One hundred and fifty years ago today, troops loyal to the newly-formed Confederate States of America opened fire on Fort Sumter, a U.S. military outpost located in Charleston, South Carolina.
In response, President Abraham Lincoln called for the raising of an army of volunteers to recapture federal property in the states that had seceded, prompting four more to leave the union, meaning the battle was on.
Hindsight being twenty-twenty, it is easy to see how things had progressed to that point. For years the Democrats had won presidential election after presidential election by electing northerners sympathetic to the South’s insistence on the preservation, even the expansion of slavery. Even though the period produced some of the greatest debates in its history Congress likewise failed to adequately address the issue – crafting compromise after compromise in an effort to forestall what can now be seen as inevitable. The ensuing war divided the nation as never before, pitting brother against brother and state against state in a costly conflict that was not resolved even after the shooting stopped.
There are those who suggest the nation is once again as divided as it was a century and a half ago. Those who do are either poor students of history or simply engaged in hyperbole. The union is strong and does not show signs of pulling apart as it did in 1861. Yet while slavery (which is and was always indefensible) is no longer an issue there is subtext to the current political debates regarding the size and scope of the federal government, its relationship to the individual states and the freedom of the individual that faintly echoes the concerns of those who engaged in the decades-long political and intellectual argument that dominated the era preceding the Civil War.
There were those who held to the position that the union was a voluntary compact, entered into by the individual states and from which they could withdraw if they chose. The war settled that issue but the growth in the power of the federal state, particularly in the regulatory arena and in its lust for taxes and extravagant way it spends money have revived the idea that the states may need to in a way that places controls on the federal government.
These ideas are varied and include such suggestions as the abolition of the direct election of senators, which would restore the importance of the states as political entities – rather than the voters of the states – in the federal system. They also include a state initiated constitutional convention to offer a balanced budget amendment and a proposal that would allow a majority of the states acting in concert to render invalid actions taken by the federal government.
With all that, unlike in 1861, the nation remains strong and united. These debates, even those that contemplate placing limits on the power of the federal government are vigorous, robust and have energized the public in ways not seen for several score years. There is nothing sinister or un-American about these discussions; they are part of the enduring life blood of the nation. Those who pretend this is not so are merely seeking a shortcut to end the conversation while continuing to increase the power of the central government.
No one can predict how these debates will turn out. The recent budget agreement to actually cut federal spending suggests the birth of a new era may be at hand, one in which the American people retake responsibility for their lives in a way that rejects the cradle-to-grave “Nanny state” European-style socialism toward which the nation has been headed since the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Whether or not this is a new trend or an aberration will only become clear after the 2012 national election.
What is clear is that the nation has progressed mightily beyond where it was at the onset of the Civil War, both as a world power and in the way that the equal rights of its citizens are regarded and protected. It was a long, hard road but it has taken us all to a better place.
Peter Roff is a senior fellow at the non-partisan Institute for Liberty as well as a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.