The Civil War… Slavery or States’ Rights? (Answer: Both)

Was the Civil War about slavery or states’ rights? And are supporters of states’ rights, by extension, supporters of slavery?

I recently responded to a Facebook debate over these very questions (I know, I know…I should avoid that sort of thing…but in my defense, I did ask for permission to enter the discussion and was approved), and what I intended for a succinct reply quickly grew into the following more essay-like response. So instead of constantly re-inventing the wheel, I figured it would make a good blog post (I have slightly expanded it here).

First, to suggest that it was EITHER slavery OR states’ rights is far oversimplified. It was clearly both. But real history doesn’t fit on bumper stickers.

To clear one important point up , many southerners were genuinely concerned about the future of slavery in the south, and hence the language in their declarations of secession that testify to that. There is clearly no moral defense of this concern; it should rightly be condemned. However–and this is a key reminder–at the outset of the war1, and indeed even through most of the war, the end or continuation of slavery was not in immediate question or the immediate cause of the war. Lincoln did not start the war with any intent to end slavery in the south. In fact, he had earlier supported a Constitutional amendment that would have specifically protected slavery where it existed. The decision for the emancipation of southern slaves was a strategic move to destabilize the southern economy and encourage southern slaves to have a vested interest in a Northern victory.2 I comment on Lincoln’s views of slavery in the footnotes.It also exempted states like Kentucky and Missouri (where secession was still in debate throughout the early part of the war) and allowed them to retain their slaves if they remained in the Union.

With that being said, saying that the Civil War was about either slavery or states’ rights is like saying the American Revolution was about either taxes or self-government. It’s clearly both. To risk redundancy, saying that the war was really about slavery and not really about states’ rights would be to say that the American Revolution is about self-government and not about unjust taxation. (I’m not drawing a moral equivalency–for crying out loud!–just observing the facts as they stand.)

Let’s start with states’ rights, the legal and immediate question of the war. In 2017, we can’t really understand the states’ rights arguments in the way they were viewed in early American history because we live in a day and age of increasingly centralized power. Local self-government had much of its roots in the Middle Ages, which then endured very importantly in England itself, and many of the American conservatives throughout the colonial period had enjoyed self-government for so long that it was considered, to them, to be part of the unwritten, but very real British Constitution.

The southerners were very much in this vein of belief that power ought to be distributed between multiple sources, in line with the Jeffersonian position (and most of the Constitutional Framers). The modern central state that we have today was not the federal government of the U.S. founders, and as southerners saw it becoming more and more powerful, cesetion was their recourse as negotiations broke down.

This was not something they made up. Multiple states only ratified the Constitution itself on the promise by Constitutional supporters that it did not bring an end to state sovereignty. The states were the primary political unit (like the countries in the UN), and the federal government was formed by the states for pragmatic purposes, mostly related to foreign affairs. During its ratification process, Virginia ratification delegates deliberately said they would only ratify if they retained their right to secede if the federal government went beyond the limited powers granted in the Constitution. Rhode Island and New York maintained similar provisions. When the southern states seceded, the reality that the U.S. was becoming a centralized modern state was on the forefront of many peoples’ minds both in the north and south.

Robert E. Lee wrote, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only are essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”4

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were both against slavery on moral grounds. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.”5

The question of secession (and states’ rights more generally) had a more vigorous northern tradition than southern. In fact, New England states had been the first to seriously consider withdrawal from the Union during the War of 1812 due to what they considered unfair federal tariff laws and a federally-imposed embargo. As one of many examples, the Connecticut legislature proclaimed in 1812, “It must not be forgotten, that the state of Connecticut is a free sovereign and independent state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic.”6 The Massachusetts governor, MA Supreme Court and legislature all concurred and issued a similar statement. New England secession was openly debated at the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815. Later, after the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850s required active state participation in the rounding up of slaves who had escaped to the north, multiple northern states actively nullified the law—instructing their police forces to ignore it, and several passed “personal liberty laws” for this very purpose.

As for the soldiers in the war, most war memoirs and letters show that soldiers, by and large, were first and foremost concerned with self-government and the self-determination of each political society to decide its own course, as the Founders had been in 1776.

The question of states’ rights and secession was pushed to the point of crisis because of the question of the expansion of slavery. With newly acquired territory from Mexico in 1848, and a population balance in the north putting far more northerners into the federal government than southerners, attempts to compromise on decisions about whether or not newly created states would be permitted to have slavery or not frequently broke down, and those that went through were fraught with controversy. Voting fraud during the vote on statehood in Kansas led to bloodshed there as early as 1854. (There were only 2 slaves in Kansas at the time!)

Also, the abolitionist movement in the North was very small, but very loud. Led by people like William Lloyd Garrison, a small number of passionate abolitionists were very active. Of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had profound effect on northerners, drawing many into the abolitionist viewpoint. With that, free-soil parties, like the Republican Party, were formed on the basis of preventing the expansion of slavery into newly created states. (It is important to note that many northerners were opposed to the expansion of slavery because they thought it would crowd out work opportunities for northern laborers moving west.)

Nevertheless, southern concerns that an increasingly powerful federal government filled with more and more abolitionists who might seek to end slavery were real. There is no illusion about the fact that many southerners were very intent on ensuring the institution continue. (As a side note, only 25% of southerners owned slaves. The aristocratic structure of southern society ensured that it was these people who held the vast influence over southern policy.) With people like Jackson and Lee as exceptions, many certainly had their personal financial investments anchored in slavery, and even George Washington had not been able to overcome his financial dependence on the enslavement of humans (while he lived; he bequeathed them freedom after his wife’s death), despite his disdain for the institution as a whole (I commented on this briefly in my previous post, as well.)

So clearly it’s not an ‘either-or’ question. When the war broke out, Lincoln nor his generals were fighting to end slavery; that wasn’t in the question with regard to immediate causes of the war, though many southerners were concerned about the trend in powerful central government that might limit or seek to end the institution.

Real history doesn’t fit onto bumper stickers.

And more than anything, it is so important to understand (and accept) that people who argue that the war was fought for states’ rights are not supporting slavery and may, in fact, be supporting the very traditional and conservative principle of self-government. They can both argue that point and argue that southern slave-holders were profoundly hypocritical in their views on liberty and condemn slavery as the despicable institution that it is; there is no dissonance with that position. To explain or endorse the states’ rights cause of southern secession is not even a defense of the Confederacy, let alone to support slavery or even ‘white nationalism’. Likewise, we shouldn’t ignore the slavery issue and its broad cultural acceptance at that time, nor be insensitive or uncharitable to those who bring attention of this reality to the forefront. But let’s not pretend that the evil of slavery is still being supported by the vast majority of those who see the argument made by Robert E. Lee, as quoted above.

