By Patrick Murphy*
In this article, I’d like to add another element to his observation, which might help to flesh out the nature of the problem and find its source. David Hackett Fischer’s invaluable study, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0195069056) tells us that America was founded in four waves of immigration, from four distinct areas of Britain to four distinct areas of America. These four groups were culturally very different from one another, and retained those distinctions as they developed their regional societies on this side of the Atlantic. Even when completely unrelated ethnic groups migrated to those four sections of our country, they tended to acculturate to the British folkways of the place they landed, and the folkways spread with them to the places they moved as America expanded. It all has to do with the way a region’s children grow up looking at life, and to this day there remain these four distinct “folkways” in America. (Everyone really should read Fischer’s book.)
Rereading Tracy’s piece (and I recommend that you do), one might notice that the 19th century is not represented in his list of legislative evidences of federal paranoia. The reason has to do with the “four British folkways in America.” The puritans were the group that made New England (this “folkway” migrated across the upper midwest). These are the Yankees. While it’s true that the Yankees gave up their peculiar religious identity early on, they never gave up the sense that they were a new edition of God’s chosen people, destined to set everyone else straight. The culture of the Southern states and that of the Yankees have always been as compatible as oil and water, and had been back in England–they were the two sides in the English Civil War (Kevin Phillips has a wonderful book on this whole rivalry called the The Cousins’ Wars http://www.amazon.com/The-Cousins-Wars-Religion-Anglo-America/dp/0465013708).
Yankees are pushy; they think they know what’s best for everyone, and can’t stand it when they can’t force everyone else to conform to their vision of goodness. Today, that extends to the whole world; for example, Moslem lands, with no history of what we call “democracy” these days, must be made to change into “democratic” societies, even if it means covering them with depleted uranium dust and killing anyone who resists.
The South has never had any such notion. This proved very problematic for the Yankees when the idea came up to get rid of the Articles of Confederation and create a strong central government. This is because the South had far more people, and the House of Representatives and the Electoral College were to be filled by proportional representation. A compromise was hatched, whereby the South would agree to artificially reduce its population: in the decennial census, which determined the number of Representatives and Electors, the South would agree to throw away two fifths of the slaves in the count, thus giving the Yankee states a rough parity in representation. This is an indicator of how desperately the Southern states wanted a strong federal government (I think it was a mistake, but that’s not today’s topic).
Washington was a Southerner, and his V.P., Adams, was a Yankee. It is in those years that political parties came into being; the two very different visions of how life should be lived, and what role government should have in men’s lives, came into sharp focus at that time. The party that emerged to represent the Yankee way of thinking, the Federalists, got pretty used to getting their way over the years that their man, Adams was in charge, when he succeeded Washington
Everyone knew that Jefferson, the quintessential Southerner, was likely to be the next president, and for the Yankees this was close to unthinkable; the Alien and Sedition acts were a way to make it impossible for Jefferson to campaign. This was the first incidence of Yankee paranoia–the fear that they would not be allowed to remake the whole country in their image drove them to try and make opposition illegal.
The decades that followed no doubt made the Yankees wish the 3/5ths provision had been 2/5ths, 1/5th or even a “no slaves counted” provision (although, obviously, no Southern state would have ratified the Constitution if that were the case–3/5ths was, after all, a compromise), because the South pretty much dominated the presidency from then on. More important still, the South constituted an effective veto in Congress, blocking all the grand schemes of the Yankees to “nationalize” the Union. This drove them nuts, and in the first decades New England constantly threatened to leave the Union if they didn’t get their way. But culturally, the South opposed them fundamentally on what Henry Clay mischaracterized as “the American System” of federally directed internal improvements, crony capitalism and the like; there was no possible compromise.
This is the real reason for the War to Prevent Southern Independence. It was a psychotic child’s tantrum. This is the reason the North cheerfully waged “total war” against civilian populations–to completely obliterate the Southern economy and way of life–and why the North proceeded to rule the South by means of military dictatorship until the job was altogether done. The war was the result of many decades of pent up anger and frustration exploding in blind rage.
Before the war, the Yankee agenda had been effectively blocked by the South, in a kind of perpetual stalemate, making expressions of paranoia impossible to legislate–all that they could do was use public relations to create the illusion of a widespread movement to abolish slavery and to demonize the people who held slaves, although that effort bore little fruit; most people in the North did not care about slavery and felt not the least bit threatened by the South. After the war, the Yankee spirit was in complete control of America’s destiny, having successfully made internal opposition to its agenda illegal (or at least impossible to block), and thus the paranoid impulse went into remission for the rest of the century.
Having effectively eliminated any threat to domestic rivalry to its vision, it wasn’t until Wilson tried to get Americans to meddle in the affairs of distant lands that the paranoia reemerged. Ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address it had always been a core principle in this country that America does not meddle in the affairs of other countries. We didn’t mind conquering them to absorb their lands and call them our own, but to meddle was unthinkable. And, when it came to Europe, didn’t we come here precisely to get away from the endless, idiotic squabbles of those foolish kings? The idea of entering World War I–just another in an endless stream of such Old World skirmishes–was completely un-American.
So in this sense, the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the next entries in Tracy’s list, were a new brand of Yankee paranoia–the terrifying fear that the goal of remaking America, already nicely accomplished, would not be allowed to extend to the whole world.
Yankees are busybodies, endlessly interested in modifying everyone’s behavior. Around the same time they were shipping our boys over to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy” (and brooking no opposition to that stupid goal), they were busily working to outlaw alcohol at home. There is no end to their tiresome meddlesomeness. The 20th century, and now the 21st, is replete with it.
In short, I think it is important to identify the source of the mindless paranoia that now defines the United States government. There is a direct line from the overthrow of the Articles of Confederation through Dr. Tracy’s list of horrible laws, to the policing and surveilling of the world, and it leads to Orwell’s 1984. When the paranoid spirit of the sanctimonious Yankee tells us that the paranoid (and dangerous) ones are those who oppose Yankee goals to unify the entire world in their image, it is a case of what head shrinkers call “transference.” Only by having an accurate description of the players can we tell who’s who in the game. We can’t stop the game, but we don’t have to let them fool us.
As the timeline of Dr. Tracy’s list of horrible laws demonstrates, the speed of the creation of these laws is rapidly increasing, almost logarithmically. That is, the evidence of paranoia is growing rapidly. I believe that this is evidence of something important, but I can’t say what. Maybe, the Yankee spirit had such success in accomplishing its goals for the last 14 decades that the things that are unhealthy about it have completely taken over, leaving the parts that tempered it without any effective power to tone things down, like a drunk now prone to delirium tremens. I’m no psychologist. But this government, unfettered, seems to be going crazier, lashing out in desperation to accomplish increasingly totalitarian goals.
*Patrick Murphy is a small businessman living in Indianapolis and the author of How the West Was Lost: Coping with Life in a Strange, New Civilization (2005). He is presently working on a followup volume. Murphy holds a degree in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.