For the elites in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, suggesting that anyone follow the state of West Virginia into anything would solicit uproarious laughter and head shaking. West Virginia, by most accounts, is near the bottom of almost any statistical data that is kept on the states. To the ruling class of people, West Virginia is filled with redneck, coal mining rubes who would not have enough sophistication to spell leadership let alone actually be capable of it. Its backwoods and Appalachian aesthetic is enough to justify dismissal of the state, and its people entirely, by the more erudite wizards of smart from the metropolitan ivory towers of intellectualism. Palpable snobbery comes across their tongues as similarly as if they were echoing the old Scriptures: “What good could come from West Virginia?”
Yet West Virginia is the most unique state in the Union from one perspective of leadership. With almost universal acknowledgment, its formation as a state was illegal.
In the Civil War, the people in the western part of Virginia did not agree with the secession of the state, which had been voted upon by the more populous eastern people. The mountain people decided then that they were too different from their eastern cousins and they pushed to create a state that would be a part of the Union rather than the Confederacy. There were multiple reasons for their choices, but chief among them was the complete disconnect from the agrarian life of the east. The western part of Virginia had few slaves and were more connected in their life and attitudes to the western part of Pennsylvania. Generally the secession of West Virginia went something like this:
When Virginia decided to secede from the Union, 50 counties in the western part of the state were generally in disagreement with that decision. They formed their own government and held votes to create their own state. They were admitted into the Union in June of 1863 by the vote of Congress. The challenging part of this is that the Constitution in Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 states the following:
Legally, if Virginia had seceded and was not a part of the Union, then the congressional vote to admit it was void because the government established in West Virginia was make-believe. Virginia was part of a different country and therefore the West Virginian contingent was as phony as wax fruit. The Confederacy hadn’t given West Virginia permission to secede from the Confederacy. If, as Lincoln claimed, the state of Virginia was in rebellion, then the state still bound by the Union had not given its permission as required by the Constitution. Either way, the state was formed illegally and should not have been admitted into the Union. The principles of West Virginia’s secession were the same principles the state of Virginia and others in the Confederacy had used to justify their separation. But the winners of wars get to write history, and as Lincoln said of West Virginia’s inclusion in the Union, “It is said the admission of West Virginia is secession and tolerated only because it is ‘our’ secession… There is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution, and secession in favor of the Constitution.” In other words, the north were the good guys, so as long as West Virginia was supporting the Union’s cause, constitutional principles were irrelevant.
So why the discussion on the illegality of West Virginia? Simply because I think it has incredible implications for our current state of affairs as a country.
Today we take the state’s admission into the United States as completely normal. West Virginia is no less of a state than its surrounding neighbors and is entitled to the same things as any other, despite its nefarious creation. We hear of the divisions across the country. Red states versus blue states, progressive versus conservative—everywhere we look the nation is divided. It is the inevitable consequence of the monolithic state. The borders of Colorado are basically irrelevant to the governance of the people within its boundaries. National elections are all that matter, and the United States has become a singular state, with the borders of her internal states being relevant only every four years as the Electoral College makes its impact on presidential elections.
Before the United States became the behemoth that it is, people in each state saw the place they lived as an individual country. If you were from Virginia, you were a Virginian not an American. It was common before the Civil War to say that the United States are (the grammatically correct use of a plurality). After the war, and as the country moved into its progressive era, the statement became the United States is (referencing a singular entity; one country, indivisible). We wonder time after time why we are so divided as a country. We keep hoping that some wonderful political savior will come along and clean up the tension. Unifying the nation’s people and helping progressives see the wisdom in conservatives, and conservatives seeing the need for a progressive arc to America’s trajectory. That mystical creature does not exist. No political figure is about to persuade enough people that the country should move in any one direction. The entity is too large and the loss of individual state influence is all but a distant memory.
The Loss of the 4th Branch of Government
We all have 7th grade history and civics embedded in our minds. There are only three distinct branches of the government. The executive branch enforces the laws, the legislation makes the laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws. Lost in this middle school interpretation of the founding documents is the reality that there is another, supposedly more influential, piece of the governmental construct. The Constitution elevates a fourth branch that is now lost in the singularity of the federal government. The states that met together to form our Constitution were the grantees of the power bestowed to Washington. At any point during the ratification, one could read and understand that it was with some reluctance that the states were granting the federal government the power it was receiving. It was intended to be the foundation for the other three branches. The states were giving the power to the federal government in order to secure “the domestic tranquility.”
