Commentary: South Carolina is a hotbed of 'Hell No-ism'

The Rock Hill HeraldFebruary 11, 2013 

Many summers when I was young, I spent a week or longer at a camp in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. During one evening assembly, a cabin mate named Wayne loudly proclaimed: “I’m gonna take my pig and secede.”

Wayne, who was from Wildwood, Fla., was playing to an audience of country boys who understood his references – agricultural as well as historical. Everyone laughed.

Ever since, from time to time, I’ve wondered whatever happened to Wayne. More recently, I’ve become convinced that he changed his name, moved two states north and got elected to the S.C. General Assembly.

In the state that touched off a war that led to the death of more than 600,000 Americans, talk of secession and nullification has become increasingly common in some circles.

Consider: More than 40,000 people – not all of them South Carolinians – have visited a White House Website and indicated they support a petition calling for the Palmetto State to secede from the United States.

Put into perspective, that amounts to less than 1 percent of the state’s population. Nevertheless, one wonders whether those folks merely are expressing disdain for President Obama or the federal government, or whether they truly believe the outcome of the Civil War is still in doubt.

How many people support nullification of one or more federal laws is more difficult to measure, but if lawmakers who advocate defying Uncle Sam are a reliable indicator, South Carolina once again is becoming a hotbed of Hell No-ism!

Consider:

• Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, wants to nullify any presidential executive order restricting sale or possession of firearms.

• Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, introduced a bill making it a crime to enact any part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); and

• The S.C. House of Representatives last year passed the South Carolina Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act, which would nullify a federal ban on incandescent light bulbs by exempting bulbs manufactured within the state.

Pundits point out that nullification is a fool’s game. It didn’t work in 1957 when, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus tried to prevent black students from enrolling in Little Rock Central High; and it failed when Lester Maddox brandished an axe handle to intimidate blacks from entering his Atlanta restaurant following passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act.

South Carolina is the poster child of nullification.

Scholars hearken to the 1830s when the Palmetto State tried to resist federal tariffs that U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun and others argued were prejudicial to the state’s agrarian economy.

Delegates to the Nullification Convention of 1832 declared the tariffs unconstitutional and threatened to secede from the Union. Congress adopted a less punitive tariff the next year but not before President Andrew Jackson reportedly threatened to send federal troops to enforce the law and to hang nullifiers from the first tree he could find.

Actually, South Carolina came late to the concept of nullification.

As early as 1786, in Massachusetts, the militia was called out to repress what would be known as Shays' Rebellion, an uprising of Revolutionary War veterans and others who resisted state attempts to collect taxes.

Five years later, President George Washington led 15,000 troops across the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania to crush resistance to a federal excise tax on whiskey.

In each of these confrontations, the rebels had legitimate complaints.

Before they engaged in acts of terror against federal agents, for example, instigators of the Whiskey Rebellion unsuccessfully tried to persuade Congress to repeal the tax on distilled spirits. Rather than a sinful luxury, which is how spirits were viewed by many, whiskey was the coin of the realm in areas cut off from populous markets by mountains, bad roads and unnavigable rivers.

Unfortunately, for the rebels, the federal government took a dim view of its tax collectors being threatened, beaten, and tarred and feathered. The “rebellion” was put down, swiftly and firmly.

The record is pretty clear. Nullifiers may find favor with some voters, but they have a lousy track record overall.

Secede they may try.

Succeed they won’t.

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