From the 2004 Abbeville Institute Summer School.

So, our friend Don Livingston asked me to bring a European perspective on the problems of the Southern decentralist tradition. Today, I want to address what I would call, “What They Were Up Against: The Modern State and Federalism.” One of the greatest errors of mainstream Anglo-American political studies, from the history of ideas to political philosophy, has been to follow a very simplistic scheme of power, to call “state” every form of political organization, and to believe in the perennial nature of this human artifact. This is really one of the problems of American and to a certain extent British historiography. There’s a general lack of perception of the state as an historically shaped institution, and it is quite understandable in America because the United States, is a country that was plagued only recently (and often by accident) by statehood. So, most people in America believe that the state is part of the human experience, that there was a Roman state, a medieval state, and of course, Greek city-states. Isn’t this the stupid name we use for the polis or the poleis?[1] And, of course, in modern times, you have the modern state. Why not? In contemporary time, you have the contemporary state. In future time, you’ll have a future state. You know, just different forms of the same old political organization. Well, nothing could be further from the truth, and I’m going to explain to you today why this vision is totally flawed and why the modern state is the only form of state that there ever was. And most importantly, what the champions of our tradition were really up against: The rise of the modern state in America. That was the big problem.

I say modern, but I should just say, “state,” because the state is only modern. And all the features of the state are actually in perfect antithesis with the Southern tradition of decentralized governance. In the first place, the rise of the state brought about the division between the mass of subjects and the elite of political rulers. That was really something that did not exist prior to the state. It’s not a division based on wealth, position, or endowments. These kinds of division we can certainly understand. No, this is a moral partition. All states are predicated on a very simple paradigm: Rulers, when they act for the salvation of the state, know no moral or legal boundaries. Mind, it’s only when they act for the salvation of the state. So, not when they are in the oval office with some teenager or, like Richard Nixon, they’re spying on the opposition party or stuff like that. But if they convince the public that they’re acting for the salvation of the state, forget it. You know, there’s no way you can impeach anybody for killing 2 million Vietnamese or 200,000 Iraqis because that was for the salvation of the state. So, during modern times, the state has emerged because of many diverse and unique historical circumstances, but one single moral doctrine has proved itself crucial for its materialization. It is the belief according to which the ruling class is legitimized to act by any means necessary while the people at large are indeed bound by a set of laws created by the rulers and also by a common-sense morality that applies to everybody.

My point is that the state is not all the politics that there is or ever was. Not all coercive political orders can be called states. I’m not saying that coercion is pertinent only to the state. The state is definitely based on coercion, but there might be different political orders that are coercive. The Roman Empire was certainly coercive, but it was not a state. And actually, the state is a very peculiar institution, having a uniqueness that must be fully appreciated from the historical point of view and not from the history of ideas, of philosophy, but from what actually happened to the institutions. And of course, we know a lot of thinkers that thought about the state that are very important for our points, but it was only during the rise of the state that the previously unheard idea of raison d’état, “reason of state,” gained ground, both intellectually and practically. And although you would be quite correct in thinking of Niccolò Machiavelli as the expounder of this “reason of state” idea, the man you should really think of is Giovanni Botero. In 1598, Botero published a book entitled Della Ragione di Stato, or The Reason of State.[2] Botero was the first to openly argue that, for the safety of the state, men may legitimately perform actions that would be considered crimes were they committed with other purposes or by people not empowered by such a noble institution. This was the very first time that such a doctrine came out. It is the most important doctrine of the modern state and all states are predicated on this doctrine. During previous times (I’m not saying they were never brutal) the viciousness of a double morality, one limited to those acting in the name of the state and the other suitable for the general public, simply did not exist.

It is really useful to borrow the words of an historian (his name is unimportant) to immediately grasp the consequences of clear and precise and scientific perception of “the state.” He says:

“The state is not an eternal and unchanging element in human affairs. For most of its history humanity got by (whether happily or not) without a state. For all its universality in our times, the state is a contingent and comparatively recent historical development. Its predominance may also prove to be quite transitory. Once we have recognized that there were societies before the state, we may also want to consider the possibility that there could be societies after the state.”

