Wednesday, November 14, 2012

1860 Reloaded?

So here we are eight days after the election and already over 100,000 residents from the State of Texas have petitioned the Whitehouse to grant permission for Texas to secede from the Union. Approximately 19 other states are following suit, and I suspect before the week is over, Texas will have achieved a quarter-million signatures.

So what is this and what does it all mean? Well, for starters, a lot of this is just protest right now. It's merely a way for a frustrated electorate to vent. That's all. At this moment, based on how things are going right now, this whole thing will eventually fizzle and turn into nothing but a footnote in the history books. However, something else is happening that could potentially make this turn into something bigger. As pointed out on The Daily Caller, there are another two petitions being put forward to the Whitehouse, calling for the revocation of citizenship and deportation for anyone who signs a secession petition. These latter petitions, though they will not likely be taken seriously, present a much bigger problem.

You see, like it or lump it, the United States of America was founded on secession. In 1776 a small group of men, having been duly elected as representatives of their respective British colonies, signed a document that announced their effective secession from the British Empire. That document is called The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. Contrary to popular opinion, this document did not start the American Revolution. It was actually in reaction to a war that had already started. You see, what caused that eight-year bloody revolution was not the desire of the colonists for independence, but rather the way the king of England reacted to it, or maybe I should say "overreacted" to it.

Let's fast forward a couple generations now to 1860. Now we have the State of South Carolina launching a secession movement that would eventually span 13 U.S. states. Again, they cited the right of self-determination, and invoked the spirit of 1776. In 1860 through the early months of 1861, the following states actually seceded from the Union of the United States. They did so peacefully, without firing a single shot, and in an orderly fashion. There was no violence, no chaos, no anarchy and no hysteria. They formed their own governments, monetary system, post office and armies. It was about as peaceful and orderly as one could ever expect. These states where:

South Carolina -- December 20, 1860
Mississippi -- January 9, 1861
Florida -- January 10, 1861
Alabama -- January 11, 1861
Georgia -- January 19, 1861
Louisiana -- January 26, 1861
Texas -- February 1, 1861

The President of the United States at that time was James Buchanan, and while he opposed the secession movement in principle, he recognised that America was founded on the right of secession and the U.S. Constitution gave him no power to initiate any kind of military response on par with what King George did in 1776. Buchanan refused to run for re-election, and the presidential race of 1860 was split between four candidates. Abraham Lincoln won that election with less than 40% of the popular vote. Had the two minor candidates dropped out, Stephen Douglas would have handily won the popular vote, but still would have lost the electoral college. Lincoln's election in 1860 would have been an electoral college fluke no matter how it went down, but that wouldn't change the fact that Lincoln was elected on less than the popular vote. It was in effect and election nightmare, infinitely worse than what happened last week or in the 2000 election. If the objective was to elect the people's president then the will of the people definitely was not served in 1860. (Sorry, those are just the numerical facts. Prove me wrong if you can.)

