A Sympathy for Disunion
“This, Mr. President, is not a government founded upon compact; it is founded upon the power of the people. They express in their name and their authority, “We the People do ordain and establish,” etc, from their ratification alone it is to take its constitutional authenticity; without that it is no more than tabula rasa.
“I know very well all the commonplace rant of State sovereignties, and that government is founded in original compact. If that position was examined, it will be found not to accede very well with the true principle of free government.” James Wilson, 11 Dec 1787, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention
“I am sure they were fully impressed with the necessity of forming a great consolidated government, instead of a confederation. That this is a consolidated government is demonstrably clear.” Patrick Henry, 4 June 1788, Virginia Ratifying Convention
A Yen for Independence
It took more than one generation. Our Founding Generations were born between 1700 and the mid-1750’s and most grew to maturity as English colonists on mainland America. They were predominantly English but not of England. They were people of Virginia, the people of Pennsylvania, people of Georgia, the people of Massachusetts. It was in their habit of mind and daily habits of living. They all understood they lived under the umbrella of the British Crown. Most, like Franklin, considered this a glory of their lives. Yet he and they became and passed from this world solely American.
Their cultures of government, family, religion, commerce differed colony to colony, sometimes in great difference, sometimes by small degree only, depending largely on the initial settling of the land they lived on, the purposes for their arriving, and the mix of immigrants who came afterward – free, indentured or slave. For the most part the Crown was tolerable, abiding and protective. Along the years the distance in miles, a spectacular growth of wealth and an early sense of empire took their toll. There grew in the colonists a dim but clear apprehension of divided loyalties: to their colony and to the Crown.
The colonists from the start were largely self-governing. They enjoyed an independence of local rule in any matter not affecting trade, war or treaties. They did need to look to England when they would intrude on commercial enterprises under Royal protection, for example, Virginia’s request to end the slave trade or where Parliament lowered the East India Company’s tea tax obligations making its tea far too cheap for the colonists to compete – so we threw their tea into the Boston sea. Or when a military threat endangered their lives and commerce.
The need for some accommodation between colonies and Crown had been in the wind since at least the early 1760’s when James Otis, Jr., heralded the cry “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny”. We did not take kindly to helping pay for the French Indian War that Britain fought with our help to keep us safe from France. From then events took their own course. Parliament became embroiled in its own self-reflection and lost sight of where and what the American colonies were becoming. That self-reflection, so blind to America’s growing vision of itself, helped birth across generations and across colonies acceptance to become just American: the Americans of Virginia, the Americans of Pennsylvania, the Americans of Georgia, the Americans of Massachusetts. We reached adulthood before 1776 … and not only in the personage of Franklin.
Disparate Schools of Culture
The colonial cultures were predominantly English. Stirred in their cultural broth and from their earliest days were two preeminent ways of living. Political scientist, F. Lee Cheek, Jr., calls them the New England School and the South Atlantic School. Both came directly from the Motherland. They were cultures of society and government. And they were diverse from one another, incompatible in some very essential issues.
The New England School, nurtured in Puritan theocracy, believed America, the land and their mission, to be a “New Israel” and themselves equally select before God. It believed in a consummate “civil theology” of life: the consolidation of government, family and commerce with government the arbiter of their lives.
Today one of the oldest concealed facts from everyday Americans is the enmity of New England’s Puritan-influenced government and economic traditions against almost anyone else … but especially the South. In return, the South grew to despise New England’s ways. Jefferson wrote of Connecticut and Massachusetts riding the South harshly. New England (with its influence in the Northern and upper Midwest States through emigration) fostered a hierarchical self-importance, even self-righteous embrace of themselves and their governments. They looked to government for aid and assistance. There were less local community solutions and more the top-down view of living.
From its Puritan beginnings it was wrapped in persecution of others with outside religious beliefs and a hearty appetite for government to entwine itself in the business of families and proprietors. In our 1st Congress they demanded and got subsidies for their fishing industry they had once received from the British Crown. It was a clear violation of the 1787 Constitution until you squeegee the ‘general welfare’ and ‘necessary and proper’ clauses however you wish.
The South Atlantic, nurtured in agrarian ventures, took human life as far less dogmatic. It viewed government, family and commerce as distinct enterprises. Personal liberty, personal beliefs and the right of personal dissent were paramount. Their principle worry was humanity’s lust for power. Subsidiarity, the making of public decisions at the lowest possible level, was their hallmark and guiding principle for government. For it naturally diffuses the power of any central government.
