The Return of John C. Calhoun
There was plenty of chuckling in progressive circles when Texas Gov. Rick Perry made public remarks that sounded like a semi-endorsement of the idea that his state might want to secede from the United States, as it tried to do in 1861, or reclaim the independence it gave up in 1845. But Perry and a growing number of other Republican politicians are now embracing an idea that dates all the way back to 1832: that states have a constitutional right to nullify what they consider to be illegitimate acts of the federal government. As you may recall from your high school history lessons, the effort to put that idea into practice, by South Carolina at the urging of former vice president John C. Calhoun, didn't work out too well, though it was later cited as a precursor to the secessionist movement led, again, by South Carolina.
The vehicles for the sudden contemporary resurgence of nullification theories are "sovereignty resolutions" being introduced in the legislature of as many as 20 states, and passing in at least one legislative chamber in eight states this year.
The language of these resolutions, and particularly the throat-clearing "whereas" clauses, isn't uniform, but virtually all have a kicker similar to this Texas resolution, which Rick Perry endorsed:
That the 81st Legislature of the State of Texas hereby claim sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States over all powers not otherwise enumerated and granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States; and, be it further RESOLVED, That this serve as notice and demand to the federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers; and, be it further RESOLVED, That all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties or sanctions or that requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding be prohibited or repealed.
While these resolutions obviously aren't going to be enforced, they squarely assert the power of states to unilaterally define the powers of the federal government and to order said government to "cease and desist" in exercising them. That is nullification.
And what's the justification for going all John C. Calhoun at present? Here's Perry:
"'Millions of Texans are tired of Washington, D.C. trying to come down here to tell us how to run Texas,' Perry said in a speech supporting House Concurrent Resolution
"'I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,' he continued. 'That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm states' rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"'I believe that returning to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution and its essential 10th Amendment will free our state from undue regulations, and ultimately strengthen our Union,' he said."
In other words, Rick Perry doesn't like "liberal" legislation, and now that his party is no longer in power in Washington, he's asserting the right to ignore any laws that don't comport with his own view of "the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution" or what's "oppressive" or "undue."
Perry's hardly alone among significant Republican pols. Down in Georgia, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a very serious candidate for governor (and previously considered something of a "moderate" by Georgia GOP standards) has joined the "sovereignty resolution" parade, though not until after the Georgia Senate passed one of the resolutions (which apparently few senators actually read).
And there's at least one report that SC Gov. Mark Sanford and--wait for it!--Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin support the state sovereignty "movement." Palin will have to choose sides, or perhaps centuries, soon enough, since the Alaska legislature has sent her a resolution for her signature.
As someone just old enough to remember the last time when politicians in my home southern region made speeches rejecting the Supremacy Clause and the 14th amendment, I may take this sort of activity more seriously than some. But any way you slice it, Republicans are playing with some crazy fire. For all the efforts of its sponsors to sell the "sovereignty resolution" idea as a grassroots development flowing out of the so-called Tea Party Movement, its most avid supporters appear to be the John Birch Society and the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the White Citizens Councils of ill-fame. And given the incredibly unsavory provenance of this "idea," it's no surprise that these extremist groups are viewing the "movement" as an enormous vindication of their twisted points of view.
If John C. Calhoun offered the definitive articulation of the nullification theory, his nemesis, President Andrew Jackson, offered the definitive response, which holds true today. He said the doctrine was "incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed."
A more pungent commentary on the latter-day nullification movement was offered yesterday by Digby:
Can I just say what a bunch of whining little wimps these Republicans all are? They love to present themselves as stoic, manly warriors, loving their country above all else, willing to lay down their lives for it.
Until something happens they don't like and then they want to blow the thing up.
I hope Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who are being practically begged by conservatives to leave the Republican Party on the heels of Arlen Specter, are paying attention to the "sovereignty movement." They, after all, voted for the stimulus legislation that apparently motivated these calls for a state-based revolution against the popularly elected government of the United States. So they might want to stand with America, and with the legacy of both Jackson and Lincoln, not John C. Calhoun.
UPDATE: I should have mentioned that the one governor so far who had to deal with an "sovereignty resolution" that got through the legislature is OK Gov. Brad Henry, who vetoed the measure. For his pains, he was attacked by Republican state senator Randy Brogdon in an unintentionally hilarious statement:
“At the end of the workweek, when everyone else had left the Capitol, Brad Henry used his veto power to reject the Constitution he swore to uphold,” said Brogdon. “With the stroke of the pen, the Governor decided to let President Obama and Congress continue to erode our Constitutional rights.”
“This is not an isolated case,” said Brogdon. He then referred to Governor Henry’s veto on legislation that would have banned embryonic stem cell research. “In less than one week’s time, Brad Henry has vetoed life and liberty.”
“This is not about left vs. right or liberal vs. conservative,” continued Brogdon.
Right you are, senator. It's about the twenty-first century versus the nineteenth.