I rather enjoyed reading Thomas Woods’s dismantling of Sean Wilentz’s imaginary history of nullification in the United States. To further illustrate the Everest-like heights of Wilentz’s ignorance, leftist Katrina Vanden Heuvel spoke up to note that, no, nullification can be and has been employed by notable defenders of human rights in American history. Like Woods, Vanden Heuvel mentions resistance to the fugitive slave laws, which is, of course, an excellent example of the virtues of nullification. If we consider secession to be an extreme (in a good way) sub-class of nullification, we might also note New England’s threatened secession in the face of the pointless and aggressive War of 1812. We might also note the abolitionists’ argument that in order to free the United States from the slave drivers, the North should secede from the South and found an actually free nation, which, unlike the United States, did not live under a bloated cloud of hypocrisy that had existed ever since the Southern states insisted on writing slavery into the Constitution of 1787.
If only the secessionists and nullifiers of the abolitionist movement had been successful! There is no doubt that some of the most heroic people in antebellum America were the operators of the Underground Railroad (like this fellow) who were branded traitors and criminals by the slave drivers, but who, in their lawbreaking and personal nullification of federal laws, brought many fellow members of the human race to freedom. Had the Northern states jailed and driven off the federal agents who had attempted to enforce federal fugitive slave laws, the Underground Railroad in the North would not have been necessary at all. In real life, however, the local obedience of most Americans to federal law meant most runaway slaves had to be spirited away to Canada, where they could be actually free of American laws written by slave whippers and obeyed by the mass of the Northern population which lacked the courage to nullify.
It is interesting to think what might have been. Had the North seceded from the South in either law or just in practice, would the South have become a garrisoned slave state? Perhaps roads and rivers and crossings might have become closely watched checkpoints to keep “property” from escaping to a foreign country. The South may have become like an enormous East Berlin with an underclass of millions imprisoned within a state with closed borders. Of course, most northerners were far too racist to allow large numbers of runaway slaves swim the Ohio to freedom, but the situation would have still been a vast improvement over a North that had been effectively rendered slavery-friendly by federal law.
Vanden Heuvel makes the point that the slave drivers were hypocrites about nullification and decentralization. That is certainly true, and the history of secession, nullification, and limiting federal power is drenched in hypocrisy on all sides. Ol’ Abe Lincoln was fine with secession when the Texans seceded from Mexico. But it was verboten when the Southerners did it. John C. Calhoun had no qualms about vastly expanding the scope of federal power when it meant annexing the northern half of Mexico. Jefferson blatantly violated the Constitution and his own decentralist principles with his embargo and his Louisiana Purchase. Many of the same abolitionists who supported nullification and secession before the war opposed it after 1861.
Yet none of these hypocrisies proves nullification and secession wrong. The hypocrisies of Calhoun and Jefferson reflect poorly on the men, but they have no bearing at all on their arguments against centralized and oppressive states. Their arguments were sound then, and they’re sound now.11:19 pm on April 6, 2010 Email Ryan McMaken