It’s really important to keep this in mind. All institutions that have a beginning will eventually end. If you consider it (like your average American historian) that the state’s always been there from ancient times, then I guess you’re pretty much doomed by that. There’s not much you can do to revive the Southern tradition or anything like that, which was clearly against the modern state. But I would like to point out that in America nowadays the thinking on the state is still based on two very fashionable schools that developed about a hundred years ago, and a bit more than a hundred years ago. These are the sociological school and the anthropological school of the origins of the state. One should be very suspicious of anthropological studies of the birth of the state. You know, there are a lot of anthropological studies, people that go study tribes in the middle of Africa, and then they want to tell us something about the birth of the state. It’s what they want to do. There’s one book called At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, & the State, and people buy it because they think they’ll learn something about Europe, America, North Atlantic tradition, or something along those lines. No, it’s actually based on two tribes in the middle of central Africa and so on. The author says something which is really bizarre to me: “When one is reading descriptions of those who lived in ancient Buganda or ancient Polynesia, images of the Italian Renaissance or Athens in the fifth century before Christ come to mind.” Now, I wrote a letter to this guy and said I was a student and wanted to write my dissertation on the Machiavellis, Michelangelos, DaVincis, and Platos of the Buganda. He didn’t answer my letter, but actually this could be considered a venal sin in light of what the anthropological school (which is best represented by this guy) has to say about the hard issues. He says: “The state may be defined as that form of society in which non-kinship forms of social cohesion are as important as kinship forms.” He really wrote that. I’m not making this up. In fact, he said: “State-building was the process of kingship triumphant over kinship.” (In Buganda, of course, not anywhere else).

But while it seems quite complex to grasp the different stages of institutional development from this vantage point, it must also be noted the complete absence of historical perception underlying such a postulate. It may be true that tribal and blood relations must be overcome in order to approach an institutionalized system of command, however, the simple truth is totally enabled to describe the complexity of modern juridical organizations. While the timeless nature of the anthropological analysis could be helpful to comprehend some perennial features of human societies, it proves futile when applied to transient, peculiar European institutions in realities such as the state. One of the pioneers of this tradition, James George Frazer, said:

“The continuity of human development has been such that most, if not all, of the great institutions which still form the framework of civilized society have their roots in savagery and have been handed down to us in these latter days through countless generations, assuming new outward forms in the process of transmission, but remaining in their inmost core substantially unchanged.”

This is the thesis of the anthropological school. “The inmost core is substantially unchanged.” So, forget the modern state. It’s been there forever, says the anthropologist. This tradition is heir to a much more important one, the tradition of Ludwig Gumplowicz and Max Weber: the sociological tradition. Gumplowicz was a very important sociologist about a hundred years ago, and he gave the following account of the origins of the state:

“The state is a social phenomenon, consisting of social elements, behaving according to social laws. The first step is the subjection of one social group by another and the establishment of sovereignty, and the sovereign body is always less numerous, but numerical inferiority is supplemented by mental superiority and greater military discipline.”

We should notice immediately that the word he employs, sovereignty, was a concept supposedly discovered, but which was actually invented, by Jean Bodin in 1576. So, you know, Gumplowicz starts to describe a timeless thing, but he has to use a word which was invented in 1576. You’ll want to remember Bodin’s name, because unfortunately in the Anglo-Saxon world Thomas Hobbes is considered to be the real theorist of the state. I’m not saying he’s not very important, but John Bodin is at least as important as Thomas Hobbes. The only problem for you guys is that Bodin wrote in French. So, in 1576, Bodin published Les Six Livres de la République, or The Six Books of the Commonwealth. That was the first time that the word sovereignty ever came out. In 1576. Later on, Sir Edward Coke said, “What’s this ‘sovereignty’ word? It does not pertain to the English language and it’s not part of our traditions.” To a certain extent he was right, but certainly the concept and the word was used a lot in England and America as well. Max Weber did the same thing as Gumplowicz. The sociologists all project modernity over our “barbarous ancestry.” They use state categories to understand the realities of ancient peoples and peoples other than Europeans. The anthropological school does the exact opposite thing, but in reverse: They project the antiquity of different peoples on Western Europe and America. So, they’re mistaken in different and subtle ways, but both their accounts of the origins of the state are ultimately flawed.

