The Southern Critique of Centralization

The Southern political tradition, in practice and theory, is one of its most valuable contributions to America and the world. The one constant theme of that tradition from 1776–through Jefferson, Madison, John Taylor, St George Tucker, Abel Upshur, John C. Calhoun, the Nashville Agrarians, Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, down to the scholars of the Abbeville Institute–is a systematic critique of centralization. Nothing comparable to it exists elsewhere in America or in Europe.

A criticism of centralization presupposes that decentralization is a good thing. But why is that? The answer is complex and requires viewing what was happened in 1776 from a trans Atlantic perspective. The Declaration of Independence is merely the American version of a conflict that had been going on in Europe since at least the 17th century between the emerging centralized  modern state and a revived interest in  the classical republican tradition which goes back to the ancient Greeks.

There are four principles to this republican tradition: First, republican government is one in which the people make the laws they live under. But, second, they cannot make just any law. The laws they make must be in accord with a more fundamental law which they do not make but is known by tradition. Third, the task of the republic is to preserve and perfect the character of that inherited tradition. And finally, the republic must be small. It must be small because self-government and rule of law is not possible unless citizens know the character of their rulers directly or through those they trust.

 The Greeks created a brilliant civilization that was entirely decentralized. It was composed of 1,500 tiny independent republics strung out from Naples to the Black Sea. Most were under 10,000. One of the largest was Athens with around 200 thousand people. For over two thousand years, up to the French Revolution, republics seldom went beyond 200-300 thousand people, and the great majority were considerably smaller.  

In contrast, a modern state is supposed to be large. Thomas Hobbess, published in 1651 the first systematic theory of the modern state. He titled the book “Leviathan,’ a large sea monster. It contains a central government endowed with irresistible and indivisible power over individuals in a territory. Unlike republicanism, it does not require, self-government or tradition. Nor does it require the rule of law since the central authority itself can make law. Its purpose is to contain anarchy by enabling autonomous individuals to pursue their own ends in a condition of enlightened self-interest called “civil association.”  Such a regime is compatible with an association of strangers, as in a regime of traffic regulations.

Since the only goal of the modern state is “civil association,” there is no internal limit to its size. In fact, the larger the better because outside the realm of civil association lies anarchy or its ever present threat. The logical extension of this is global government or as close an approximation as possible. Although a modern state may expand in size indefinitely, its territory cannot be divided by secession because if one set of individuals could lawfully secede, so could any other set, and so on within each set, to the unraveling of all government.

Here we have two incompatible models of government. The small classical republic and the indefinitely large modern state.  But there is a third model to consider.  Medieval civilization was also decentralized, and it was vast in scale. It was a mosaic of thousands of independent and quasi-independent political units: kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, papal states, republics, free cities, and tens of thousands of titled manors.

The medieval contribution to politics is the idea of a federated polity where various independent political units are held together in a larger realm by compacts and traditional hierarchies. As we will see shortly, it is through the logic of the medieval federation that the Southern tradition sought to bring together the best aspects of the small republic with those of the large modern state.

The modern state system begins in the 17th century with the rise of  “absolute monarchies”–‘absolute,’ meaning irresistible and indivisible centralized power. Modern monarchs sought to crush the medieval mosaic of  independent social authorities they had inherited into larger and more centralized states. And they were successful.

In the mid-1850s Tocqueville left us a melancholy description of what two centuries of monarchical centralization had done: “The old localized authorities disappear without either revival or replacement, and everywhere the central government succeeds them in the direction of affairs. The whole of Germany, even the whole of Europe … presents the same picture. Everywhere men are leaving behind the liberty of the Middle Ages, not to enter into a modern brand of liberty but to return to the ancient despotism; for centralization is nothing else than an up-to-date version of the administration seen in the Roman Empire.”

But just as absolute monarchy was emerging in the 17th century, demanding a large scale state, there was also a revived interest in classical republicanism which demanded small scale. This latter sparked a Cato-like resistance to modern state consolidation which ran throughout the centralized monarchies of Europe. But one thinker requires special mention, namely Johannes Althusius (1563-1638). He was a German Calvinist philosopher who proposed a federation of small polities in a state larger than the classical republic, but smaller than a European monarchy. He called it a federation of “medium” size–about the size of Switzerland which is half the territory of South Carolina.

To prevent the central government from consolidating the smaller polities into a unitary modern state, Althusius introduces a constitutional right of secession from the federation. If a federation grew too large, it could always be brought back to a republican scale by secession. 

