Friday, November 04, 2005

Every State a Free State: A States Rights Defense Against Dick Cheney
Last year a group of youthful Libertarians moved to my state to start a Free State Movement. Largely they were mocked and patronized by the press. I published this essay in The Free Market News Network, March 22, 2005, to greet them and welcome them as neighbors. These people show initiative and courage and they should be listened to. As our greatest ambassador, George Kennan, stated recently - virtually on his death bed - our country has taken such tragically wrong turns in recent years that regions with the character to do so should consider making their own way in the world. Today, news services report that Vice President Dick Cheney made an unusual personal appeal to Republican senators this week to allow exemptions to a proposed ban on the torture of terror suspects in U.S. custody, according to participants in a closed-door session. Most Americans would find abhorrent the notion of condoning torture. But if our Republic as a whole has come to this state of collective disgrace, the parts which remain Jeffersonian in spirit should begin to consider Kennan’s wise counsel.

On first reports that a group of Libertarians was looking for a place to make a fresh start and this was one of the locations they were looking at, nor'easterners responded with a Yankee sense of concerned indifference and phlegmatic detachment. Come on up, the governor responded. It was a good place to come - cheap living shrouded in beautiful mountains with six months of snow and silence, and in the spring, bear and moose wandering into your back yard. There is nothing quite like a clear, cold night sky full of stars with coyotes crying on the edge of the forest to bring you back to first principles. And nothing clarifies the mind and brings it out of slumber like stoking a good New England wood stove on a crisp, cold morning - one in the kitchen, preferably, where family will share the warmth. Especially if you have split your own wood and harvested your own trees.
That these young people would seek secession if they didn't get what they wanted didn't cause much of a stir. Daniel Shays down in northern Massachusetts had done the same after western Massachusetts farmers quickly discerned that Sam Adams was just pulling their leg about taxes and all before the Revolution. Adams' slogan, "No taxation without representation," worked better among the Clipper ship captains, China merchants and newly rich real estate agents in Boston which was in direct economic competition with London, than it did in the north country, where most of the farmers were indifferent to governance by either London or Washington - both seemed far beyond their reach and their imagination. Then after the Revolution, taxes didn't go down as Adams said they would. They went up. Most everyone in the United States has forgotten Daniel Shays and his Rebellion which brought about the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia but up here we haven't as it is our native history. Maybe there is still something antiquated in our mind that doesn't quite gel with the big world of the federalists and the globalists that followed Sam Adam's tax rebellion.
I was born and reared about three hours away from where I sit now and like others, I guess there is a sense that something has passed us by. In Rhode Island we even had our own accents and used funny words like "parlor" and "piazza" when referring to the screened wooden porch out back. And if we left town people had a hard time understanding what we were saying. In those days, the country roads among the swamp Yankees who lived in places like Little Compton and Nanaquarket - places that still had beautiful Indian names - were lined with huge elegant elm trees. Every quiet country road in New England was lined with elm trees that rose like cathedrals. Then something happened and they all died. Every one of them. And all at once they died all over New England. And something else happened. They put a bridge in between Newport and Jamestown and our quaint little towns were no longer eight or ten hours away from New York City on secondary roads, but two hours on good roads. And that was the end of that. So a few Libertarians with new ideas didn't seem like much of a threat and if anything, they appeared to our eyes to resemble our own Daniel Shays more than they did the New Yorkers, one of whom bought an entire street of old colonial houses in Little Compton all in one afternoon.
In New England, we understood about federalism. We understood what it meant and what it would bring. And we understood its symbolism and how it changed us. When the New England town common that I live on here in New Hampshire was built in the mid-1700s, in the center was a stone well, the most ancient symbol of any people, the symbol of soul, tradition, earth and animals as they all meet together in secular and divine community. We meet at a stone circle and carrying water from the well brings nourishment, spiritual as well as physical. When people meet at the well they meet the elements of earth and water of which they are apart and there they find their union with the world and with the Universe. Most stone wells are round in New England and in the English tradition - the circle representing the collective psyche and Mother Earth. Yank farmers of English stock also had a particularly special tree if front of their house that they built their farm around and honored in the same agrarian tradition and one New Hampshire man even penned a song you still hear today at winter solstice combining traditions called, "Jesus, the Apple Tree." The town common today is nicely restored but they took the well away. You can still see it - they put it down the road, off to the side and out and away from the common. What they put in its place was a flag pole and an American flag - not even a state flag until I called to whine, just an American flag. Federalists have no use for stone circles.
New England understands federalism because we lost our original spirit to federalism in the build-up to the Civil War. Just as the South would yield to the New Yorkers - they of the "Empire State" - so too would New England submit. Our great poets and speakers - Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott who brought us natural religion and Theodore Parker who brought us warfare - were our best. But in my opinion, they were also our last. Now, like Andrew Wyeth's great but haunted paintings of Maine's manor houses and farmsteads, New England's spiritual house is empty.
