How perfect a union?

Are the United States substantially a moral union–a union on moral questions? This question has bearing on what belongs in the Constitution.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution says it is adopted “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice . . . provide for the common defense,” etc. Americans have an individualist streak that resists the idea that political life must involve anything like a moral consensus. We are committed to some kind of pluralism by our commitment to freedom of speech, association, etc., including moral pluralism (note especially freedom of religion). We pride ourselves on accommodating immigrants from every part of the world, many of whom retain their language and other customs. Part of the pluralism also is a legal commitment to a certain degree of autonomy of states within the union. States have different taxes and different drinking ages, as well as different geographies, dialects and social customs.

On the other hand, we have a tradition of solidarity as Americans that we absorb even from such unlikely places as the Superman shows I watched as a kid–“truth, justice, and the American way!” (I’ll admit I don’t hear that sort of thing coming from contemporary kids’ shows, though).

On a day like today, we are reminded that beneath the pluralism lies a deeper union. We are not merely unified by a common currency or a common set of highway standards. One doesn’t put one’s life on the line to defend a position on whether sales tax should be 4% or 6%. One does, however, for the common defense, say, at Bunker Hill or Normandy.

What is the basis of that kind of union, a compact stronger than death? What binds it? Why are people willing to do what is required to maintain it? This bond is not something simply given; in other parts of the world tribal or sectarian loyalties routinely trump national loyalties (think of Iraq, East Timor, Chad).

Some, for example, would contest that our union is indivisible in part because it is a union “under God” despite differing forms of worship; others would of course disagree. Certainly however the values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution are key to understanding the force and durability of our union. In the life of the union, questions periodically arise as to whether that document should be interpreted or revised to bind us on this or that question–whether we can (or will) accommodate established differences on these questions.

How deeply can we disagree, and still function as we should, as a union?

19 comments for “How perfect a union?

  1. We are unified by sheer force of the federal government and have been ever since Abe Lincoln yelled “get back here you!”

    Coercion is what unifies us. First it was military. Now it’s economic.

    But that’s only half the equation. The US nation has been pretty darn successful. Americans are proud of that success.

    I think sentiment may play a small part in it. But mostly, I think it’s pure coercion and the common human desire to back the winning horse.

  2. Coercion is tricky. It is a key part of what keeps the country orderly, but coercion itself relies on some kind of unity at least among the coercing forces. King Gyanendra tried to hold onto power by coercion a few weeks ago in Nepal, but the police started disobeying orders, not because the protesters had them outgunned, but apparently because the king’s orders seemed unreasonable. The king lost power fundamentally because he lost moral credibility.

  3. If it’s coercion, it’s a very soft coercion indeed. A Swiss friend once noted “You have so much space here.” America is a nation of people who, for the most part, arrived in exile from other lands. This historic memory of fleeing persecution, combined with the space to allow many (sometimes) conflicting cultures to co-exist in one country, may be the key to what makes it all work better here.

  4. We definitely have a lot of space, which can reduce friction. On the other hand, I have the impression that we also have much more integration of diverse groups here than, say, typically happens in Europe. We do actively reduce our differences in various ways that I think are key to our success. Partly too, though this may be more feasible because there isn’t some sort of monolithic predecessor culture for immigrants and dissenters to be alienated from–pluralism helping pluralism succeed in moderating itself to a manageable level.

  5. I don’t think that moral consensus or religious conviction are the glue that holds the union together. If I was looking for what I have in common with my fellow Americans, a promiscuous order would fall out: the Constitution, Biblical references, baseball games, high school (and its government classes), a mass of 80s TV Shows, etc. In other words, we share – soome more, some less – a set of cultural references and some ideals. What most contributes to our cohesion, I think, is the malleability and openness of these ideals. You can plug in a whole diversity of meanings (even conflicting ones) into those patriotic evocations of “God” in “God we trust” or the Spirit of ’76 or that grand slogan of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The fact that we don’t have to sign on to extensive and detailed political statements does alot for keeping us together. That and the fact that, although I might identify myself on religious or regional grounds (California, the greatest of states!) first in many ways, I can still declare myself to be a proud American without contradiction.

