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Sunday, December 1, 1996

The Southern Tradition: Implications for Modern Decentralism

The Central State's Imperial Designs Bode Ill for Civilization

The American tradition of decentralism has attracted adherents on both sides of the ideological spectrum and from all sections of the country. William Appleman Williams, a man of the New Left, actually preferred the Articles of Confederation over the Constitution, and insisted that the core radical ideas and values of community, equality, democracy, and humaneness simply cannot in the future be realized and sustained—nor should they be sought—through more centralization and consolidation. These radical values can most nearly be realized through decentralization and through the creation of many truly human communities. Students for a Democratic Society leader Carl Oglesby, in his book Containment and Change, pointed with approval to such right-wing partisans of the old republic as Howard Buffett and Garet Garrett, and went so far as to declare that in a strong sense, the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate.

While decentralist and even secessionist sentiment was widespread throughout the North at least through the early nineteenth century—recall, for example, that former Secretary of State Timothy Pickering twice garnered support for a plan by which New England and New York would secede—these principles remain most closely associated with the American South. And yet these principles, while securely grounded in the Constitution, found their salience for the average Southerner less in their cogency in the realm of abstract theory than in the natural loyalties he felt toward the persons and institutions closest to him. Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a Southern sympathizer, once remarked that a state was about as large an area as the human heart could be expected to love, and that the local and particular would always possess a stronger claim on the individual’s allegiance than such a distant abstraction as the Union. John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote of that exemplar of the old South, John Randolph of Roanoke:


Too honest or too proud to feign

A love he never cherished,

Beyond Virginia’s border line

His patriotism perished.

Thomas Jefferson, among the most forceful advocates of localism in early America, pointed in 1791 to the decentralist Tenth Amendment as the cornerstone of the American republic: I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That `all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.’ Yet Jefferson’s ideal political order went far beyond a recognition of mere states’ rights: as Dumas Malone points out, Jefferson’s ideal political order called for a far greater decentralization, in which self-governing towns would make virtually all their own political decisions without outside interference. He envisioned a hierarchical structure of town, county, state, and finally national government, and his goal was a system in which no entity of a higher order would infringe on the just prerogatives of one of a lower order.

Despite the honorable lineage of states’ rights advocates, led by the sage of Monticello, some people dismiss the states’ rights argument, as framed by Southerners, as merely a grandiose justification for slavery. While the historical and constitutional arguments adduced in its favor cannot be explored here in any depth, it should be recalled that they were compelling enough to force even the Progressive historians Charles and Mary Beard to concede that the South had rather the better of the argument. Moreover, as Professor Eugene Genovese reminds us, of the five Virginians who made the greatest intellectual contributions to the strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution—George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph of Roanoke, St. George Tucker, and John Taylor of Caroline—only Taylor could be described as proslavery, and even he regarded it as an inherited misfortune to be tolerated, rather than celebrated.

Wartime propaganda aside, America’s War Between the States was merely the American counterpart of a worldwide trend toward national centralization, as illustrated by the contemporaneous experiences of Italy, Germany, and Japan. In the United States, however, the saccharine language of justice and rights obscured the real significance of the war and Reconstruction. Yet even historian Vernon Parrington, no man of the Right, had reservations about the outcome of the war, which he considered disastrous for American democracy, for it removed the last brake on the movement of consolidation, submerging the democratic individualism of the South in an unwieldy mass will. States’ rights, he believed, had been not merely an abstract principle but an expression of the psychology of localism created by everyday habit.

A Step in the Wrong Direction

For some Northerners, the subjugation of the South and the central state’s subsequent efforts toward cultural and political homogenization were the first step toward realizing their own imperial ambitions for the United States. Secretary of War William Seward articulated this view most clearly. Seward held a distinctly millennial view of his country’s role in the world, convinced that America had a mission to spread republicanism throughout the globe. In order for his plan to be realized, however, order would first have to be established at home and the unchecked power of the central state vindicated. It is no coincidence that within a generation after the last occupying forces left the South at the end of Reconstruction, the United States had embarked on its career of empire.

The revolution that began in the 1860s has progressed with a cold and relentless logic, reducing historic communities to mere administrative units of the central state. Jefferson warned of the dire consequences if all decision-making power became centralized in Washington. It hardly needs saying that this centralization has come to pass; worse still, more and more legislative functions are now being delegated to global institutions. Ordinary citizens have been known to beat city hall from time to time, but their prospects for challenging a decree of the World Trade Organization are slight.