This South Atlantic (which eventually spread its culture to the remainder of the South, the lower Mid-West and much of the West) was not created from a theology but in a spirit of enterprise. It was centered predominantly in family, local enterprise and diverse Christian religions. Commercially it was overwhelmingly agricultural. Subsidiarity gave the people a sense of local containment and contentment, pride and a healthy distancing locale to locale. It was a leave-me-alone-and-I-leave-you-alone society within strong familial and mutual bonds of person-to-person understanding. Everyone knew everyone to be a creature of an Uncreated Creator. They lived under Nature’s God and not the Sunday whip of unrestrained theology.
Government of Servants or Elites
October 1, 1792, Jefferson woke at Mount Vernon. He had come the day before from the home of George Mason with the principal purpose of coaxing Washington to remain a 2nd term. Both men had serious doubts the Republic could remain together. Each wished to leave public office. Before breakfast they discussed their mutual desires to retire to their homes despite the grave forces tearing the young Republic apart. But Jefferson, who had already decided to leave office, was not inclined for a gentle perusal of personal dreams.
The survival of the Republic most impressed him. He considered Washington indispensable to the Compact. He explained that North and South were surely to go their separate ways without his leadership. The differences were political, commercial and cultural. Slavery was not one of them. For slavery had always been a national enterprise: slavers, bankers, insurers, farmers and domestics in the North and planters, farmers and domestics in the South.
Jefferson argued Washington “was the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole (people); that government was founded in opinion and confidence … that there was no other person who would be thought anything more than the head of a party”. He spoke to the differences of constitutional interpretation and the estranged differences between the North and South exemplified between himself and Hamilton. He warned that strong elements in the young Republic wanted monarchy with Washington as its King. Washington with a rash, perhaps coy, silliness said he didn’t think there were 10 men of sound mind who wanted that. Jefferson informed him otherwise. And gave him to understand the sentiments of Hamilton and his confidantes.
Washington’s memory that morning may have returned to April 5th, that very year of ’92, when he felt it necessary to veto Congress’s Act for Apportionment of Representation among the Several States. Hamilton supported it arguing both Houses of Congress had given the Bill due consideration, had reached a ‘reasonable’ conclusion and Washington should accede. Jefferson and the Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, argued the Bill unconstitutional violating Art. 1, Sec. 2, Clause 3, requiring one (1) Representative for every 30,000 free people. Washington vetoed the Bill with two reasons:
“First. The Constitution has prescribed that Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers; and there is no one proportion or divisor, which, applied to the respective numbers of the States, will yield the number and allotment of Representatives proposed by the bill.
“Second. The Constitution has also provided, that the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand; which restriction is, by the context, and by fair and obvious construction, to be applied to the separate and respective numbers of the States: And the bill has allotted to eight of the States more than one for every thirty thousand.”
It was not about which States got more or less but about construing the Constitution. Washington remarked to Jefferson at the time that he noticed the vote had split along clear sectional lines illuminating another constitutional perspective dividing Northern and Southern States.
Nor could Washington (though he claimed that October morning he didn’t realize the magnitude of animosity between Jefferson and Hamilton) avoid remembering how strenuously Jefferson had declaimed the differences of North and South in his cabinet. Jefferson had fought unyieldingly Hamilton’s mercantilist economic and political system. For that was the governmental system from which Virginia and all the former colonies had seceded. The Revolution had been a secession to live without a strong central government imposing mercantilist policies on the separate colonies. It is what compelled them to become independent and sovereign Nations.
Since before the Revolution and long during the years of the Articles of Confederation and now after the ’87 Constitution, the dividing contention was simple: to what extent the economic and political lives of the Colonies-turned-Nations were to be married to a central government? Was there to be again a class of national political elites (for example, entrenched, life-embedded politicians) and economic elites (for example, the East India Company) working hand-in-glove for their own betterment while stepping over and on the daily people who separately comprised the sovereignty of the separate States?
The arguments were not new to anyone of interest. Both Jefferson and Washington dearly loved this young Republic crafted in hope to endure liberty in this very human world. Yet both knew the Constitution did not settle some of the most dire questions and matters argued since before the Revolution.
The Founders did their utmost to design a central government upon a seasoned understanding of the fallibility and frailty of human nature. But the South more than New England understood no people are the angels of history. The Jeffersonians grasped, better than most American leaders at any time, that to take recourse into angelic notions of human endeavor, no matter the original artifice of creation or apparent dedication to liberty, diminishes our vision of ourselves.
Men and women are the makers and fixers of history while prayers to any Deity do not make us the Right Hand of an Almighty – a position from which New England dissented. Although the New England Puritan tradition did not consider themselves angels, they did believe themselves chosen and that line of thinking and assumption traveled through its generations wherever they emigrated. When called to breakfast that October morning, Washington understood clearly as he ever would that he must remain.
