Union and Liberty – Why Progressives Should Resist “Secession-Lite”

In History and Politics, Liberalism, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics, Progressivism, Social Democracy, Social Policy on August 2, 2009 at 12:35 pm




Every so often, one sees liberal frustration with the extreme conservativism of the red states that it boils over either into an acceptance of neo-secession, or even an entirely theoretical advocacy of liberal secession. The former could be seen only a few months ago as Governor Rick Perry (in a move more motivated by a need to secure his right flank in an upcoming primary fight with Kay Baily Hutchison than any real conviction) threatened secession over the stimulus bill’s strings on additional money for the state’s Unemployment Insurance. The other, as can be seen above, emerged from the disappointment and frustration of losing the 2004 election.

As I will discuss, this view is historically and politically wrong-headed. To begin with, take a look at the 2004 map of “Jesusland” above – only four years later, a supposedly immutable division between “Red” America and “Blue” America looks very different – Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida are now apparently part of a large and regionally diverse “Blue” America, whereas Red America looks increasingly isolated in its Deep South enclaves. Thus, “Jesusland” more appears the result of a rather inept Democratic campaign and a very disciplined Republican campaign than any permanent breakdown in American political culture (and such division as remains shows us firmly in the majority).

However, there is a larger reason why progressives should at all times stand on the side of unionism. And for that, we need to understand our own history.


Daniel Webster, perhaps the most arch-New Englander that ever lived whose last name wasn’t Adams, occupies a place in history similar to that of Hubert Humphrey. Both men were gifted politicians and talented statesmen whose careers were ultimately brought down by their relentless political ambition (Daniel Webster would run unsuccessfully for president no less than three times, Humphrey would sacrifice every scruple to become Vice President in 1964 and Democratic nominee in 1968) and their tendency to seek a middle ground in the midst of an irreconcilable national conflict (slavery for Webster, Vietnam for Humphrey). Yet both men had a single shining moment of being absolutely and perfectly right about an issue of great national importance. Sadly, Hubert Humphrey’s moment came at the very beginning of his career, at the Democratic Party Convention in 1948 when he pushed the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights in its platform with an address that urged, “To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

Webster’s best moment was his reply to Hayne.

The Reply to Hayne:

As historian John Larson points out throughout his book, Internal Improvements, the debate over economic policy that characterized American politics in the first half of the 19th century was not merely a debate over tariffs or the National Bank – it was a debate over what kind of a country this would become, whether it would have an activist, dynamic government that intervened in the economy to promote economic development, education, and technological progress, or a smaller, decentralized government that stayed out of the market and let laissez faire. And slavery was at the heart of this debate. Southerners, who began the period secure enough in their political might to split amongst themselves regarding the Federal government’s involvement in national economic policy (some went with the Jeffersonian anti-centralism, others preferred a more Washingtonian nationalism) now feared that an active Federal government could regulate the inter-state commerce in slavery, and that the economic development of the West might result in a free state majority.

In this context, Robert Hayne of South Carolina rose to prominence as the protege of John C. Calhoun, the leading light of Southern anti-nationalism. When he rose to speak on January 18, 1830, his immediate subject was on whether the western (now mid-Western) lands should be speedily distributed or sold off gradually (a largely economic debate about keeping the price of labor from rising too high in the East due to immigration, the desirability of using land sales to fund Federal internal improvements, and so forth). However, his larger political object was to forge an alliance between the South and the Western states on the basis of a “state’s rights” resistance to Federal interference in their internal affairs (hopefully log-rolling Western opposition to Federal determination of land rights and Southern opposition to the tariff) by painting the North as the greedy exploiter of Western lands.

Webster’s first reply was to point out that the North in fact had been the great promoter of Western expansion (especially since, thanks to the Erie Canal and its superior financial, manufacturing, and commercial industry, the North was the main conduit of migration to the West, and the major trading partner with Western farmers), and pointedly listed the North’s support of the Northwest Ordinance (banning slavery in the new territories) as an example of the North’s friendship. Hayne’s response was to launch a quite personal attack on Webster as part of the “corrupt bargain,” New England as disloyal to the Union, and importantly, an emotional defense of both slavery as an institution and nullification of the tariff as a policy.  Many historians have speculated that Webster had been setting a trap by mentioning slavery in the hopes of getting his opponent to rise to the bait.

And thus the stage was set for Webster’s Second Reply. Beginning with a defense of New England replete with Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Webster seized on Haynes’ opening of the question of the tariff and nullification to pivot the debate away from the question of public lands and towards the issue of nullification and the nation.  In the opening of his speech, Webster laid out the debate as a clash between two theories of the Constitution – a Southern theory, in which the Constitution was the creation of separate and individual states who individually had the power to sit as a Supreme Court and rule on the constitutionality of Federal legislation (and potentially secede), and a Northern theory in which:

It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that the Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition, or dispute their authority.

A wise observer here would note the “made for, made by, and answerable to” and its rhetorical descendant in Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  This idea, which may seem very commonplace today, was radical in a time when the franchise was not yet universal, where indirect elections of all kinds abounded at every level, from the President to the Senate and in many states. There was an even more radical tinge to it – the sovereign people had made a particular grant of powers, some to the Federal government and some to the states, and had set the Constitution and Federal law as the “supreme law of the land.” Since all powers were in their hands ultimately, the power to alter, restrict, or abolish slavery was ultimately in the power of the people to grant through means of constitutional amendment.

