Thursday, July 3, 2014

A More Perfect Union

Almost immediately after Barack Obama was reelected as the 44th President of the United States, a wave of petitions to secede from the Union flooded the new White House web site, “We the People.” The web site was established by the Obama Administration to make it easier for citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to petition their government “for a redress of grievances.”

Eventually, petitions were filed from all fifty states, but only eight states filed petitions containing the necessary number of digital signatures warranting a response, originally 25,000 (later changed to 100,000). Those eight states were: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. The response from the White House was, to put it simply, “No.”

I was born in 1938, just three years before America entered World War II. In that war Americans were brought together by the external threat it posed to our freedom. But only 77 years before my birth, the United States was setting about destroying itself from within, and that internecine war was also about freedom.
As a consequence of victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, the United States was expanding westward. Disputes broke out on whether new territories, including Texas, would be free or slave holding. As part of a compromise, congress passed a reprehensible law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Act required American citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Any white could be “deputized” to do so. Bounty hunters were hired to track down, capture, and return suspected slaves to their “masters.” Free blacks, too, were captured and sent to the South in shackles. They had no legal right to plead their cases. Thousands upon thousands of blacks, free and slave, were shuttled south in chains to toil under the yoke of slavery.

The Fugitive Slave Act, followed two years later by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inflamed the passions of the Abolitionists and northerners in general and exacerbated the differences between free and slave-holding states. One state, South Carolina, in its declaration of secession in 1860, noted, "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slave holding states to the institution of slavery." They protested that northern states had failed to "fulfill their constitutional obligations" to return fugitive slaves to bondage and in fact, were known to interfere with the process. Other southern states echoed the sentiment. Mississippi, in its declaration, “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” and went on to contend that, “a blow at slavery is a blow to commerce and civilization.”
In witnessing the inauguration of America’s first black president it is instructive to revisit the words of Abraham Lincoln on his inauguration in 1861 regarding the attempted secession of the slave holding states. The first thing Lincoln did was to assure the southern states that he had, “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” He said that he had no lawful right to do so. But with regard to secession, Lincoln said, “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” He pointed out that, “no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” He then went on to describe the process and precedent by which the Union was created. It has to be one of the most cogent and at the same time, concise descriptions of our great nation’s creation. Lincoln concluded by saying that the Union could not be, “peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.”

One hundred and fifty-two years after Lincoln’s inauguration speech the United States of America elected its first black president. Americans regardless of race, creed, or color, felt justly proud of the progress made since those dark days of slavery. Yet only days after Barack Obama was reelected, tens of thousands of disaffected residents of the southern states, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, and over 600,000 Americans nationwide, raised their voices in a digital cry of secession. Whatever their grievance; abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, Obamacare, or Obama himself, their cry of secession is a sure sign that “we the people” are not all guided “by the better angels of our nature.”

As we move in the days and years ahead to confront the critical issues facing our nation, our attitudes must not be shaped by fear, but by courage, and we must not be defined by our differences, but by our common dreams for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves and for our posterity. We must do together what the Founding Fathers set out for us to do, form a more perfect Union.

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