The first myth one has to debunk is that the state is merely a natural and organic outgrowth of political power, as old as the history of mankind or of organized societies. By the way, the best books on all these things are written by Germans. The greatest political thinker of the past century, Carl Schmitt, wrote a lot about the origins of the state, but probably the best works are by Otto Brunner. There a great book by Otto Brunner on the medieval era called Land and Lordship. You’ll find it in any library, it was translated a few years ago, and it’s really a great book on how the modern state emerged from medieval times. The Anglo-American world was suspicious of these two people because both of them were, at one time, national socialists. Indeed, the first English translation of Land and Lordship was “de-Nazified” by the translators. Brunner was just paying just lip service to the regime. I mean, American historians are paying lip service every day to a regime and they don’t feel ashamed or anything. I’m not saying it’s a regime as bad as that one, but it’s still lip service to a regime. So, as I said, the state is only modern, and on this, I disagree a little bit with what Don said yesterday. He said that the state emerged two or three hundred years ago with the Treaty of Westphalia. My impression is that you have to go further back to about the beginning of the 1500’s, but it depends. Most people would say that the beginning of the state system in Europe was 1454 with the so-called Peace of Lodi with all those small Italian states agreeing on that. But it was the beginning of the first international system of states also called sovereign states that were not sovereign at all, because the word was not there, but that’s not too important. There are some people that date it back through 1348, some people that say that the real modern state came with Napoleon, but what all these people agree on is that at the end of this whole process, we had something that was totally new. Gianfranco Poggi wrote some books on the on the modernity of the state. In The State: Its Nature, Development, and Prospects, he writes: “Strictly speaking, the adjective ‘modern’ is pleonastic for the set of features listed above,” and he lists an amazing amount of features of the modern state, “as not found in any large scale political entities rather than those which began to develop in the early modern phase of European history.” What are these features? Organization, sovereignty, coercive control of the population, and centralization, to name a few.

The second myth that we immediately want to dispose of is the belief shared by almost all historians, that the rise of the state significantly contributed to the general cause of human liberty, that it has been a progressive factor in the history of mankind. You know, this is something that we rarely talk about, but there are some historians that do realize that Lincoln was a criminal, but they still say: “Well, history was on his side, so there’s nothing we can do.” They have this idea of progress and the idea that something is wrong today, but it might have been right 130 years ago. I never quite understood that. I mean, if it’s a moral wrong nowadays it must have been in old times. Anyway, my point is that the history of liberty is rather to be found in the attempts to restrain the powers of the state, in the pockets of resistance to the state that we find in Switzerland, Holland, and the American South. And why are we so interested in the American South? Well, for obvious reasons. It’s in America. It’s the South. It had a decentralist tradition. But there’s another reason: It’s the only pocket of resistance to the modern state that produced political thought. In Switzerland they produced a lot of political practice which was perfectly Jeffersonian. They just never thought about it; they thought about making money. Switzerland and Holland have the other half of the sky. Government there was not predicated on the absolutism of monarchies and of assemblies and they’re certainly very important to study as a political practice that might give rise to a lot of thoughts, but not as a political tradition. Their political practice produced no great political thinkers or political tradition, so it was only America that really produced both a practice and a tradition of thought, and that’s why when you study these pockets of resistance against the modern state, the American South is the most important instance.

