Ron Paul, secession, and twisting history

Yesterday on the radio show Talk of the Nation (click that to see the transcript we’re working from) Republican Representative Ron Paul was a guest, along with independent Senator Joe Lieberman, talking about what lies ahead after their respective retirements from Congress next year. The host of the show brought up comments Paul made about secession after President Obama’s re-election in November. Some Texans have been talking about their state seceding from the union as a result of this election, and Paul joined in to confirm the right of any state to secede, comparing it, as people defending secession so often have, to the Revolutionary War. Paul made the comments the show was referring to on Fox News’ Cavuto program on December 1 (the lead-in for which was a host saying “Well, President Obama’s in, now more states want out”—surely an exaggeration, given that the number of people signing secession petitions in all of the states involved but Texas range in the low ten-thousands out of populations of millions). Paul began by saying he did not support secession, but averred that secession is allowed in the U.S. He couldn’t say it’s constitutional, of course, because secession is not provided for there, but called upon those ever-flexible Founders to say that secession is a non-extreme idea that they would have supported.

The states which have residents signing petitions are strangely familiar as a group: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South and North Carolina (and Arizona, the odd man out here).  

On Talk of the Nation, Paul offered this bizarre scenario when asked about his statements: “What if today, Greece, seceded from the European Union? The European Union got together, invaded Greece and killed about 50,000 people? We would frown on that.” One can only extrapolate that Paul is comparing the U.S. Civil War to this EU scenario, and criticizing the U.S. decision to fight the Civil War against the Confederacy (though one can’t figure out where the 50,000 number comes from).

Paul went on to say: “I think the freedom to leave is the description of whether or not you’re free. The Soviet system was so bad you could not leave. If you left, you got shot. So you have to have the right to leave. In secession, leaving—coming together is voluntary, so once you can’t leave, you lose your right of independence and self-determination becomes a very bad situation.”

This is a constant argument that Americans touting the right of secession use and, except for the Soviet reference, of course, the argument proslavery southerners made before the Civil War. The idea is that the United States are united by choice, not force, and therefore are free to leave the union whenever they want. This is simply untrue. Joining was voluntary; continued participation in the union is not. There is no protocol in the Constitution for states to leave the union, because if any state could leave at any time, it would be impossible to maintain a functioning nation. The only attempt by states to leave the union was answered by war. Being required to continue within the union is not equivalent to being imprisoned in a police state. The difference between the Soviet Union and the United States is that citizens of the states are able to participate in politics and create the change they desire.

Referring to the Revolution is also invalid, because the situation of colonies within an empire is not the same as states within the U.S. Colonies are goverened as satellites, without full rights as citizens. Colonies that break away from an empire know they must fight a war to do so, because they have no representation within the government of the empire, and are controlled for profit alone, a profit the empire will not want to lose. The states of the U.S. are not in that situation, as the American colonies once were, and so secession since the War is not the same as fighting for independence from an imperial government.

So far in the radio interview, Paul had only toed the usual misinformed line on secession that aligns it with the Founders and 1776, just as proslavery secessionists did in the late antebellum period. But then he veered into even more myth, claiming that during the War of 1812, New England tried to secede: “If you study history carefully, I think you’ll recognize that it was well accepted and recognized north – the New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was, you know, early on in the 19th century.”

Unfortunately, host Neal Conant affirmed this myth. The facts, however, are that during the War of 1812, which, like the Revolution, hit New England harder than other regions of the country, some New England Federalists threatened to call a convention to discuss secession. Like all Americans who call for secession, they claimed that they were “defending the true principles of the Constitution and of the nation itself” (Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, by Elizabeth Varon, 37). This Federalist fringe was immediately attacked by Democratic Republicans north and south, and by the time of the Hartford Convention in December 1814, any support New England secessionists had had withered away to almost nothing, and attendees of the Convention did not even discuss secession. Southerners, however, would hold the Convention over New England’s head for decades, at first chastising the region for its treason, and, in the 1850s, using the incident as proof that secession was legal (Ibid., 38-9 – for more on the changing nature of secession talk between 1787 and 1861, see Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War).

So secession was never “well accepted and recognized” in the north, nor is it true that “New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was”. New England was shamed and humiliated for decades afterward by its brief and very partial interest in threatening to secede, and most of that shame and humiliation was heaped on by the south—until the south wanted to defend secession as patriotic, at which point it praised New England for its early bandwagoning.

Paul went on to add to his misinterpretation of history by saying, “they recognized that it wasn’t like – it wasn’t evil, that they weren’t evil people because they wanted to separate themselves”. But of course New Englanders were made to feel evil because of the actions of a small fringe group, and New England in general did not want to separate itself.

Paul then wrapped up by dragging out the tired horse of states’ rights, saying “just having the right to secede or nullify would restrain, you know, the advancement of the central state. Now, if you lean towards saying, well, no, we need a stronger, more centralized control, then, of course, you don’t want that. But those of us who are strict constitutionalists and libertarians and all, we want government, local and at home, and not at the central level because we don’t believe in the central economic planning, whether it’s social planning or economic planning.”

The idea here is that if all the states were individual, not bound in a federal union, each would just have its state government, and we would not be subject to the horrors of big federal government. How “strict constitutionalists” could hold this position,which is clearly not part of the U.S. constitution, is unclear. But the idea that state governments are all good and pure, and would never trample the rights of state citizens like the federal government, and that the states are locked in an eternal battle with the evil empire in Washington, is not only an old one but one that is patently false. If the complaint against the federal government is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so states must strip the federal government of its power, what happens when states have all the power? Then each absolute state government will become absolutely as corrupted as the federal government is believed to be, because each will be the only government for its citizens. If the idea is that a state government is more responsive to its constituents because it is closer to them, and answers only to the people of its own state, that would surely be undone if the state government became the only government, with absolute power, and no outside, federal power to monitor its fairness.

The moral of the interview is: follow whatever political course you like—that’s the premise of the United States. But get the details right, and don’t ignore, or remain ignorant of, historical facts that interfere with your preferred world view. …and if you’re going to advocate “studying history carefully”, make sure you lead by example.

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