This is a consequence of federalism. New England went willfully under the banner of federalism to great effect, but there are consequences as well. Until now, northern people have never challenged the principles of federalism. Generally speaking they were satisfied with their lot and had won the day. From the early part of our passing century we had conquered the world. From 1865 onward, complaint of the nature of the federal compact had come only from the South. But now, for the first time since the Civil War, the federalist principle is being challenged by northern people and that is a consequence of the war on Iraq. When the Libertarians moved to Littleton bringing with them the idea of states rights and an independent spirit, the only other coherent voices on the continent making a credible claim for the same rights were The League of the South and the Parti Quebecois in Quebec Province, both of which sought independence through non-violent and democratic means. Now there are perhaps more than a dozen such groups, like the Free California movement and the Republic of Cascadia. And some have fancy web sites and fancy lawyers. All of these new groups are in the so-called blue states.
The war on Iraq began to explain federalism to people who hadn't thought about it or who took it for granted for 140 years. Federalism means that if Washington, D.C. declares war on some other country for whatever purpose, the states have no say in the matter. Nor do the states have a say in any other matter. For practical purposes one can dissent only as an individual.
At the beginning of the war on Iraq I proposed that we in the northernmost states of New England did not have to participate and under Thomas Jefferson's view of the Constitution we had the right not to participate as states. And anyway, if we felt it was wrong to do so AS A STATE we had the moral obligation not to do so. This was based on Jefferson's having written a secession clause to the Virginia constitution and the Kentucky Resolutions which he wrote in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, stating clearly his purpose that the states were the final arbiters of the Constitution. The Constitution, like marriage, should open you up and Awaken you, not shut you down and cripple you. My proposal received surprising support from the most liberal quarters in the north as it did from conservative Southerners. But most northern people I spoke to then had never before considered themselves to be citizens of a particular state and region and having particular rights as a citizen of that state. My explanation was that which the stone circle signifies - you are a citizen of a real place - a state with formidable mountains and great beauty and character and with its own way of earth, water, wind and bears in the woods and clear nights in winter and its own soul and traditions and its own personality - in federalism you are the citizen of a concept; a citizen of an economic policy. In federalism you do not live in a place. You live in an economic zone.
Until the war on Iraq and the reelection of George W. Bush northern people didn't care about this as they felt they held the balance of power in the federation. But now no. Now they look at states rights again and now it is time to look at Jefferson again. My claim at the beginning of the war on Iraq was that we in New Hampshire had the right to secede at least temporarily as Jefferson had written a secession contract into Virginia's contract. My home state of Rhode Island had one as well and these natural rights had only been removed as an expedient during the Civil War. And just as the Southern states had their sovereignty taken from them, so too the New England had yielded its sovereignty and its soul up to a principle.
Having lived in two states in my life with strong and unique identities, Rhode Island and North Carolina, I cannot understand why any state would not want to be a free state as Jefferson proposed it. Every state should have the same secession clause that Jefferson wrote into Virginia's contract when he tentatively entered Virginia into federation and I cannot conceive of a state today with its own personality and life force not desiring and demanding to have such a clause. Every state should be a free state and every state should have a constitution declaring itself to be a free state and allowing it to gather with its own neighboring states and regions in any way it so desires.
Part of the education we receive which demonizes Daniel Shays and the Whisky Rebellion and the Hartford Convention also condemns the Dread Scott case as en expedient for the cause of the Southern states. It rightfully should. Dread Scott was bad law put into effect for political expediency. But it seems entirely possible that the Supreme Court's rapid work to nullify Jefferson's perspective in the midst of Civil War against the Southern states was also shadowed by expediency. History remembers those who restore order - Washington, Lincoln, and Eisenhower - and leaves nuance to the hagiographers. We should go back there and look at this again in the clear light of a New England morning.
I have no doubt to the outcome if the Supreme Court were to be asked to look again at these issues. We would find a predictable result. Most often the Constitution becomes a mere talisman at such crucial junctures and supports the prevailing orthodoxy - increasingly, in our times. But the Constitutional right to self determination seems clear. As Jefferson said, this is natural law. What needs to happen is that every state should look to take back its own inalienable rights as the Free Staters in New Hampshire look to Be Free. Every state should call on its state government to renew itself and review its contract with the federal government and if doesn't allow for the free association of states and regions to write a new compact. Each state should insure that their federal compact affirms Jefferson's view of the states as safest guardian of the liberties and the domestic interests of the people and the surest bulwark against anti-republic tendencies as he clearly states his position in his inaugural address.
Prior to the Civil War, New England was closer to Jefferson's view than to Hamilton's view. It is our natural birthright and we should reclaim it and call for the reapportioning of states rights and federal rights and perhaps regional rights. States rights and secession are the same issue. We were a fledgling continent when we were first declared a federation. 230 years later we require a new culture of government including state and county circles, regional circles and continental circles. Wisely, George Washington put the center of the country between Northern and Southern regions which had already been in contention by opposing principle for almost two hundred years. But now we are a full continent, North, South, East and West and perhaps it is time to meet again in a new Constitutional Congress at a more appropriate place between the four corners and consider both Daniel Shays and Thomas Jefferson.