I have become intrigued by how similar are the debates surfacing this year in Missouri's legislature protesting federal laws, compared with the conflicts that confronted Pres. Andrew Jackson nearly two centuries ago.
History, in a way, may be repeating itself as I have been reminded listening to legislative complaints about the federal government while, at the same time, reading Jon Meacham's biography of Jackson.
A major portion of Jackson's presidency was dominated by his concerns about the efforts of his first vice president, John Calhoun.
The former South Carolina U.S. senator was the leading advocate of the theory that a state had the power to nullify any federal law within the state.
Meacham quotes Calhoun as expressing his belief that nullification was "the fundamental principle of our system, resting on facts as historically certain as our Revolution itself."
Calhoun argued that because the United States was formed as a voluntary association, a state had a sovereign power to prohibit enforcement of a federal law within the state's borders that the state found offensive.
Jackson successfully fought off Calhoun's nullification efforts. But three decades later, nullification arguments over slavery led Calhoun's state of South Carolina to become the first to secede from the union in an action that led to the Civil War.
Now, generations later, I'm reading language in Missouri bills and hearing legislative arguments that echo the arguments made in Calhoun's era.
One bill, for example, declares that each state in the compact forming the Union "has an equal right to judge for itself as to when infractions of the compact have occurred, as well as to determine the mode and measure of redress."
Calhoun could not have expressed his theory more clearly. And he would be warmed, I think, by the flood of bills challenging federal authority within our state.
We have bills to stop or restrict federal laws governing firearms, ammunition, executive orders by the president, the federal health care law, goods manufactured in Missouri, electronic data collection, tobacco, abortions, federal law enforcement officials serving warrants in Missouri and efforts against terrorism.
Not all of these measures seek to flatly nullify federal law or power in Missouri. Instead, some prohibit state or local government workers from providing any assistance for federal efforts. And some even make it a crime for federal government workers to carry out their jobs in Missouri in the precluded areas.
In my period covering Missouri state government, I cannot recall such a quantity of measures challenging the basic authority of the United States government.
I am not entirely sure what it means.
Is it just a reflection of a very conservative Republican General Assembly in the era of a Democratic president, as some would suggest?
Is it political posturing to win over conservative voters and campaign contributors, as others suggest?
Has the federal health care law along with calls for stronger federal laws on firearms caused a transformational change for some about how they perceive our nation?
Is there a belief among supporters of these measures that we need to rethink the fundamental foundation of our country?
Or, are these bills just an effort to force a Democratic governor to veto conservative measures that will fire up conservative voters?
On a legalistic level, are these bills an effort to establish the grounds for a U.S. Supreme Court case that redefines the post Civil War relationship between states and the federal government?
I am not sure I have an answer. Probably, different legislators have differing motivations and objectives.
The magnitude of some these questions, however, suggests that all of us should not take lightly these various nullification-type efforts arising in Missouri's legislature this session.
At issue is the very concept of what we mean by a United States of America. That is an historic debate that is fundamentally different from anything I've heard from state legislators before.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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