Another thing that I wanted to stress is that the state did not improve the cause of human liberty and it certainly did not create law and order. A lot of people believe that the middle ages were a time where there was no law and order. To tell you the truth, the self-governing communities of the middle ages in Northern Italy and Central Europe offer significant examples of a totally different way of guaranteeing peace and security to their members. In the golden age of communal liberty, which lasted in most parts of Europe until the 16th century. They were doing much better and they were offering significant examples of a totally different way of guaranteeing peace and security to its member. During that phase of communal liberty, merchants and citizens formed their own statutes regulating passage, immigration, and exchanges. In short, everything related to peaceful and non-coercive self-government during those times. There was no clear-cut definition of power over a given territory as there were no borders in the modern sense. The borders were invented by the modern state, the modern brackets by the state. That was actually the real promise for the citizens of the state. All the order is inside the state and the disorder is outside. That’s why you need borders. So, the international community will be in a total state of anarchy, we can wage war and that kind of stuff, but once you are inside our borders, you’re protected (supposedly). And of course, you know that modern states are real serial killers.[3] But in the middle ages there was no clear-cut definition of power over a given territory, and there was always an institutionalized power that had an antagonistic counter power claiming allegiance from the same subjects. If you are the slave of four or five masters, you are much less of a slave than if you’re the slave of only one single master. And they were not real slaves, because what they had to do with the church was to give one day out of ten to work for the construction of a church if they were constructing a church in their village, and most people loved to do that and they didn’t mind. To the king, most of the people didn’t give more than 1% or 2% of whatever they made. From 1350 up to 1910, the average taxation was from 4.5% to 7% of the gross national product in old Western countries. Compare that to the current condition of Europe, where the lowest individual income tax rate is 9%, and the highest is 56.95%.[4]

Medieval peasants cannot be compared to the fiscal slaves of modern state democracy. For instance, we learned that at the opening of the 14th century, John of Paris declared that neither Pope nor king could take a subject’s goods without his consent. That was the standard doctrine, and it seems quite difficult to conceive of a state without the attributes of a state, which includes the possibility of disposing of the lives and properties of its people however it pleases. Clearly what was beyond the reach of the king during the middle ages is now available to democratic majorities, and the whole narrative of the state is how we got from there to here. That’s really the whole story of the modern state. Prior to the birth of the state, the greedy effects of political power on individuals were minimal. Those citizens had an exit right, a real exit right, and it was very much used. If you found that your prince or your king was a little bit of a tyrant, you could go talk to another one and move all your belongings and the princes couldn’t stop you from doing that. They couldn’t even get your property. Eminent domain did not exist. The idea didn’t exist in those times that your land was good for public use and the ruler could just seize it and pay you and say he hadn’t stolen it because he paid you even if you didn’t want to sell. So it was very easy to move to another less oppressive political community, and there were a thousand, maybe more, political communities that were neither totally sovereign, nor totally independent. Even at the beginning of the 1500’s there were about 580 of those political communities. This was true for all of Western Europe and Northern Italy. Spain was really different. In the 1500’s there were no more than seven or eight different political communities.

Across Western Europe, there were mostly principalities, but there were also republics and free cities, and all sorts of different arrangements at the beginning of the 1500’s when Machiavelli was writing The Prince. We read The Prince because Machiavelli saw what the prince was doing, what political modernity was gonna be about, but it was not what was actually happening everywhere at once.

