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3: Political Aspects

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  1. Insurrection
  2. Voices of Authority

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1. Insurrection

"Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"[1]

The American nation is founded on the principle of insurrection. It came into being as an act of resistance against an unfair government, against a colonial power far distanced from its overseas inhabitants. American Independence is nothing more than the success of an insurrectionary, you could also say secessionist, movement against the King of England - and the American Revolution, while surely not a revolution in the common sense but rather in a rather flawed analogy to the by far overestimated French Revolution, has indeed been the single first case of resistance against the forces of post-medieval colonization.

The Declaration of Independence was no sudden act, it was a long process of trying to ease a tensed situation. The main arguments against England may have been economic, illustrated by the Boston Tea Party. Yet also politically, there had been changes underway which led to a much different situation in America than in the mother country. America had become more or less democratic, at least the roots for democracy had grown stronger. Be it due to the frontier experience or the coming together of nations, the American had truly become what Crèvecoeur so poignantly called a "new man" acting "upon new principles"[2].

This new situation confronted a democratically biased colonist population, upset about Royal economic restrictions, with a monarchic regime an ocean away. After a war won against all odds, American Independence was gained through the means of insurrection.

It isn't utterly difficult to use the American Revolution as a precedent for Southern Secession. The South did state her complaints, and she did protest against alleged economic domination. The most precarious little issue, however, dividing the two parts turned out to be slavery - as the lines of conflict formed along the lines of slavery. The North did have slaves, too, yet most Northern states had abolished slavery by the time of Secession. Coincidence or cause?

The conflict, the main issue dividing both sides was indeed slavery. Yet neither was it the only one, nor was it the issue of the war.

Wars are rarely fought for or against ideals, even less so Civil Wars. Neither are wars usually fought on grounds of religion, philosophy or humanitarian motives. Wars are about power, about dominance, about dominion. They are about attacking and defending, about (more or less intentionally) failed efforts at diplomacy, about securing the power of one party and destroying the power of another. The name given to a war is nothing but a name - and so are the noble aims attached to it by propaganda. War and morality are two different issues.

The Civil War was not fought over slavery, nor over Southern Mentality, nor over anything like that. The war came into being because the move of secesion the South had made was simply unacceptable for the North. And as the South persisted in her desire for independence, the insurrection turned into war.

2. Voices of Authority

"The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to,- for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well-- is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. [..] There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."[3]

The North had made frequent concessions to the South, yet out of a loss of trust the dissension had grown stronger. Can this justify secession?

This may be the place for a historical comparison. The Roman Empire broke apart along the lines of language - the Greek part was separated from the Latin part, a division long apparent, a division lasting on till the end of the Byzantine empire, a division still in place today between the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Orthodoxy. Yet Rome was no truly democratic empire, and during the Principate and the Dominate she turned into a monarchy, subject to internal quarrels over domination and inheritance of power. Rome didn't break apart over any issues, she broke apart beginning with the introduction of tetrarchy under Diocletian. This scheme is a general malaise in monarchic empires all over the world and throughout all history, as also in the case of Alexander's empire being divided amongst the Diadochs.

The breakdown of the Soviet system of power initiated the secession of formerly colonized territories. Still today, Russia is a colonial power, and some colonies - like Chechnya - are trying to break free. Like also in the case of former Yugoslav republics, these are territories occupied by a foreign nation, and secessionist movements are fueled by a national drive for independence. These are areas trying to break away from a dictatorial regime, or from a regime which is not yet fully democratic.

The breakdown of Czechoslovakia occured at a time when democracy had been more or less restored. Yet Czechoslovakia had been an artificially constructed entity, Slovakia indeed being overpowered by Prague rule. In this case, secession took place by vote - by a democratic process.

Neither had the US been a monarchy at the time of secession, nor had the South been colonized territories of the North. Both had been parts of a democratic country - yet still, the dissolution of the state didn't take place democratically like in the case of Czechoslovakia more than a century later. So there seems to be a deeper separation involved here - a different understanding of the principles of democracy, perhaps.

Today, with Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic gone and the new democratic president struggling for democracy, areas like Kosovo and Montenegro, which have long fought for independence, are suddenly in a different position. Their secessionist movements were justified once they went against a dictatorship, but now, with Yugoslavia - hopefully - turning democratic, the situation has become more complex. There seems to be a right to resist unjust rule. Yet is there a right to resist just rule, no matter what it takes?

Democracy doesn't mean anarchy; modern democracy doesn't mean direct democracy. Democracy through representation assigns power to elected representatives of the people. They are elected, and they'll have to be legitimated by the people time and again. But once they are elected, they are in possession of the very power they are entrusted with by popular vote. Democracy doesn't deny authority, it just legitimizes it via the people. Elected leaders are still leaders.

Modern democracy cannot work directly, it has to be based upon the principle of representation - because of the size of territory and population. Direct democracy can work in tight and small surroundings, as on the local level or under antique conditions, like in the Athens of Perikles. Neither is it surprising that representational democracy can lead to frictions in remote areas or in rural areas closely shaped by strong local patriotism. Given the traditional - not only Republican - distrust of Americans regarding governmental powers[4], it is the more possible for anti-authoritarian tendencies to be found in the South rather than in the North at that time.

This different concept of democracy also extended its reach into the military.

October 25th/26th, 2000

previous: part 2   ·   next: part 4

Endnotes - Part 3

[1] Thoreau. "Resistance to Civil Government". 779
[2] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. "What is an American?" Letters from an American Farmer (1782).
[3] Thoreau. "Resistance to Civil Government". 788
[4] cf. Legends of the Fall

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