I ask for charity both ways. A rarity, to be sure.

As in all things, condemn what is evil and immoral and praise what is good and virtuous, rather than picking teams and calling names. Let’s be charitable, understanding, and honest.


Some will argue that Lincoln did not start the war because the south fired the first shots at Ft. Sumter, which in fact they did. However, most historians agree, on account of Lincoln’s discussions with his Cabinet, that he very much intended to provoke them, even after the Confederacy government had offered to pay for the land occupied by federal bases, including Ft. Sumter. 

In August of 1863, Lincoln wrote his friend, attorney and federal agent James Conkling, “I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. .. I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you.” 

Lincoln was opposed to slavery as an institution. He wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is.” But he also argued that the “physical difference” between blacks and whites prevented them from ever being able to live together, and argued clearly that whites ought to have the superior position. He supported a plan to encourage blacks to move to Liberia. He later on did appear to have been glad of the opportunity to free slaves as a consequence of the war on moral grounds, but even after the emancipation declaration, he would still contend that he would have sought war to preserve the Union with or without the end of slavery. 

4Quoted in 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 76.

Ibid.

6 Ibid, page 31.

 

Do You Aspire for Political Power?

I was recently having a conversation with someone who explained to me her interest in politics. Her ultimate goal she said: to become president. She was quite convinced of it, too.  A self-described “control freak,” she had a plan for moving up the political ladder and ultimately emerging in that prized executive position.

Now, I pledge to never disparage anyone with the terribly powerful weapon and tool of my metaphorical pen, and that is not my purpose here. But the interaction struck me and I had to hold my tongue politely in the setting that did not allow for further discussion of the matter. Still, I managed one bit of cordially-delivered advice.

The advice? That politicians are the only people with the legal authority to use force, violence and the threat of each, and the reality of that ought to be sobering.

And as I said, I spoke with lighthearted understatement that somewhat masked the formidable reminder. I will not mince my words here.

Do you aspire for political power?

Please remember the same.

This is not a treatise on political power and its proper role or extent. It is merely a warning.

Saint Augustine theorized that those in power are by and large those who are already inclined to such an abuse of that power, as those not so inclined are most often found in the more docile of vocations. This, of course, is quite counter to the general perspective we are taught of government officials from our youngest days: that those bearing our team label are sacrificial benefactors out for our own good. (You already know how I feel about “team politics” from my post, “I Am Not Partisan”.)

Sure, in response to some of your protests, there are politicians who are not naturally those already inclined to seek the position for its own sake. But am I really that far out on a limb to suggest that these are by far the exception rather than the norm? Saint Augustine and many others would not think so. When the Hebrews demanded a king, the Lord told Samuel to warn them of the ways the kings would turn the people into his very slaves.1 If the vocation of painting draws those who naturally tend to be artistic, then why are we so ready to proclaim that the vocation of power must be a great a sacrifice born by those in its pursuit for the greater good of those they have power over? Does it not likewise tend to draw those who are naturally “control freaks”?

In one of the first posts of this project (“What is the State?”), I made the assertion that the state is a monopoly on force.

Do you aspire for political power? Do you aspire to be a member of this prestigious monopoly with the power to hold the metaphorical gun of legal force?

There is an old adage that we all knew from a young age: “power corrupts.” And when we learned about the kings of France, we added, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And there may be some truth here in a colloquial sense, as some who seek political office often find their benevolent aspirations twisted cruelly into an activity of self-advancement. But perhaps it is a far more accurate reality that power draws out the natural corruption of human nature and gives it far more dangerous an impact than the more benign professions.

Again, this is not a treatise on the role or legitimacy of power. It is, to sound like a broken record, a caution. A warning.

Indeed, I am not altogether opposed to a pragmatic pursuit of political position (and on this, there will be divided opinion among my readers), so long as all such pursuits are used for the advancement of liberty, anchored in the most unshakable of moral caliber. Such pursuit and integrity is a rare find among the political class.

We have come so far from God’s warning to the Hebrews that a king would “draft your sons,” force some to “plow in his fields and harvest his crops,” “take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials,” and “take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest.”2 Indeed, we have come to revere the very power that God told Samuel was a rejection of His sovereignty.3

This is the power to tax. The power to wage war. The power to wield the only legal metaphorical gun and the power to use it.

And for those who want to add, “the power to build up or to destroy,” do not be misled. The power of government cannot build up. It cannot create. It can only feed on the productivity and creativity of others. All true conservatives have understood that truth and beauty can never be the product of force. As the great conservative Edmund Burke (who I discuss here) wrote,

“In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse!”4

And the great 20th Century writer, conservative and libertarian-leaning J.R.R. Tolkien, expressing his views in The Lord of the Rings, expresses his views in Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s suggestion that he take the Ring (which in a later letter, Tolkien says symbolizes power itself):

“No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.”5

Do you aspire for this power?

Then be sobered by the reality of this danger and proceed with humility, integrity and a deep and abiding fear of what the weapon and tool in your hands really means.


1 1 Samuel 8

2 Ibid, verses 11-15

3 Ibid, verse 7.

4 This comes from one of his early essays, though it was repeated as a motto throughout much of Burke’s political life. Numerous commentaries can be found on it with a simple Google search.

5 The Lord of the Rings, page 60. A very interesting and thorough look at Tolkien’s views on power as expressed through The Lord of the Rings can be found here.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

I Am Not Partisan

I am not partisan. I am not a team player in politics.

To be partisan is to be loyal to a political team—usually a political party—regardless of whatever policies that team pursues or puts forth. Sure, most people who are very passionate followers of their party have their limits and will abandon their party in time if it strays too far. This is why you saw massive numbers of Democrats switching to the Republican Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, preferring Richard Nixon to an heir of Lyndon Johnson. (Yes, this touches on where we’re going in my recently started series, “The History of Conservatism, Liberalism and Libertarianism.” Sign up for email notifications to find out when the next one in that series is published.)

