Saturday, February 5, 2011

Arizona, Idaho, and the Ghost of John C. Calhoun

Pictured- John C. Calhoun, former US Senator from South Carolina and Vice President of the United States

I'm no lawyer, nor have I ever played one on TV or even in community theater, but it's time for me to get up on the soapbox.............ready or not.

While American state legislatures spend their time ratifying ridiculous bans on the implementation of Sharia Laws inside the United States.....(wouldn't there have to be a Muslim majority in this country before it was even a remote possibility?)....and other wedge issues like gay marriage, there is a more serious matter going on in certain states. And it's an issue that though not resolved by our Civil War in the 19th century we assumed would most assuredly be resolved by the Constitution's 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd, and 24th amendments. Those amendments referred to the voting rights of former slaves, minorities, women, residents of the District of Columbia, and of poll taxes used to deny or hinder the vote of those mentioned by the individual states.

Those amendments insured full citizenship to all Americans and were used to supersede state and local laws that would restrict voting rights to those mentioned- and in the case of citizens of the District of Columbia, Washingtonians were finally given the right to vote with implementation of the 23rd Amendment.

In the post Civil War and Reconstruction eras Southern states passed "Jim Crow" laws to prevent African Americans from voting, using the pretense of "state's rights" to keep the law of the land being applied in those states. "State's rights" had been the creed for individual states, primarily in the South, to ignore or even nullify what they saw as an intrusion into the affairs of states....more often than not this had to do with a federal mandate that wasn't popular in that state, and in the early 19th century that often meant laws limiting the growth of slavery. But often taxes and tariffs took the spotlight in that era.

And today in the 21st century we're seeing a new phase of proposed nullification of federal laws in certain states, some a result of opposition to federal healthcare reform, derisively referred to as "Obamacare" by it's opponents. But in Arizona and Idaho there are movements under way for their respective state legislatures to nullify all federal laws that may be deemed invalid or an overreach by the federal government, at the discretion of those state legislatures.

Reactions like those in Idaho and Arizona are almost as old as the republic itself. The Nullification Crisis of 1832 was the most famous instance in our history. Below, the story of the crisis from US

The Tariff of 1832, despite pleas from Southern representatives, failed to moderate the protective barriers erected in earlier legislation. South Carolina called a state convention that nullified the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 within their borders and threatened to secede if the federal government attempted to collect those tariff duties. Robert Hayne (of Webster-Hayne Debate fame) had resigned from the Senate to run for governor of South Carolina; John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and took Hayne’s seat in the Senate. These two men spearheaded the nullification drive. A real possibility of secession and war existed.

Jackson immediately offered his thought that nullification was tantamount to treason and quickly dispatched ships to Charleston harbor and began strengthening federal fortifications there. Congress supported the president and passed a Force Bill in early 1833 which authorized Jackson to use soldiers to enforce the tariff measures.

Meanwhile Henry Clay again took up his role as the Great Compromiser. On the same day the Force Bill passed, he secured passage of the Tariff of 1833. This latter measure provided for the gradual reduction of the tariff over 10 years down to the level which had existed in 1816. This compromise was acceptable to Calhoun who had not been successful with finding any other state to support him on nullification. Jackson signed both measures.

South Carolina repealed its nullification measure, but then spitefully nullified the Force Bill. Jackson wisely ignored that action.

I'm sure no one is accusing members of the Arizona and Idaho legislatures of treason, but it's easy to see that those who propose nullification are shortsighted in their perspective, and to be blunt, have a very narrow grasp on American history.

In Idaho Tea Party members are urging the passage of House Bill 59 which would allow the state to deem federal laws "null and void". Below, a notice from Tea Party Boise (originally printed in The Miami Herald).

"This is the line in the sand. On one side is federal tyranny — on the other side is freedom. What do you choose? If it is freedom — then be at the Capital (sic) on Feb. 7th."

In Arizona, a proposal from Republican State Senator Lori Klein would set up a panel of 12 lawmakers to review federal laws and mandates, and decide if the laws are "outside the scope of the powers delegated by the people to the federal in the United States Constitution."

Below, a statement from Senator Klein (from

"We're not seceding. We're looking at nullifying laws coming from the federal government that are mandates that are not constitutional."

The defiance of federal law in the 19th century inflamed the open wounds that were already there and led to armed conflict in 1861. Being part of this union we call the United States of America is kind of like being either are, or you aren't.

It's the "United States is", not the "United States are".

Let's say state legislators decide they don't agree with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and decide not to allow gays to serve in the state's national guard?

Or in a national emergency a military draft is instituted....and certain states don't wish to allow their citizens to be drafted?

And if a state is free to nullify federal law without ramification, what is to stop the states from conversely instituting laws that are contrary to federal law, like an intelligence test for voting, or restricting full citizenship to American born children of undocumented immigrants?

If nullification of federal law is allowed to stand, then we fought a Civil War for nothing, and a century's worth of of domestic progress would be in jeopardy.

Maybe the adage is true.....we've seen the enemy, and it is us.

But we do have a constitutional mechanism in our system to resolve situations like's called "the courts".

Once again....thank you, Founding Fathers.

Below, video of Lawrence O'Donnell on THE LAST WORD, with take on the new "Nullification Crisis".

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