United States District Judge Carlton Reeves is considering a lawsuit by Mississippi attorney Carlos Moore to rule that the Mississippi State flag is unconstitutional because it is “anti-American,” meaning it symbolizes secession and slavery. I leave aside the contorted legal reasoning that might support such a suit, namely whether Moore has standing to sue, if this is a judicial not a legislative question, and if a “right to dignity” is codified in the Constitution, but Judge Reeves agrees the flag is “anti-American” and said that the Confederacy “is anathema to anybody who lives within the twenty first century.”

The judge needs a history lesson.

What it means to be an “American” has always been a contested matter. No sooner was the Constitution ratified than two incompatible visions of America emerged. These later developed into two conflicting traditions which I shall call Jeffersonian and Lincolnian Americanisms.

For the Jeffersonians, then and now, the Constitution is a compact between sovereign States intended to delegate a “few” “enumerated” powers to the central government for their mutual benefit as distinct political societies. In international law a state acting in its sovereign capacity may lawfully secede from a federation it has joined. In the Lincolnian vision, the States are not sovereign political societies. Sovereignty is vested in the American people in the aggregate. Lincoln compared the States to “counties” in a unitary state. Just as a county cannot lawfully secede from an American State, so a State cannot secede from the Union. It was with this argument that Lincoln launched the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century not to free slaves but to prevent eleven American States from forming a federation of their own so as to free themselves from being ruled by a Northern industrial ruling class seeking hegemony on the continent.

If anyone is an American Jefferson is, and if anyone is an America Lincoln is. Yet their visions of America are incompatible. Which one is true? The historical record of how the Constitution was formed overwhelmingly supports the Jeffersonian vision. We have forgotten that the Jeffersonian vision more of less dominated North and South from Jefferson’s election in 1800 up to Lincoln’s invasion of the South in 1861.

During this period State nullification of unconstitutional acts of the central government, as well as secession, was considered an option in every section of the Union–and especially in New England. This vigorous action of State sovereignty had a chilling effect on the ambition of would-be oligarchs in the federal government to unlawfully expand central power.

In short, the States kept the central government in line. We have also forgotten that it was Southerners who provided the intellectual and political leadership for this Jeffersonian Americanism. In the first 64 years, there were 52 years in which Southerners were elected to the presidency. All the land beyond the original 13 States were acquired by Southern administrations. Moreover, Northern presidents, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and James President Buchanan, were “Jeffersonian,” i.e., “Southern” in their outlook. Indeed, Buchanan and his attorney general held that the central government had no authority to use military force to bring a seceding State back into the Union. And both were right.

What was America like when Jeffersonian Southerners ran the country? Jefferson ran on a platform of abolishing all inland federal taxes. From his election to 1861, Americans paid no inland federal taxes except for the cost of the War of 1812. The great bulk of Federal revenue came from foreigners who paid a tax to enter the American market. By 1835 the Jeffersonians had abolished the national bank (the equivalent of abolishing the corrupt and corrupting Federal Reserve today). From then until 1861, the central government was out of debt except for the Mexican war, which was less than the federal budget for 1858.

This Southern-led Jeffersonian “America” was a remarkable place. Americans lived nearly free of federal taxes and federal debt. Today Americans are burdened with taxes, onerous regulations, and groan under a $20 trillion debt. This is possible because, having rejected State nullification and secession, the central government can define the limits of its own power. In Lincoln’s day that power was seized by a Yankee nationalist oligarchy. Today it is in the hands of a globalist oligarchy which controls both political parties.

When the South seceded, it was acting squarely within the Jeffersonian understanding of the American founding. Acting through State conventions, Americans had seceded twice before: from Britain and from the Union under the Articles of Confederation. Article VII of the U.S. Constitution says that the secession of nine States from the Articles of Confederation would be sufficient to form the United States, leaving the four dissenting States under the Articles. In short, the Constitution recognizes that the Union was lawfully divided by the secession of nine sovereign States. If nine States were sufficient to divide the Union under the Articles (which declared itself “perpetual”) and form the United States of America, why were not eleven States sufficient to form the Confederates States of America?