Still, there are many people who clearly side with their party through much that might be otherwise considered contradictory positions. A clear sign of partisanship is when a person accuses the opposing party of doing something and then later praises or supports, or as is more often the case, makes excuses for their own party when it does the same.

We all see it. Especially in our political opponents and in the media. It’s something that is so blatantly obvious, yet so common. The message sent is, “Don’t accuse that guy of wrong; you’re on the same team!” Where we don’t see it so much is in ourselves.

After his notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Psychology Professor Phillip Zimbardo said, “Most of the evil in the world comes about, not out of evil motives, but someone saying, ‘get with the program; be a team player.’” (More on that experiment here. Some caution advised for younger viewers due to the nature and results of the experiment.)

Human nature is prone to just such a mode of categorization. That is why it is so easy to assume a collectivist view of the world, a topic I addressed a couple posts ago (“The Reality of Collectivism”). That is why so many young Germans in Nazi Germany could end up committing the atrocities of the racial and biological hygiene programs and the full horror of the holocaust. Most of them, as young men, if given a chance to choose those actions from the comfort of their childhood homes, would be appalled at it.

And of course, that level of brutality, the psychology of which was specifically being studied in the Stanford Prison Experiment, is beyond the more “mild” accusations I am making. Still, it serves a good and sobering tool to demonstrate the dangers of this sort of thinking.

Fundamentally, there is no principle behind a partisanship that stays true to team rather than a constant standard. For those who say that there is, we often call that situational ethics, which, by definition, hardly fits any definition of principle. It is either okay to steal, or it is not. I cannot say the other team is wrong to steal, but there must be some good reason for it if mine does it.

I am not partisan. I do not adhere to a political team. My standards and beliefs are far and above any situational ethics, a concept I personally find repulsive, if I can be about as blunt as I have on this site. To the extend a political party aligns with my principles, those areas have my support. To the extent they violate my principles, those areas do not.

Many Democrats scoffed at George W. Bush when his military authorizations caused greater unrest in the Middle East, but were silent when the Obama administration pursued similar policies. Many Obama opponents among Republicans readily screamed about and scolded his healthcare legislation, but now support measures that keep most of it intact.

I would go so far as to call this cognitive, if not moral, dissonance. A harsher, yet fully applicable term: hypocrisy.

But there is nothing that can tie me to a team. I belief first and foremost in a Truth built upon the Word of God and His revelation. All else flows from there. I also support, as should be most obvious to my readers, liberty. (I lay out my case here: “On What Basis Liberty? Part 1“.) Not because I support all the activities protected by liberty, but because I believe that the power of the state is too great a danger to equip with the power to punish on its own ebbing and flowing standards of morality. (More on that in my post, “Church & State”.) Christians, of all people, should see the clear tide of acceptable opinion marginalizing and looking to correct or punish our “narrow-minded” views, and yet in many cases we are often as guilty of being team players as the next guy—just as ready with the excuses. (Want to know my recent thoughts on the Libertarian Party? Sign up for my email.)

To what extent will you violate principle and truth to stay true to your team—to your political party? To what extent will you make excuses for your favored candidate when he or she acts in opposition to what you know is true and right?

 

What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at Mises.org. At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”

(Source: https://mises.org/library/what-fascism)

(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.

Middle East Conflict – Part 5: U.S. Policy and Yemen

I wasn’t sure if I would get back to this thread right away or not, as I’ve had a few more lined up on the docket. Then I was watching CBS Evening News tonight (with Scott Pelley), and they had a story intended to pull the heart strings of viewers. Interviewing a Yemeni refugee, they analyzed Trump’s executive orders halting any new refugees entering the United States from a number of Middle East Islamic countries.

Here’s the video:

Now, before I get blasted for my heartlessness on refugee policy by some or my ignorance of national security concerns by others, let me save you the trouble: Commenting on those is not the primary purpose of this post. Want to know my personal opinion on those? Sign up for my email.

I certainly do not have any problem with the story, or CBS interviewing the Yemeni girl. Her story is genuine, as far as I can tell, and there are many like it. It is just such tragedies as this that cause me to feel obligated to clarify reality–a reality all but ignored by the media and unknown by many people. That reality? That the U.S. military is currently subsidizing, equipping and actively assisting the Saudi Arabian government in its massive military operation against Yemen, including deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian aid groups, like Doctors Without Borders.

Here’s the situation in short:

The capital of Yemen (Sana’a) is currently under the control of the Houthis, a term that designates more of a political sect than a religious one, though the Houthis are primarily a branch off of Shi’ite Islam. These Houthis are currently being attacked by Saudi Arabian forces, who, with U.S. support, are siding with an ISIS/Al-Qaeda group inside of Yemen to overthrow the Houthis. In the process of what are primarily air and missile strikes, scores of civilians have been killed. According to the U.N., the war has displaced up to 2.8 million Yemeni (more than 400,000 families), killed around 4,125 civilians and wounded over 7200 (as of October 2016) (More information here, also linked at the end.)

What’s the backstory?

From 1978 to 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh was the “elected” (staged elections without other options) president of Yemen (North Yemen until the unification of Yemen in 1990) – one of the many dictators in the Middle East (read about the rise of these dictators here). In 2009, the Obama administration began giving massive sums of money to Saleh to help fight Al-Qaeda in North Yemen (from over $30 million in 2009 to $176 million in 2010). Instead of fighting Al-Qaeda, Saleh used this money to help finance war against Houthis (who are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda). When Saleh began using this money against anti-regime protesters in 2011 (an outflow of the widespread “Arab Spring”), Obama cut the funding, but also authorized Hillary Clinton’s State Department to help ensure the election of Saleh’s vice president in a one-man election.

Ousted, Saleh then left with massive portions of his military, ironically joining the Houthis, who were happy to welcome their former enemy so long as he could now help them attack the new government in Sana’a. Saleh and the Houthis easily overthrew the new president and re-took the capital, despite the Iranian warning that doing so would provoke Saudi Arabia. The Iranian warning proved to be right, as it was not long after in 2012 that the Saudi government began its attack on Yemen.

Why did the U.S. agree to aid the Saudis? Notwithstanding a long-time alliance with the Saudis, there was a deliberate effort on the part of American policy-makers to “placate” (words from the White House under Obama) the Saudis after tension regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, a deal that upset the Saudi royal family.