  6. John Adams said:

    “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into tow great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other.”

    David McCullough continues in his biography (from where I got that quote) with this:

    Yet this was exactly what had happened. The “turbulent maneuvers” of factions, he now wrote privately, could “tie the hands and destroy the influence” of every honest man with a desire to serve the public good. There was “division of sentiments over everything,” he told his son-in-law William Smith. “How few aim at the good of the whole, without aiming too much at the prosperity of the parts!” (pg. 422)

    America cannot rightfully be called the “United” States of America today, far from it. Both sides are immersed in backstabbing and political maneuvering to outwit, outplay, and outlast the other, and not for the betterment of the whole.

  7. Guys, guys,

    I said “cercion” AND “backing the winning horse”

    That’s two factors there alright? I never said it was just coercion.


    The United States is more united, more centralized in its governance than it has ever been.

    Individual states used to have a LOT more autonomy and power than they do today.

    You also act like there used to be some mythical “golden age” of American politics when everyone put politics aside and worked together for the common good. That’s a fairy tale. No such period ever existed in American history.

    If anything, politics today are far more civil and polite than they’ve EVER been in the history of our nation.

    Congressmen used to get into actual fistfights on the floor of the House. Hamilton and Burr actually had a duel with pistols when one publicly suggested that the other was sleeping with his own daughter. And those two were hardly an isolated incident.

    Ever watch the McCarthy hearings where committee members actually shouted at testifying Hollywood directors?

    Remember the governor of Alabama (I think …) defying Lyndon B. Johnson and the Supreme Court by keeping the state schools closed to black students?

    No, politics today is pretty nice and rosy. Better than it’s ever been. There are no “good ol days.”

  8. Seth,

    I actually agree. I never implied there was a golden age of “unity.” I guess I should have stated that America can never truly be called the “United” States of America, because of the political parties that would rather create laws that benefit those that fund their re-election campaigns rather than the country as a whole. We’ve had a civil war, and we’ve had several large protests. Where America has withstood is in not ever having the government overthrown.

  9. Seth: As a former 8th Circuit clerk, I’m bound to point out the the governor in question was Orval Faubus of the great state of Arkansas. He was not defying an order of the U.S. Supreme Court but of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The president who sent in the troops was not Johnson but Eisenhower. The details can be found at:

    Aaron v. Cooper, 156 F.Supp. 220 (E.D.Ark. 1957) aff’d sub nom Faubus v. United States, 254 F.2d 797 (8th Cir. 1958)

  10. I don’t feel coerced. I feel a huge emotional attachment to all Americans. Even the ones I loathe.

    At its core, isn’t that the unity we have in our country?

  11. Seth R.

    However, the violent and vehement disagreements of the past were often based on principles and issues, not exclusively on party politics. What Adams (and Washington) feared was that there would exist a party polarization that we see today to a degree not before seen. Individual politicians are pressured with loss of committee memberships if they don’t follow the party line. There is little room for individual statesmanship as the parties have become the dominating factions. Factions are powerful and necessary for the decentralization of power; however, with the current situation much of the power is now centralized into two warring factions without smaller factions having any power.

    Ben H.

    As far as unity is concerned, it seems that our past unifies us more than anything else. The national view of the future is not unified at all; there are many states with small, but growing movements for secession. There is profound disagreement with how to handle future military and economic threats. One huge crisis (9/11 personally effected such a small percentage) and the Union may disintegrate, especially if our economic ties are strained.

  12. Thanks Nate, I think I was thinking of the female student being escorted in by the National Guard. But my knowlege of Civil Rights history has always been a little sketchy.

    Mike W.

