The Dis-United States of America – Motivation

Sep 09

In a previous article grounds were established on which an individual or state might desire to secede from the union. In that article, the basis for secession is disagreement about the character of the Constitution or an ideological shift away from its relevance given contemporary circumstances.

What that article didn’t explore in detail are the differences that are likely to be sufficient to motivate secession. In other words, what differences could be so acute that they would drive a group of people to the point that they would want to sever ties with their mother country? We find a clue to that division in the wording of the Declaration of Independence, which identifies certain “unalienable Rights”, among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

When men feel that their ability to provide for themselves and their kindred and to live according to their conscience is in jeopardy, they are much more likely to resort to extreme measures. We see this clearly in two major conflicts in American history. First is the Revolutionary War, which was a successful secession from British authority. The second, the American Civil War, was an unsuccessful attempt to secede from the Union.

The drivers in both of these conflicts were economic and ideological. It may be the case that religious and ethnic tensions played a part in both conflicts mentioned, but a careful historical review provides much more evidence pointing to economics primarily, and ideology secondarily, as the major drivers behind each war.

The American Revolution

In his later years, John Adam’s sent a letter to Mr. Hezekiah Niles, which letter later took on the title “What is mean by American Revolution”. In this letter he asks the question “what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced.” He goes on to argue that it is in the interest of humanity to understand how the revolution in the hearts and minds of the people was brought about:

“By what means this great and important alteration in the religious, moral, political, and social character of the people of thirteen colonies, all distinct, unconnected, and independent of each other, was begun, pursued, and accomplished, it is surely interesting to humanity to investigate and perpetuate to posterity.”

The myriad answers to this entreaty are directly inline with the question of what might motivate secession, which is being discussed here. It’s interesting to note that Long before the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1775, there was nearly a decade of escalation. Some go back as far as the French and Indian War beginning in 1754.

Some of the most notable events that brought about this change include the Sugar Act, Currency Act, which lead to the Stamp Act in 1765. Through these acts, the seeds of the American Revolution began to take sprout and grow in the hearts of the people. Rhetoric quickly escalated, as can be heard in Patrick Henry’s address to the House of Burgesses in May, 1765 where he was interrupted with a cry of treason.

While it’s tempting to identify the royal mandates and legislation mentioned above as misguided or greedy, there’s great benefit in acknowledging the economic circumstances of the mother country. Due in part to the Seven Years War, debt had risen from £72,289,673 in 1755 to £129,586,789 in 1764. The burden of taxes on the citizens of Britain was already extreme. The King and the Lords were quickly approaching desperation. The Government had overextended. The people were beginning to feel the burden. Leaving aside, for the moment, the more visible events leading up to the revolution, like the Boston Tea Party, the economic pressure resulting from choices made by the few at the top were being felt by the many at the bottom. The result was a quickly growing divide between monarch and subject, a divide which would later lead to secession.

The Abolition of Slavery & The Civil War

Moving forward in the nation’s history to the time of the Civil War, it may be tempting to argue that this struggle was largely ideological. Undoubtedly there were starkly contrasting ideologies, many of which were present in revolutionary times. The moral conflict represented in the practice of slavery played a significant and formative role in the drafting of the Constitution, such as the threat made by the delegates of South Carolina and Georgia that they would not join the Union if the importation of slaves was banned under the new constitution, by which they won the concession that the slave trade could not be restricted for twenty years after ratification. Some would argue that the “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” men, mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and the assertion that “all men are created equal”, which also references a Creator, are as much intended to characterize the colony’s relationship with their mother country as the relationship of men, black and white, to one another.

However deep these ideological differences might have been, they alone did not prevent colonial unity during the revolutionary period. They also were not the primary driver behind conflict. In this case, as in the case of the Revolution, economics played the more influential role. The tensions that threatened to split the budding nation apart were those born of economic conditions. While not a surprise, the twenty year window closed with legislation outlawing the importation of new slaves into the United States in 1807 (effective January 1, 1808). In 1828, the Tariff of Abominations was passed which was intended to protect the northern economy, but which was damaging to the southern agricultural economy. Note that there was nothing patently related to slavery in this legislation.

The first threats of secession came four years after the Tariff of Abominations was passed. The Tariff Act of 1832, which reduced duties, still wasn’t sufficient for the South and the first threats of secession began. South Carolina’s legislature went so far as to organize an army and formally annul the tariffs. At this time the slave population in South Carolina was around 54%, based on data gathered during the 1830 census. While the anti-slavery movement was afoot during this period, it was the economic burden related to the tariff acts that prompted the initial cries for secession.

From the southern perspective, the issue of slavery wasn’t overtly ideological. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, South Carolina declared secession. In this declaration, they refer to the ideological differences that exist related to slavery, but only after arguing that the Government itself has been destructive of the ends for which it was created, which was to ensure the rights of property owners as defined in the Constitution.

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

In further reference to the economic nature of the tensions driving the Civil War conflict is the wording of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Purported ambiguity in the Constitution and the burden of economic uncertainty again led to a significant division between members of the same nation. Ideological differences exacerbated the already heightened economic tensions.

Standard of Living

Whether considering George Washington and the Virginia plantar class during the pre-revolutionary period or the slave owners of the southern states prior to the Civil War, the stakes at risk related to their way of life. The human tendency to maintain the status quo intensifies the effects of changes in economic situation. The skyrocketing debt in Britain followed by increased taxes and less influence in the markets where the colonial products were traded threatened the economic prospects for multiple classes within pre-revolutionary America. The threat of emancipation put the majority of the agricultural workforce of the southern states at risk. Without a workforce, or with a mandatory wage increase (from zero) to the existing workforce, the southern states would have been severely crippled economically.

Another way of referring to a way of life is to discuss a standard of living. The modern industrial complex has enabled unprecedented leaps in standard of living through the consumption of various forms of energy. Luxuries that were unknown to previous generations, such as air conditioning, access to automobiles, well stocked grocery stores with year round fresh fruit and even internet and mobile communication, are ubiquitous today. There is also a growing sense of entitlement surrounding these luxuries that hasn’t even been presumed for necessities like food and shelter in the past. The result is a generation at high risk of a decreasing standard of living.

Contemporary Corollaries

Armed conflict between the United States and other world players over the past decade alone has substantially increased the debt burden of the states. In recent years a flagging economy has combined with legislation, most notably the healthcare legislation, to put pressure on the creation of American jobs. Despite job growth, the jobs that are being added to the economy are part time and pay less. American workers compete on an increasingly global stage for wages, which drives down opportunity in America.

Natural resources and energy sources such as oil, natural gas, rivers and waterways, are increasingly scarce and more highly regulated. Pressure from unions to drive up wages and benefits clash with the interests of the stockholders in many companies. The relationship between Corporate America and government officials is complex. All of these factors combine to make opportunity for economic growth is elusive.

Perhaps most significant among all these issues is the fact that the Social Security program, intended to provide for an unprecedented number of retirees, is in danger. The Annual Report from the Board of Trustees for 2013 calls on lawmakers to “address the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare as soon as possible”.

America currently has a high debt load. The job outlook is poor for high paying, permanent jobs, which means lower wages for workers. There is increasing uncertainty about the future of social programs such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This all combines with the prospect of higher taxes on the so called “wealthy few” to pay to maintain this standard of living for everyone, regardless of their contribution.

These conditions seem ideal to bring about talk of secession, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.

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