So where does that put us now? I could go into detail into the all the consequences of the U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, but I’ll leave that for my sources below. The United States is arming, equipping and actively helping an attack that is creating many of the very refugees that tug on our emotions with stories like that shared by CBS News. And these policies, for now, continue under Trump.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are no good guys and bad guys here. The Houthis are no saintly regime or group (they are actually largely socialist totalitarians). But U.S. policy-makers are not responsible for the actions of the Houthis. Like everyone else, they are only responsible for their own.

I’ll leave you with a couple of items. Human Rights Watch has put out a report on the events in Yemen in 2016. This report goes into a great deal of detail on the war crimes in Yemen from both sides, including Saudi attacks on hospitals and civilian targets. And it’s not their clumsiness doing that; the U.S. is offering our own precision-targeting abilities as part of our aid. You can review the report here.

And here’s a video I pulled from that report. Yes, this one also tugs at heart-strings. This one helps round out the story.

 

Middle East Conflict – Part 4: The Current Mess in Syria

A quick TV sound bite just doesn’t do justice to the current mess the U.S. has decided merits its own entanglement in and attention to in the Middle East. That’s what this post will ultimately attempt to clear up.

My first three posts on the Middle East conflicts laid out important background necessary to understanding the current scenario. You can access those here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Now on to our fourth part (but perhaps not our last…?).

Recall the U.S. interventions discussed in the previous post. If you need a refresher, I’d recommend revisiting that post before continuing with this one. If you’re prepared with where we’re at in the narrative, then read on!

There is one more event that I need to discuss to help build our context, this one vaguely alluded to in the previous post. To complicate the web of policy, prior to the First Iraq War in 1990-91, the U.S. policy had actually been in support of Saddam

A group of Iranians during the 1970s

Hussein during his war with Iran (1980-1988). In 1979, after a long-brewing backlash against the U.S.-backed Shah in Iran, demonstrations turned into revolution—or perhaps more accurately described, as is often the case in revolution, in multiple revolutions with varying ends. Ultimately, fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslims won the day, installing the Ayatollah as sovereign in social, religious and political life, and transforming what had progressed into a remarkably secular culture back toward their version of Shari’a.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989)

In all this mess, the U.S. was a natural adversary of the new regime. In addition to propping the Shah up back in 1953, they also allowed him sanctuary in the U.S. in 1979 when Iranians demanded he stand trial in Iran.

Consequently, when strongman dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, declared war on and invaded Iran the following year in 1980, the U.S. (and other Western countries) readily offered financial and supply aid. The long and bloody war essentially ended in a draw. (Incidentally, the Ayatollah’s effective halt to the Iraqi army and the war itself helped rally

far greater support for the Ayatollah among Iranians than prior to the war). And it was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the U.S. retaliation that resulted in the 1990-91 operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. And we’ve made it back to that part of the story.

You’ll have to forgive me for unsatisfactorily omitting narrative elements that help to clarify the Second Iraq War beginning in 2003. For now, it is sufficient to explain that after the First Iraq War, the United Nations had demanded a close eye be kept on Saddam Hussein, and biological, nuclear and chemical development facilities were to be accessible to inspectors on demand. At first relatively compliant, Hussein slowly restricted their access throughout the 1990s, prompting U.S. bombing of Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But it wasn’t until 2003, with an alleged goal of taking out presumed nuclear weapon programs (which proved nonexistent), that we began a full-fledged invasion.

That story is important in regard to the current situation in Syria. Of the Iraqis, about 60% adhere to the Shi’ite tradition and 20% to the Sunni tradition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had risen through the ranks through the revolutionary activity of his uncle, and once dictator, implemented both some secular socialist policy, and strict one-party rule (a common theme for the Middle East dictators of the second half of the 20th Century, if you haven’t caught that). While I’m not going into extensive detail regarding the terrors of his regime, he put down opposition brutally, killed thousands of Kurdish Iraqis with poison gas, and bombed some his own towns. At the same time, he allowed for some economic and educational freedoms not known before in Iraq. A mixed record with terrible abuses, to be sure!

Why does all this matter? Because when the U.S. deposed him in 2003 (declared a stunningly rapid success at the time), it opened the floodgates to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based military, members of which flowed into Iraq from Afghanistan and other nearby states, building on the already angry rhetoric spewing from people like their leader, Osama bin Laden. For a decade, the U.S. found itself caught in in the middle of a vicious civil, sectarian war. Oddly enough, that put the U.S. on the side of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which, with the U.S. military, virtually kicked the ruling Sunnis and their adherents out of Bagdad (which is now 85-90% Shi’ite). Numerous Sunni militias formed in opposition, and many eventually joined Al-Qaeda.

But we still need to link back to Syria. Don’t worry; we’re still headed there.

After a few years of siding with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq (which of course, inadvertently supported the Ayatollah in Iran), the Bush administration began a policy switch (called the “Redirection”) in 2006, shifting support back toward Sunni groups, but primarily in neighboring Syria. Wikileaks documents from that time expose a deliberate desire to provoke a Sunni uprising in Syria with the intention of destabilization there. This was corroborated by further leaked Pentagon papers in 2011. Now operating under the Obama administration, these latter documents state that, “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [of anti-Assad groups] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”. Who is referred to as the supporting powers? The U.S. and her allies. The same leaked documents listed “The West, Gulf Countries and Turkey” as the “supporting” powers, while also listing “Russia, China and Iran” as the powers supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime (background described in Part 2). (In fairness, the same leaked document admitted that such a organization as mentioned would threaten the peace process of Iraq.)

Quick clarification: The “Salafist” ideology referenced here is the radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology that drives Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other ideologically-affiliated groups.

In other words, U.S. policy in Iraq was in support of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, while at the same time favoring, or at least not opposing (but to be clear, not directly facilitating) the creation of a fundamentalist group in eastern Syria that would destabilize that country and help promote the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. (Yes, I know the big question is “why.” Keep reading; I will get there.)

That fundamentalist group proved to be ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. policy actively supported ISIS (and obviously, the U.S. is no friend of ISIS; quite the opposite), but it is hard to imagine the creation of ISIS without U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But I get ahead of myself…again.

Opposition to the Assad regime in Syria grew steadily in 2011 into a full-fledged sectarian, multi-faced civil war that many of my readers will have followed on the news for years, now. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been clearly on behalf of “moderate” rebel groups in Syria. Why use quotes? Because moderate, of necessity, must be used loosely. Virtually all opposition groups to Assad are sectarian and fundamentalist, though certainly some are more extreme than others.