You know, The Prince is all about the idea of the monarch conquering and guaranteeing to himself security in what he has conquered. There was still some mystery at the time on how you could get from this very simple idea of just a king or a prince conquering a place and stabilizing command over a territory to this monstrous creature that is the modern state. That’s how it began, and then it started with philosophers, theologians, economists, every kind of intellectual, coming up with the theory of “public goods” and stuff like that. The explanation went from God to the doctrine or theory of the supposedly scientific economic doctrine of “public goods.” But the incredible thing is how it started. It started with the idea of guaranteeing the king or prince and his entourage security in whatever they conquered and maintaining their power over their domains. It sounds like a mystery novel, you know, how we got from there to this incredible, monstrous creature of the modern state. Also, in the middle ages, there was no single source of law and order. The production of security was never considered a distinct institutional affair, but rather the concern of the whole community. For several centuries, customs, traditions, and ancient Roman laws worked together in assuring a juridical order, and law in the middle ages was a way of resolving conflicts, but it was kept more or less a private business. There was no organic conception of the social body and thus a crime remained a private matter to be taken care of with well-defined rules, but it stayed of private matter. You know, it depended on victims. They wanted to kill the guy and do whatever they wanted with him. That’s really something that appeals to me nowadays, because there’s somebody who kills a father of three or four children and it seems to me that the children should have the right to make this guy work for them for the rest of his life and make some money out of it, or just decide to get justice and kill him. It’s only their business, it’s not the business of the community. But thanks to the modern state, we live with a different theory, the theory that if you kill somebody, you owe the community, the social body, there’s a “debt to society” not to that particular person or his family. The victim is totally out of the picture immediately and the state takes over and decides the punishment. It was different in the middle ages. The victim was the wronged party, and the sufferers were always the center of any lawsuit. The redress was always done from the point of view of the victims and never of a supposed wounded collectivity. And when feuds broke out, which was a very common thing, the families involved were asked to reestablish the public peace, but very seldom were the perpetrators of crimes punished by the political authorities once peace was restored. The only concern of these people was peace, the avoidance of conflict. If a feud broke out there had a lot of rules. It had to be a legal feud. The whole theory of Otto Brunner was that the destruction of the practice of feuds in medieval Germany gave birth to the modern state. And in Germany, the disarmament of the population was a crucial step in establishing the modern state. You know what Goebbels said: “If Germans are so fond of firearms, they should join the SL and the SF, the SA and the SS. They’ll have fun. But the people shouldn’t bear arms at all.” And in this sense, you can see that in America there are some features of the modern state that are still difficult to be accepted, which is certainly something that I appreciate and it tells you that state’s development in America has a few more steps to go.

In the peculiar sense, though, words as crystallized ideas have consequences, and the medieval period was definitely over when, at the end of a long development, the word “state” was used in the modern sense by Machiavelli for the very first time. Where does this word come from? Prior to Machiavelli, this word was used a lot, but it never meant a political community. But this time, in the beginning of The Prince, which was written in the Summer of 1513 (probably, though it could have been as late as 1516), Machiavelli says: “All the states, all the dominions under whose authority men have lived in the past and live now, have been and are either republics or principalities.” For the very first time, the word “state,” from the Latin status, meaning “to be.” Notice that the state doesn’t begin, it doesn’t end, it just is. More on that in a moment. Machiavelli is really important because although he was supposedly a republican at heart, he saw the king and the kingdom as the protagonists of the new era. From the 16th century on, it was in fact up to the monarchy and to monarchical absolutism to develop this notion of the organization of power through an artificial person, the state. The novelty of such a political preacher was that the entire political reality was reshaped through offices, entities, and of course flaws. The new body politic transcended individuals as well as sovereign, and it did not represent anybody. It simply existed. It was nurtured by the myth produced by the historians and politicians, the myth of having always existed. This is like the central hardcore myth of the state. In Italian, the motto is very memorable, lo stato c’è sempre stato, “the state has ever been.”[5] This is not true, but as one historian of note said: “Following the proclamation of the sovereign state, especially in France during the second half of the 16th century, historians went to work; the present needs a past adaptable to it. That’s why, when you read Aristotle’s Politics, it sometimes seems very modern and you say, “Wow, this is amazing.” Then you look at the translator and realize the translator had state categories in mind, so he translated all the words accordingly. For example, one of Aristotle’s other pamphlets is translated as The Athenian Constitution, which is ridiculous. I mean, they never had an idea of a constitution. Constitution is definitely a term of the 1700’s, perhaps you could trace it back to the 1600’s, but no farther. There’s no medieval constitutionalism. Whenever you listen to someone talking about medieval or ancient constitutionalism, just stop listening. There’s a very famous Latin phrase, Ubi societas, ibi ius, and it’s been incorrectly translated as, “Where there is a society, there is a state.” What they actually meant was, “Where there is a society, there are rules.” And usually men in common do establish certain rules. It doesn’t have to be a state.