After Lincoln disavowed the secession of the southern states into their own country, went to war and won against those states to preserve the Union, all states became subservient to the federal government and slowly lost influence over the course of the next 100 years. The last ugly chapter of its dissolution being the era of segregation—the only remnant of “states rights” was a negative cliché that needed to be abolished. The last 40 years of our existence as a country has been about the glorification and growth of one mass state, the United States. In the era we live in, the United States definitely is an “is.” The fourth branch of government is a neutered, emasculated version of its former self; relegated to the afterthoughts of history and associated with racism, bigotry, and John C. Calhoun’s neck beard.
The 51st State
I recently went hunting in Wiggins, Colorado for pheasant. Our state is so populated at this point that the only real hunting left is on private game farms. We drove an hour and a half from my hometown and ended up in the far flung county of Morgan, close to the Colorado/Kansas border. I was struck by how different that section of the state was. Everything from the geography to the people seemed as if we were in an entirely different country. A few years ago, 11 counties, including Weld (which is larger than the size of Delaware), Morgan, and several others contemplated the idea of seceding from Colorado and becoming the 51st state. This part of Colorado looks nothing like the ski slopes of Aspen. It is rural farm country filled with oil and gas and plenty of a “leave me the hell alone” vibes. This set of counties isn’t unique in the United States. Movements have been afoot to break apart California, Illinois, Oregon, and many others and secession isn’t unprecedented in American history. Maine was once a part of Massachusetts as well as Utah, Texas, and others that were once a part of different territories that formed other alliances to be more in geographical and cultural connection with one another. The Civil War put an end to the secession idea in the American republic. With 21st century eyes, we look back and assign a negative morality to the idea of breaking away from the glorious Union. But are we better as a nation under one, overly large government that minimizes our representation? Or should we again consider the idea of breaking apart into more manageable, representable segments of land that are a closer proxy of our own ideas, philosophies, and interests?
Learn Your Rules… You Better Learn Your Rules
Here is the basic problem with those of us who still want to play by the rules of the Constitution… We still want to play by the rules. When courts say we can’t secede any longer, we accept our medicine and say it isn’t a workable idea because it would break the rules. Last I checked, the advancement of most social changes in the United States were not because we changed the Constitution (like the rules say we should). Instead, they have come by executive order, Congressional law, or judicial fiat. As rule followers, we scream and holler that the other ideologues are “not playing by the rules.” Still, the advancements keep coming and the government gets larger and more out of control. We get on our blogs and talk radio and yell about how the progressives are destroying our country! We insist they play by the rules of the Constitution, and we watch the world shift underneath our feet. We keep hoping they will play the game we want to play, by the rules we think we all should play by—instead they show up ready to do whatever it takes to win; the rules be damned.
If that is the game we are playing, why not take a page from West Virginia? What if, in this era of larger and more overwhelmingly authoritarian government, we decided to do what West Virginia did and just break apart regardless of the rules? What would stop Morgan county in Colorado from just becoming its own country or state? They can’t do it because the Constitution says so? Since when has that mattered to those on the other side of the ideological spectrum? Wouldn’t these places be wise to become defiant and say “We are leaving”? A better question still is, who will stop them? Will the federal government really send the troops in to preserve the Union? I have a hard time imagining tanks rolling through the middle of Eureka, California to make sure they stay beholden to Sacramento let alone Washington D.C. Most of the people in San Francisco would be glad to see those people leave. They generally frustrate their utopian ideals and stop them from creating their socialist paradise. I struggle to see the cafe and croissant crowd demanding that Morgan County in Colorado remain a part of the state. I see no moral imperative to holding this massive country together any longer. There isn’t a crusade that anyone can rally behind with enough energy to stop the departure of places that are insignificant to the elites.
We used to have an “invisible fence” for our dog. For years the dog was trained through its own trial and error that it could go no farther than a certain point in our yard or it would get shocked. A few years into having the system, the wire was severed and the line stopped working. However our dog had become so accustom to being shocked in the past that it never crossed the line—even though the system was useless. I wonder if we, as Constitutionally-minded people, aren’t in the same predicament as my dog? So afraid to change because we want to obey. But if we take these thoughts from Jefferson to heart, perhaps it is our right, if not our duty to start the breakup.