Of these groups, perhaps the most powerful in early opposition days of 2011 and 2012 was al-Nusra (alternatively known as the al-Nusra Front), which was essentially the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

The problem is, many of these “moderate” groups supported by the U.S. ultimately became arms procurement groups for al-Nusra, meaning that many ultimately got their funding by selling weapons to al-Nusra, some of these weapons even supplied to them by the U.S.

So why did the U.S. even care about destabilizing and ultimately seeing the replacement of Assad in Syria? I alluded to this before. Two key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi-Arabia, were both clearly upset by U.S. support of Shi’ites in Iraq. Assad, himself a nominal Shi’ite, is a primary ally of Iran. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have been clear about, though somewhat hidden under humanitarian rhetoric, taking out Assad would be a clear strike against Iran and a clear benefit for both Israel, which has a vested interest in ensuring that their own bordering enemies don’t grow too strong, and Saudi-Arabia, an avowed enemy of Assad.

Back to ISIS.

Virtually non-existent in 2012, ISIS was another group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. In 2013, it had a falling out with al-Nusra, putting the two groups at odds. In 2014, as many will recall, the nearly unheard of ISIS suddenly captured major Syrian cities, and expanded rapidly across eastern Syria and into Iraq, reaching as far as the outskirts of Bagdad. And of course, as many readers know, ISIS has declared itself an Islamic Caliphate, brutally claiming the lives of countless Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, westerners, and anyone else who doesn’t pledge allegiance to their ideology and rule.

So now what? The complexities of who supports who against who with who is enormous, and I won’t go into all that detail in writing. My goal has been to explain how things have come to where they are now. In conclusion, I include two videos below. The first, in addition to the visual benefit, does an excellent job explaining the current mess. The second is a piece by investigative journalist Ben Swann with revealing statistics on the tragedies of what has transpired in the Middle East.

Googling “before” and “after” pictures of Syria reveals many terrible scenes like this one, taken in Aleppo, one of the largest cities in Syria.

All in all, it’s hard (yes, I do tend to write in deliberate understatements) to show anyone walking away from the mess with clean hands. Perhaps we should understand that there are no praise-worthy members of this conflict. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, displaced, many finding solace in the same ideology that drives ISIS. Towns once thriving metropolitan areas are haunted by rubble and silence. Numbers uncounted have had their lives destroyed or taken. This does not imply that the situation under the dictators was good, but its certainly hard to make the claim that things are better. Perhaps, going forward, we should consider the unintended, or often very much intended, consequences of policy. So far, nearly every policy decision has led to its own bitter fruit of greater problems and more lives destroyed. A dose of humility and reflection may be in order. Watch the two videos below:

Middle East Conflict–Part 2: Protectorates to Military Rule

In the last post, I offered clarity on the nature of the Middle East prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this part, we’ll continue that narrative from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of individual, if somewhat complicated modern-like states.

After the Young Turks—a political movement that sought stronger ties to Europe and pushed for a modernized Turkey—was able to bring the Ottoman government under its control in 1908, they followed up with their program by eventually signing a military alliance with Germany. I don’t have time to get into all the reasons for that particular decision here, nor is that particularly relevant to our discussion, but they hoped a favorable outcome in the war would give them greater influence on the world stage, and longstanding conflict with the Russians was certainly a part of their decision.

Whatever the reasons, the results proved catastrophic for the empire, and the once large and powerful Ottoman Empire came to an end. In Paris in 1919, among the number of treaties forced on the losers of the war by the Allies* was the Treaty of Sévres, the treaty made with the Ottomans.

Under the treaty terms, Turkey would be left with most of Anatolia. The vast majority of the remainder of Ottoman territory would become League Mandates—essentially, protectorate states of the newly created League of Nations. In practice, this meant that Britain and France would govern these territories. So what were these territories?

mid_east_ethnic_lg

Ethnic groups in the Middle East (I am aware you can’t read the key; a quick Google search will turn this or a similar map up)

Hold that thought for a moment. Remember how complicated the Middle East was? The region is awash in various ethnicities. To name a few: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeri, Arabs, Jews, Persians, et cetera. This is only on the broad level, as within each of these and the other ethnicities are different groups that can be more and more localized. In additional to ethnic differences were vast arrays of cultural differences region by region and even village by village, differences hard to perceive to westerners observing through media reports. Also, there were key religious differences, differences beyond the standard three thought of by those who have not studied the region: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The most volatile of differences perhaps is between the Sunni and Shi’ite (alternatively, Shi’a) traditions of Islam, which have been in conflict since the death of Mohammad (forgive me for not expanding on this here, as I am sensitive to length).

So how do you organize such differences into protectorate states? Add onto these differences the basic understanding that the modern idea of a political state was all but a foreign concept.

mandateNevertheless, the League of Nations (again, mostly the British and French) set about drawing up borders and labeling the regions within them. And each new protectorate was promised independence as soon as it had learned how to self-govern. That was the mandate in the Treaty of Sévres.

In essence, modern political states—or nations (in our context)—had to be invented.

And so the protectorate states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan (later to be renamed Jordan), Iraq, et cetera, came into existence. In Syria, my ultimate direction with this background, the Syrian people group (versus the Kurds, Assyrians or Arabs), having gained the name of their nation, quickly assumed that the nation must be mostly Syrian—that Syrian must be the “national” ethnic group. The same in Lebanon, Transjordan, and so forth. In rich sarcasm, there is but little alternative conclusion: what can go wrong? The politics that followed the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire varied state to state, but a general trend can be observed: dominant groups within each nation thought the country was uniquely theirs, as I said before. A tribal mentality among the leaders would be more and more resented by other tribes and groups, before military dictatorships would ultimately come into power. But I get ahead of myself.

Some protectorate states, such as Palestine and Iraq, were put under British control, and others, such as Syria and Transjordan, came under French jurisdiction. Both nations maintained relatively strict control over their mandates (the French more so than the British), as the terms of independence had been based on the vague and open-ended condition that each nation learn to govern itself. And particularly in the case of France, the French regulators in their territories operated mostly to benefit France at the expense of the local population.

European dominance ended with World War II. Despite emerging as victors, the British economy and military apparatus could no longer support their vast colonial empire, and the French, under German control for the duration of the war, were clearly in no better a position. The Middle East mandate nations were neglected by their European overlords.

