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A Convention of Lunatics

January 9th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


On January 8, 2016 Texas Governor Greg Abbot announced his support for a “Convention of States” for the purpose, as the title of his 70-page document states, of “Restoring the Rule of Law with States Leading the Way.” The proposal is neither illegal nor particularly radical. Article V of the Constitution provides for the calling of a Constitutional Convention upon petition by two thirds of the states. Like almost everything about the Federal Constitution, the process for amendment is slow and deliberative, reflecting the desire of the founders that the National government not be too efficient.

But as a history professor I couldn’t help reflecting on the rhetoric that accompanies this call for a Convention of States. “Restoring the Rule of Law” pretty much sums it up. Right wing extremists and Tea Partiers and Bird Sanctuary Patriots are convinced that the Federal government has overstepped its authority under the Constitution, straying from the original intent which was to create a loose confederacy of independent nations bound together by love of liberty. The relationship between the States and the National government has been controversial from the very beginning. Southern States in particular were reluctant to join the Union and only did so with the (mistaken, as it turned out) understanding that they could leave the Union if their interests were not supported in the Union.

It was indeed this idea that drove the Southern States to secession in 1861 and plunged the nation into civil war. One of the major consequences of the Civil War was the recognition of the supremacy of the National government over the States. The argument was temporarily settled. The assertion of States’ rights to supersede Federal Law historically has usually arisen in cases where the Federal government threatened the rights of the States to deny equal citizenship rights to certain citizens. So, one of the rhetorical arguments against Federal intervention in the Civil Rights Movement cried out for “interposition” and “nullification”: the right of the States to declare Federal laws unconstitutional, and to refuse to comply. This is a right the States simply do not have. That is Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

So, it’s about liberty. And we all love liberty. But here’s an interesting thing. Knowledge of history gives a perspective on current events that helps to contextualize issues. Knowledge of history can help us to see the similarities between what is happening now and what happened in the past. With the insight gained from hindsight, we might better understand the issues facing us and do better than our ancestors.

I urge you to consider a document titled A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union which can be found here. It is a remarkable document that proudly proclaims the ideal of liberty as the cause of secession. But at the same time it leaves little doubt that the liberty Texans felt they were being denied was the right to keep their fellow human beings enslaved. On the one hand, the document reeks of high-minded platitudes about sovereignty and rights, on the other it blatantly calls for the denial of sovereignty and rights to a group based on geographical origin (actually, the distinction is between “whites” and “Africans”).

I have no doubt that many people in Texas (and elsewhere, presently Malheur Bird Sanctuary in Oregon, for example) are convinced their rights are being abridged by the National government. Recall that last summer the Governor of Texas called out the National Guard to oppose the rumored invasion of Texas by Obama’s army disguised as a routine military exercise called Jade Helm. Good thing they did too because the invasion was apparently foiled. It never happened.

One may presume that seriously deluded people can be convinced their delusions are real. But that doesn’t make them real. And the last thing we need is a convention where people who have denounced reality as a basis for action can tinker with the Constitution.

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