Today Foreshadowed: The Confederate VP on Federal Spending

Los Angeles: Getty Center Porch at Tea Time 11/2009

          The fevered debates on the Federal budget, ‘entitlements’, high-speed rail construction we are now enduring have their origins in the Jefferson Administration which began the 19th century.

 Internal Improvements

           Until the 1850s, even more than slavery, ‘internal improvements’ dominated disputes between the country’s sections.  ‘Improvements’ were canals, railroads, highways, navigation aids and the like.  Their opponents were, mainly, what we think of as Jacksonian Democrats from the south and Ohio/Mississippi River border states.  Their proponents were the Whigs and, later, the Republicans in the north and midwest.

           That struggle has changed little, it seems, in 210 years.

 Confederate Documents & Today

           Just before Christmas, some neo-Confederates celebrated the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union with a grand ball in Charleston.  That got me looking at South Carolina’s secession documents which, as I reported, contain some fascinating things about the Civil War’s origins – and our political debates today.

           This morning, I had the notion to compare ‘Schmpeter’s’ ‘peculiar people’ – American corporations – with the Old South’s ‘peculiar institution’.  I had learnt the latter phrase from Kenneth M. Stampp’s classic The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956) which most American history majors of my generation at least encountered.

           In my search I stumbled on Alexander H. Stephens’s ‘Cornerstone Speech’.  Stephens was a US Representative from Georgia between 1843 and 1858.  At the Civil War’s outbreak, he became vice president of the Confederacy.  On March 21, 1861, Stephens delivered his famous defense of the Confederate Constitution to an audience in Savannah.

 Confederate Constitution & Internal Improvements

           As you read Stephens below, think of the ‘originalist’ or literalist view of what Congress can do under the Constitution.  Think, too, of health care reform’s individual mandates.  Think of the debate over who should build and own the infrastructure of our transportation system (which I wrote about here).

           Here’s what Stephens said about internal improvements.  (For ease of reading, I have paragraphed what is a single paragraph in the speech and added emphasis.)

 Again, the subject of internal improvements, under the power of Congress to regulate commerce, is put at rest under our [new Confederate] system. The power, claimed by construction [interpretation] under the old [US] constitution, was at least a doubtful one; it rested solely upon construction.

 We of the South, generally apart from considerations of constitutional principles, opposed its exercise upon grounds of its inexpediency and injustice. Notwithstanding this opposition, millions of money, from the common treasury had been drawn for such purposes.

 Our opposition sprang from no hostility to commerce, or to all necessary aids for facilitating it. With us it was simply a question upon whom the burden should fall.

 In Georgia, for instance, we have done as much for the cause of internal improvements as any other portion of the country, according to population and means. We have stretched out lines of railroads from the seaboard to the mountains; dug down the hills, and filled up the valleys at a cost of not less than $25,000,000.  All this was done to open an outlet for our products of the interior, and those to the west of us, to reach the marts of the world.

 No State was in greater need of such facilities than Georgia, but we did not ask that these works should be made by appropriations out of the common [Federal] treasury. The cost of the grading, the superstructure, and the equipment of our roads was borne by those who had entered into the enterprise.

 Nay, more not only the cost of the iron no small item in the aggregate cost was borne in the same way, but we were compelled to pay into the common [Federal] treasury several millions of dollars [in tariffs] for the privilege of importing the iron, after the price was paid for it abroad.

 What justice was there in taking this money, which our people paid into the common treasury on the importation of our iron, and applying it to the improvement of rivers and harbors elsewhere?

 The true principle is to subject the commerce of every locality, to whatever burdens may be necessary to facilitate it. If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden. If the mouth of the Savannah river has to be cleared out, let the sea-going navigation which is benefited by it, bear the burden. So with the mouths of the Alabama and Mississippi river. Just as the products of the interior, our cotton, wheat, corn, and other articles, have to bear the necessary rates of freight over our railroads to reach the seas.

 This is again the broad principle of perfect equality and justice, and it is especially set forth and established in our new [Confederate] constitution.

           The Confederacy died, in no small part, for this principle.  Its internal transportation and communications lines – and cohesion generally – were much inferior to the Union’s.  Alexander Stephens’s political heirs have not learnt that lesson.

           Michael M. Thomas once wrote:   ‘As Santayana so famously put it, those who pay history no mind won’t see it coming until it bites them in the ass.’  M.M. Thomas, “Clairol Corps Rating Weenie Weltanschauung,” New York Observer, February 27, 1995, p. 1.

           Prepare yourself for a colossal ‘Ouch!’