And naturally, Middle Eastern overlords filled the void. However, the process by which these overlords could come into power was rooted in the European governance system. In an effort to turn their invented states into functioning nations, the British and French had supported the creation of highly-integrated and diversified militaries. Why? Apart from the practical goal of using the military as their enforcement branch, the Europeans were attempting to build a sense of nationalism – a strong sense of nation (for example, “we are Jordanians” as more predominant than “we are Arabs”) – in a place where no such idea had previously existed. Where better than a nationalistic military made up of many different ethnicities?

And as Europeans withdrew to lick their wounds, many military dictators rose to the forefront of the political scene. Where civilian leaders were reputed to be seen as sectarian and corrupt**, military leaders boasted on their nationalistic and diversified bases.

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, one of the multiple military dictators to take control of former League Mandate countries

Still, most states were ruled by civilian governments ruled in the wake of the European withdrawal. One key event resulted in numerous military dictatorships coming to power: the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-1948. Despite massive financial and military support from Middle Eastern and North African countries all over the region, from Syria to Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the Palestinians still ultimately lost the war, throwing nearly every nation in the area into instability. Civilian governments further lost credibility with their people, and some wanted the stability and diversity offered by military rule.

And as they did so, military commanders took over. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Algeria and Yemen all saw their governments taken over by military dictators. In Syria, the military commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Bashar al-Assad, took over the government***.

Hafez al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad

What did these military dictatorships look like? Contrary to the naïve opinion that they were strictly Shari’a-based, most were, in fact, mostly secular in nature. Also, most, including the government under Hafez al-Assad, were highly authoritarian (see this post for more on the basic terms) and fascist.

As expected, honeymoons celebrating the new governments were short-lived, if lived at all, and opposition was shortcoming. But with the military apparatus in place, dictators like Hafez al-Assad did not tolerate dissent, putting it down quickly and brutally. For most, when their sons or heirs took their place, the same policy continued, and does so still under Bashar al-Assad in Syria (where he still has control).

And they earned themselves the reputation they are notorious to westerners for today: strict, harsh, intolerant and powerful authoritarians. And one by one, these military dictators and their dynasties have been or are replaced. Part of the reason: what has been labeled “the Arab Spring.” Part has been due to Islamic radicalism. Finally, Western intervention, as in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, has also played a key role. But this is where the modern narrative really begins to get messy. Why and how did the U.S. and other European powers get involved in the modern state of affairs? More than that to come.

 

*To note, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S. had lofty goals for the Paris Peace Conference, but few points were realized; the British, French and to a lesser extent, the Italians, essentially had control of the peace terms.

**And notably, for our purposes, in Syria, where the French had not allowed indigenous populations to be involved in the government.

***Assad did not officially become Prime Minister until 1970, but moved through the ranks and worked to operate a coup in 1963. He would rule until 2000.

The Electoral College: An Issue of Federalism

On the LCKeagy Facebook Page recently, I asked those who had liked the page about what topics they would like me to address. One of the two responses was, “I’d be interested to read your views on the electoral college. Is it good for modern America? Would eradicating it really provide a better representation of voters?”

This seems particularly fitting, given the current season. While I am avoiding any commitment, at this point, to digging into the specific politics of the election, I hope to shed some light on what the Electoral College is and some clarity regarding its historical and present relevancy, and I hope to offer a bit of the Framers’ own discussions around the executive and what role it would have. This is what they didn’t teach you in high school.

So what is the Electoral College? Essentially, the Electoral College is the system whereby each state chooses their electors: a group of people who are ultimately responsible for electing the president. Each state is apportioned a number of electors equal to their total number of representatives in the U.S. Congress. For example, Arkansas has two senators and four House representatives, so Arkansas sends six electors to the Electoral College.

b-electoral-state-graphic-ggWith 538 electors attending the College, which meets and votes in December, a candidate must win 270 votes. If any candidate fails to win 270 votes, the Constitution mandates that the president will be picked by the House of Representatives.

Perhaps one of the key controversies of the Electoral College is that for all but two states (Nebraska and Maine), all electors from a state will vote one way. In other words, all six electors from Arkansas will vote for whoever wins the popular vote in Arkansas in a “winner-takes-all” system. The controversy on the state level is that, hypothetically, if 51% of voters vote for candidate X, all six Arkansas electors (or, all 55 from California) will go to the Electoral College pledged to vote for candidate X.

On the national level, this has proven particularly controversial because it allows for a candidate to win the national popular election, while losing the Electoral College election, which has happened a total of five times in U.S. history, the most recent being the Gore vs. Bush election of 2000. This possibility has merited many to call for an end to the College.

Before offering my own evaluation of the college in its modern context, I think it is particularly important to understand why it was created in the first place. This verges a bit into the broader discussion of the Constitutional Framers, which I will expound on more satisfactorily in the future.

First of all, it is important to look at the whole purpose of the office of the presidency.

There are a few key things to keep in mind about the creation of the presidency. First, Americans of the late 1700s had a deep and abiding skepticism and fear of a powerful executive who could exercise power similar to the King or Prime Minister of England. Second, there was no executive under the first United States government attempt in the Articles of Confederation, mostly for that very reason.

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 during what would quickly become the Constitutional Convention, they were faced with the task of addressing alleged problems of the Articles of Confederation, one of which was that there was no executive, and hence no enforcement branch of the Congress. Many offered suggestions such as the creation of an executive body—a small number of people who would carry out the executive function. Alexander Hamilton, in contrast, proposed a monarch-like figure, a proposal quickly dismissed by the vast majority of the delegates.

Most importantly, there was discussion about what sort of role this executive would play. Would they serve as a national symbol of greatness, as King George did in England? Would they take an understated roll of merely carrying out the tasks of Congress? What does the ‘executive function’ even mean? Many delegates, sharing their country-men’s fears of a powerful executive, were prone to keep an executive-free government, as under the Articles, but in the end, most agreed on a few key roles justifying the creation of an executive.

First, the executive would serve as a chief foreign diplomat, to work with the Senate in foreign affairs. Second, the president would serve as an arbiter over Congressional legislation; they gave him the veto power (after some arguments about it) in order to veto unconstitutional (not merely unpopular) legislation. Finally, they wanted the president to carry out any Congressional legislation, which at that time primarily related to ensuring that conflicts between states were resolved and tariffs collected. Nevertheless, the question of what the presidency would be was open-ended in some respects. Given the concern about a monarchical president and the Framer’s own fears of power, this is quite curious.

