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A prediction that another Civil War is coming.

Submitted:Aug 25, 2011    Reads: 9    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Anything massive and terrible can surprise us without much warning if it congeals itself gradually enough. The Tectonic plates move one millimeter more, and the planet will shift the balance to a new normal, absorbing every next tiny wave until the gradients add up to a horrible earthquake while we wonder how everything could be so still seconds earlier. Such can be carefully seen in the underground crack-up of our Union, doomed to break open into another civil war. Our country only now appears stable because it is becoming so tense.

I could provide superficial hints: When George W. Bush was in charge, how many times did the organized Left express more vocal and easier channeled hatred toward our own president then they could force themselves to equally build up towards Osama bin Laden? And how many conservatives could honestly deny in their hearts that they would have experienced more giddy joy seeing Michael Moore hanging on a rope than they did Saddam Hussein? Our seasoned political pundits, trained to represent our national flow, wear their incorrigible scorn for the American opposition not only on their sleeves but in their book titles. For terrorists, the outrage appears far less instinctive and raw. We are more emotionally prepared to start killing each other than we are the enemies we are actually killing now, lacking only area consolidations, a boundary line, and a good, patriotic excuse. But emotion is notoriously unreliable to gauge and base conclusions on, particularly for graded college papers. History, however, is unchallengeable. So my tactic is to reveal the cause of the original civil war and find out if there is a pattern in place which can create another bloody disaster. (Spoiler: There is.)

Yes, we know that slavery is the chief agitator, and slavery is no more to pit one side against the other, but what slavery held up as a shield, and a legal justification for disunion is an entire political theory still being championed by the Right today based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution, famously known as "states' rights." This theory claims that the states are sovereign authorities which gave up to the new centralized, or "Federal", government the few powers that are explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, and any powers not mentioned in the Constitution are, according to the Tenth Amendment, "reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

The theory may have been meekly assumed during the Constitution's ratification, but it is first put to the test in the attempt to stop the Bank Act of 1791. Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, wishes to establish a national bank and fathers a bill. After passing the senate, Representative Madison (ulterior motives aside) made speeches attacking the bill's constitutionality, pointing out correctly that the Constitution doesn't say the Federal Government can charter a corporation (For the bank was a business, you see). The bill passes congress anyway, but President Washington, his signature now needed, took Madison's objections seriously. Being the first president, he wanted to be careful not to set a bad precedent for future occupants. Asking around, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson seconded Madison's objections. Finally, Washington turned to Hamilton, the man responsible for the bill, for his opinion. Hamilton responded on February 23, 1791 with his "Opinion of the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank," which serves like a founding document on the counter-theory of "implied powers" This idea chiefly states that any power adopted by the federal government which does not violate pre-existing rights granted to state or person (implying that power is a gift of the federal government to the states, not vice versa), can reasonably be permissible under the vaguely worded "general welfare" and "Enumerated Powers" clause. This is a loosely constructed interpretation of the Constitution, completely contradicting the strict interpretation understood (or at least advertised) since the document's ratification. Washington accepts Hamilton's argument and signs the bill. The result ultimately creates an unfixable and growing rift between expanding federal power and entrenched state power, establishes heated political parties (headed by Republican Jefferson and Federalist Hamilton) and founds a fundamental antagonism that inspires a horrible civil war and threats of insurrection to this very day. And President Washington sets another precedent.

The next step occurs in 1798, the powerful Federalists take it too far by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts (the Sedition Act, in particular, making it a crime to slander the government), and Madison and Jefferson retaliate by writing and getting passed in the respective state legislatures the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which officially declares the acts unconstitutional. The resolutions have no practical affect other then inspiring counter-resolutions in seven other states, (which assert state legislatures do not have that kind of judicial authority,) but, like Hamilton's letter to Washington, they do provide an influential groundwork, though for "states rights" instead ('The Virginia Report of 1799-1800' is the best original source for the entire episode). Jefferson's version even invents a new weapon in the states' arsenal if the courts fail to come to the rescue (or even before): nullification. Jefferson claims that the states "delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force." That means that since only the Constitution gives the federal government authority, any laws the federal government makes outside what the Constitution allows has no binding authority, and it can be legally ignored by the states. Two years later, Jefferson is elected president, the Alien and Sedition acts are repealed, and the whole incident is put behind everyone. But like the bank bill, some more seeds are ominously planted.

