems to me that the voices raising the secessionism roar belong to people who would rather not have to talk to anyone who disagrees with them. Secession represents in this case a retreat from debate and compromise, an unwillingness to accept that the other side has valid points, and a desire for a utopian political purity of the sort that has never existed in the United States. By defining oneself as no longer beholden to the national unit, one no longer has to do the hard work of building support across factions to get things done; one need only get agreement from people who already agree. It is, in the end, a rejection of the entire concept of civil society, where people with different interests and ideas are engaged in a common enterprise.

There’s nothing especially new about this sort of impulse, nor is it exclusive to the right. Indeed, political puritanism used to be a hallmark of the left, where splinter groups of Trotskyites, Maoists, and Bakhunists could argue forever over their relative ideological purity (which is perhaps why they never got around to fomenting actual revolution). But it’s surprising, and disappointing, to hear it coming from Lincoln’s party from people one would have thought were serious about civil society.

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