At a time when we are generally asked to choose between one form of centralization over another, many people are beginning to look for the true source of Western Civilization’s prosperity and freedom – which they know wasn’t created by voting in more government. Thankfully, they can find this perspective in Nullification: Reclaiming Consent of the Governed by Clyde N. Wilson, an examination of philosophical ideas behind nullification and its relevance today.
At less than a hundred pages, it makes for an short but powerful read.
Because it is a collection of various speeches and literary reviews, it lacks the structure and cohesiveness of other similar works, but its intellectual depth makes it an excellent book companion alongside KrisAnne Hall’s Sovereign Duty.
While the United States government has completely strayed from its constitutional limitations, Wilson provides a clear, concise argument for why nullification is the tool by which the people can, through their States, reverse this trend. He writes:
Those who hope to revive a constitutional role for the States, as counters to the present U.S. Empire, must hope to make the States once more into self-conscious, viable politics who have the political will to enact nullification and stand by it.
It would be a shame if, in this world-historical time of devolution, Americans did not look back to an ancient and honorable tradition that lies readily at hand.
An emeritus distinguished professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Wilson focuses distinctly on the doctrine’s Southern heritage in contrast to other nullification writers who highlight its use in the North. This should come as no surprise, since Wilson has written extensively for decades on Southern history and is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Professor at the Abbeville Institute, which promotes the Southern tradition.
It’s also not difficult for Wilson to look primarily at the South regarding nullification’s history and proponents. The doctrine’s creators James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both hailed from Virginia. Wilson’s home state South Carolina also engaged in de facto nullification when the elected assembly and militia refused to obey the unjust yet legal authority of the proprietors who had been issued the colony’s charter by the British crown.
However, Wilson doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his analysis of political figures and historical events. His approach is often blunt, but his prose is inundated with Patrick Henry-like passion. Not surprisingly, he lambasts Lincoln and the invasion of the South in 1861 as a betrayal of the compact of states while praising Jefferson for his consistency on nullification and steadfast devotion to the principles of limited government and decentralized rule.
Meanwhile, Madison gets raked across the coals for what Wilson perceives as continuous flip-flopping on nullification. At the same time, he looks favorably upon John C. Calhoun and the nullification law enacted by South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 (Wilson has edited a 28-volume edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun).
Both the nullification ordinance and Calhoun’s prescribed idea of nullification differed significantly from the doctrine articulated by Madison and Jefferson. Nevertheless, Wilson observes that South Carolina’s nullification of the federal tariffs had its intended effect by successfully pressuring the feds into adopting free trade policy rather than the protectionism favored by Northern industry.
Naturally, Wilson doesn’t let the 10th Amendment go unmentioned and makes it adamantly clear that this “capstone” of the first ten amendments is of no use unless the people themselves act.
“Promoters of the 10th Amendment resolutions need to understand that the 10th Amendment does not enforce itself,” he writes. “Nor will it ever be recognized by any of the three branches of the central apparatus or existing political parties. It will have to be enforced by the people of the States whose freedom it was intended to protect.”
Wilson eviscerates many modern myths about the founding fathers, the U.S. Constitution, and the concept of states’ rights. The people of the states are sovereign and decide what powers they delegate. The proper meaning of the Constitution is “not a legal question but a historical one,” and it did not form a national government. The feds don’t decide what the Constitution says because they were created by it.
Also, because the people can amend the Constitution by a three-fourths vote, in no way “can we say the sovereign people have spoken their final word,” he writes.
One of the most insightful passages in the book concerns the tendency of modern Americans to quasi-deify the founders. Whatever their intent, the result is “a form of mysticism that leads itself to elitist rule,” Wilson writes.
If the Constitution is a miracle, then it has to be treated as a holy object and handled only by the priests, not by the common run of humanity. To treat the Philadelphia Convention as a gathering of demigods is worse than foolish and undemocratic; it prevents any real appreciation of their achievement.
Because the states created the federal government, they are the entries through which the people should exert their will via nullification.
Why are states’ rights the last bulwark of our liberties? It is a question of the sovereignty of the people-in which we all profess to believe. Every political community has a sovereign, an ultimate authority. The sovereign may delegate functions (as the States did to the federal government) though it may not alienate authority. It may also not always rule from day to day, but it is that place in society that has the last word when all is said and done.
Wilson arrives at a very somber conclusion. Nullification by itself cannot ultimately work.
“It is of no avail unless it is backed by the right secession,” he writes. “Curiously, recognition of the right of secession often obviates in use, because where it is a real possibility, power is motivated, has incentive, to check itself and be responsible.”
Despite the current political trajectory of the United States towards more and more statism, Wilson is optimistic that such days may be numbered.
There is a reason to believe that the consolidation phase of history may be coming to an end,” he writes. “We may be ready for a new flowering of freedom for families and communities. We know that the great periods of Western history have been not those of power states, but of multiple and dispersed sovereignty- flourishing liberty for small communities. We know that such freedom equals creativity in wealth, art, intellect and every other good thing. All over the Western world once again people are thinking of liberty-the most characteristic and unique of Eastern values-and are doubting the central state that has been worshiped since the French Revolution.
To paraphrase MacDuff from Shakespeare play MacBeth, the time is free to fight back against the centralized state. The only thing lacking is “simply in the realm of the political will and agenda-the practical effort to implement them,” Wilson writes. “That can change.”
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