Favorite wars, favorite secessions

One way of identifying a person’s ideology is by referencing that person’s “favorite war.”

If you can get your average American to admit that both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were wars against secession, the next heady notion to contemplate is that, just perhaps, the U.S. took the wrong side on at least one of them.

I’d guess that most Americans’ favorite war is World War II. Americans fought against three obvious evil empires (Nazi, Italian fascist, and the Rising Sun), and, in the end brought them down. The worst thing most people I’ve talked to will admit of the war is that “three out of four ain’t bad” — recognizing that the U.S allied itself with the worst of the four regimes then extant, and then fought a Cold War for forty-some years because of that dangerous alliance.

But surely the Civil War has nearly as many (or more) “buffs.” And the Civil War certainly exerts a great deal of influence over our (varying) sense(s) of allegiance.

For instance, I often talk up secession, refer to it as a basic right and an obvious foundational aspect to any free federal union. It may be traumatic, but it is as necessary as divorcing an abusive spouse, or as satisfying as telling a crazy boss to “Take this job and shove it.” The usual argument against secession is a knee-jerk “but the Civil War settled that” routine. How many times have I heard this? Must be dozens.

Butler Shaffer deals with a recent case, writing “This nation traces its beginnings back to the Revolutionary War, which was premised on the legitimacy of secession from British rule. Intelligent minds need read only the first portion of the Declaration of Independence to confirm this.”

Now, for most Americans, the Revolutionary War is now as distant and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses. But for some of us (including most libertarians) it is the only war that we still give more than a half-hearted asset to, on some level. And the idea of secession, the idea of breaking away from a distant and oppressive sovereign power, seems as natural as leaving home after high school.

If you can get your average American to admit that both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were wars against secession, the next heady notion to contemplate is that, just perhaps, the U.S. took the wrong side on at least one of them. If one admits that secession was right and proper in 1776, what about secession in 1860?

Might not making right, who won the wars doesn’t matter, really. So smarter folk won’t repeat the canard about the issue having been settled.

So the next argument to go for is this: In 1776, the colonials were unrepresented and had a just cause. But all the states had in 1860 was slavery, which they wanted to keep in the face of an anti-slavery president and a Congress no longer in thrall to the Slave Power.

This argument has some merits, though it’s worth noting what the North had on its side: A very high tariff that hurt the South as well as free labor, while greatly aiding some business interests (many of them paying, by the way, for the campaigning of Abe Lincoln — but that’s another matter). Still, the importance of slavery in the motivation of southern state secession is quite clear.

It’s also worth noting, though, that one of the major complaints of the seceding colonies, in 1776, was the leniency with which the British government dealt with the truly native populations (Indians), and that, after Independence, the states consistently ignored and abrogated treaties with said populations, stole land, and even deliberately murdered native Americans. One could argue that one of the main reasons for independence was to defend genocide as a way of life in America. (It is to George Washington’s credit that he made a few weak attempts to deal well with Indians. He got nowhere and gave up. White Americans were horribly bloody-minded about the natives.)

And then there’s that nagging issue of slavery. The states — even the northern states, for the most part — had slavery at the time of declared independence. The British Empire got rid of slavery long before 1864. The effect of secession of the colonies was to extend the time this ancient institution could linger in modern life.

So, the secession of the colonies looks no better than — if not worse — than the secession of the southern states, if based on a moral judgment of the institutional practices of those political entities.

We really can’t get around this: Liberty is an ideal that most political agents and organizations honor mainly in the breach. Further, no single principle associated with liberty — secession, constitutional frameworks, the common law, etc. — is, alone, enough to secure equal liberty in a peaceful society. A lot of things have to come together to make for a just society.

Secession is a fairly obvious feature of freedom. But until the principle reaches down to the individual level, it can never express a univocal good. Neither the colonial nor the southern state secessions were wholly good. Or bad. Neither, in my judgment, deserved to be crushed. More peaceful ways of dealing with the outrageous moral faults of the early American union (by today’s standards the country would be considered a rogue state worth a major UN crusade) or the Confederate States of America would have been in order.

Indeed, it’s worth reconsidering the Pickering/Garrison thesis: That the North should have seceded from the union, not the South.

But all such considerations are speculative in the extreme. What would have happened if B or C had occurred, rather than A? The reason to begin to consider them — and not settle the issue, as the issues cannot be settled — is to open minds to more political options now. Today.

Only when the American Political Theodicy is overturned, and overturned utterly — only when people give up on the childish notion that every major event and turn of American policy was a good one, ordained as if by God or Destiny to make the world a better place — can Americans start making decent political and constitutional decisions.

And, after such a re-evaluation of all deeply held values, people will talk less about favorite wars, and perhaps think up better secession movements than in the past.

Until then, those of us who’ve gone part way on this value revolution will continue to have to endure inanities such as “The Greatest Generation” and “The Great Society” and whatever else boils up from the shallow minds slithering about the Potomac swamp.