In 1832, South Carolina decides to give Jefferson's theory of nullification a try on the federal government, and passes the "Ordinance of Nullification" against an unpopular tariff act from 1828. (A peculiar attempt considering the Constitution clearly gives the federal government power to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, and Excises.") To give the measure teeth, the ordinance also threatens the government with secession; warning the government not to force its own will, as it is "as inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union; and that the people of the said State will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States, and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do." This reasoning stems from the logic that since States are not actually prohibited from leaving the Constitution in the Constitution, and any powers not prohibited by the states belong to the states (via the Tenth Amendment), then states have the power to leave the Union. President Jackson responds on December 10, 1832 with a "Proclamation Regarding Nullification" (a document Lincoln later studies before deciding what to do with the newly formed Confederacy). It basically says that a state cannot nullify or secede because it turns our nation into a house of cards, that armed disunion is treason (the independent nation of South Carolina may have to assert its sovereignty through force of arms against the federal government) and the president has the constitutional authority to "suppress Insurrections" if the laws are not faithfully carried out. Congress backs his threats by passing the Force Bill. South Carolina, also assuaged by the Compromise Tariff of 1833, returns to the fold, all is forgiven, and the whole nasty business is dropped.

So here we have all the steps to Civil War laid out and historically demonstrated in neat, sequential order. Step one: A state interprets the Constitution strictly. Step two: The federal government interprets from the Constitution as being given more powers then it would under a strict interpretation. Step three: The state denies the federal government's new power constitutional legitimacy. Step four: The federal government reiterates the right to enforce its new power up to and including the use of arms. Step five: The state, seeing the Constitution as a contract between separate and equal parties, decides the federal government is refusing to keep its side of the bargain and pulls out of it. Step six: the federal government declares this action illegal, and thus treason. Step seven: And the war came. Note during all this time I didn't even have to mention slavery yet.

But it was slavery that caused the Civil War. Under the above sequence, any issue can theoretically trigger an insurrection, but slavery carried the emotional stakes that were lacking in tariffs and naturalization laws. The reason so many people hated slavery and vocally desired its abolition is so obvious to us, it is intuitive. The southern states, practicing slavery in perpetuity, hated the threat of losing all that expendable labor. Plus, defending something fundamentally evil seems to make people doing it angrier then defending something good. Maybe because while good has a logic and strength all on its own, evil is indefensible with all but physical protection and it is logically helpless, like a baby that, when attacked, will infuriate the mother. So irritating did defending slavery become that South Carolina, when it seceded in 1860, only had to grieve in its declaration of secession that the other states were not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law enthusiastically enough, and that the opposing party won the presidential election. (Of course, splitting your own party in half right before the election tends to do that.) By 1860, the southern states were already well aware of the sequence of confrontation laid out previously and rushed through the steps towards its conclusion. To use poker vernacular, they decided to go "all in." Unfortunately for them, they also decided to bet everything before looking at their cards and lost their bloody shirt. And the doctrine of "states rights," now discredited for being so reckless and deadly, was taken down with them.

The Solid South will lick its sore-loser wounds for another hundred years, and in the interim, use "states rights" as a legal defense for segregation, further dragging the theory's reputation through the mud better then Hamilton could ever dream. In fact, it can be said that racism, in the form of slavery, then segregation, wound up strengthening the federal union and leaving it unchallenged by the states for such a long period of time by so thoroughly discrediting the "states rights" defense publically tied to it. Only with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, that destroyed segregation, has "states rights" finally escaped its embarrassing master. Free again, the threat of nullification and even secession can build anew.

It is true that "states rights" has been the legal shield of slavery and segregation, but a shield cannot decide who picks it up and uses it. A strict interpretation of the Constitution is just that, a tool a state can use to defend against the federal government when it assumes power not explicitly authorized in its founding document. And after 150+ years of unchecked federal growth, national politicians barely even acknowledge this founding state principle, unaware that they are now more vulnerable to its challenge than ever.

There are two things that can destroy our country from within: gross federal expansion and state defiance of the federal government. For the country to stay together, both have to remain at low levels. Like a compound explosive, both parts mixed together in enough quantities will produce a disastrous result. The federal government, arrogant from always getting its own way on every conflict of interest, is swelling more every year, and forever finding more pies it can stick its finger in. Likewise, the states are beginning to wake up to this increasingly unpopular, and debt-ridden, intrusion and are beginning to look to the strict wording of the Constitution once again to defend itself against this uncontrollable monstrosity. The two plates are shifting just a little each day.

It may seem strange for me to predict an inevitable civil war without citing recent events or political figures that point to even an issue divisive enough to do the trick. I concede that nothing is fleshed out yet, but the bones are right here.


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