This timelessness notion attached to the state is also a peculiar aspect of the secularization of theological concepts, in this case eternal life. Carl Schmitt persuasively argued that modern political concepts are nothing else but secularized theological concepts. So, if you think about it, the state is actually God. That’s why it was not created. It was not generated. It’s been there forever and it will always be there. Sounds divine, doesn’t it? “I am that I am.”[6] As Carl Schmitt put it: “All significant concepts of the theory of the modern state are secularized theological concepts.” This comes from his 1922 book, Political Theology, which is readily available in English translations.

Jean Bodin was a vital thinker for the institutionalization of the state. The rise of the centralized state apparatus that claimed a monopoly of the use of force or violence over a given territory went hand in hand with an intellectual pursuit of describing such a novelty. There were people that were describing what was happening. Of course, they were tailoring this thing in old clothes. They were always saying, “Yeah, it’s always been like that, I’m just telling you how it works now,” and so on. In actuality they were definitely breaking new ground. Bodin defined sovereignty as:

“The absolute and perpetual power of a Commonwealth, Latins call Maiestatem, the Greeks akra exousia, kurion arche, and kurion politeuma; the Italians Segnoria, and the Hebrews tomech shévet, that is to say, the highest power of command.”

Bodin wanted to use ancient terms to define a completely new thing called “sovereignty” that had never existed before, and Bodin’s intellectual efforts, coupled with the institutional developments that were taking place in Europe at the time, brought about a definitive break with the medieval political tradition. So, the French thinker invented the notion of sovereignty and associated it with an institutionalized reality, the state. This is very different from Machiavelli, because Machiavelli is always talking about the prince and how brave he should be and what he’s got to do with you know, fortune, goodwill, and everything else. But when you read Bodin, anybody could be a prince. The only important thing is that there is one and there’s an ultimate guy and an ultimate locus for decision making. As you’ll see, that’s gonna be very important when we discuss both common law and the idea of the judge of last resort, and a federal system. Bodin said that there there’s no place for anything like the concurrence of the subjects in determining this course of the sovereign, because: “Sovereignty is not limited. The crucial point of sovereign majesty is that it can give laws to its subjects generally without their consent.” It could be with their consent, but that’s an accident. And this is of course Bodin, but this is the theory of the state. And it’s still here. I mean, forget the consent theory. That’s something that was popular with the John Locke, but Locke had very little influence in shaping modern institutions. You have to think of the real hardcore thinkers, and the line is clear and unbroken from Bodin to Hobbes and on to Jean Jacques Rousseau if you want to think of how the state really works.

The sovereign may not be an extraordinarily gifted man, like in the time of Machiavelli, and here we really see the modernity of Bodin. The functions attributed to the sovereign power and not the qualities of the prince will render his actions just and fortunate. It is the birth in political thought of the institutional reality called the state. It’s really the institution. The character of the office-holder means nothing to Bodin. This other guy asserted in 1609: “Sovereignty is entirely inseparable from the state, for sovereignty is the form which causes the state to exist. Indeed, the state and sovereignty in the concrete are synonymous. Sovereignty is a summit of authority by means of which the state is created and maintained.” Then, of course, there’s Thomas Hobbes and you know about him, so I won’t go into detail on him. There’s a straight line from Machiavelli to Bodin to Thomas Hobbes. The fourth man in line is, of course, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Rousseau’s idea of sovereignty resides in “the general will.” When you examine these four thinkers, you can understand what happened in Europe for the past five centuries. Rousseau was certainly the most important thinker of the democratic state, and I’m not saying only totalitarian democracies and stuff like that, you know, I mean the totalitarian tendencies inherent in every single democracy. Anyway, in his On The Social Contract, he wrote:

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.”

Now, this concept of forcing people to be free is a new twist on the general idea of the modern state. Until the days of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the state was forced people to do all sorts of things simply because it could. But now with this new theory you can force them to be free. Coercing people into freedom. Sounds oxymoronic, doesn’t it? Ironically, good old Jean Jacques was obsessed with the idea that he was probably evil; sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night and jotted down lines about the rest of Europe not understanding how good-hearted he was. He abandoned up to nine of his own children by leaving them at an orphanage. Someone (I forget who) wrote a book on Rousseau’s political thought and noted that the first victims of totalitarian thought were Rousseau’s own children.

