Human Government, the American Experiment, and Secession
By Reed Benson
To say that the problem of human government is vexing is a gross understatement. Good government is elusive for two simple facts: people are imperfect, and we live in a world of limited resources for which we must compete to survive. While glimmers of self-sacrifice and goodwill shine forth with just enough frequency to help humanity avoid utter despair, the more common trends among mankind run toward greed, negligence, apathy, cruelty, and violence. These and other vices combine to make human relationships and government in general a difficult problem indeed.
Good government begins with self-control. The first level of interactive government is the family, a creation of God for the regulation and maintenance of our species. From a biblical perspective, the structure of family government is relatively non-controversial; it plainly advocates a patriarchal system. But the Bible is less clear regarding civil government, for it illustrates several systems. These include theocracy (under Moses), tribal confederacy (the judges), monarchy (Israel’s kings), and aristocratic republicanism (the senate of seventy). Biblical scholars have also identified elements of other forms. Thus, choosing the ideal form of civil government in a fallen world is not easy, even if one seeks a solution from the Bible.
Why is this? Why did God not simply give clear and detailed instructions about the best form of civil government for man? Jehovah gave extremely detailed instructions regarding sacrifices that were to be offered. He was also quite specific about the construction of the tabernacle. God gave hundreds of specific civil statutes. So, why did God choose to omit a detailed structure for the best civil government to administer those statutes?
Again, the answer is simple: because it does not make much difference. The problem of human government is not in government, but in humans. We are the problem! Until we shed our fallen human nature, we shall struggle. Thus, perfect civil government will have to wait until the resurrection of the dead and God’s government on earth is established. But in the mean time, what shall we do? A survey of the challenges of human government in Scripture and history is useful, for while we will not discover a perfect solution, we can more clearly identify the problems and deduce what reasonable hope and expectation we should have.
Early Failures of Civil Government
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed an idyllic world. Free from want, they could have basked in each other’s companionship forever while maintaining close fraternity with their God. But as we know, Satan introduced an alternative worldview that catapulted them into an existence of ongoing hardship, grief, and death.
The second failure of human government is described in Genesis six. The corruption was so comprehensive and irreversible that it ultimately forced God to destroy all life on the planet, except for the remnant on the Ark. "And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh has corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence before them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth" (Genesis 6:12-13). The pre-flood culture, a civilization that lasted some 1600 years and was probably quite advanced, was so thoroughly wiped out that we have only the barest of clues of what it was like.
The third dramatic failure in human government was not long after: the divine scattering of man from the Tower of Babel. "And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4). The information we have from Scripture about this remarkable event is limited. We can glean enough, however, to see that sufficient power was aggregated to attempt a mighty deed, one so filled with human hubris that God was compelled to intervene and diffuse that power into separate, smaller groups. From this story we can perceive the tendencies that become virtually unswerving patterns throughout mankind’s history of civil government. First comes a consolidation of power, and with it, an abuse of that power. Then a reaction against the abuse develops, resulting in a dispersal or decentralization of power. This deteriorates into anarchy. Continual anarchy is intolerable; thus, power is steadily consolidated again until it becomes abusive. Again a reaction forces a dispersal of power, and on it goes.
Of course the details and time scale vary widely, but this tug of war between consolidation and dispersal of power is the backdrop for all civil government in the several thousand years of human history that we can review.
A Fresh Covenantal Start
With Abraham, the concourse of biblical history narrowed to one man and the family that developed into a nation. God selected Abraham and introduced a theocratic government. It was a simple structure: God imparted His specific will to a man who acted as an intermediary between Jehovah and the people. Abuse was limited since the intermediary, sometimes referred to as a prophet, was intimately connected to God on a personal level and was rapidly corrected before he could go far astray. This was the government that was practiced under the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on a relatively small scale. It was also a theocracy that was instituted through the personage of Moses when the multitudinous children of Israel left Egypt and needed a civil government (as slaves in Egypt they did not have an independent government, but suffered under the autocratic monarchy of Pharaoh).
Moses was not perfect, but his flaws were rather modest and were quickly corrected by God. Thus, the children of Israel enjoyed a truly unique time of outstanding civil government. As a people, the Israelites had to be toughened and made spiritually mature before they were capable of invading and occupying the Land of Promise. This was Moses’ calling, and he accomplished this during the forty years of desert wanderings.
