Thursday, October 30, 2008

John Schwenkler, If at first you don’t secede…

Donald Livingston, an Emory University philosopher who has been similarly maligned over his distaste for Lincoln, suggests that the roots of America’s conflicted understandings of secession and states’ rights run deep. According to Livingston, who is at work on a book-length philosophical treatment of secession, present-day Americans are the inheritors of two “incommensurable Americanisms.” On the one hand, there is the Jeffersonian model of political order, which locates sovereignty in the small scale and thus treats secession as “a lawful act of a natural political society.” In contrast, the Lincolnian conception regards America as one nation indivisible—a “perpetual” and “indissoluble union,” in the language of Texas v. White —in which case “secession then would be revolution; it would be incompatible with government as such.” It was the dominance of the Jeffersonian conception that explains the success of the early split-state movements listed by Sale, while the rise of the Lincolnian one led to the crushing of the Confederacy and dearth of later secessionist movement.

The Jeffersonian view, Livingston notes, is similar in many important ways to the theory of human society put forward in Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle not only holds that man is a “political animal”—that is, a creature suited to life in a polis, or city-state—but also claims that there are natural limits to the extent of a polis: “the best limit of the population of a state,” as he puts it, “is the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view.” And what exactly is this number? Livingston points to Athens, Venice, and Florence, each of which had populations in the tens of thousands, as political communities large enough to have attained the Aristotelian values of “life and high culture.”

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