Vermont Prepares to Leave the Union

Most of us as wee kids were taught that Abe Lincoln is a hero because he freed the slaves. Eventually most of us learned that he was a hero because he held the nation together, and slavery was something Lincoln was passionate about, but a side-issue to the real point of the Civil War: the right of states to withdraw from the Union if they wished.

The United States had been wrestling with the issue of slavery for over fifty years before Lincoln became president. The importation of slaves was prevented in 1808, but there was a sustainable market in humans already on the continent. IN 1820 the Missouri Compromise was struck, preventing slavery above the 36’30" parallel. By 1854 there was already a strong movement to prevent slavery in new territories. It was widely assumed in the North that, though the cotton gin had increased the use of slaves, eventually machinery would make keeping slaves economically too expensive. The crisis Lincoln presided over was largely economic, as Southern, agricultural states found themselves losing power to industrialized states and new, resource wealthy states and territories. The barons of slavery began to fight and struggle with the end of their era even as the barons of oil struggle today. Their struggle was about much more than the motive force of their industries, it was about the loss of control.

Likewise, Lincoln brought the nation to war to prevent them from forming their own nation. He clearly stated,

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery".

In response to criticism from Frederick Douglas, Lincoln said, "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black man."

It is clear that the nation was ready for war before Lincoln took office in 1861, but it was by no means certain. Lincoln’s election signaled the south’s preparation for war, but Lincoln might still have held off. Instead, he further enraged the South with the Emancipation Proclamation, which didn’t outlaw slavery, and indeed spared the five "border states", but only outlawed slavery in the South. Far from being "slave states vs. free states," five of the states supporting the anti-secessionist movement were states where slave ownership was legal.

Clearly he intended to take the nation to war to save the Union.

Why? Isn’t a union of free people itself based on voluntary participation? Why did Lincoln have this fetish of federalism?

No doubt, to some degree he felt the pressure most leaders feel to maintain the status quo. Essentially, he had a "not on my watch" attitude. Further, Lincoln was angry that he was so unpopular that some Southern states had left his name off the ballot. Lincoln won election by a landslide, but largely because the democratic party had split in two.

There were other reasons, though, and they had little to do with patriotism. After all, the "Union" as Lincoln called it had been in a state of flux, and looked very little in 1860 like it did in 1776. It wasn’t patriotism to the nation’s past that motivated him, it was a political idea that had a lot of currency at the time: Manifest Destiny. That was the age of "big is good" and the science and technology of the White race seemed limitless.

Old folks remember when Manifest Destiny, as taught in history class, was a good thing. Since then, the cost of American empiricism has been made more clear, and people of all kinds question the means the European settlers on the continent used to expand their control.

When Lincoln took office in 1861 the idea of a nation spreading from coast to coast was the idea of the day, and an extension of the notion that Whites would bring civilization and enlightenment to everyone. Ironically, the first proponent of a great continental destiny, John O’Sullivan, envisioned an association of republics, and not a monolithic federal government. Ironic, too, that Lincoln’s presidency marks the end of the period of Manifest Destiny, since most Republicans of the day denied any pressure to subdue the whole continent, and since most of the land was already U.S. territories.

From Lincoln’s view, though, if the Southern states were allowed to leave the Union, they would end the vision of a single continental nation, and very likely pull some of those new lands into their nation.

Lincoln couldn’t have that. As a federalist he was willing to force the states to stay in their unhappy marriage to the North.

Ironically, Lincoln’s most famous opponent, Fredrick Douglas, was far closer to the ideals of the revolution as expressed by Jefferson and others. Douglas believed in "popular sovereignty," meaning that all power in government springs from the people. In his view, a nation was only sound if the participation was voluntary; the acts of free people. Likely, had Douglas been elected the nation would have been spared war, and the republic today would feature much stronger states and individual rights, in keeping with the populist dream of some of the nation’s founders.

And so, after four years of a war of attrition against a poorly industrialized and outfitted South, Lincoln had his way, and the nation-as-continent was preserved. Lincoln had turned brother against brother to prevent the Southern states from pulling resources, particularly the territories, from the Union. In the process, he put to death the notion of the United States as a voluntary association of free states.

However, that dream of popular sovereignty still burns in some states, and not all of them are in the South. There are those who feel that the U.S. has gotten too big, too centralized, too dominated by a few. The Federal Government is out of control, having essentially seized lands and waters from states, and sovereignty from people.

One of those states is Vermont, where the idea of secession is perennially popular. This year, Vermont has seven pro-secession candidates. On January 15th, they’ll meet to announce their platform.

Vermont businessman and fifth generation Vermonter Dennis P. Steele is running for Governor. He founded Free Vermont Radio, which we encourage you to enjoy HERE . Free Vermonters make their case beautifully HERE, .

The Prospect thinks Free Vermonters are on to something. The U.S. is too big, too powerful, and too centralized. It isn’t likely that Vermont or anywhere will be allowed to leave the nation, though we might hear Governor Schwarzenegger threaten to soon. It is possible, though, the Vermont is on to a new kind of revolution, one where people return power to themselves by refusing to participate in the Federal government, and decline to spend money out of the area. The slow food movements and local food movements are concrete ways of secession.

It’s too late to take Lincoln off the penny, but it might be the right time to free ourselves from the Federalism that’s robbed us of our state sovereignty. 

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