Godly divinely appointed Moses’ successor, Joshua, the man who would lead them in battle as they claimed their inheritance. Like Moses, Joshua’s personal communion with God was such that his leadership was near to flawless, and the Israelites mounted a series of military campaigns that literally annihilated their Canaanite adversaries. It seemed that the ideal pattern of civil government had been found.
The Decline of Theocracy
But living in an imperfect world, even a theocracy had potential problems. The practical means by which Moses and Joshua administered leadership and justice was through the tribes. Each tribe was subdivided into clans, and each clan into households. Tribal loyalty proved to be a powerful force; each tribe maintained a measure of autonomy. Under Moses and Joshua, the force of their personal charisma, combined with divine miracles that endorsed their authority, kept the tribes unified in purpose.
After Joshua, however, the great achievement of seizing the Promised Land had been accomplished. Without this powerful central purpose to keep them unified, tribal loyalties emerged dominant, and a general spiritual drift enticed many Israelites to fall into idolatry. While Levites locally collected tithes, no central government had ever been established. There was no capital city, no central military force, no central police authority, no centralized bureaucracy, no central taxing authority, and no central regulatory administration—only the powerful personal qualities of Moses and Joshua had kept the nation on a stable, unified course.
Subsequent leaders who did materialize were called judges (even Joshua is usually referred to as the first judge). Judges were less dispensers of justice than they were inspirational military leaders who emerged to contend with a specific foreign threat and refocus the people’s affections toward Jehovah. Without the authority to tax, draft and equip armies, or lean on a central bureaucratic apparatus, they had few tools to work with. The judges could do little more than request tribal support and then lead forth with their own military acumen and faith in God.
The nearly four hundred-year period of history under the judges was, to say the least, colorful. Peace and population growth were frequently interrupted with episodes of foreign wars and inter-tribal strife. The decentralization of power continued as the years wore on until a state of near anarchy was reached. This is illustrated most vividly in latter chapters of the book of Judges when a breach of personal justice resulted in a civil war that nearly eradicated the tribe of Benjamin. The final words of the book capture the spirit of the times: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:15).
The Consolidated Monarchy
It might appear that a strong monarch was a suitable solution to eliminate the fractious tendencies of the tribal confederacy that developed under the judges. But when the story of Israel resumes in 1 Samuel, we find that both Samuel and God were disappointed when the Israelites requested a king. The people intuitively perceived that strong leadership would arrest their decline into anarchy. But that was not the only potential solution. They could have turned to God in repentance and rekindled a spirit of self-government. However, since that did not appear to be occurring, God instructed Samuel to acquiesce to their desires and nominate a king. Before the new monarch was selected, God also had Samuel educate the people regarding the loss of liberty and the consolidation of power that would come with the king’s accession. Of these developments we read in 1 Samuel 8:4-18: "Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel . . . make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the things displeased Samuel . . . And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them . . . howbeit protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them. And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said . . . He will take yours sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots and to be his horsemen . . . And he will take your daughters to be his confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers, And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants, And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day."
This prophecy of the consolidation of power under the Israelite monarchy was fulfilled precisely. There is a tendency to romanticize this period by extolling the power and splendor of the Israelite monarchy under David and Solomon. But despite what good qualities can be cited about these kings, particularly David, the reality is that the unified monarchy only survived three kings. The first king, Saul, drifted in both purpose and spiritual zeal, lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines, and finally committed suicide. David, the second king, was a highly successful field commander, but had a reign that was torn by three civil wars and nearly constant external conflict. Solomon’s reign was peaceful, but marred by an influx of pagan influences and heavy taxation. Finally, yet another civil war severed the country permanently into two chunks, both of which were weak, fragile, and remained bitter adversaries for centuries to come. The consolidated monarchy had lasted only one hundred twenty years.
Consolidation and Decentralization as a General Rule
Like the Israelites who experienced phases between a strong central government that drifted toward tyranny and a dispersal of power that slipped toward anarchy, so has been the march of human history elsewhere. The ancient Greeks experimented with different forms of government: monarchies, democracies, oligarchies, aristocracies, republics, and so forth, but never found a perfect solution that would fit for all times and places. After suffering abuse at the hand of some sort of powerful man or ruling clique, revolutions installed a new system that spread the power out. But this almost always led to an eventual loss of social discipline and sundry accompanying miseries.
Rome also went through this pattern, although it managed to considerably elongate the cycle. The Romans began with a monarchy, but overthrew their king, and subsequently grew to great power and prosperity under their famous republic that survived for nearly five hundred years. But because of corruption and massive social inequities, which led to a series of civil wars, they lost their republic. The empire was revived, however, under a series of absolutist emperors who restored order. But steadily, after two more centuries, the central administration of the emperor became saturated with corruption and abuse of power, leading to extreme inefficiency, ineptitude, and finally a complete collapse of law and order. Rome lasted over a millennium, but even it was unable to escape this pattern.
