Esquire Fails on NullificationI consider myself a fairly reasonable guy.  I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent, even when I disagree with them.  But there are some people who, by nature of being a reviling combination of ignorant and arrogant, waive their right to the assumption of positive intent.

Enter Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce.

Pierce recently authored a hit piece on nullification titled “A Historically Bad Idea“, criticizing Missouri’s attempts to nullify federal gun control legislation.  Pierce’s exposure to the principle of nullification apparently came during a less-than-open-minded trip to CPAC where he viewed the Nullification the Rightful Remedy documentary that “was intermittently amusing in its complete contempt for its audience’s intelligence.”  That’s right, folks, a writer for Esquire is now lecturing about intellectually vapid content.

Pierce takes issue with the film’s focus on northern states’ “resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, and how nullification was really a tool of abolitionism.”  He lambasts it for invoking states’ rights without referencing John C. Calhoun, who was one of the primary defenders of South Carolina’s nullification efforts between 1828 and 1832.

Why the focus of the film should be so troubling to Pierce is not readily apparent.  It is absolute lunacy to claim, as Pierce does, that nullification without Calhoun is like 20th century physics without Einstein.  This may be news to Pierce, but John C. Calhoun did not invent nullification nor was he the first to advocate its use.  Why all discussions of nullification must begin and end with this one person is entirely unclear.

If Calhoun had gone all It’s a Wonderful Life and wished himself never born, Americans would still have the examples of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, not to mention the New England Federalists, Midwestern and Eastern resistance to central banks and, yes, the Northern opposition to slavery.  Claiming that John C. Calhoun is essential to any discussion of nullification is, using Pierce’s own analogy, like insisting that all discussions of physics begin with Einstein and relegating people like Sir Isaac Newton to the dustbin of history.  Physics didn’t begin with Einstein, nor did nullification begin with Calhoun.

The real problem is that is much harder for Pierce and his ilk to draw the erroneous linkage between nullification and slavery if John Calhoun isn’t referenced.  It apparently doesn’t matter that the association between nullification and slavery has been so thoroughly disproved that it take a special kind of commitment to being intentionally wrong to continue to propagate it.

Imagine how much more difficult it becomes to smear nullification when the real history of how it was used to fight slavery comes to light.  In attempting to combat the basic facts, our blogger comes completely unraveled, saying that the film omits “the real consequences of taking (nullification) seriously.”  These consequences are represented by a link to a picture of a dead soldier on the Civil War battlefield of Antietam.  I don’t know what fantasy version of history you have to believe in order to understand the Civil War as a battle over nullification, but kudos to Pierce for taking the road less traveled, facts be damned.

He continues the attack by calling nullification “the single most destructive constitutional heresy in the country’s history.”  Right.  Because the federal government doing all the things that the Constitution says it can’t do is totally cool and nondestructive.  But harkening back to the founders’ concerns for divided power and limited central authority is “heresy.”  If I didn’t know better I would think that Pierce was attempting to write a satire of his own opinions.

Confident that he has successfully rebuffed the entire doctrine of nullification in one paragraph, Pierce moves on to the current legislation in Missouri.

He rips Missouri for prescribing penalties for federal officers who try to enforce unconstitutional infringements on the Second Amendment, stating that such provisions would lead “to armed confrontations between law-enforcement officers.”  Really?  Does anyone seriously believe that Missouri cops and federal agents are going to fight it out on the street, O.K. Corral style?  This has never happened, not once, in all of the history of nullification.

But this does raise an interesting question.  Is the fear of conflict sufficient cause to prevent states from protecting their citizens?  After all, some state laws that nullified the Fugitive Slave Act also had provisions for the arrest of federal agents – and there are documented cases of this ocurring.  I assume that Pierce, if he is consistent, is then advocating human beings being pressed back into slavery in order to avoid any conflict between the states and the feds.

Sorry, Joshua Glover, back to the plantation with you.  We don’t want any trouble around here.

This is not to say that Missouri’s method of nullification is necessary.  It is our opinion at the Tenth Amendment Center that non-compliance works just as well, if not better, than prescribed penalties.  But Pierce’s logic, if followed to its conclusion, is essentially founded on the principle that the federal government can do anything it wants as long as it can get a federal agent to enforce it.  That sounds like an awfully nice endorsement of the Gestapo.

Pierce concludes that nullification “always ends badly”, a categorical statement that is categorically false.  The runaway slaves who were protected by northern personal liberty laws would disagree.  So would the people who have the freedom to use marijuana because they live in states that have nullified federal drug laws.  This is a major development, but it’s also an inconvenient fact for Pierce’s analysis, which causes him to flippantly toss it aside.  Through non-compliance, 37 states effectively nullified the 2005 REAL ID Act and, miraculously, the country wasn’t torn asunder.

If we want to talk about something that always ends badly, let’s observe the world history of unchecked centralized power.  It is amazing that so many people still fail to understand that the really dangerous political system is the one in which a central government enjoys all of the powers it can force down its subjects’ throats. But given his tenor, we can assume that the federal government’s progressive abrogation of the people’s rights doesn’t bother Pierce at all.

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Pierce charges that nullification is “not government by principle”, but offers no evidence of the allegedly unprincipled nature of the argument.  The irony is that those of us who argue in favor of states’ rights are arguing for the principled protection of the constitutional rights of everyone, including people who attack us with inanely ignorant arguments.

This means that when the national political pendulum inevitably swings back to the conservatives who Pierce so fiercely despises, we’ll still be here, advocating the states’ ability to interpose between the federal government and his rights.

That’s what a steadfast belief in principle look like.  It’s no surprise that the intellectually disingenuous can’t recognize it.

Ben Lewis
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