It is important to understand that the Constitution of the Confederacy was nothing new. It was merely the American Constitution amended with reforms to better protect the people of the several States from the tyranny of unlawful consolidation by the central government. It was a thoroughly American Constitution. An equestrian statue of Washington was on the Great Seal of the Confederacy, and “Washington” was seriously considered as the name of the new country.

Robert E. Lee’s father was a revolutionary war hero and gave the oration at Washington’s funeral. Four of his uncles signed the Declaration of Independence. Lee knew something about being an “American.”

Why did the South secede? The fashionable view today that secession was to protect slavery is absurd. First, no national political party during the entire antebellum period had put forth an emancipation plank. You cannot secede to protect against emancipation when there is no political party advocating it. The only talk of emancipation arose in the 1830s by a tiny, but highly vocal, sect of abolitionists originating in New England. They acted outside the political process demanding immediate and uncompensated emancipation backed by terrorist threats of the sort carried out by John Brown who was praised by Northern elites. Second, Congress passed the Corwin Amendment just before Lincoln took office which made it impossible ever to amend the Constitution to give Congress power over slavery.

Slavery had never been so well protected. Yet the South seceded anyway because it abhorred the unitary-state vision of America (the French Revolutionary vision) put forth by the Republican Party. That new vision was profoundly incompatible with that decentralized Jeffersonian Americanism that had flourished from 1776 to 1861. In a word, the Republican Party’s platform was “un-American.” Secession would enable Southerners to continue enjoying the decentralized low tax, low debt political life of the founding Jeffersonian tradition.

The peaceful division of the Union by the action of sovereign States was thoroughly “American.” It was the best solution to all the many problems confronting a clearly dysfunctional federation of States in 1861, including the problem of slavery. Indeed, abolitionists had argued that secession of the North from the South would be sure to set slavery on the road to extinction. The Union had expanded to four times its original territorial size in only 60 years. It was simply too large in territory for republican self-government.

Though suppressed in Lincolnian America, the Jefferson tradition has always been a telling source of criticism of the totalitarian tendencies intimated in Lincolnian Americanism, tendencies that can no longer be disguised. Today the Jeffersonian tradition is experiencing a revival. The Tenth Amendment Center has made many Americans aware that State interposition, nullification, and secession are engagements authorized by the Jeffersonian understanding of the Constitution. A recent example is the nullification by California and other States of federal laws prohibiting the sale of Marijuana.

Even secession, long thought to be heretical, has again become topical. A Public Policy Poll in 2012 asked Americans whether they would like to see their State secede. Of those 19-29, 27 percent favored secession. Of Hispanics, 27 percent. Of those “very conservative,” 37 percent. Two years later, a Zogby poll found that 25 percent of Americans favored secession from the United States. That is 80 million Americans who are still Jeffersonian in their thinking–and Southern–because the Southern tradition was the chief mover in the Jeffersonian tradition.

Judge Reeves thinks Confederate symbols are “anathema to anybody who lives within the twenty first century.” Of course, neither he nor anyone else knows the meaning of the twenty first century. That century has hardly begun, but I observe that it opened with the dramatic secession of 15 states from the Soviet Union which, as in our pledge of allegiance, was said to be “indivisible.” That was followed by a number of secessions in Europe which continue to this day. And secession talk has even entered public discourse in America which is a sign of the staying power of the timeless principles of Jeffersonian Americanism. Confederate symbols are the living memorial of that founding tradition.

A famous movie was made in 1942 on the origin of the song “Dixie.” It starred Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The advertisement for the film describes “Dixie” as a “rousing song that expresses the spirit of America.” That “spirit” is the spirit of the founding Jeffersonian America.

Mr. Moore, Judge Reeves, and our current ruling class have self-imposed blinders when they survey the American political tradition. They can see hardly anything but slavery and racism. It is one thing to have a just concern for wrongs done in the name of race; it is pathological to be obsessed with those wrongs.

Confederate symbols express the timeless truth of the founding Jeffersonian Americanism. They were embraced by Northerners and Southerners prior to the Lincolnian revolution. Many Americans today, from all sections of the Union, still view those principles as the noblest part of the American political tradition.

Donald Livingston

Donald Livingston is the founder of the Abbeville Institute and retired Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. 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 Edinburgh. His books include Hume's Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium, Hume's Pathology of Philosophy.

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