Indeed, the oscillations between consolidation and decentralization appear to be a fixed template of human government. This tendency is a reflection of the weaknesses of human nature as we react to failings of those that have preceded us.
The American Experiment
The founding generation of the United States of America was somewhat unique. Like others in history, they were forced to react to circumstances not of their choosing; but unlike most people in similar straits, they took greater advantage of the errors of the past. George III and his Parliamentary Prime Ministers were hardly tyrants in the tradition of the ancient world, but by the standards of Anglo-Saxon history, combined with the geographical circumstance of a three-thousand-mile ocean separating the American colonies from their mother country, many English Parliamentary edicts were functionally oppressive.
Our first American government was known officially as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Forged during the throes of the American Revolution and reacting against the perceived tyranny of the British, it was designed to avoid the potential abuse of a centralized power. It thus created a confederation that retained most power for the states and gave relatively little power to the central government. After they won the war for independence, the new American confederated nation settled in to enjoy the fruits of victory.
Within a few short years, however, grave problems emerged that were rooted in the dispersal of power to the states and their tendency to pursue their own particular visions. Many of the men who had led the nation to victory argued that these problems could only be overcome with a stronger central government. More power had to be consolidated—and if that did not occur soon, European nations would begin to gobble up the small, relatively weak states one by one. Spain, France, and especially England were eager for such opportunities.
Thus, in the torrid Philadelphia summer of 1787, delegates from the states convened to amend the Articles of Confederation. Quickly, however, the scope of the assembly changed, and they abandoned the Articles completely. They developed a new document, the Constitution, with the express purpose of consolidating more power in the hands of the central government. But this new Constitution could not go into effect until it was ratified by the states, and that was far from certain.
America’s Great Debate
The disputation that followed over the next two years split the American intellectual class into two determined camps. Those in favor of the strong new consolidated government were called federalists; those who feared such an arrangement were called anti-federalists. The debate was carried out in newspaper editorials and eventually the floor of state assemblies convened to vote on ratification of the Constitution. On both sides, articulate, scholarly intellects ranged their arguments quoting from an array of ancient and modern sources. Both sides understood the nature of the problem: human weakness.
The federalists argued that the real and impending threat of foreign conquest by European nations demanded that a consolidated government had to have the ability to tax and raise armies at will. But the anti-federalists worried that those powers would foster an abusive, tyrannical government and erode the liberties of the people. What would check this new central government’s appetite for power? If the various states could not nullify laws they found oppressive, how could this central government’s power be kept within bounds?
James Madison best articulated the proposed answer to this fundamental question. He insisted that the new government itself would be its own check on abusive power. The one constant that all agreed could be counted upon—selfish human nature—would be harnessed through a careful separation of powers. Scrutinizing history, Madison argued that if executive, legislative, and judicial powers were carefully segregated, and if a moral, virtuous people were maintained, then a stronger central government would not erode individual liberties. He based his opinions on at least three lessons from history. First, ancient Greek political theory, what the Greeks called a "mixed regime," based on civic virtue. Second, he had analyzed the works of Montesquieu, especially his Spirit of the Laws, which exulted the eighteenth century British system of government that balanced the king, the house of lords, and the house of commons, all steeped in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Third, Madison pointed out that pure democracies and confederacies were often unstable, citing the renaissance Italian states. Instead, he argued that a strong central government that harnessed the selfish tendencies of human nature by pitting power blocs against each other would yield the right balance. He cited the Roman republic as a positive example. It was not perfect and did not last forever, but it did survive almost five hundred years and has been one of the most successful examples in world history.
But the anti-federalists, men like Patrick Henry, George Mason, "Brutus" (probably Robert Yates), "Cato" (probably George Clinton), and "Cincinnatus," were not satisfied. These anti-federalists proved unusually far-sighted. They raised worries about a federal judiciary that might become oppressive if given the power to be final interpreters of the meaning of the Constitution. They wondered if a citizen’s militia would gradually become an arm of the central government if such a government had the power to maintain a standing army. They feared that once given the power to tax to meet a foreign threat, the central government would use that power in a reckless and indiscriminant manner for a multitude of petty purposes. In all three of these cases, it is plain that their fears were not unfounded, for that is exactly what has happened.
