Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Federalists and Unitarians – the Return of States Rights

By Bernie Quigley

The recent appointment of John Roberts to the Supreme Court has brought The Federalist Society to the public eye. Federalism is an American riddle. No one really knows what it means anymore. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. was driven to apoplexy at even the mention of the Federalist Society, which Roberts belongs to, although he says he can’t remember signing up. In a letter to The New York Times Schlesinger wrote (August 7, 2005): “The Federalist Party, the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton, stood for a strong central government. The Federalist Society stands for negative government and states' rights. If its members were honest, they would call themselves, in the terms of the 1790's, the Anti-Federalist Society.”

In the beginning, novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Jr. once wrote, when God created the world he divided it into two teams. But Democrats and Republicans are not the two teams. Today, there is only one team. Schlesinger, a Democrat, and one of the key architects of the Kennedy agenda and Presidency is on Hamilton’s team. But so are all Republicans today. And in spite of some seductive states-rights sweet talk by Ronald Reagan in the early days of his campaign for the Presidency, he became one of the most Hamiltonian of Presidents in modern times. No candidate or political party today advocates the Jefferson view.

Up here in the mountains of New Hampshire where the buses don’t run we have a few Libertarians who are not Hamiltonians. But Jeff Davis aside, the last so-called “Anti-Federalist” president was James Monroe, a Democrat-Republican who yielded office in 1825. When God created the world he created two teams as Vonnegut said. On the one team were Hamilton and Adams, joined by Washington after he signed the John Jay Treaty. On the other team were Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. The first shot fired in this conflict was the one fired into the heart of Alexander Hamilton by Jefferson’s vice president and fellow Democrat-Republican, Aaron Burr. The last was fired at Appomattox Station.

Thus the shrill voice of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. when even the topic is brought up. The Federalist Society holds in honor its avatar, James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Jefferson’s right-hand man. And now there is new talk since the Roberts appointment – journalists mention it in hushed tones and with knowledgeable chills. Will the new justices appointed to the court look to the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers? But again, which original intent do they mean? There are two sets of original intentions, one for each team.

Perhaps the greatest essay on the nature of federalism as it was understood in the Revolutionary Period is by historian Frank Owsley, author of “Plain Folk of the Old South,” and a key influence on all Southern historians since World War II. In an essay titled “The Irrepressible Conflict,” published in a classic series of essays by dissident Southerners known as The Agrarians at Vanderbilt University in 1930 (I’ll Take My Stand, Louisiana State University Press, Lewis P. Simpson, Editor) Owsley gets to the core of federalism in 30 remarkable pages.

“In the beginning,” writes Owsley, “ . . . two men defined fundamental principles of the political philosophy of the two societies, Alexander Hamilton for the North and Jefferson for the South. The one was extreme centralization, the other was extreme decentralization; the one was nationalistic and the other provincial; the first was called Federalism, the other State Rights.”

Owsley disagrees with Schlesinger. He says the States Right position should be called Federalism and the Hamilton position called Unitarianism.

The different views of the two men grew out of two fundamental differences which existed between the two sections, writes Owsley: the North was commercial and industrial, the South was agrarian. “The fundamental and passionate ideal for which the South stood and fell was the ideal of an agrarian society. All else, good and bad, revolved around this ideal . . . Jefferson, not visualizing the industrial revolution which whipped up the multiplication of populations and tore their roots from the soil, dreamed of America, free from England, as a boundless Utopia of farms taking a thousand generations to fill.”

Owsley suggests that had there not been slavery as an added difference between the agrarian South and industrial North, the two sections would have developed each its own political philosophy to explain and justify its institutions and its demands upon the federal government.

In hindsight, apologists for both sides may have lost their bearings – if Northern attitudes were a product of industrialization, and Southern attitudes a product of an agrarian system which is gone with the wind, both have lost their economic motive. Slavery is thankfully gone for good in this country. But industrialization is quickly following - on the road again to Mexico and China. So why does the Hamiltonian model persist? Or does it? Today we have culture wars between red and blue America which in many ways seem a hangover from the contentions of the 1950s and 1860s.

Historian Dan Carter writes in his book, The Politics of Rage, a biography of George Wallace, that the entire Wallace rise and fall was a reaction to the new initiatives of the culture of the 1960s, of the Freedom Riders in the South, the integration decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the hippies and so on. “. . . as the civil rights movement expanded in the 1960s to inspire the women’s rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the politics of sexual liberation, George Wallace adroitly broadened his message,” writes Carter. “Journalists might greet this growing counterculture with curiosity, even approval. But Wallace knew – instinctively, intuitively – that tens of millions Americans despised the civil rights agitators, the antiwar demonstrators, the sexual exhibitionists as symbols of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family, and country.”

Wallace invoked images of a nation in crisis, writes Carter, a country in which thugs roamed the streets with impunity, antiwar demonstrators embraced the hated Communist Vietcong, and brazen youth flaunted their taste for “dirty” books and movies. “And while America disintegrated, cowardly politicians, bureaucrats, and distant federal judges capitulated to these loathsome forces."

And furthermore in the summer of 1974, after Wallace made a much-heralded visit to the Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty Road Baptist Church, home of the burgeoning “Moral Majority” movement led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the Wallace bid would evolve into what has come to be known as the Religious Right.

From first days to the present, there it is: Pat Robertson, Newt Gingritch, the NRA, the 104th congress, the “culture wars,” the teaching of Creationism, the whole nine yards – it’s all about the Beatles.

Perhaps culture is not really enough to fight about and these contentions will dwindle. The rise of the Asian economies will certainly turn our gaze elsewhere in the next century, and California and the Pacific Northwest are certain to develop more fully with this trade – conceivably in opposition to “old school” America back East. And anyway some of the most formidable hippies – Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson – were Texans. And one of the country’s most deeply conservative current governors, Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney, is a Westerner. Only recently, one of our governors even up here in the North Country, Angus King, was a Virginian.

And in very recent times, the states rights defense was used again. This time by Representative Barney Frank, in defense of gay marriage in Massachusetts.