The American war for independence against Great Britain is opposite to the French Revolution that followed it a few years later. The main difference is that the American struggle was in terms of law and under law, seeking to either restore a covenant with the king of England, or separate the colonies from their masters across the ocean.
The French revolt was against law, against order, an experiment in the power of violence to clear away cultural and political structures such as the monarchy, Christianity (in the form of the Roman Catholic church) and the vestiges of feudal relationships.
Tennessee also was part of a revolt, and given the nature of its articles of secession in 1861, seems to have shared in the first of these two categories of event. It was, in short, an appeal to terms of a legal relationship rather than a violent effort to overturn law and order and seek solace in blood or anarchy.
The contrast between the American and French revolutions are most famously noted by the conservative English philosopher and political figure, Edmund Burke, who explores the two conflicts in a work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, an instant best-seller. Less famous but equally worthy of exploring the two revolutions is Friedrich von Gentz, who translated Burke’s book into German. He also published a work on the two revolutions translated into English and published in 1800 by John Quincy Adams under the title The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared With the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution.
I’ve just finished the first half of this slim volume (132 pages in the sturdy LIberty Fund edition) which defends the colonists’ effort as restorative, lawful, covenantal and federal in its orientation. The colonial struggle was, effectively, a counter-revolution.
“The revolution in America was, therefore, in every sense of the word, a revolution of necessity: England, alone, had by violence effected it: America had contended ten years long, not against England, but against the revolution: American sought not a revolution; she yielded to it, compelled by necessity, not because she wished to extort a better condition than she had before enjoyed, but because she wished to avert a worse one, prepared for her” (pp. 62, 63).
Tennessee rescinds accord with United States
Tennessee voters, in their vote in favor of state law as against a revolution against law by the federal government, reveal something of the same spirit as their colonial forebears. They assert their rights under the Tennessee constitution to “alter, reform, or abolish” their form of government. Since through their state they had adopted a compact with the united states as a group, they hold it in their power to abrogate and annul that agreement.
First. We, the people of the State of Tennessee, waiving any expression of opinion as to the abstract doctrine of secession, but asserting the right, as a free and independent people, to alter, reform, or abolish our form of government in such manner as we think proper, do ordain and declare that all the laws and ordinances by which the State of Tennessee became a member of the Federal Union of the United States of America are hereby abrogated and annulled, and that all the rights, functions, and powers which by any of said laws and ordinances were conveyed to the Government of the United States, and to absolve ourselves from all the obligations, restraints, and duties incurred thereto; and do hereby henceforth become a free, sovereign, and independent State.
The next part of the declaration involves housekeeping. The people and their state abrogate and annul the constitutional article that binds Tennessee authorities to take an oath to support the federal constitution.
We furthermore declare and ordain that article 10, sections 1 and 2, of the constitution of the State of Tennessee, which requires members of the General Assembly and all officers, civil and military, to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States be, and the same are hereby, abrogated and annulled, and all parts of the constitution of the State of Tennessee making citizenship of the United States a qualification for office and recognizing the Constitution of the United States as the supreme law of this State are in like manner abrogated and annulled.
Finally, another item of housekeeping, a statement that all rights acquired under the federal constitution or any act of the federal congress that are compatible with the new declaration of independence remain in effect.
We furthermore ordain and declare that all rights acquired and vested under the Constitution of the United States, or under any act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof, or under any laws of this State, and not incompatible with this ordinance, shall remain in force and have the same effect as if this ordinance had not been passed.
What do we do now? Nothing
As I consider the spirit of such documents I admire these people’s sense of antithesis. Virginia’s decree contains a mighty sense of self-possession in that it dissolves the constitutional contract and puts the state “in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.” Louisiana declares that it “resumes all rights and powers heretofore delegated to the Government of the United States of America; that her citizens are absolved from all allegiance to said Government; and that she is in full possession and exercise of all those rights.”
Such declarations and rescissions of contract invited federal invasion and war, and were made in a sense of desperation when perhaps Christian grace might have foreborne more, gone further to avert such a break.
Why bring up these words of defiance on the part of Tennesseans? Because they help us gauge the sentiment of people today. They suggest where residents of my home state might go in their indignation — or not.
Few people today take seriously the concepts of political covenant, voluntary constitutional submission and representational or federal government. Political forms are not taught to rising generations. People may be angry at abuses by Washington such as its total surveillance and its overspending. But the reasoning behind constitutional forms are not appreciated. The documents I cite come from another era, another world.
The nation is beset by the problem of bigness, of giantism, of pointless unity among states whose people are morally disparate and contrary. The Northeast envisions a social order including homosexual unions. The South defends marriage and the right to life. The high court has prepared itself to overturn its recently enunciated federal view of marriage to destroy the institution of marriage with a monolithic ruling. The union of 50 states is too big to govern. It can be only misrepresented by people such as Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.
The pressures for disunion are great, I do not expect separation will occur from the exertion of pressure by any state government led by prominent statesmen, of whom we have but few. The pressures are not organized, but emotional and disparate. Rather than external pressure being applied against the lawlessness of union, its collapse probably will be more arise from internal weakness. Lovers of liberty need not push. They simply need to wait. Consider the potentialities of financial cataclysm in public equities markets. Or the seizing up of credit markets in a collapse of confidence. Or admissions of insolvency of the United States of America. Such admissions could be explicit (reneging on bond-holders) or implicit (mass inflation that affects retail prices). The great discredit of the federal government has come a long way into the common mind. It has a way to go, yet.
Sources: Civilwarcauses.org. Its source is as follows; Official Records, Ser. IV, vol. 1, p. 290. Sent to referendum May 6, 1861 by the legislature, and approved by the voters by a vote of 104,471 to 47,183 on June 8, 1861.
Friedrich von Gentz, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared With the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund Inc., 2010, 1800)