One thing that consistently vexes me is the amount of time the modern statists, particularly on the Left, spend labeling the idea of decentralization and secession as “kooky.” The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 â€“ if they have read them or know about them â€“ are often portrayed as quaint and unsophisticated pronouncements of provincialism; the Essex Junto and Hartford Convention are called the products of deranged Northern madmen; Andrew Jackson, they say, was on the right side when he threatened the use of force to keep South Carolinian secessionists in line in 1832; and of course, they revel in the ultimate coup de grÃ¢ce to statesâ€™ rights and secession, the Northern victory in the War for Southern Independence. Who could root for the evil, “undemocratic slave power” clad in butternut, anyway?
This would be well and good if their arguments were logical. They of course forget that the South seceded through a democratic process, but beyond that, one only has to look at the history of American socialists and reformers to find that many of them were secessionists and viewed decentralization as the logical path to their “utopian” society.
The case of the failed “utopian” experiment Brook Farm in Roxbury, Massachusetts nicely illustrates how convoluted the Leftist argument against secession has become.
Brook Farm was established by George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, in 1841. They were transcendentalists who believed in the socialist ideology of Frenchman Charles Fourier, the intellectual progenitor of modern feminism. The Ripleyâ€™s devised an autonomous community that emphasized a communal lifestyle in the pursuit of leisure.
Every resident was to share equally in the task of growing products for market in order to maximize the time each individual could spend at leisure and learning. Sophia Ripley also ran the communal school. What they found is that most preferred leisure to work and a handful of the residents kept the rest afloat. Part of the commune ultimately burned down, and the Brook Farm “closed” in 1847.
But Brook Farm illustrated how socialist utopians viewed secession, or the removal from society, as the best means to practice their societal values. Fourier ultimately believed that no more than 1600 people should be involved in a single commune and each commune would be autonomous with only a loose confederation to oversee the entire process. In other words, there was very little large-scale centralization and tremendous decentralization, which they rightly viewed as the most democratic method of government.
Additionally, abolitionists consistently called for secession during the 1840s and 1850s. William Lloyd Garrison, for example, demanded an end to the Union in 1843. Henry David Thoreau simply seceded from society at Walden Pond. Other “reform” communities in New Yorkâ€™s “burnt over” district sought the protection secession offered for their way of life. Secession need not come from an established political entity to exist in fact. These groups in many ways viewed themselves as autonomous and democratic societies operating in disobedience of laws they considered unjust.
John Noyes and many of his followers were eventually run out of Oneida, New York for partaking in group marriage, a practice that violated the moral sensibilities of the rest of the state, but something the community believed was perfectly justifiable and natural. By flaunting their independent religious community and thumbing their nose at the state government, the Oneida community ultimately practiced a form of de facto secession from New York.
The same could be said for many individuals who headed west in the nineteenth century. Several towns operated outside the limits of the law, and federal or state power was often non-existent. “Boom towns” often exemplified the anything-goes spirit of the West, though in time churches, banks, schools, and other civilizing entities would show up. Even then, things remained fairly “rough” as long as the gold and silver kept pouring out of the mines.
These were virtually independent communities and many of the people who resided there were interested in evading government for one reason or another. The West offered anonymity and protection from government abuse. The Mormons, who headed to Utah after being kicked out of Illinois, chose the West for that very reason and ultimately went to war with the United States â€“ and threatened secession â€“ after they were placed under the federal heel. But in spirit, they were already independent and had their own laws and government in place.
These were not “right wing” groups by modern standards, particularly the “reform” communes in New York and Massachusetts, but they understood that decentralization offered a hedge against alien threats to their society and lifestyle. Thomas Naylor of Vermont, hardly a “right winger,” has been trumpeting the idea of an independent Vermont for almost a decade.
He has recognized that the lifestyle Vermont citizens want to enjoy will be consistently retarded by imperial bureaucrats in Washington D.C. This only makes sense. If Californians, for example, want universal health care, have at it, but donâ€™t expect the people of Alabama to pay for it. If New York wants to severely curtail private gun ownership, go for it, but donâ€™t subject the people of Georgia to the same loss of civil liberty. That is how federalism should work and is how the founding generation designed it to work.
Leftists would do well to remember that their complaints about a slow and unresponsive federal government could be solved by decentralization. They have more control over state and local governments and could implement their utopian vision of an egalitarian society more quickly and easily. And, if you donâ€™t like where you live, you can always move to a more suitable republic of your choice. There would be plenty of “conservative” and “liberal” republics to choose from in North America.
Of course, as we all know, modern state socialism is an ideology of power, money, and statism, which is why its “champions” at the federal level, the “progressives,” will never allow decentralization to infiltrate their political vocabulary; however, if enough Americans could be rightly persuaded that Washington is not the answer, either for “conservative” or “liberal” causes, then maybe the people would be willing to part ways and allow the Left to dominate the Northeast and West Coast and the Right to control the South and Mountain States.
This is a peaceful, just, and democratic solution to a centuries-old problem. Let the people of each sovereign state decide their own fate. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1801, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments to the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
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