A Less-than-Perfect Union?

Let’s say it’s a glorious autumn day in 1786, and you decide to enjoy the sea breeze along the bustling Boston Harbor. Frigates and merchant ships are unloading passengers and goods from up and down the coastline onto Long Wharf. Wooden crates stenciled “Magical Elixirs, Imported from Maryland” and “Settees, Imported from Georgia” are being hauled to the Customs House for payment of duties. Newcomers are startled by the swarming horse-and-buggy contraptions that clatter over the cobblestones.

“Hello, sir!” you greet a stranger. “Where do you hail from?”

“South Carolina,” he answers.

“Welcome to the Cradle of Liberty,” you add.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says. “But already I can see that this Massachusetts is a strange country. It is far too populous for me.”

“Well,” you retort, “South Carolina is an even odder country. Why, you have slaves down there. But accompany me to Durgin & Park Tavern. Perhaps we can see eye to eye over ale.”

 

Obviously, we made up this scenario. But it contains some truths that both reveal where our Constitution came from and help explain why, as current events show, it’s not holding up very well.

During the 1780s, just after the Revolutionary War, people considered the state they lived in to be their home country. Having gotten rid of the king of England, they had no interest in swearing allegiance to another country and its ruler. Most thought of themselves as Virginians or Pennsylvanians, for instance, rather than Americans. Merchants even charged customs for products shipped from one state to another!

The Framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write a new constitution for this collection of states wanted to draw the country together. That’s why the Preamble opens with the aim: “to form a more perfect Union…” At least two recent events, however, suggest that the union might be unraveling.

CAGovernorIn January 2017, the California legislature banned state employees from using public funds to travel to states that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. By June, eight states were on California’s no-go list because they had passed such laws as allowing adoption agencies not to place children with same-sex couples and forbidding transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Sports fans are probably relieved that California still does allow public university football teams to play games in Texas and North Carolina, despite their discriminatory laws. Nevertheless, California, the most populated state in the country is officially spurning laws adopted in Texas, the second largest state, as well as seven others.

ConstitutionTexasBoys
Photo Credit: RDM Pros

In June 2017, Texas Boys State—a week-long summer program in which high school juniors, called Statesmen, participate in a simulated legislative session—voted to secede. Their bill stated, “Texas…cannot in good conscience continue this tie with our former Mother country. For God and Country, The Republic of Texas hereby Declares her Independence.” After approval from the Boys State House of Representatives, the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 44-1, with 3 abstentions.

The Statesmen admitted that they were more interested in being the first group to pass such a bill than in actually urging Texans to secede. Nevertheless, their action shows that the topic is ripe for serious debate. They are, after all, politically active and will be eligible to vote in just several years.

There’s no chance that the citizens of Texas or the Legislature would actually vote to secede. However, in 2016, Republican Party conventions in at least 10 out of the state’s 254 counties adopted statements supporting the idea. That’s not many but it’s 10 times more than there were in 2012.

State officials and the federal government have been tussling with each other since the British slinked away in 1781. The biggest conflict occurred from 1861–1865. Now, some states are again shaking their fists at each other and at “the feds.” Secessionist movements, such as the Second Vermont Republic and the Cascadian independence movement in the Pacific Northwest, are arising from coast to coast.

Will the Constitution be strong enough to hold the country together? Or, is it seriously fraying?

21 comments

  1. “Will the Constitution be strong enough to hold the country together? Or, is it seriously fraying?”

    The Constitution was never intended to maintain the union, but rather to make it viable. What generally holds this fractious nation together is what we share in common outweighs what divides us. When this commonality failed in 1860, military force eventually prevailed.

    Your examples are moral posing, not a prelude to actual secession.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a fair point, Bart. The Texas Boys State statesmen did acknowledge that they voted for secession because they wanted to be the first to do so. Nevertheless, both examples provide dramatic ways for young people to understand and talk about issues of federalism.

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  2. The problem here is that the United States were not meant to be a unitary nation. The Articles of Confederation, literally, set up a *federation*, a *partial* union where only those matters viewed as necessarily done in concert were unified, and other matters reserved to the states. The Constitution, while it altered the balance set by the Articles, didn’t abandon this concept.

    We are a heterogeneous, continent wide collection of states. NOT a nation. Trying to forge a nation out of us just locked in the fracture planes between us, it didn’t abolish them.

    It’s possible that a restoration of federalism, which despite it’s modern centralizing connotations, really means leaving as much as feasible to the states, could heal over the wound. But I doubt it, chiefly because the main point of contention, on a meta level, is whether to retain federalism, or just become a unitary nation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Could the framers of the Constitution have ever foreseen the United States spanning the continent? Including states not attached by land? I don’t think so. Could they have foreseen the growth of urban centers with huge populations while entire states are barely populated? Probably not.