The American colonists started a revolution for various reasons, but basically because they thought that Westminster was England’s parliament and had no power over America. They believed they lived in a sort of federal empire in which every political community was free and self-governing, and the king was the underwriter of that arrangement According to this widely circulated colonial view. And you can find this federal vision for the British empire in all the writings from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, and it was certainly extremely important for the American revolutionaries. I’m not saying it was the only thing, of course. During the early republic, very few people had in mind a leap into the modern state for America, Alexander Hamilton being the most consistent exception. But the logic of the modern state eventually caught up with the United States. This logic implies the concentration of power at a given center, potentially unlimited and illimitable. This is actually what the word “sovereign” means. That’s why the idea of divided sovereignty is total nonsense. Sovereignty is there, and it means that the sovereign power can have all the power and centralize all the power and all the means to exercise that power. Thus, the various battles that the Federalists fought and won over the long run, like the battle for a single common law of the United States (and many others) are best understood in the context of the US’s difficult reception of European political categories, or to put it simply, the modern state’s gradual invasion of America.

The man who precipitated all this was Abraham Lincoln. Listen to the language that the man from Springfield used when the crisis reached a peak on July 4th, 1861:

“The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence and liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States.”

This was the language of the modern state speaking through good old Abe. And you remember, no, well you’re too young, but some of us are not, in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan gave his first inaugural address. He said he wanted to return power to the States because, after all, the States are older than the Union.[7] He spoke that simple truth, proclaimed that historical fact, and there was an uproar from all the history departments across the country. People like Samuel Beer wrote articles and letters to all the newspapers telling them how wrong Reagan was and that the union was actually much older than the states, which is the Lincolnian stance. Of course, Lincoln’s army had a great force of persuasion. This intimidation of the states, which amounted to “adapt to the modern state or die,” (which is really the same thing, die or die), was a pretty unusual thing for America, but as old as Machiavelli for European ears. The same organicist vision pervades all of Lincoln writings. In an 1864 letter, Lincoln outlined his justification for recourse to courts martial as a means of putting civilians on trial. He said, well, yes, in a way, one could argue that this was unconstitutional. However:

“Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.”[8]

This is European thought at its core. Those few lines perfectly encapsulate the thinking of Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau. People often discuss books they’ve never read by adopt and repeat ideas without knowing where they came from. I see this quite often with my students. All my students are Marxists. They deny that and say: “No, I’m not a Marxist, I’m just posing this question.” I reply: “Well, the question you posed, is one of a very coherent Marxist.” People don’t have to be very literate to learn and adopt ideas. They suck them in with their mother’s milk and then with the air they breathe. People often develop worldviews without even realizing where their ideas come from, and to some degree Lincoln was like that. He loved Henry Clay, and by extension Alexander Hamilton, but he probably never read Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, or Rousseau. In the end, Lincoln won, the modern state came to America in full force, and our guys (Jefferson, Taylor, etc.). were only a simple annoyance in the triumph of the modern American state. It may be a little pessimistic to view the Southern decentralist tradition in this light, but I would hasten to say that without the Southern tradition things would probably be a great deal worse than they are. As I said earlier, the history of liberty is indeed the history of resistance to the modern state and God only knows where we would be now had the modern state developed all its potential without any pockets of intellectual or institutional resistance. In that way it’s a little bit like Christianity – after 2000 years the world seems to be as evil as ever. Just imagine how the world would be without it.

[1]Polis being singular and poleis being plural.

[2]There don’t appear to be any English translations readily available for free online.

[3]See also The Black Book of Communism

[4]Montenegro is the lowest and Finland the highest.

[5]Or, translated literally, “the state has always been there.”

[6]Exodus 3:14. Compare the words of Jesus in John 8:58.

[7]President Reagan’s exact phrasing was: “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.”

[8]Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, 4 April, 1864.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Abbeville Institute.

Marco Bassani

Marco Bassani is professor of history of political theory at the University of Milan.

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