George Washington

George Washington

The reason is that it was evident to everyone that George Washington, the American Cincinnatus, as he was nicknamed, would fill that role, and Washington was perhaps more trusted than any other single individual in U.S. history, especially among the Framers. Still, during the ratification debates, state conventions worried about federal power prone to abuse, were assured that federal power would be limited to the exclusively what the Constitution delegated (more discussion on this later).

After resolving as best they could the question of the executive function and make-up, the Framers faced the issue of how the executive would be chosen. In England, the executive function was delicately split between a Prime Minister chosen by Parliament, and a hereditary monarch. Some entertained the idea of a president chosen by Congress, like the Prime Minister, but of course the idea of a hereditary executive wasn’t given the light of day. Still, there were enough people concerned about the potential way that power could be abused if Congress had full say over the executive. An alternative was to put it to a popular vote on a national level, a decision which they ultimately turned down for a variety of reasons. Discussions during the Convention reveal concerns about the opportunity for popular elections to lead to the election of popular executives who might use that popularity to absorb more and abuse that power. Washington issued the same concern directly in his farewell address.

Key to understanding this whole issue, however, is the issue of federalism: the system whereby the states submitted to Congress certain powers, but maintained for themselves any powers not enumerated for Congress. There is much more that must be said here, and will be said in time, but ultimately this was reflected in the 10th Amendment, an amendment crucial to many states in order to even secure their ratification of the Constitution.

Why is federalism important? Because ultimately the Electoral College was a compromise rooted in federalism. The vast majority of the debate in Philadelphia in 1787 was around what powers the new federal government would have (aka, what powers the states would delegate to it). Central to this was that states would ultimately retain sovereignty over the federal government. (And despite modern commentaries that ignore this issue, it is logical enough: why would states, so recently having fought for independence from a power sovereign over them, give up that sovereignty once more? I will have much more to say on this to make my case as the blog continues).

Ultimately, the Framers agreed to a separate body of delegates wholly separate from the legislature (Congress) that would chose the president. These delegates would be, in turn, chosen by the states (which at that time meant state legislatures). And this is where the idea of federalism played a key role: it was the states that would choose their electors. The executive would be a branch of the federal government created by the states, much like the Senate (prior to the 17th Amendment, state legislatures chose Senators). It was one more important way that states would retain their sovereignty over the newly created federal government.

And despite all the ways that this doesn’t fit in the American psyche well today, this was not particularly controversial for early Americans: state legislatures were the primary representatives of the people, and the federal government, especially the Senate and the Presidency, were representatives of the state legislatures.

So what changed? I’ll address two key changes that affect how we view the presidency and the election process today.

jacksonian-democracyFirst, during the early 19th Century, the country became increasingly democratic. Suffrage expanded significantly, modern political parties were formed, and more and more people engaged in politics from the local level upward. The democratization of society pressured more and more state legislatures to turn over the choosing of the presidential electors to the people of their states. And as time went on, all states eventually did so. That is why we go to the polls to vote, and by daybreak know who the next president will be, weeks before the official Electoral College vote. We chose our states’ electors (practically speaking, we dictate who they will vote for).

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Second, the view of the presidency as a state-chosen position changed radically with Theodore Roosevelt, who more than probably any other president propagated that the president was the unique representative of all Americans. This is certainly how the president is viewed today, and has been ever since Teddy Roosevelt. And with that, the demand that the president be chosen by a national popular vote has grown, for obvious reasons.

So I’ll wrap up this rather long blog with a few key takeaways.

First, the expectations on the presidency have changed dramatically since the role was created in 1787.

Second, the presidential election system, so long as it is accomplished through the Electoral College system, is a state-by-state election process, not a national election. And this is key to remember. Voters in each state decide who that state choses for a president. Instead of at least 51% of the national vote “taking all,” at least 51% of each state vote “takes all” for that state (again, with the exception of Nebraska and Maine, both of which split their votes proportionally).

And this is what it comes down to. The federal system is all but withered today. And yes, I will have those who debate me on this, but originally federalism meant that states are ultimately sovereign and delegate certain powers to the federal government. Though there has been an uptick in the last couple decades in slight favor of states’ rights in some areas, there is little left of the Framers’ original view of federalism. (As for my part, I will argue in favor of an originalist perspective on federalism. If you have not done so, I highly recommend listening to Tom Woods’s speech on this issue and nullification here.)

But the Electoral College remains.

Should it remain? I’ll leave that to you to decide. Should we have a president who is chosen by popular vote as the unique representative of “all” American people, as Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed? Or a president who, at least in principle, is the choice of the individual and, again, in principle, sovereign states by whatever means each state chooses to assign its delegates.

And in the end, either way you stand on those questions doesn’t really make much practical difference. The Electoral College exists primarily on tradition and principle. Is that tradition and principle worth keeping it? I would argue that it is the principle that is more important than the Electoral College system itself.

Yes, I am well aware I have deviated from the typical approach to this discussion, which usually centers around how its “unfair” if the president wins the Electoral vote, but loses the popular vote, or how its “unfair” that 48 states have a “winner-takes-all” approach to choosing their delegates. Or the common, “then your vote doesn’t matter” argument for states that traditionally swing an expected way on elections. Certainly, in practical terms, it draws unique attention to a handful of swing states during each presidential election cycle.

So back to the original Facebook post: Is it good for modern America? I don’t have a clear answer. There may be a better system, a system that better preserves liberty. But this is what I do know. The broader issue of federalism is what is most important. The more power states lose, and more power the central government gathers to itself, the more our liberties are at risk. In the end, the Electoral College, while it may have been a compromise and an experiment, is still, in principle and theory, one of the last vestiges of federalism as intended by the Framers.

(For an even more in-depth analysis, read this article by Kevin Gutzman, one of my primary sources.)

Church & State

Worldview. A word that somehow seems to understate its own purpose. A word that often gets tossed around in clichéd nuance.

crown-of-thornsI believe in a world in which mankind is inherently bent toward sin, a bent that cannot be revoked from anything within him. Because I believe that God is ultimately sovereign and that His very nature is perfectly righteous, any departure from that perfect righteousness on our part renders us bound for judgment. The only means of reconcile is a perfect sacrifice. I believe that God as perfectly good and perfectly just must fulfill both qualities, and does so in Christ Jesus, who was fully God and fully man. He met the just standard for our departure from God’s perfection, allowing us therefore to be, in legal terms, acquitted, upon reception of His offer of this grace.