Eventually, some of the anti-federalists agreed to vote for ratification of the Constitution if a bill of rights was added that specifically limited the powers of the central government. In the end, the American Bill of Rights was added as the first ten amendments, modeled after the English Bills of Rights of 1688.
Yet when all was done and the Constitution was ratified, all agreed the whole experiment still hinged on a moral and virtuous people. No form of government, no matter how carefully crafted to account for fallen human nature, could withstand an overabundance of selfishness, greed, and vice. Only the precepts of the Christian faith could instill sufficient virtue into the people and their leaders to make good government possible. Of this Madison wrote, "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon he capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according the Ten Commandments of God." John Adams agreed and stated, "Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Decline of the American Experiment
So, after two and a quarter centuries, how is the American experiment in government doing? Not well. Consider some of the causes of this decline.
Subsequent amendments have eroded the first ten, giving more power to the central government. Consider a few. The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments gave the federal government power to define citizenship, weakening the power of the individual states and expanding the vote to any adult male, whether or not he had a basis of knowledge of government or even the ability to read. Among other ills, these two amendments have given opportunity for gigantic chunks of social legislation, such as social security and sundry welfare programs that even the federalists would have decried. The sixteenth amendment permitted a national tax on personal income, a tax that no federalist ever advocated. The seventeenth amendment made senators elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures. This weakened the ability of each individual state to resist encroachments by the federal government. The nineteenth and twenty-sixth amendments expanded the vote to women and youths. Although it was well intended, these two amendments have so democratized every election that it is difficult for candidates to avoid pandering to base passions and making promises that are impossible for any responsible legislator to keep.
Many current activities of the federal government are blatantly contrary to the ninth and tenth amendments, which forbid the central government from doing anything not specifically delegated to it in the Constitution. Sadly, this has been justified by the "discovery" of many "implied" and "inferred" powers by those eager to advance centralized power.
Simultaneous to the advancement of federal power has been a remarkable but perhaps not coincidental decline in religious piety and moral virtue. Self-control has all but dissipated in the land, amidst a chorus of ever increasing "victims," all clamoring for preferential treatment.
Without moral virtue, abundant among the people and the rule among leadership, separation of powers within a government is not a sufficient check to protect personal liberties. Thus, the strong prey upon the weak or large voter blocs take advantage of those fewer in number. Aristotle had warned the ancient Greeks that unless moral virtue was prevalent among the people, no government could be devised that would preserve personal liberty. Even a "mixed regime," Aristotle’s own vision of good government, could not overcome such a crippling obstacle.
It takes little imagination to perceive that as power continues to be consolidated in the federal government, our liberties will continue to be eroded. Individuals or blocs of voters that possess power will incrementally increase their abuse of those who do not have the ability to resist. Only a sweeping religious and moral revival can unravel this rapidly tightening noose. That being unlikely, what will happen? Will power continue to be consolidated forever? Will there ever come a breaking point?
Many suggest that our bloated centralized government can be trimmed back into its original mold through a dramatic political change, i.e., a revolution. That is exceptionally hard in a democratic system where there are many voters who want to keep the present system of wealth distribution intact. It is doubly difficult with a vast, entrenched bureaucratic apparatus that also wants to maintain the status quo. Ironically, revolution in a dictatorship or absolute monarchy is easier since the system can be decapitated with the removal of only one man. But removing one man in the United States will do little in terms of systematic change.
What About Secession?
The most likely scenario in the United States that might reverse the consolidation of power in our federal government is secession. This is a natural solution to abuse of a consolidated central power. It is, at its simplest, a collective decision to quit.
Many men of our founding generation considered secession a plausible solution to potential abuse of power by our new central government. Thomas Jefferson, for example, stated, "If any state in the union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’"
The United States has dabbled with secession more frequently than most Americans think. Indeed, the American Revolution was, in fact, secession from the British Empire.
After our own government was established, and in response to a harsh measure enacted under President John Adams called the Alien and Sedition Act (which was remarkably similar in concept to our recent Patriot Act), the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions in 1798 which asserted a state’s right to nullify or ignore any law that state considered unconstitutional. It further implied that secession would follow if the situation were not rectified. This threat was not tested; the Alien and Sedition Act expired under the next President, Jefferson.
Several decades later, a convention was called in 1815 by northeastern states to consider secession. They were angry that the nation had gone to war against Britain, harming their trade. Again, secessionist talk at the Hartford Convention fell short of actual secession because the war was winding down, and their grievances were thus largely assuaged.
