Policy and Federal Unity

There are incidents in history that can inform our present outlook. I would like to suggest that in the context of American politics the following is one.

There is an account of the American Civil War that begins roughly as follows: The American south feared for their way of life, so they took steps to preserve it.

Let me be clear. I am not making a value judgment in putting this characterization forward. I am simply suggesting that, in a qualified sense, it is plausible. Whatever you may think of it, for now, consider agreeing in its plausibility and entertain the analogy.

I begin with a few platitudes regarding antebellum society. Southern culture was dependent upon and in some ways defined in terms of the African slave population. Southern Americans depended upon a society that, in many respects, resembled something more akin to a medieval style lord-serf economic arrangement than it did a post-enlightenment, industrial, western socio-economic system (a gloss over many points of differentiation). ‘Northerners’ like all good post-enlightenment, industrial, western peoples were hostile to the institution of slavery. This manifested itself politically.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in April 1820 after the Missouri Compromise,

“This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes. April 22nd 1820. Library of Congress.)

A line, marked across the country separating slave states from free-states would not do away with the institution nationwide and so would not calm the antipathy towards those who upheld the practice.

In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States. This was a culmination of what southern slavery proponents saw as a concerted effort, as old as the union itself, to use the Federal government to rule against southern practices. Their views, however, were given voice in Dred Scott v. Sanford where the Supreme Court overturned the Missouri Compromise on the basis that the Constitution did not give Congress the authority to decide what was property and when and where it was to be property. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave slave owners some reprieve but by 1860 power in Congress had shifted decisively and seemingly durably in favor of Northern states. With the election of Lincoln, southerners felt the threat to their social and economic order from the Federal government, a threat motivated by the unshared ethical convictions of their northern countrymen, to be imminent. They feared for their way of life, so they seceded, repatriated their sovereignty and armed themselves in order to defend it.

Now to the analogue. Since the New Deal in 1933 and before, there has been a concerted political effort, using the Federal government as the means, to redistribute property and provide social welfare, motivated from a set of ethical convictions. These convictions are not universal in the country. Some, like antebellum southerners, feel that the federal government has been used as a tool for forcing the unshared set of ethical imperatives of others upon themselves. Their sentiments too have found expression in the courts. Most recently in Virginia v. Sebelius it was ruled that it is unconstitutional for Congress to require a product to be bought as a part of the Affordable Care Act.

Progressives should note that they, like the abolitionists, are giving voice to their ethical beliefs politically and have and continue to look to the Federal government as the apparatus for effecting change. It is in their best interest to reflect and then decide, in advance, how important the realization of the ethical agenda is. For abolitionists the freedom of four million people from a life of forced labor was worth forcing their political will upon their countrymen and thereby precipitating a conflict that killed a half million men and wounded a half million more.

When people are made to give enough up, for your reasons, not theirs, they push back. It genuinely needs to be considered, in advance, how much push back is too much.

By Brandon Mitchell

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