    I’d encourage you to read a good history of the the US War of 1812. The partisan politics were far more blatant and disgusting than anything I’ve witnessed the last 30 years. The disagreements most definitely weren’t based on “principles.” Often, it was quite the opposite.

    We have something of a mythological view of the founding of the US. We see the great figures of American history as a part of the overall sweep of our nation’s growth and progress. Therefore, they tend to become larger-than-life. We put them on a pedestal and don’t notice the abundant flaws they had. I actually find much of the behavior of many of our “founding fathers” as outright disgusting and morally reprehensible (and no, I’m not primarily dredging up the old “Jefferson owned slaves!” rant – I’m talking about numerous other incidents).

    The fact is, Capitol Hill has always had its share of slimy, reprehensible little toads. The only difference today is that national media coverage requires our politicians to at least maintain a measure of decorum.

  13. Seth,

    But in the past have the parties held such powerful sway over the voting of the members? It seems (again maybe I am wrong) that party line votes are much more common in the last 10-12 years than they have been in the past.

  14. Seth,

    don’t forget Jefferson’s treasonous relationship with the French. If a Senator today had that kind of relationship, he’d be on trial for treason!

  15. Nate is of course right about the Little Rock school desegregation controversy.

    Of course, it was George Wallace, governor of Alabama, who several years later–during the Kennedy administration–promised in his inaugural address “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” and who a few months later stood at the entrance to the University of Alabama blocking two black students from entering.

    Which was ugly enough, but perhaps not as bad as his neighbor governor to the east, Lester Maddox of Georgia, who used to brandish a pick handle to keep blacks out of his restaurant.

  16. Wow, Mike, I had heard about a movement aiming at taking South Carolina out (again), as a Christian republic (partly a matter of people moving there to shift the balance of votes. I also recall lots of half-joking talk of secession or the blue states’ joining Canada after the last couple of presidential elections. What other, lasting movements toward secession have you heard of? So far these movements seem pretty weak. And I think the likelihood of successful secession of any part of the U.S. any time this century is remote. However, I think movements like this are symptomatic of a real sense of disunity which could have a serious impact on social and political life.

    I agree American unity is based on a whole hodge-podge of things, a bit different for each person. I do think that certain items could have a big impact on a lot of people’s commitment, though.

    So, the question this week is, would a federal amendment specifying that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman do more to strengthen national solidarity, or weaken it?

  17. Ben H.

    Here is a list of secession movements:

    I think Vermont’s is actually the most serious and best organized (no, I am not a secessionist. It’s just interesting from a Constitutional standpoint).

    Regarding whether a marriage amendment would weaken or strengthen solidarity; it seems that it would weaken the solidarity. But many likely said the same thing about the Civil Rights Act and the pluralism that you pointed out in the post has won out.

  18. I really don\’t see how we can call our nation the \”United\” States, when at gunpoint we forced 11 states to remain in the Union, at a cost of 600,000 men. The South loosing the Civil War certainly marked the beginning of big federal government. The government could now say to the states that if you don\’t like what we are doing, tough. We are going to force you to do what we want, because secession is no longer an option. If the South had won the Civil War, Utah might have had the option to leave the Union (or never join), and become a separate country during the plural marriage persecutions by the federal government during the latter part of the 1800\’s. The Federal Government would likely have been kinder in it\’s treatment of Utah, in order to maintain unity and keep Utah citizens happy.

    Forcing someone to do something does not create true unity. As the saying goes, \”A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.\” I think today we are seeing much disunity in our country, and I fear it will only get worse as our population grows, personal standards of morality free fall, and the Federal Government continues to expand. What would happen today in 2006, if a majority of the voters in a state decided to leave the Union? Would you be willing to send your sons and daughters to militarily force that state to return? I would not.

  19. There is no constitutional mechanism for a state to leave the union, so it doesn’t matter if a majority wants to. It would require a federal constitutional ammendment, I guess. Attorney Bloggers, please jump in here: How could a state leave the Union sometime in the future?

Comments are closed.