The language of republicanism was perverted by the French Revolution which declared itself to be a “republic one and indivisible.” But with 26 million people, France was too large to be a republic. Moreover, the new regime retained the kings’ coercive mechanism of centralization  So the new France was, in fact, an absolute monarchy pretending to be a republic. And since it was said to be “one and indivisible,” secession was ruled out absolutely.

To speak of the French “republic” is an oxymoron. Yet this muddled union of the modern state with republican connotations would spread around the globe. Today, France with 65 million people, the US with 325 million, and China with one billion, 300 million, all describe themselves, without embarrassment, as “republics.”.

This was not true, however, of the American founders whose republican thought was established before the French Revolution and which acknowledged the classical republican requirement of human scale and a limit to size as such. But this meant Americans were immediately confronted with an uphill challenge. The republican tradition told them that the extensive territory they acquired from Britain was too large for republican government. How they tried to solve it is best illustrated with the case of Virginia.

Virginia conquered the vast Northwest territory which includes the present States of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Michigan and Minnesota. Virginians told themselves that this was a temptation they must resist; that they could not both enjoy republicanism and rule such a vast territory. So the territory was ceded to the Confederation.

The important point here is that republican political liberty was preserved by reducing the size of Virginia. But there is more. The State itself was deemed too large, and was reduced further in size when a number of western counties seceded and formed the State of Kentucky. Even so, Jefferson thought the State was still too large, and he urged that its counties be divided into small sovereign states (similar to the Swiss cantons) which he called “ward republics.” In 1810, he wrote that: “these little republics would be the main strength of the great one.” And fourteen years later he said of this federation of small republics : “the wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable well-administered republic.”

The country closest to Jefferson’s vision for Virginia is Switzerland which has twenty six sovereign states, the smallest of which has 15,974 people and the largest a little over a million. The average size is 300 thousand. Fourteen states have less than that, and eight are under 100,000. Switzerland is so decentralized that its central government has no original taxing power. Its power to tax requires a constitutional amendment approved by a majority of the cantons, each of which has one vote, and a majority of individuals. And the military is in the hands of the canton militias. Switzerland is regularly ranked by the UN’s World Happiness Report in the top ten happiest countries in the world. The top ten are usually always small states. The U.S. has yet to make the top ten. 

Yet Jefferson himself put more pressure on republican liberty with the Louisiana Purchase which doubled  the size of the Union. New Englanders threatened secession, claiming that Virginia sought to become  the “Austria of America.” Jefferson agreed that America  would indeed be an empire, but not a centralized one. It would be what he called an “empire of liberty.” Like Althusius, he would do this by tying republican political liberty to division of territory through secession.

How so?  As people moved West, new States would be formed. As population increased these might be divided through secession as Kentucky seceded from Virginia–Tennessee from North Carolina, and Maine from Massachusetts. And if Jefferson had his way, these States would be further divided into “ward republics” in the manner of Switzerland. In time, there might be too many States for representative government. In that case, States would secede from the mother Union and form a federation of their own. Jefferson imagined a future America composed of three countries. The old Atlantic federation, a Mississippi federation, and a Pacific federation.

Just as Virginia had resisted the temptation to become a centralized modern state by reducing its size and ceding the Northwest territory to the Confederation, and by allowing Kentucky to secede, so the original Union should generously allow itself to be divided for the sake of its own republican life (since it had grown too large) and the republican life of other Americans. 

So when eleven Southern States seceded in 1861, they were simply enacting the rights embedded in Jefferson’s “empire of liberty.” If you want to know why the South seceded, read the Confederate Constitution it is merely the US Constitution reformed to bring it into closer accord with the Jeffersonian vision of reconciling republicanism with extensive territory. By seceding, the South actually strengthened republican political liberty in both the South and in the North. Lincoln subverted republicanism in both by creating what would become a monster modern state.

Lincoln’s invasion of the Confederate States was America’s French Revolution as it derailed Jeffersonian America’s on-going and successful effort to reconcile republicanism with large size–in favor of yet another dime a dozen modern European state. In this, Lincoln was right on schedule with the centralizing trend in Europe that so terrorized Tocqueville in the 1850s. Lord Acton viewed the the Confederacy as a continuation of the dissenting decentralist tradition in Europe. With its defeat no counter force existed and would-be modern states would appear everywhere around the globe, all claiming to be “one and indivisible.” They would have different ideologies: liberal, libertarian, socialist, communist, democratic, fascist. But all would seek to have the same form, a central government with plenary power over individuals in a territory.