Now what happened next is what brought on the American Civil War. Lincoln was not sworn into office until March 4, 1861. Remember, under the old constitutional system, the former president had a long lame-duck session that lasted about four months. During that time period, seven states seceded from the Union, all under Buchanan's lame-duck term. Undoubtedly, the election results played into their decision of these states to secede. Why? What was so bad about Lincoln? He was not an abolitionist, but simply adopted the popular Republican view that slavery should not spread into the new Western territories. He was seen as a moderate on the slave issue, and was elected largely on the Republican platform of 1860 which included...
  1. A call to preserve the Union of the United States of America,
  2. A call for the preservation of states rights, and the rebuke of any attempt to usurp them by military coercion,
  3. Condemnation of the presiding Democratic administration (James Buchanan),
  4. Condemnation of corruption within the federal government,
  5. A call to limit slavery to the current slave states and not allow it to expand into the newly organised federal territories in the West,
  6. Condemnation of the renewed international slave trade under ships bearing the U.S. flag,
  7. A call to admit Kansas into the Union,
  8. A call to raise taxes in the form of tariffs and excises,
  9. A call to protect homesteaders in the West,
  10. A call to maintain current immigration law (which was quite generous at the time),
  11. A call to increase government spending on infrastructure,
  12. A call for federal assistance to construct a transcontinental rail road.
In some ways the Republican platform of 1860 was quite "progressive" for its time, and aside from the issues of slavery and westward expansion, bears some points of resemblance to the current Democratic platform of today.  The typical Yankee (I'm a native Californian so I can say that with impunity) argument for the Southern causes of secession is that the Southerners wanted to create a "slave empire" in the West, and opposed Lincoln on that alone.  While the typical Southron argument is that the South was only interested in preserving slavery in their own states, and the real cause of secession was the promise of higher taxation by a Republican administration that would bring devastation to the Southern slave economy.  As we should all know, the first casualty of war is truth.  It has been literally one and a half centuries since this epic in American history, and historians are still debating the "real causes" of state secession.  The cause of the Civil War however, is a little more clear for anyone willing to see history for what it really is.

Mr. Lincoln was sworn into office on March 4, 1861.  In just a little over a month, on April 12, 1861, the nation was at war with itself.  Why?  Well because President Lincoln, having only been president for a month, initiated action which he was told in advance would be seen as provocative and result in a military response.  Lincoln was told by the Governor, of the newly independent country of South Carolina, that supplying guns and munitions to any federal forts in South Carolina would be viewed as a provocation and act of war against South Carolina.  So Lincoln then notified the governor that he would do just that. When the federal ships to fortify Fort Sumpter in Charleston Harbour arrived, this resulted in the South Carolinian attack on the fort, which is exactly what Lincoln wanted.  Nobody was killed or injured in the battle.  It was in effect, nothing more than an "incident" that involved a whole lot of fireworks and no casualties.  From this event, Lincoln now had the political justification he needed to launch a military invasion into the South that resulted in the deaths of over half a million Americans.  It was the worst war in all of American history.

The lesson to this little stroll down memory lane of American history is that secession movements, or even secession events themselves, do not cause wars.  What causes wars is how our leaders react to them.

Both King George III and Mr. Abraham Lincoln reacted to the secession of their respective territories with acts of violence or threats of violence.  In a sense, they overreacted.  By doing this, they effectively vindicated the argument of the secessionists.  This enraged the people they were effectively trying to retain as part of their empires.  In the case of both 1776 and 1861 their violent reaction resulted in the secession of more colonies/states, and then the "war was on" as they say.  The lesson of history, which our leaders would be wise to heed, is "don't overreact."  They would do well to stay calm, cool and collected.  They would do well to consider that talk of secession (self-determination) is a natural by-product of a free and open society.  They would do well to remember that America, and many nations, were founded on secession, and understand that sometimes to win people back, you have to first let them move away.  Suppose, for example, King George III had wisely given provisional independence to the colonists.  What would have become of things?  Might the United States been formed slowly, over time, under peaceful conditions such as Canada?  Might there have never been a division between the United States and Canada to begin with?  Suppose Abraham Lincoln had wisely refused to recognise the secession of the Southern states, but simultaneously refused to do anything about it, respecting the limitations placed on his office by the U.S. Constitution?  Would the other states have seceded at all?  (I know for a fact that my home state of Missouri would not have.)  What would have happened over time?  Might there have been a reintegration at some point later on, once the issue of slavery died out due to the industrial revolution a generation later?  Just think of the testament of history that could have been made by these two men as to the moderation and restraint of free and democratic societies.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  Instead these men behaved like infants, attempting to force their people to love them again, at the end of a barrel and the point of a bayonet.  The result was disastrous in both cases.  The only real difference between the War of 1776 and the War of 1861 is that in the War of 1776 the secessionists won, while in the War of 1861 the secessionists lost.