Ingrained Sympathy for Disunion
Maybe Jefferson did us no favor. Two years later, in May of 1794, with the country recognizing Washington’s leadership would soon be gone and Jefferson in the midst of forming a political party compatible with Democratic Republican principles, Senators Rufus King of New York and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut approached John Taylor of Virginia. Possibly because Taylor had refused to sign onto the Constitution and was now resigning his seat in the Senate, King and Ellsworth asked if he would help broker a split of the young Republic along sectional grounds. Their reasons were clearly stated: North and South would never agree on the direction of the central government and “… a dissolution of the union by mutual consent, was preferable to a certainty of the same thing, in a less desirable mode”. Taylor declined and sent a letter to Madison of the inner turmoil in the northern Senators. (Open Letter, Disunion Sentiment in Congress, dated May 1794)
Some might question the veracity of this exchange. There’s no reason to. All three, pre-eminent Founders of the Republic knew each other well. They were serious men and understood the politics of one another and their regions. Taylor was a thoroughly honest man and a political confidante of Jefferson and Madison.
King and Ellsworth were close confidantes of Hamilton, well connected and intimate with New England and New York politics. They had fought for New England through the years of the Confederation and another 6 years of turmoil after the adoption of the Constitution. Both were delegates to the 1787 Convention with Ellsworth on the Committee of Detail and King on the Committee of Style. Though King helped represent Massachusetts at the Convention, he had come to New York at Hamilton’s urging to become one of its original Senators. He was himself a power to be reckoned with. He would soon become the Ambassador to Britain and later the “Federalist” candidate for President in 1816 losing to Monroe.
Ellsworth labored in the Senate leadership putting across Hamilton’s mercantilist economic and political program. He knew intimately the furious conflict between Southern and Northern States on the central government’s connection with commercial enterprises. Washington’s 1st Administration had been strafed with turmoil as Hamilton got his way on aid to manufacturers, establishing a National Bank, nationalizing the debt of the States from the Revolution. He was diligently placing commerce under the mantle of the central government, turning that government ever so steadily into a consolidated, national government.
Both were present when the Constitutional Convention voted down granting the central government power to create corporations such as a national bank. They could remember Washington presiding as President of the Convention when that vote was taken. They later saw Washington, when President of the United States, approve the bank at Hamilton’s urging and against Jefferson’s vehement protest that it would curtail the sovereignty of the States. Jefferson had written in his ‘Opinion Against the Constitutionality of a National Bank’, that to approve the Bank would (listing the reasons), “….communicate to them (subscribers to the Bank) a power to make laws paramount to the laws of the States; for so they must be construed, to protect the institution from the control of the State legislatures; and, so, probably they will be construed.”
It was a classic confrontation between federalist and nationalist interpretations about what a central government should be able to do. Later, in 1819 Marshall, a nationalist, and his Supreme Court held the national bank superior to Maryland’s legislated laws and curtailed a little more the power, the sovereignty of the people of the States in McCullough v. Maryland.
If you understand human nature, it was predictable. What Ellsworth and Wilson, both on the Committee of Detail at the 1787 Convention, wanted, as did every other nationalist, were national courts. Such courts could never be established during the Confederation years. But the Nationalists understood that a national judiciary would insure and strengthen the central government appointing them. The Nationalists always understood that any national judiciary with or without a constitutional clause providing it with judicial supremacy would eventually find its way to that supremacy. It’s almost an historical rule that courts embrace and seize power for their own creators.
Nor in 1794 was anyone arguing about slavery. Indeed, Ellsworth had contended in 1787 for continuation of the international slave trade.
The story is simple. New England wanted a mere majority vote on navigation and commercial statutes. The South, fearing Northern commerce would then easily grow dominant over their agrarian economy, wanted a 2/3 vote. But South Carolina’s General Charles C. Pinckney rose to demand a continuance of the Slave Trade. South Carolina and Georgia hadn’t enough slaves to work their growing economy. For New England a continuance of the trade meant only a continuation of what they had done for 150 years. So Ellsworth rose to argue for the trade’s continuance. He and King and the entire New England delegations voted to continue the Slave Trade till 1808. In exchange, General Pinckney brought enough Southern votes, but not Virginia, to cast for a mere majority approval of navigation and commercial statutes. A good many slave masters and all the slave shippers held sway. Mason and Luther Martin, Southern abolitionists, who led the fight to halt the trade, saw their dream die against the hulls of New England’s slave-ships. Wealth and power, the identical twins and historically true rulers of government, had again triumphed.
In truth, in 1794 King and Ellsworth were looking far into the future. Their request for Taylor’s help to peacefully dismantle the central government and form separate confederacies, North and South, along any line the South might choose (“… King declared that he was very indifferent as to the line of division, from the Potomac to the Hudson …”), was earnest and prescient. The constant sectional clash and anger had already gone on too long. Political unrest was ceaseless. Jefferson was forming his Democratic-Republican Party. Hamilton already had his Federalist Party. Experienced leaders, both North and South, were anxiously aware that a depthless division between them would continue.