The 17th century modern state promised peaceful civil association on an extensive–and possibly–a global scale. But its devotees failed to read the fine print. No practical way was found to check its disposition to centralize power. Instead of pursuing mere “civil association,” it turned to nation and empire building. Moreover, these centralized monster states were allergic to each other. The result would be the Napoleonic wars, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War. World War II alone left  60 million dead, mostly civilians.

But even worse,  having eliminated, or drawn the teeth, of its historic independent social authorities (the church, the nobility, free cities, provinces, small states within), the state met no corporate resistance in turning on its own people. R. J. Rummel has studied the phenomenon of the state killing people within its jurisdiction. He calculates that nearly four times as many people have been killed by their own governments as have been killed in all the wars, domestic and foreign, fought around the globe in the twentieth century. Killing on this scale would not be possible without the subversion of independent social authorities caused by massive centralization. If so, the greatest threat to human life in the twentieth century has not been war but the massive centralization of power in modern states. Rummel says, its as if nuclear war occurred, and no one noticed. 1

Southerners were the most clear eyed students of the Jeffersonian republican vision of America and the need for checks on centralization.  Over and over they warned what would happen if fallen man should ever acquire such power. Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, surveying the wreckage of Jeffersonian America caused by Lincoln’s war gave this warning to posterity in 1870: “Depend upon it …. there is no difference between Consolidation and Empire …. If the worst is to befall us; if our most serious apprehensions and gloomiest forebodings as the future … are to be realized; if Centralism is ultimately to prevail; if our entire system of free Institutions as established by our common ancestors is to be subverted, and an Empire is to be established in their stead; if that is to be the last scene in the great tragic drama now being enacted; then, be assured, that we of “the South” will be acquitted … by the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all the guilt of so great a crime against humanity.” 2 

What Stephens calls “empire” is nothing but the modern European state which Lincoln established in America with a writ of fire and sword. It was resisted in Europe by decentralists such as Althusius, David Hume, Goethe, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, Proudhon, and many others. Lord Acton called Lincoln’s invasion of the South an “awful crime.” In its current form, the modern state has  dominated  for two centuries, beginning with the French Revolution. But a dramatic change occurred in 1991 when fifteen states seceded from the “one and indivisible” Soviet Union. This was the greatest bloodless revolution in history, something American elites have yet fully to appreciate. Since then numerous peaceful secessions have occurred in Europe and a great many more decentralist movements have sprung up demanding self-government.

Nor has the United States been spared this decentralist discontent as evidenced by the Tenth Amendment movement. Even secession, long thought to have been buried, is again topical in the United States. Polls are now regularly taken to register secession opinion. A 2014 Reuter’s poll found that 25 percent of Americans favored secession of their State. That is 80 million people. 3 A 2015 Gallup Poll found that millenials were the most supportive of a Palestinian state and an independent Scotland. American millenials strongly supported Britain’s secession from the EU by 42 percent to 17, and 37 percent favored secession of Texas from the United States. 4

What has happened in the last 25 years is a paradigm shift. The modern state, dominant for two centuries, no longer commands the authority it once had. Many Americans no longer believe the United States is “one nation indivisible.” And they are right, it never really was. But paradigm shifts at their beginning are confusing, and it is not clear how to think about our current condition as we try to penetrate the muddle caused by uniting republican discourse with that of the modern state. The part of the American tradition from which we have the most to learn, practically, theoretically, and historically, is the Southern political tradition which since 1865 has not been ignored so much as suppressed.


1. R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).

2. Quoted in Alexander Stephens, A Constitutional View of the War Between the States, 2 vols. (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1994), vol. 2, p. 669.

3. http://blogs.reuters.com/jamesrgaines/2014/09/19/one-in-four-americans-want-their-state-to-secede-from-the-u-s-but-why/

4. http://redalertpolitics.com/2016/06/30/poll-american-millennials-support-brexit-37-support-texas-secession/

About Donald Livingston

Donald Livingston is the founder of the Abbeville Institute and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Emory University. Livingston received his doctorate at Washington University in 1965. He has been a National Endowment Independent Studies fellow and a fellow for the Institute of Advanced Studies in the humanities at the University of Edinborough. He has been on the editorial board of Hume Studies and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Livingston's books include Hume's Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. More from Donald Livingston

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