What troubles me about these new secession petitions in 2012 is not the secession petitions themselves, the signers, nor the concept of secession in the first place.  I do, after all, support the right of state secession and self-determination. (I just don't think it's the right thing to do at this time.) No, what troubles me is how many Americans on the political Left are reacting to it.  If left alone, these petitions will probably go nowhere.  Give it a year or two and they will be ancient history.  When it really comes down to it, an actual secession of a U.S. state would require a popular vote of the people within that state.  I highly doubt that is going to happen.  So let the people vent their frustrations and this will all blow over.  Even if by some weird fluke of history, a state did manage to legally secede, then the best thing to do is do nothing.  Let them have their independence for a while and see how they like it.  They'll quickly discover that in order to retain it they will have to raise taxes and deal with the same international problems the United States is dealing with today.  Within a generation or two, they may be begging for re-admittance into the Union, which of course we should graciously grant, now that they've learned their lesson on their own.  The exact wrong thing to do is react hysterically to all of this, as we are now seeing in the online petitions to revoke the citizenship of secessionists and deport them.  (It looks as if those petitions will receive the necessary signatures for serious consideration by weeks end as well.)  Doing anything against the secessionists, especially threatening any kind of legal violence or political persecution of the type suggested above, will only validate their argument, galvanise their resolve and add to their number.  It is exactly the wrong thing to do and demonstrates the same infantile mentality that exacerbated the situations in 1776 and 1861.

So is this really 1860 reloaded?  Well, not yet anyway.  The polarising issue of slavery is gone -- thank God!  We do have other issues which are nearly as polarising, such as abortion and gay-marriage for example, but they are not divided along territorial lines.  Also, the world has changed a lot over the last 150 years!  Presidents just can't do what Abraham Lincoln did and get away with it any more.  Lincoln, and his aggressive predecessor, King George III, were able to take advantage of the fact that communications were slow and visuals were limited to still photographs and paintings.  Today we live in the age of CNN, the Internet and the United Nations.  Anything a modern president does will be instantly beamed by live video feed around the world for every eye on the planet to see.  International opinion will be formed within hours of the event, and the president must face international accountability before the United Nations.  It would be extremely difficult for a modern president to just "pull a Lincoln" and get away with it.  Today, there would be an international price to pay, and it would be huge.  I seriously doubt President Obama, for all his flaws and inexperience, is that reckless and stupid.  I'll give the man more credit than that.  Hopefully, I won't be proved wrong.

If you want an example of how a modern secession movement should be handled, we need look no further than British Prime Minister David Cameron.  When Scottish secessionists recently took the lead in Scottish elections, Mr. Cameron immediately went to work on negotiations with secessionist leaders.  A deadline was agreed upon.  If the secessionists could hold a statewide referendum in Scotland, a popular "up or down vote" on secession, before August of 2014, and that vote turned up affirmative, the British Parliament (and by extension the queen herself) would recognise it and accept it.  Scotland would become a free and independent nation, apart from the United Kingdom.  After the agreement was made, he then launched into a national "preserve our unity" campaign that is now resounding all over the U.K..

Secession of Scotland, before August of 2014, will either rise or fall on the merits of the arguments for or against.  Nothing else will play into the decision of the people, and in the end, democracy will prevail.  There will be no force, no coercion, no threats of intimidation on secessionists, no reprisals, no hate, and no hysteria.  The decision will be made by adults in an adult manner.  Now, that's how these things should be handled!

It would seem that the British have learned their lesson from 1776.  They saw what a strong hand does in these situations, and the results are not desirable.  The question is, have Americans learned the lesson of 1861?  The popular petitions to strip secessionists of their citizenship and deport them would seem to suggest that many of us haven't.  The choice that now seems to be arising before us is this.  Will we Americans handle this new secession movement like adults?  Will we follow the mature example of the British?  Or will we follow the childlike and infantile example of our ancestors who let this sort of thing degenerate into war.  So far, the reaction I'm seeing on the political Left seems to suggest the latter.  In the end we can only hope that cooler heads will prevail.

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