November 18, 2012
The Nov. 10 petition that Jason B. of Harrowgate launched has garnered more than 30,000 signatures (only about 0.61% of the adults in Tennessee, but 1.23% of the 2.45 million that voted). It is easy to dismiss the petition, and the similar petitions on We the People, a White House sponsored website, covering nearly every state, as the petulant anger of sore losers, or the expected background noise of a free, democratic society. It is, to be sure, a little of both. And earlier this week, after reading the Nov. 14 Tennessean story, I chuckled; yet when I read the energetic, though often uncivil, and thoughtful comments on the story, I realized that postulating secession, and debating the historical precedence, and philosophical foundations of stay versus go was a civics debate far more meaningful and interesting than any of the conversations during the presidential election, and completely relevant to the “negotiations” surrounding the impending “fiscal cliff.”
And with tomorrow (Monday) being the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettsburg Address, the conversation is poignant.
One Tennessean commenter posted a quote from Andrew Jackson, who soon after his election as our seventh President faced a secession crisis. The Nullification Crisis dominated much of Jackson’s first term and was caused when South Carolina, supported by Jackson’s vice president, John Calhoun, decided it could nullify federal laws on tariffs, and eventually any federal law that did not suit them.
Jackson, who was born in South Carolina and served as a messenger in the American Revolution throughout the state, was sympathetic to the economic challenges of the Southern states, but when faced with the threat of secession responded forcefully. On December 10, 1832, Jackson lost his patience with Calhoun and the nullifiers in South Carolina, declaring the state was on the edge of revolt and treason. Jackson said, "the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, is incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed."
And our local commenter posted Jackson’s statement: “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation."
Cooler heads prevailed in Congress to affect a compromise on tariffs before it had to vote an authorization to send federal troops to South Carolina.
Jackson, who was known for his bullheadedness, remained concerned about the tensions between the states and the union. Jon Meacham, who wrote a spectacular biography of Jackson, noted that in a May 1, 1833, letter, Jackson wrote: "the tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question."
He understood his politics.
It was also illuminating to read how Thomas Jefferson was cited by both sides of the argument, a position Jefferson would have likely found comfortable and appealing. Jefferson was very conflicted by the need to empower a strong federal government, and the problems that could arise from it.
While the fulmination of secession is uncomfortable, questions about how the federal government has grown, whether it is too big, whether it can manage itself, and whether citizens can expect elected officials to restore a semblance of balance in our finances must be addressed.
An elected government that continues to spend more than $1.50 for every $1 it takes in should expect a restive and vocal minority. There has been too much sacrifice, by too many, not to heed the reasons that underlie the seemingly crazy notion of secession.