Thinking Locally, Acting Locally

What steps can be taken to reverse this trend? Here are a few suggestions:

1. We must revive local control as an issue in our national political discourse. From school curricula to crime control, we should insist that, regardless of our own positions on these issues, they are properly decided at the local level. Of course, under such a Jeffersonian regime not all communities will adopt policies that suit our personal tastes. But if we are serious about restoring local control, we must resist the temptation to interfere in the affairs of communities to which we do not belong.

2. If local control is to have any meaning, the jurisdiction of the imperial Supreme Court must be drastically curtailed. The surprisingly short amount of time the Framers spent discussing the judiciary at the Constitutional Convention suggests their own view of its relative importance. Alexander Hamilton described it as the least dangerous of the three branches, and Jefferson’s opposition to the Court’s imperial designs was notorious. Never did the men of the early republic imagine that it would play the quasi-legislative role it has assumed in the twentieth century.

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court can be restricted with relative ease. Article III, Section 2, of the federal Constitution provides several relatively minor categories of law in which the Court shall enjoy original jurisdiction. In most cases, however, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction . . . with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make (emphasis added). At any time, therefore, a simple majority of Congress can strip the Court of jurisdiction in a given matter and return usurped legislative prerogatives to the people and their representatives.

Ample precedent exists for such measures. After the Dred Scott decision, abolitionists spoke of stripping the Court of its appellate jurisdiction in all cases involving slavery. Two decades later, when it became clear that in the case of ex parte McCardle the Supreme Court would find the Reconstruction Acts unconstitutional, Congress passed an act in 1868 removing the Court’s jurisdiction over such issues, in accordance with Article III, Section 2. (When the case was reheard in 1869, the Court acknowledged the right of Congress to take this action.) In 1935, after handing down its ruling in Nortz v. United States, the Court seemed on the verge of declaring unconstitutional the government’s repudiation of the gold standard; Congress promptly passed a law removing the Court’s jurisdiction in this area. In the wake of the apportionment cases of the early 1960s, the House passed a measure, defeated in the Senate, that would have deprived the Court of its jurisdiction there as well. In 1979, Senator Jesse Helms authored a resolution that would have done the same thing in matters of state laws regarding voluntary school prayer. The list could go on.[1]

That these are precedents of which we would uniformly approve is doubtful: that they are precedents, however, is certain. It is worth noting in this connection that while the Confederate Constitution of 1861 provided for a Supreme Court, public opinion was so antagonistic toward such an institution that the implementing legislation was never passed. The Confederate legal order remained one of state judicial supremacy.

3. All U.S. military intervention must be opposed on a priori grounds. The example of Secretary Seward reminds us that our most ardent global crusaders tend to be those least concerned with, and often actively hostile toward, the American decentralist tradition. To the extent that such men give any thought to American regionalism and federalism at all, they see in foreign intervention an effective way of cementing the bonds of union at home. The political scientist Bruce Porter, in his recent War and the Rise of the State (1994), comes close to suggesting that the central direction and planning occasioned by war—to say nothing of the massive ideological propaganda that has become a hallmark of modern warfare—might be necessary to lift Americans out of their ethnic and regional parochialisms in the post-Cold War era. This tactic would exemplify what the libertarian journalist Felix Morley called nationalization through foreign policy.

Blanket opposition to foreign intervention will win us no popularity contests. Television and newspapers reserve their most intemperate name-calling and opprobrium for those whose only crime is to uphold the dictum of John Quincy Adams—that America is a well-wisher of liberty everywhere, but defender only of her own. That the distinctly honorable position of maintaining friendly relations with foreign nations and opposing our own government’s murderous military adventures should have incurred the isolationist smear is one of the great propaganda triumphs of our century. Recall that the nineteenth-century British classical liberal Richard Cobden, who opposed every instance of British adventurism in his own lifetime, was referred to not as an isolationist but, appropriately, as the International Man.

Describing the Republican Party of his day, John Randolph listed the following as its first principles: Love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealousy of the state governments toward the general government. This, in a nutshell, is the political program of the American decentralist. Writing in Chronicles, Bill Kauffman summed up the common interest in localism shared by grassroots activists of widely varying perspectives: The new American populism has 1,000 offshoots, but a Southern League partisan in Alabama and an anti-nuclear dump activist in Allegheny County, New York, are comrades in the nascent movement that is opposed, as Jerry Brown said in Chronicles, to `a global focus over which we have virtually no control.’ In that spirit, decentralists across the political spectrum should set aside mutual recriminations and remember that our real foe is the central state, whose imperial designs bode ill for the future of what Edmund Burke called the little platoons of civilization.

1.   See the discussion in Forrest McDonald, A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: F. Watts, 1982).

  • Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is an author, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and host of The Tom Woods Show, which releases a new episode every weekday.