    It’s for these reasons that the Union is less than perfect. Wyoming has a population of 585,000 and two of 100 Senators. California has a population of 39,250,000 and two of 100 Senators. By any standard this is clearly not equatable. A perfect Union? No. Will the states with small populations acknowledge the inequity? No.

    I can see a future where California, Oregon, and Washington with 15% of the US population and 19% of the US GDP choose to leave the Union, becoming a new nation.They share to a large extent a political philosophy, cultural norms, and enjoy a 1290 mile long Pacific Ocean coast.

    The fault lines are forming now. The question is, when does the US break apart?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. pragmaticliberal says: “Could they have foreseen the growth of urban centers with huge populations while entire states are barely populated?”

      They had the large and small state debate during the last constitutional conventions and came up with the current bicameral solution with a House based on population and a Senate based on geography. Until the creation of the absolute bureaucracy, nothing got done without agreement by both chambers.

      “I can see a future where California, Oregon, and Washington with 15% of the US population and 19% of the US GDP choose to leave the Union, becoming a new nation.”

      Today’s divide is not so much between big and small states, but rather between a relative handful of heavily populated blue megalopolises and the rest of the nation. You need to keep this in mind when predicting a future secession.

      In the west coast states, the major cities share blue politics and culture. The rest of the territory in those states is part of the red heartland.

      It is unlikely that this heartland territory is likely to join the secession of a handful of blue city states, regardless of the results of a referendum or a state convention. Think WV refusing the leave the union with VA during the Civil War.

      How is a blue megalopolis like LA remotely viable as an independent nation without resources to support the population?

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      1. “Today’s divide is not so much between big and small states, but rather between a relative handful of heavily populated blue megalopolises and the rest of the nation. You need to keep this in mind when predicting a future secession.”

        This is true politically and philosophically, but each state has distinct boundaries. California, for example, has many more liberals than conservatives. If leaving the US ever comes up for a vote, it will be decided by those with the majority philosophy. Think back to the southern states that seceded before the Civil War. There were certainly those who did not want to take this action. They were in the minority and had no say in the decision.

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        1. You also had the minority in WV breaking off from the majority in seceding VA to remain in the Union.

          The only way a state like CA leaves is if Congress agrees to rescind its admission into the Union through some extra-constitutional manner or if the President declines to crush the rebellion through military force. In the case of the former, I doubt Congress will allow CA to force those who wish to remain in the Union to lose their American citizenship or their property.

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          1. Of course we’re talking in hypotheticals here. Any event that leads to states leaving the Union will occur in the context of a much larger breakdown of the federal government or a massive loss of confidence that the Union should even continue. That sounds impossible on the face of it, but then I never thought a reality show host would win the presidency. We are living in interesting times.

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    2. We agree with you to a great extent. In fact, the inequities inherent in the Senate form Chapter 2 of Fault Lines in the Constitution. I’m not sure I can “see” a future in which Pacifica breaks off but I can certainly “imagine” one. Thank you for joining our blog.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. A long comment isn’t showing — I hope there isn’t duplicates later on.

      Anyway, suffice to say, I think a few counties of over 200 in one state isn’t enough to state a trend but perhaps useful for debate. I don’t think the country is “seriously fraying” in a constitutional sense though there is room for concern. I still think there is enough things in common there to reject the idea we are not a “nation” and George Washington et. al. used that term back in the day too. We also still have federalism. As to staying tied to something from 1780s, lot added since then & good stuff is good stuff no matter how old it is. More change is warranted, surely.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d be interested in seeing a through analysis from a historian’s viewpoint of the idea that the United States under the Constitution of 1789 was intended to be a loose confederation of mostly-sovereign semi-independent states. Given that the majority of participants in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had participated in writing the Articles of Confederation and that only a few years later thought that a different constitution was needed that seems to me to be a very unlikely reading of the current Constitution, but perhaps I’m missing something that a professional historian would see. My undoubtedly naive reading of the Constitution of 1787 was that it was intended to greatly reduce the sovereignty of the states, create a much tighter Federal union, and somehow do this without banning slavery outright/triggering an immediate civil rupture over slavery. With the limitations on the independence of states tempered by the practical limitations of communication and transportation at the time)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If it doesn’t apply to anybody, then it provides the government it creates precisely no basis for exercising power.

    That’s the thing: Either the entire Constitution has to be in force, or none of it. Not just the parts the government of the moment finds convenient.

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  6. If Texas were to secede, might Texas pay for Trump’s border wall – or for a border wall at its northerly border, or both?

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