In the face of this, Webster argued, South Carolina’s threat of nullification was no mere Southern bluster – it was an attack on the Union and the liberty of a self-governing people. Imagine a case in which the South Carolina government calls out the militia to prevent Federal tariff collectors from entering the state – civil war “drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood” would ensue. The subtext of his peroration, the idea that Southern obstruction on the tariff would one day morph into a civil war over the sectional issue of the “peculiar institution,” was for once met with stern nationalism. “There are, also, prohibitions on the States. Some authority must, therefore, necessarily exist, having the ultimate jurisdiction to fix and ascertain the interpretation of these grants, restrictions, and prohibitions. The Constitution has itself pointed out, ordained, and established that authority.”

The Federal government would not give way. If South Carolina attempted secession, and thereby threatened the rule of the minority over the majority, and the ultimate veto of the South over a national referendum against slavery, Webster and his fellow National Republicans, no friends to Andrew Jackson, would nonetheless support a Force Bill three years later aimed at empowering “the President of the United States, or such person or persons as he shall have empowered for that purpose, to employ such part of the land or naval forces, or militia of the United States” to bring South Carolina to heel by force of arms and restore Federal fiscal and judicial authority.

And without that insistence on the Union in 1833, there would have been no Northern response to secession and civil war. In that sense “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” in 1830 paved the way for “Liberty and Union” in 1865.


Today, the stakes are completely different. Nullification today is mere political posturing from the right-wing, as witnessed by Florida and Arizona’s laughable attempt to “nullify” the upcoming health care reform legislation. Notably, the Federal government has smacked down such talk with mock-earnest requests to accede to state objections by stripping them of their economic stimulus or Medicaid revenues – at which point, the states predictably waffle. States rights, apparently, are firmly held beliefs as long as you keep the money.

But even if it’s purely rhetorical, I would say that any attempt by progressives to write off the Red States is deeply misguided. Why? Because even in the most conservative states in the country, there are Democratic voters: in Texas, 44% of the electorate or 3,5 million voters cast their votes for Barack Obama (perhaps because 25% of Texans lack health insurance); Obama carried Florida by 240,000 votes; even in Arizona, 45% of the vote went Democratic in McCain’s home state. Even in the deepest red state of Oklahoma, 34% of the electorate cast their votes for Barack Obama.


And as 538.com shows us in the map to the left, there’s a reason for this – they can’t afford not to. For all the media pundits who like to spin about limousine liberals and Democrats having trouble appealing to white working class voters, the truth is this – poor people vote Democratic.

Look at the map – the rich split culturally or economically between the bluest of the blue states and everywhere else. The middle class is more spread out, looking more like the national Democratic coalition. But if this were a nation solely of the poor, the dispossessed, and the despised, there would be a single ocean of blue, with a tiny mountainous enclave of red up in Big Sky.

Can we, with any pride or dignity or claim to our own beliefs, abandon these voters who turn out to vote for every Democrat, even when they know they’re in the deep minority, who keep the faith because Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson kept the faith for the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”?

Can we abandon them, knowing it means leaving them to the tender mercies of the most conservative politicians in America?


Not when we know what this entails. Not when Alabama puts higher taxes on the groceries of the poor than the fortunes of the rich. Not when Texas looks the other way as one in four go without health insurance. Not when Kansas recurringly attempts to replace science with religion in the public schools. Not when anti-choice or anti-gay crusades sweep across the red states, further oppressing women and gays in their native land.

As a political movement that desires to solve the problems of poverty and lack of access to health care, that wants to see the union movement once more restored to a vibrant health, that believes  that public education is a human right, we cannot ever solve our nation’s problems without tackling the regional disparities that are at the heart of the matter.

Moreover, as history teaches us, we know what happens when we do abandon our supporters in the “red” states. We ended Reconstruction, pulled the Federal government out of the South, and focused our political attentions elsewhere – and lest anyone think that liberals bear no blame for this, let me remind you that the very emergence of modern liberalism in America began with middle class urban reformers in the North who were disgusted with the corruption of a Grant administration that for all its sins sent in the Army to crush the Klan, who believed that civil service reform was more important than civil rights, and who were more interested in “good government” than the rights of black voters in the South.

An entire generation of progressive Southern Republicans, black and white, who had extended the vote to all for the first time in Southern history, who had built the first public schools in Southern history, who had labored to reform debt and bankruptcy laws to protect farmers instead of creditors, and who had sought however haltingly to distribute land to the freedmen, perished in an orgy of political violence that lasted arguably for fifty years.

So, anyone for letting Texas leave the Union? I didn’t think so.

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  1. The opposing sides were known as the Union, or the North, and the Confederacy, or the South. Black Economic Empowerment

  2. […] in “the land of the brave and home of the free”. They also undertake an examination of “understanding our own history” – something we could all do with. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)CLASS […]

  3. […] until we see something like “BlueCare” for everyone in the blue states. Now, I’ve written before that progressives who dismiss the red states or who envision either letting them or the blue states […]

  4. […] content to think of themselves as progressive, because they support liberal social politics and because they’ve voted Democratic, without having to embrace truly redistributive economic policy – the natural constituency of […]

  5. I’m for southern secession. We cannot to continue to afford the federal government to be brought to it’s knees by evangelicals (who are motivated by racism), gun nuts, predatory capitalism, and the fringe right. For direction, let us look to foreign countries, areas, where migration can solve the problem. Get the southern states to agree to a 10 year period where people can move to a politically compatible area, with the understanding that there will by a political and economic separation at the end of that period. The truth is that we are, in fact, two different countries, two different societies, who over time have less and less in common. I have difficulties understanding why Lincoln was so insistent on keeping these two countries together. Look at Iraq, who has been in a constant state of civil war since the supposed boundaries were drawn up by the British for political convenience. It has been apparent in human history that we tend toward the tribal, and that the reasons for that can be economic, religious, or historical. For a nation to endure, we must have more in common then we have differences; I think the US has reached that tipping point..

  6. […] of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a response to (not entirely serious) calls from the left that the blue states should secede and […]

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