The First Public Call for Secession
In 1778 a group of men rose in Essex County, Massachusetts, to defeat their newly proposed State Constitution. These were substantial, public men of long-standing and powerful families who believed in strong central government. In particular, they did not believe in the people having great influence in government and that governing required a strong Executive. They feared too much Democracy. For them the proposed Constitution gave the people too much say and created a cipher Executive. They wrote a pamphlet in opposition whose short title read, “The Essex Result”. Governor John Hancock then labeled them ‘The Essex Junto’. They helped turn the tide and won.
In 1779 a Committee including Samuel Adams and John Adams (who did most of the drafting) brought forth a new Proposal with a strong Executive and conforming to ideas held dear by the Essex Junto and their allies. That work became the Constitution of Massachusetts. Having succeeded, the Junto as an identifiable group dispersed.
Then with the birth of Hamilton’s Federalist Party in Washington’s 1st term, a growing group of highly influential New England politicians, financiers and merchants became leading advocates for Hamiltonian programs. They worked closely with Hamilton and looked to him for national leadership. But they were also highly parochial. Their strain of New England preeminence enthralled them. New England’s penchant for messianic politics infected their thoughts and activities.
The 1794 approach to John Taylor by Rufus King and Oliver Ellsworth was likely an outreach from some elements of this, at first, nebulous grouping. What is certain is that in the 1796 election there appeared in Connecticut a series of articles in the Hartford Courant. A public call for secession rang out demanding a Northern Confederacy if Jefferson were elected. Hamilton was not behind the siren. But men working in Washington’s administration and who would later work in the Adams administration were. Representative of their thoughts, Oliver Wolcott, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, wrote several letters in the autumn of 1796, to his son, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and whom Adams retained throughout his own administration. Father wrote the son, “I sincerely declare that I wish the Northern States would separate from the Southern, the moment that event (the election of Jefferson) shall take place.” But Adams won and the secession tide quieted without going away.
During the Adams administration, though he was nominally (in our view) the titular head of the Federalist Party, Hamilton remained its operative head and directive force. The Junto men, even those who served in high places of the Adams’ administration, such as Wolcott, Jr., looked to Hamilton for political direction. He was their leader, not Adams. It was the Junto’s influence that put through the Alien and Sedition Acts out of fear of a growing French and Jeffersonian influence. Adams, who had no part in drafting the Acts, foolishly signed them into law and paid the price in the 1800 election.
The world between Hamilton and Adams never ran calm. Near the end of his term, Adams named the men from New England working against him and under Hamilton’s lead, the Essex Junto. He knew the widespread nature of their work. Some he had worked with in 1778 to draft and establish a strong central government in Massachusetts. By 1800 the Junto influence had spread throughout New England to New York, New Jersey, Delaware and some even in the South.
In the 1800 election their brand of secession talk returned with a vengeance. Their arch-devil, Jefferson, was elected. He appeared to them and many in New England to be evil incarnate disguised under the rubric of Democracy, an element of governance they, in any case, strongly distrusted.
Yet it must be clear that Hamilton never espoused secession and always cautioned against it. He was forever the practical politician with a clarity of vision about the wealth and power he wished to achieve. In 1801 he aided Jefferson’s election turning the Electors to vote for Jefferson over Burr. He forever refused to lead the Junto out of the National Empire he envisioned.
July 10, 1804, the day before dueling with Burr, he wrote to Theodore Sedgwick, a Justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and a staunch member of Hamilton’s Federalist party, “I will here express but one sentiment, which is, that dismemberment of our empire will be clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good; administering no relief to our disease, which is Democracy; the poison by which a subdivision will only be the more occupied in each part, and consequently the more virulent”. Hamilton was addressing the secessionist activities of the Junto now led by Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State under Adams. The letter is telling for 3 items: 1) he is against secession on wealth and power grounds; 2) he is not against secession on constitutional or other legal reasons, and 3) he pinpoints ‘Democracy’ as the “poison” they had all been fighting against. To his last day Hamilton believed in governance by one’s betters.
Jefferson in his 1st Inaugural in 1801 addressed the machinations of Pickering, Ames, Cabot, Wolcott and the rest of the Junto aching for secession. He proclaimed they could leave without threat of military opposition and he would wish them well. For Jefferson was the true federalist, not them. And in years to come, 1804, 1807, 1812, and 1814, out of their inbred sense of superiority, spiritual privilege and strident parochialism expressing as nationalism, the Junto would grow an inspired movement for secession to create a Northern Confederation. This Junto, formidably experienced leaders with a following in and outside New England, rose from the political, social, economic and religious foundations of New England, to make her the True Mother of Disunion.