If you’re a reading junkie – which I am – and find yourself bereft of unread material that strikes your fancy, you’re blessed if you have a pile of old favorites into which to plunge. I have such a pile, and it’s both large and varied. The reference works alone fill eight large bookcases. The fiction…well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there. Suffice it to say that while I can’t always make it from one end of my longline ranch to the other without stepping on a squeaky toy or knocking over a pile of books, I can always lay my hand on an old favorite tome with which to remember first acquaintances and reminisce about “the way it was.”
This morning my hand landed on Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress. Weaver had been inspired by Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, but felt he could add to her presentation usefully. MHP was the result, and it’s an impressive book indeed, both for its content and its eloquence.
But there’s one passage in the book that has remained on my mind ever since I first encountered it. It comes near to the end:
In the 1860’s, Americans fought to abolish slavery once and for all. At least, that’s usually thought of as the cause of the War Between the States; and it was a just cause, except that the problem of freeing the slaves was already well on the way toward a peaceful solution. But the real issue was the matter of states’ rights versus federal domination. Among other things, this involved the tariff question, which had long been a bone of contention between the industrial states and the agricultural states. The latter had for many years been fighting against high tariffs because they violated the principle of no special privileges for any one.
The southern states wanted free ports; the federal government insisted on uniform tariffs at all ports – and the election of 1860 meant higher tariffs.
Northerners fought to preserve the American revolution by preserving the Union. Southerners fought to preserve the revolution by defending the rights of the states.
During the War Between the States, European troops moved into Mexico – thus proving that the Northerners were right. But the drifting away from the constitutional balance of power which has been going on ever since may yet prove that the Southerners were right. At any rate, the slaves were freed, and the Declaration of Independence was applied to all.[Emphasis added by FWP.]
We have made many errors in our political and Constitutional language, but among the worst, and responsible for immeasurable damage to the concept of federalism, is the term states’ rights. A state – a.k.a. a government, whether large or small – cannot have rights; it is an agent with delegated powers and assigned responsibilities. Only a principal – i.e., an individual or a voluntary assemblage thereof – can have rights.
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution puts the matter far more clearly:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Therein lies the essence of federalism. The Constitution explicitly delegates certain powers to the federal government and explicitly denies certain others to the state governments. Those not mentioned under either heading are reserved: i.e., to be decided by the residents of the various states, usually by a process similar to that which gave birth to the Constitution itself. When questions of public policy – yes, including slavery – arose on which some of the states differed with Washington, the Constitution, including the Tenth Amendment, should have determined the resolution. The failure to do so was what precipitated the Civil War / War Between The States / Late Unpleasantness.
Hearken to the great Frederic Bastiat:
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues — and only two — that have always endangered the public peace.
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.
It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime — a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World — should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States — where the proper purpose of the law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs — what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a principle; a system?
Bastiat admired the United States tremendously, as is evident from the passage above. Yet in 1850, even he could see what lay ahead for the Union should the faults in our federalist structure not be addressed and corrected in a principled fashion (which they were not).
There are a few bloggers who seem determined to refight the Civil War. I count a couple of them as friends. I sympathize with their sense of grievance over the way the South has been treated by historians, especially those who write for a popular audience. But there’s no use in reigniting the conflicts of the mid-19th Century over which side was “more in the right.” As with the blind men and the elephant, both were partly in the right and partly in the wrong. Progress can only be made by focusing on the principles involved, how they applied to the issues of that time, and how to avert the mistakes made then – many of them emotion-driven – that led to America’s greatest ever loss of blood in wartime.
See what can come of rereading an old favorite?