And I believe in a view of History that understands God’s hand to be at work throughout. I won’t dare to enter the debate many Bible scholars have had on the issue of free will and God’s sovereignty; this is not the place for that. But because many will argue that it necessarily precedes any discussion of nearly any topic, I will comment only that I believe God is both sovereign, and has somehow delegated free will to man, nevertheless. I cannot perfectly understand this paradox, but I must accept it. For what other reason would God give Adam and Eve the option to do wrong in the garden, if but to allow them to choose to do right?

And on this premise, I believe that God has a strategy in history, and “energizes all things according to His will” (in Ephesians 1:11; the Greek word Paul uses here is energio, literally rendered energizes). But I also believe that there is an active enemy of God: Satan, or the devil, who also strategizes in history. And I have no doubt about the ultimate victor. Victory lies in the One who is ultimately sovereign. The culmination of history to the believer is quite clear.

And therein lies a premise of my worldview: the lens through which I view the world and history.

At first glance, this particular worldview may not be glaringly apparent in much of what I have so far discussed. It is not void altogether, and neither will it remain void. I could not, in good conscience, depart from what I believe for merely what might be considered utilitarian ends: the goals that bring the most usefulness, or happiness. I don’t advocate for a society rooted in liberty because my ultimate goal is that people be happy. The implications of eternity are far more severe.

And certainly, some have made the point that it was not in free societies, but in those where Christianity was and is restricted, that it has grown the greatest. The Way, as Christianity was called then, spread like fire throughout an increasingly antagonistic Roman empire. Some evidence suggests that the growth of the church in current China is unmatched.

I concede, and do so readily.

Does that suggest I should argue for a less-free society or even for a society where liberty is quenched?

That is the easier of the questions I face, as it will be less asked than this objection: To advocate liberty to the full extent you have so far suggested will leave the nation without its vital moral underpinnings.

Let me return the apparent dilemma: Has the power of the state been able to truly anchor any morality in our nation? Can legislated morality transform a person’s heart?

I would suggest several key points that I will leave with you.

First, the power of the state cannot dictate the morality of the people it rules. There will beold-bible-with-swordthumbnail
several common objections raised to this. One will argue that I am flat-out wrong in some cases. Certainly, the state can limit certain activities on threat of punishment, but many such activities continue unhampered nevertheless.

A second and perhaps more difficult objection to answer will be that by advocating the repeal of laws that ban what Christians consider immoral is advocacy for those activities. That is simply not true, but before I argue my case on this one, allow me to present my other points.

Second, if the state manages to limit certain activities that it considers to be immoral, then it has also gathered to itself the power to alter its decisions. The common objection here will be that this is precisely why we need to get Christians to the polls: to vote in people who will legislate on behalf of our beliefs?

But let me ask you: what happens when the government begins to use the power given it by the electorate to make decisions that some among that electorate approve of, and then begin making decisions antagonistic to that end. For example, Christians have applauded the government’s decisions to define marriage as between a man and women. But if we have conceded to the state the power to make this definition, then we have also conceded the power for it to define marriage as whatever it likes. And despite the protest that more Christians just need to vote, this isn’t having any particular long-term impact. And this leads me to my third, perhaps more potent point.

kings-landing-churchthumbnailThird and finally, by assuming that the political process is an important means of maintaining a nation based on Christian moral ethic, it undermines the influence that the church should have. Where the church sees politics as a means of what should be done through love, truth and evangelism, it tends to surrender its passion for proclaiming what it believes to be true.

If the church believes that gay marriage is wrong, it should proclaim that boldly on the foundation of the Gospel. If the church believes that prostitution is wrong, it should be stepping up to provide for those who see the sale of their own bodies as their best (and often only) means of income. For those who enjoy the practice (which I believe is deplorable), no government regulation will stop them. The statistics bear that out.

You see, if liberty is preserved and the non-aggression principle upheld, the church would have no alternative but to influence change through its right to proclaim boldly what it believes to be true.

Let me turn this in to a plea for my Christian readers. If you don’t like the trends of society, then be bold in your witness of truth. Don’t surrender your assertiveness by relieving your conscience by voting for the candidate who claims to be a Christian. In a society built on the liberty I have suggested, it is your right to speak and say whatever you like, just as it is the right of every other to scorn you for it (without aggression).

Do not surrender to politics what the church is called to be.

And by church, I do not mean the organizations created by the leaders of local churches; I mean the members of the church: the people who otherwise go to work, get home, watch TV and go to bed. You see, the church has a profound calling in culture, but it cannot coerce anyone to its ends. It can only win through truth and love built on the Gospel of Christ.

Government does not change culture. Government cannot establish moral standards and transform the hearts of those who abide under their rule. At its extreme, an attempt to do so has resulted in nothing less than the Inquisitions of Rome and Spain and the Spanish colonies. Even if the apparatus were in place to ensure nothing of immoral activity was permitted through the most invasive violations of privacy, the most it could do is create a nation of hypocrites who hated both the church and the state.

And our government, because of its quasi-republican nature, is more prone to following the trends of culture than a dictatorship would be (you already know I don’t advocate for a dictatorship). And culture has, by and large, demanded that we walk a fine line of political correctness that readily bashes free speech that argues against things like gay marriage, while demanding we advocate for these things. And slowly but surely, law is following suit.

(There is a lot more than can be said about this and its many facets that could emerge in debate. I will touch on them from time to time, but let me for now direct you to the Libertarian Christian Institute, where you can continue to explore their content and their primary video explaining that position, which you can view by clicking here.)

I will say it once more: do not surrender to politics what the church is called to be. Do not be a church that seeks to coerce, but one that transforms through loving word and deed, not shrinking back from truth by stopping by the polling station. (I know I will have readers who immediately think I am suggesting you don’t vote, or that you don’t care which leaders are Christian or not. I’ll have a post refuting this in time, so for now, know that this is not the case.)

That is why I advocate for liberty, but I also advocate that Christians take advantage of that liberty, to be a transforming influence around them, as the early church was in Rome (while there was yet liberty, and even more so when the persecution truly began in earnest). It was after Constantine mandated Christianity as the religion of the state that the politics began to rot much of the church.