University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Steve Haycox is either really bad at his job, or he intentionally deceives people to score political points.
In a recent Alaska Dispatch News op-ed, Haycox railed against some Alaska politicians frustrated with D.C. meddling in the states environmental issues for asserting that the federal government “doesn’t have the right to do whatever it wants in Alaska, that Alaska has a sovereignty that empowers it to limit what the federal government can do here.”
Haycox disagrees, and our esteemed history professor plays fast and loose with history to make his case.
Haycox starts by pointing out that those advancing the idea that states maintain a level of sovereignty rely on the “compact theory.”
The compact theory holds that the people of the states ratified the Constitution independently and that each state maintains its sovereignty, only giving up powers specifically delegated to the federal government. It follows that the people of the states maintain control over the federal government they created, and that they have the right to determine the extent of those powers delegated. It also follows that federal supremacy only goes as far as the powers delegated. As Alexander Hamilton put it, the Constitution “expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution.”
Haycox doesn’t like this concept, so he seeks to thermo-nucleate it with a little history lesson.
The great Southern apologist for slavery, John C. Calhoun, was the champion of this idea; he used it to justify civil war when the federal government forbade the extension of slavery into the territories.
Calhoun did champion the compact theory. But Haycox stops there, leaving the reader to believe that Calhoun was the most prominent and perhaps the only recognizable figure to support the compact theory. Heck, as far as we know, the slaver from South Carolina came up with it himself as a way to protect and advance human bondage.
I have to give credit where credit is due. Haycox offers up a textbook example of argumentum ad hominem. I mean, what kind of person could possibly agree with the likes of Calhoun? Why, anybody who does probably harbors some racist attitudes!
Haycox’s approach to explaining the compact theory works well for political propaganda.
But it pretty much sucks as history.
In truth, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both “championed” the compact theory long before Calhoun. And northern states relied on the principle of state sovereignty to justify their resistance to federal fugitive slave rendition.
Ouch. That doesn’t work as well to advance Haycox’s political agenda.
Consider the words of Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
The several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes — delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: that to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral part, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party: that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.
And Madison articulated the principles that would later be called the compact theory in Federalist 39.
On examining the first relation, it appears, on one hand, that the Constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies elected for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a national, but a federal act.
That it will be a federal and not a national act, as these terms are understood by the objectors; the act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a majority of the people of the Union, nor from that of a majority of the States. It must result from the unanimous assent of the several States that are parties to it, differing no otherwise from their ordinary assent than in its being expressed, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves. Were the people regarded in this transaction as forming one nation, the will of the majority of the whole people of the United States would bind the minority, in the same manner as the majority in each State must bind the minority; and the will of the majority must be determined either by a comparison of the individual votes, or by considering the will of the majority of the States as evidence of the will of a majority of the people of the United States. Neither of these rules have been adopted. Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal, and not a national.
Surely a history professor knows this…unless he’s really bad at his job. So, why leave this out of the equation? Why appeal solely to Calhoun and a connection to slavery?
The only answer I can think of is that Haycox puts his political agenda above his role as a history professor.
Haycox goes on to trot out a professor to finish off whatever may remain of the discredited, racist compact theory.
The foremost academic critic of the compact theory was Prof. Harry V. Jaffa, a pillar of conservative thinking in America. He gave Barry Goldwater the famous lines, “… extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Again, it seems the good professor chose his source to score political points. Jaffa does claim the mantel of “conservative” after all.
But to me, the choice seems really odd. Why rely on a professor who did his work in the 20th century? If I was going to try to defend the “one people,” “national“ version of the founding, I could do much better than Haycox’s “foremost authority.” Joseph Story and Nathanial Webster certainly bring more intellectual weight to the debate than a 20th century professor.
But for whatever faults Haycox may possess, he does have a penchant for irony. He concluded his op-ed by writing, “Defending Alaska is no vice, but misleading people is no virtue.”
I can’t say I disagree with that.
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