When the thirteen colonies were writing their constitutions during the American Revolution, the assumption was that the states could rely on the “public virtue” of its citizens, and the primary concern of the framers of those constitutions was the abuse of power by the executive in each state. Some of the states even refused to give the top executive (who was variously named) any power at all — and all of the states wanted the person in charge either to limit his term in office or to be reelected annually to keep him in check.
By 1787 it was becoming clear to men like James Madison that self-interest was trumping public virtue and the sense of unity that had made a coherent whole out of thirteen disparate colonies during the Revolution was disappearing. The main problem was not abuse of power by the executive in the states, but the unwillingness of the states to take their commitment to the nation as a whole seriously. The states were starting to go their separate directions and it was becoming difficult for the make-shift Congress to regulate commerce and conduct business with foreign powers. As things stood, the Congress had to rely on the cooperation of thirteen states that wanted to focus almost exclusively on problems near at hand. Something had to be done. After several years and the remarkable effort of Madison working with the support of Thomas Jefferson across the pond and John Jay and James Monroe at home, the result was the Federal Constitution. How on earth they were able to get the separate states to agree to a Constitution that would create a federal power greater than the power the separate states would retain is truly extraordinary.
When the Southern states later started to break off from the Union, Abraham Lincoln drew on the ideas of Madison in his attempts to preserve the Union against the separatism that was growing in strength. The Civil War, as we know, was not fought over slavery but over the preservation of a union of states that would otherwise be powerless in a world where bellicose nations threatened on every side. The idea of a separate Confederation of Southern states was no more practical in the nineteenth century than it had been in the eighteenth. A nation divided could not stand, as Lincoln was fond of pointing out. And we now pledge allegiance regularly to “one nation indivisible.”
In this light the current move by at least 20 of these United States to secede from the Union following the reelection of Barack Obama is not only historically blind, it is positively stupid. We know the movement is an exercise in futility on its face and will go nowhere. The President shouldn’t even have to waste his time responding to these fools. But the fact that nearly all of the states that are currently circulating petitions to allow them to secede from the Union are conservative states — the ones in red on the political maps we have become so tired of seeing — is in itself something to note. These states are at the top of the list of those that actually receive more federal monies each year in aid and subsidies than they pay out in taxes. They complain that the Federal Government is a burden and yet they could not survive without it — or the citizens who are busily signing their names to these ridiculous petitions could not.
It is one of the strange phenomena that have bubbled to the surface in recent years that those who complain about the Federal Government’s interference with their “freedoms” are the ones who shout loudest to get the attention of that same government to bail them out or come to their aid in times of trouble. In this case the states that pay the most in Federal taxes and receive the least Federal assistance on a yearly basis are the ones that voted to reelect the current President and give him another four years to help get the country back on its feet. Now there’s irony for you!