Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable
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Three decades before the Civil War, Sen. Daniel Webster delivered a two-day speech on the floor of the Senate, culminating in those memorable words: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable". The United States had barely four decades of Constitutional experience at the time of his speech, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died not four years before. The country was, by any historical measure, still a fresh experiment, and Webster saw the grave threat of disunity with clear eyes.
■ The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution is still a wonderful and elegant thing: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Compact and clear, it is a reminder that our proper Federal order originates with the states, which are free to behave as uniquely as natural law and the will of the people will allow, up to the point at which national unity on a matter is necessary. But like all good rules, it isn't a matter for part-time consent. Once you're into the Federal order, you're in for perpetuity. The Constitution doesn't contain an opt-out clause for those times we may find an outcome distasteful. That's the whole point of staking out the defense of reserved powers: To reinforce the binding of the country around the things that really matter by letting everything else remain loose and untethered.
■ Unfortunately, there remain some fantasists among this giant population who imagine that the Constitution and the very Union itself are subject to that reservation of powers. Some talk lightly of secession. Some talk of a "national breakup". Others want to abolish the Senate. And, perhaps worst, there are those who actively advocated a plan to expressly subvert a Presidential election.
■ Even one person nodding approvingly about a "civil war" or making glib talk about how the country "will not survive" is one person too many. And not one of them -- not one -- has the patience to understand what it is they embrace. America may have a giant, overstretched national bureaucracy. We may have too many issues escalated to the national level that should remain state or local matters. We most certainly have national-level politicians who are too eager to impose their will on a giant country through executive orders, sweeping mandates, and even manipulation of the courts. But the system in which we live is the complicated organic product of generations of wrangling and compromise and evolution. Even our understanding of the Tenth Amendment has been shaped through statutes and court decisions.
■ The complexity may be frustrating to those who don't understand it. And it may be aggravating to others that we still treat the states as the primary organs of common law. But keeping a limited national government in its own lane, delegated its powers by states which are perpetually committed to its maintenance, is the only way to make a vibrant, diverse, and democratic system work out. We're too big to be all the same, and yet we should be free to choose paths of commonality without having harmony forced on us where it isn't essential nor disharmony imposed by angry misfits who can't herald the worthy advice to "mind your business".
■ The disuniters of all stripes may be too obtuse to understand it, but our complex and wonderful system for weaving together a country is much too important to pull apart. Their short-sightedness almost certainly prevents them from so much as reading the full text of Webster's landmark speech. But on the pure self-interest of economics alone, the benefits that come from creating a free-trade area spanning a continent, 332 million people, and a common system of legal protections for contracts and intellectual property cannot be adequately quantified.
■ We have Americans who are mad that their favorite regional chain restaurants haven't migrated into their home markets. We are so used to seamless integration that a world where Waffle House or In-N-Out Burger or Dunkin Donuts aren't available nationwide seems like an offense to good manners. Imagine the costs of tearing apart common standards for Interstate highways, making cross-country trains stop for customs inspections, and imposing border controls for flights between O'Hare and LAX.
■ Lively, even tumultuous debates on many of our problems are certainly in order. And from a practical viewpoint, much less a philosophical one, we would do well to expect the states to be those heralded "laboratories of democracy" -- that's not only what the Constitution intends, it also tends to produce valuable guidance in times of uncertainty. But we should shun, ignore, and eject from serious debates anyone who advocates for secession, stunts to undermine the Constitution, or any other evasion of "Union, now and forever". This isn't some mere email newsletter from which one can click "unsubscribe". The perpetuity of our unity around the essential things is what has made great things possible in 50 heterogeneous states. Any attempt to unravel that unity should be grounds for expulsion from polite company.