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Thomas E. Woods, Jr. And the Right to Oppress

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

In the last several posts we have examined an element of the Catholic Right  comprised of neo-Confederate apologists who openly advocate both the state nullification of federal court decisions and statutes as well as secession.  The name that most commonly comes up when conservative Catholics discuss these things is Thomas E. Woods, Jr., who may be the leading modern confederate, intending to win what Jefferson Davis lost.  But a major difference today is that certain Catholic Right players would use the neo-confederate disruption of popular government to impose theocracy-even at the expense of national unity.

Thomas Woods is a well-educated man. He has earned a B.A. in History from Harvard as well as a Ph.D. in the same subject from Columbia from which he also holds a Masters in Philosophy. But Woods’ elite education is not reflected in his writing which is devoted to the agenda of nullification and secession. To that end, he serves as not only as a senior fellow to the über-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, but also as an associate scholar with Abbeville Institute, an institution that promotes a revisionist view of the Confederacy.

Wood is no ordinary academic not only because of his agenda but in his method of advancing his views, which often includes tactical omissions, mischaracterizations and even outright mendacity.  He is often quick to resort to hyperbole (describing those who warn of the dangers of secession as engaging in “hysterics” while describing them as “bizarre and creepy”) and name-calling (describing those who believe that the Civil War settled the issues of nullification and secession as having a “moral compass deeply deformed by government propaganda”).

He is prone to misleading statements. For example, in defending his call for the nullification of federal court decisions and legislation, he argues:

Nullification was never used on behalf of slavery.  As I show in Nullification, it was used against slavery, which is why South Carolina’s secession document cites it as a grievance justifying southern secession, and Jefferson Davis denounced it in his farewell address to the Senate.  Thus Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, backed up by the state legislature, declared the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional (the mere existence of the fugitive-slave clause in the Constitution did not, in its view, suffice to make all the odious provisions of that act constitutionally legitimate).  In Ableman v. Booth  (1859), the Supreme Court scolded it for doing so.  In other words, modern anti-nullification jurisprudence has its roots in the Supreme Court’s declarations in support of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Who’s defending slavery here?

This is a straw-man argument that completely sidesteps the main issue. Woods may rhetorically ask, “Who’s defending slavery here?” The obvious reply is, “Who here is approves of nullification under any circumstance?” The Wisconsin Supreme Court was clearly on the moral high ground in voicing its disapproval of the Fugitive Slave Act. But with that said, the proper remedy was still the Thirteenth Amendment. That is immutable. More importantly, Wisconsin ceded to the decision of the Supreme Court, thus honoring the Supremacy Clause.

Likewise, when discussing nullification and the Founders, Woods plays fast and loose with the facts of history. For example, he recently wrote:

“Nullification” dates back to 1798, when James Madison and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, respectively.  There we read that the states, which created the federal government in the first place, by the very logic of what they had done must possess some kind of defense mechanism should their creation break free of the restraints they had imposed on it.  Jefferson himself introduced the word “nullification” into the American political lexicon, by which he meant the indispensable power of a state to refuse to allow an unconstitutional federal law to be enforced within its borders.

Woods’ omissions are all-too-convenient.  First, in response to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional) nine other states expressed either disapproval or outright rejection of the Resolutions. Secondly, Jefferson was always an anti-Federalist. Beyond that, Madison would conclude that determining unconstitutionality was to be decided by the federal courts. For Madison, nullification was a means of registering protest, not acting upon it.

Much like his fellow Catholic neo-Confederate, Thomas DiLorenzo, he is obsessed with tearing down President Lincoln’s legacy.  He cites Lincoln’s early views on the issue of slavery — initially supporting the resettlement of former slaves — in order to paint him as a hypocrite. Yet no serious student of Lincoln denies his earlier views on race relations. But most serious pro-Lincoln also understand that his views evolved over time to a higher and better place.  Still, Woods, DiLorenzo and their ilk point to early stations in Lincoln’s life journey as a final judgment.  In fact, Lincoln’s journey was marked by an open mind, unafraid of where the application of core beliefs would lead him.

Why is a discussion of Lincoln’s legacy pertinent to confronting the Religious Right?  Simply because the Sixteenth President’s stand against nullification and secession epitomizes the defeat of those twin concepts of national disunity and selfishness.  Destroy Lincoln’s legacy, and the door is thrown wide open to the view that an individual state is in itself a mini-sovereign, free to adopt one religious view as that state’s established faith. This in turn, opens the door to criminalizing women’s’ reproductive rights, stem cell research, and marriage equality.

Does this sound far-fetched? As it bears repeating over and over again, not to the likes of Woods ally and Opus Dei firebrand Rev. C. John McCloskey, who idealizes a future marked by secession and civil war:

The tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors for the Faith in North America were indeed the “seed of the Church” as they were in pre-Edict of Milan Christianity. The final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. italics added

Is such an outcome an exaggerated fear? Hardly. Nullification is spreading like an out of control fire through the national edifice. A bill designed to nullify the Affordable Care Act is on the South Carolina Senate’s current agenda. Earlier this year Mississippi Tea Party legislators unsuccessfully attempted to set up a nullification panel to review which federal laws to ignore (in typical Woods fashion, he described those who disapproved as “thought controllers”). And in North Carolina a group of Republican legislators recently attempted to nullify The Establishment Clause by declaring Christianity the Tar Heel State’s official religion. Woods’ Brigade is on the march.

Historian Barbara Fields warned in 1990, that the Civil War can still be lost:

I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until, we today, have done our part in fighting as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it.

William Faulkner said once that “history is not was, it’s is.” And what we need to remember about the Civil War it is that the Civil War is in the present as well as in the past. The generation that fought the war, of the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood and had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future also established a standard that will not mean anything until we can finish the work.

You can say there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we are all citizens; but if we are all citizens then we have a task to do, to make sure that too that is not a joke; that if some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on; it’s still to be fought; and regrettably can still be lost.

Let us imagine for a moment that Woods and his ilk  can succeed where other states’ rights advocates have failed.  One of the obvious consequences would be that tyranny would not be abolished but locally established in the form of laissez-faire economics and theocracy. Indeed, the only “freedom” that would be expanded would be the freedom to oppress – the concept that is at the very heart of many Catholic neo-Confederates and economic libertarians alike. This underlying notion of the right to oppress others is the common thread that runs through both slavery and contemporary theocratic visions.

Woods is correct on one point: Nobody is talking about slavery. But with that said, some of us are still talking about the right to oppress others and one of those doing so is Woods.

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