The Tea Party and its embrace of antebellum notions, including nullification
As someone who has studied the Civil War for all of my adult life, I never once contemplated that I would ever hear any American raise once more the issue of secession or the doctrine of nullification, or suggest that the 14th Amendment should be rescinded.
But we live in politically daffy times, so I suppose I should no longer be surprised by anything that self-serving politicians dish up for the 24/7 news cycle. Over the past six months or so, extremists on the right have revived the dubious tactics of states possibly leaving the Union (courtesy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry), states nullifying a federal law (Idaho’s House passed such a bill on Feb. 16 to nullify the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, disparagingly called “ObamaCare” by the right), and rescinding — presumably by a constitutional amendment — the 14th Amendment (Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky vowed last summer to hold hearings on the 14th Amendment, supposedly with an eye to rescinding all or part of it).
There once was a time, however, when historians decisively declared that, for all the things that the Civil War left unfinished, there were several outcomes that were fixed and sure: The war, and all the blood spilled in it, had ended forever the threat of secession, had ensured the supremacy of federal law over state law (thus eliminating the threat of nullification), and had defined and extended citizenship (by means of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868) to all native-born Americans, including the black slaves who had been freed not only by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but permanently by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865.
Ironically, as we enter the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, those simple accepted truths of the war’s positive legacy now seem more fragile than they have ever been since Appomattox. But, I would caution, we must not lose all faith. For one thing, the lunatic fringe that has cried out for rescinding the 14th Amendment did so in the political heat of an election year (Sen. McConnell, what happened to those promised hearings?), when typically all sorts of loony constitutional amendments have historically been voiced, if not introduced. For example, ever since 1985, when Ronald Reagan was serving in his second term as president, there have been repeated attempts to repeal the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits each president to two terms. Luckily, this proposal has failed repeatedly in Congress, although it is still introduced over and over again.