I see from the news that persons in all fifty states have now signed petitions asking the president to grant permission for their states to secede from the union. Isn't it nice that they asked? Last time around, Secessionists just seceded and said to hell with it. After better than half a million Americans were slaughtered on the battlefields of the Civil War, it turned out Secessionists didn't have the right to secede on their own after all. Maybe they should've asked first. Politely.
Was it Mark Twain who said history doesn't repeat itself but frequently rhymes? That seems a remark with an application for today. Here we are, near the end of the second year of the Sesquicentennial of the Brothers' War, and talk of Secession is again in the air. It's a little out of phase with the Sesquicentennial, since South Carolina, first to secede, did so in December of 1860, so the parallel isn't exact. Yet both Secession movements coalesced around a presidential election at a time when the nation was sharply divided over the question of what the United States was. Is it a collection of sovereign states that can join or leave the Union at will, or is it a single nation inextricably bound together by common values?
Most of my life I've believe we were the latter, that the United States was a community of many different interests all of which were dedicated to a set of ideals embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Now as we all know--as MSNBC and Fox News repeatedly remind us-- the odd thing is, few if any of us agree on what those ideals are, or at least with how they are to be practiced.
We are a Democratic Republic which, when you examine the term, sounds like an oxymoron. Democracy means the people rule. Republic means representative government. All through our history the two principles have been shaken, not stirred, like James Bonds' favorite drink, but unlike Bond's vodka martini the ingredients have somehow not quite perfectly blended, and have often been on the boil. If you look back through our history, all the way back to the Revolution, you'll find the same tension between the democratic and republican ideal.
Maybe the conflict is good. It keeps us stirred up, keeps us asking serious questions of ourselves. Maybe the discussion keeps our democratic republic fresh and new. But it can also be dangerous if we lose sight of our common interests and of our reverence for the nation, which stands almost alone in the world as a symbol of freedom. You can get a strong argument over the cause of our own Civil War. Some will say war came because the North was determined to rid the nation of slavery, others will say the argument was over states' rights. But what's interesting about today's secession movement is that, just like the last one, it was precipitated by a presidential election whose result many in the country couldn't stomach.
Lincoln was a so-called "Black Republican" who deplored slavery but had promised to protect it because the Supreme Court had implicitly upheld it as the law of the land. A crowd of other candidates, representing various shades of opposition to various parts of Lincoln's platfrom, such as it was, split the vote and Lincoln won. Secession followed, and then war, because Lincoln felt he must fight to preserve the Union; only in 1863 did he embrace the antislavery cause Secessionists had expected him to pursue..
Last month we had another election and once again, incredibly, the secession cry rises. Why? Creeping socialism, I hear. An incoming tide of illegal immigration. A war on capital. A class war. A war against the 47 percent. A war against the 1 percent. A war of takers against makers. Sorry, but I can't help thinking, What is it about this president that has enraged so many people? Yes, I know--the rise in joblessness, the economic crash, a middle class besotted with government handouts, etc., etc. And I know the counter-arguments too, about the country being taken over by plutocrats and superpacs. But underneath the rhetoric, what is the real reason?
When the president was inaurgurated almost four years ago the leader of the opposition declared it was the chief goal of his party to depose the man the American public had just voted into office. Why would that be? Why would he want to undo the expressed will of the voters? Is it still in doubt, as it was in 1860-61, whether the elected president is chief executive of the whole nation, or that the nation includes all its subordinate units and citizens? Are not all of us in this experiment of democratic republicanism together? Well, if history does rhyme, maybe the answer is that the newly elected chief executive was seen by his opponents as "other"--perhaps not born within our borders, perhaps Muslim, perhaps a socialist, or maybe, God forbid, as, impermissibly, a black man, just as a Union without slavery would have been "other" to the South of 150-odd years ago. If that's true, if that's all this hubbub boils down to, it saddens me. We ought to be better than that.
Now, as some of you may know because I've written about it, my family, on my father's side, were Confederates. Remember that I said Confederates, not Secessionists. On my father's side my great-great-grandfather was a poor, maybe illiterate shoemaker; the other was a well-to-do farmer, justice of the peace and slaveowner. My shoemaker antecedent joined the Confederate Army in 1862 and fought all the way through to the end, including getting captured and paroled at Vicksburg and returning to the ranks after being duly exchanged to lose the use of a leg in one of the last battles of the war, Bentonville, in Eastern North Carolina. My slaveowning ancestor sent three sons off to the Confederacy, one to the cavalry and two to the infantry. Only one came home, and he was deranged by what we would now call PTSD and died in an insane asylum. I don't know if my great-great-grandfathers were Secessionists; shoemakers couldn't afford slaves and had little stake in that argument, so I doubt if he was a Secessionist; slaveowners did, but my forebear left no record showing what his opinion of Secession had been. Most likely he and his sons thought they were resisting Northern agression and defending home and fireside. But they both accepted the outcome of the war, and practiced Democratic politics for the rest of their lives
On my mother's side I've never been able to find out where her ancestors stood on the question of Secession. But the family was from Mitchell County, NC, largely a Unionist county, and lay adjacent to Yancey County where I now live, which was then, and remains today, largely Democratic. My mother's family were Republicans. But this was dark and bloody ground in those days, a nightmare of lawlessness, the haunts of deserters from both armies, bushwhackers like Kirk's Raiders, outlaws, assassins feudists and and barn-burners. I imagine it was hard to hold onto a political or social ideal in that environment. What theirs was, I can't venture to say. Probably they just hoped to be safe.
My point is that if we the people could get through that terrible struggle and its aftermath of Reconstruction, and unite, as we did, in later years, by comparison today's Secessionists sound to me like spoiled children fighting over a toy in a sandbox. If I can't have my way, they whine, I'm going to go home. Well, all fifty states can't go or the United States will disappear. One or two particular states I wouldn't mind losing. But most of us need to stay together, because the United States of America remains the last best hope of earth. The young people in uniform in Afghanistan are not fighting and dying for the Stars and Bars; they're defending the Stars and Stripes and all that flag stands for. So I say, anybody who wants to break us up is no patriot. Here in America we're nothing if we're not a family.