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Commentary: Lessons from the Civil War and civil rights movement

This article firs appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2010 - "A house divided against itself cannot stand" was originally attributed to Jesus in Matthew 12:25. The line was repeated in 1858 by Abraham Lincoln in a debate against Stephen Douglas in Springfield, Ill.

Mr. Lincoln was, of course, talking about the threatened secession of Southern, slave-holding states. As much as Mr. Lincoln opposed slavery, he had a stronger commitment to keeping the union together. Our federal system was an experiment in cooperation. As early as 1832, South Carolina passed an "ordinance of nullification," stating that it did not have to abide by tariffs passed by Congress.

Does this sound familiar?

Think back to early August when 70 percent of Missouri voters took an anti-Lincoln view that Missouri had the right to trump federal law. They voted for a clearly unconstitutional measure called Proposition C. It will be struck down as clearly as President Andrew Jackson ended South Carolina's effort of nullification nearly two centuries ago.

States' rights was the call of the confederacy; it was the call of Southern states that replaced slavery with Jim Crow laws. It is code for rejecting the clear words in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal."

When I hear the term states' rights, the first image in my mind is Bull Connor's dogs attacking African-Americans marching in Alabama for equal rights. States' rights has consistently been the mantra of the South, before and during the Civil War, through the Jim Crow period, through Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat era, through George Wallace's segregation period, and even now as these states consistently vote into Congress members opposed to protecting basic human rights.

Todd Akin and many Republicans have consistently argued in favor of dividing a house against itself; almost acts of defiance against the federal government.

Many Democrats, including myself, come from the perspective of "we are all in this together," and there is strength in unity. We know what Social Security has done for the elderly, what federal legislation protecting labor unions has done, what the civil rights acts did, what a graduated income tax did, what the concept of "equal protection under the law" has done.

So here are lessons we can learn from the Civil War and the civil rights movement:

1. The federal government is the primary protector of both human and economic rights; we need to strengthen it rather than weaken it.

2. When left to their own devices, states have acted rather poorly. Whether it was Southern resumption of bad habits after Reconstruction, or contemporary resistence to fair methods of funding education, states consistently undermine basic freedoms.

3. The federal tax system is far more progressive than those of many states. Even with its imperfections, the federal system is devoid of cumbersome and subjective methods such as property taxes.

4. We protect ourselves as Americans; when necessary we go to war as Americans. We are Americans, and efforts to tear apart the fabric of our unity weaken our security from both external and internal threats.

5. Our commerce is almost entirely inter-state; in almost every facet of our lives we operate as a unified country.

6. Our federal system is very slow to act, except in extreme emergencies. Strengthening states only further complicates bringing reform to issues such as health care, energy policy, protecting our environment. Perhaps the biggest step we could take in streamlining government would be to eliminate state departments that duplicate those at the federal level. The "fierce urgency of now" requires efficiency; more power to the states only slows down progress. If a business operated similar to our system of federalism, it would quickly fold when competing with other businesses with much more efficient models.

7. Where does the concept of states' rights end? It's a form of decentralization; actually a form of disintegration and chaos. What would make us think that it would stop at the state level? What if part of a state doesn't agree with state laws and chooses to not obey them. What if a county wants complete autonomy of its governance?

Our founding fathers were wise enough to know that united we stand. We are a people of great diversity whose efforts toward a common culture are a perpetual work in progress. Progress by its nature means moving forward. Going backward is "unsafe at any speed."

Too many Republicans, Tea Party members, so-called Libertarians or Constitutionalists want to move us away from our national identity. Atop the Archives Building in Washington are the words, "What's past is prologue." If we forget our past and the lessons we learned from it, we threaten our future. Protecting our fundamental rights means resisting the conservative amnesia about our Civil War and civil rights movement.

Editor's Note:

Arthur Lieber is the Democratic candidate for U.S. representative in the 2nd congressional district. He and the incumbent, Republican Todd Akin have written a variety of Voices articles. This topic was suggested by Mr. Lieber, and an invitation was extended to Mr. Akin, who has, so far, not written on it.