Governor Isaac Stevens Free from Wikipedia CommonsThe Governor of Idaho, C..L. “Butch” Otter, completed at least a college education according to his biography on the official State of Idaho website. So somewhere along the line he must have read about the Civil War (that big conflict that happened between the Revolutionary War and the Spanish American War). They teach US History in Idaho just about the way they teach it everywhere else, I think.

But the Governor of Idaho is setting a course—rejecting recently passed federal health legislation—that makes me think he ought to dust off one of his history books. Governor Otter is experimenting with “nullification,” the Jeffersonian doctrine that states can ignore federal laws they don’t like. It’s a dangerous thing to be playing with.

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  • Here’s what I wrote last summer about Thomas Jefferson’s role as an unwitting founding father—not of the United States, but of the Civil War:

    And here’s something you may not know about Thomas Jefferson: he was a secessionist. Jefferson believed that if a state didn’t like what the federal government was doing, it had a right to leave the Union. In fact, Jefferson (possibly with help from James Madison) was the author of the earliest document articulating the principles of secession: the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. You won’t find passages of the Kentucky Resolutions being read out loud in elementary school classes (“whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force”) or quoted by scholars like Barone. But listen to the rants of your local tea baggers and the Governor of Texas and you’ll hear similar language. Jefferson’s individualism extended beyond the idea of limited government but to outright nullification of federal laws and withdrawal from the Union, the essential causes of the Civil War.

    Basically what happened is that when confronted with laws they didn’t like, the southern states just seceded, using Jefferson’s ideas as justification for leaving the union. The rest is, well, history, but it’s ugly history. (For more on the history of the Civil War in the Northwest check out Knute Berger’s fantastic and comprehensive run down over at Crosscut).

    Governor Otter can be forgiven for not reading my blog post, and maybe it’s understandable that he’s forgotten the history of the Civil War. But he apparently has been reading a book called “Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century.”

    Given it’s title I suspect it’s a book that chooses an alternative view of history and our constitution than the one that we fought a war over in the 19th century. Now I am no misty-eyed adherent to the myths surrounding the founding of the United States. But a lot of people put faith into the idea that there is something really special about Thomas Jefferson—including Governor Otter. Otter is correct that Jefferson was an advocate of nullification, but the idea isn’t any better today that it was in the 1820’s or 1850’s. Nullification is being used as theater, but it’s hard to see how it couldn’t lead to serious civil discord if followed to its logical conclusion.

    Lots of people dislike what the federal government does or doesn’t do. Progressive environmentalists don’t like that Congress failed to enact strong cap-and-trade legislation, or has weakened laws that protect our environment and our food. But think about it: if states opted out of federal laws they didn’t like what would be left of the United States? Not much. Like it or not, the United States Constitution was not based on Jeffersonian principles, but on Federalism. And, as a result, we have to live with the  laws passed—or in some cases not passed—at the federal level. Otherwise why have the United States in the first place?

    At its best, government tries to perfect human freedoms by striving for systems that are fair, manage resources well, and ensure equal access to the law. They often fail. But the job of our leaders—whether Republicans or Democrats—is to keep working at it until the system gets better, not take their ball and go home. Nullification might play well in some quarters—in Idaho now over health care or in Berkeley during the Viet Nam War—but no matter what end of the political spectrum we find ourselves living on, history teaches us that nullification hasn’t worked. What’s shocking and sad is that a state in our region is even surfacing the idea more than 150 years after it led to Civil War.

    Photo of the first Governor of Washington, Isaac Stevens from Wikipedia Commons. Governor Stevens was killed in battle in 1862 while fighting on the side of the Union at the Battle of Chantilly in 1862.