In1832, there was yet another near crisis. South Carolina threatened secession over a heavy tariff that it believed was an impingement upon its economic progress. South Carolina Senator John Calhoun loudly proclaimed the doctrine of nullification, and a state convention to consider secession was called. President Andrew Jackson, however, persuaded Congress to repeal the tariff and the crisis was averted.
Secession was finally tested when the southern states quit the union upon the election of Abraham Lincoln. The resulting Civil War is well known, as are the unfortunate consequences. In 1869, immediately subsequent to that conflict, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in Texas v. White that secession was unconstitutional. Since then, secession has not been seriously considered.
At least until now. Secessionist dialogues are growing more common on both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Indeed, a number of secession movements are already up and running. These include the Alaskan Independence Party, the Second Vermont Republic, the Republic of Texas Movement, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, League of the South, the Republic of Cascadia Movement, and even an American Indian secessionist effort, the Republic of Lakota.
There have been many legal and political theories put forth justifying secession. In the American context, there seems to be a reasonable legal case to be made. Ironically, Texas v. White also stated that a secessionist government would be recognized if "through revolution, or through consent of the states." Thus, with some measure of legal justification, secession is plausible if the federal government continues to expand its heavy hand. It may be more a matter of when and how, not if, for the idea is driven by the undeniable impulses of human nature to react in what one believes is self-interest.
If a secession movement reappears that is viable, what factors will play a role in its development? First, ethnic loyalties, that is, tribalism, will be a critical factor. Much like the Israelites of old, genetic affinity matters, except the differences will be greater and the passions much stronger. As the United States grows more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, secession becomes more likely. Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, Hawaiians, and increasingly even Whites have historic grievances that could easily transmute into secession movements. Second, geography may be a major factor. Remote states like Alaska and Hawaii have powerful forces at work that make their separation plausible, and from the point of view of many, desirable. Regional interests that divide the nation into natural sections may prove important. The "flyover" Midwest and mountain states often feel ignored, aggrieved, and abused by the coastal regions, whose interests the federal government tends to champion. Third, historic precedent makes secession easy to imagine. Texas was once an independent nation. It is large, economically diverse, and well populated. Why should it not be independent again? The old South once seceded. Why should it not give it another try if enough people believe its rights are being ignored? Fourth, decentralization is going on all over the world. The old Soviet Union is now a plethora of independent states, some of which are doing well enough on their own. Secession movements are present in many nations of the world, even western countries such as Great Britain, Spain, and Canada. Why not the United States?
Secession without Repentance Is No Lasting Solution
Nothing that has been stated thus far should be construed to suggest that secession represents a real success, for it is not. Secession is the consequence of failure in the civil sphere. It is a failure of a central government to resist the temptations of abuse, a failure of a nation to rectify perceived grievances, and a failure of statesmen to look beyond parochial interests to the general good.
Thomas Jefferson, as previously cited, believed that secession was a fundamental right that each separate state in the United States retained. Yet he spent the latter half of his political life striving to build an American union in which each state was pleased to remain. Secession from that union would have been a deep disappointment to him.
Ancient Israel is an intriguing example of secession bearing bitter fruit. Jereboam led the northern ten tribes in secession against the oppression of King Reheboam. The effort was successful, or so it seemed. But with the passage of time it became clear that both Israelite nations were gravely weakened, the north fatally so, for it lost its religious and moral compass immediately, was politically unstable from that point onward, and within two centuries was utterly destroyed.
Rather than looking to secession as a political solution, the people of the United States must repent. A spiritual revival will yield a moral revival. It will restore the self-control and sense of personal responsibility in the people that has slowly evaporated as the nanny state has mushroomed. Without a restoration of personal virtue and self-control, there is little to be gained by political separation. After secession, the people will rejoice to have restored liberties, but are likely to soon turn to their new government to ask for the help and control mechanisms they had only recently complained about. Repentance, a return to Jehovah, and moral reformation: these are our only real hope.
I therefore do not desire secession. But given that repentance seems unlikely, the curbing of our central government seems unlikely, and that the pattern of consolidation and dispersal of power in human government is unalterable, secession is quite plausible, indeed probable. We are not immune to the forces of history. If we refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past and continue to aggregate more power in our central government, eventually a breaking point will be reached, and the pendulum must reverse. Secession may prove to be the only path by which political power will be dispersed. You or I may dislike the idea of secession; but like bankruptcy, divorce, or disease, it may nonetheless come our way if a long series of small, poor choices accumulate to a tipping point that cannot be reversed.