Return of the Confederacy

They hate Lincoln, the New Deal and desegregation. They love Jefferson Davis, secession, and nullification. Wingnuts author John Avlon on the creepy, growing political force known as Tenthers.

02.25.10 10:35 PM ET

They hate Lincoln, the New Deal, and desegregation. They love Jefferson Davis, secession, and nullification. Wingnuts author John Avlon on the creepy, growing political force known as Tenthers, who are having a national conference in Atlanta Friday.

There's a place in the Wingnut universe where the rights of states to secede is still asserted, the New Deal is characterized as unconstitutional, and desegregation is considered tyranny imposed by the federal government.

They're not fans of the federal highway system or health-care legislation either.

Meet the Tenthers—a group of "Tenth Amendment activists" whose ranks are rising in the Obama era. They are holding a national summit today in Atlanta under the auspices of the Tenth Amendment Center, featuring speakers such as former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice (and current gubernatorial candidate) Roy Moore and the engaging Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano.

“I consider Abraham Lincoln an enemy of the Constitution.”

On the heels of the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and CPAC this past weekend in Washington, the Tenther convention rounds out February's self-styled Obama Resistance conferences.

To those needing a constitutional refresher course, the Tenth Amendment states that powers not explicitly given to the federal government are reserved to the states. To be sure, the modern-day Tenth Amendment advocates stated their opposition to the growth of government under George W. Bush as well—but like the Tea Party protests, they only started taking to the streets with a Democrat in the White House.

The Ron Paul-ite organization Campaign for Liberty sponsored several seminars on the subject during CPAC that were illuminating for the uninitiated.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 Pages. Beast Books. $15.95.

The speaker at "Friend or Foe? Abraham Lincoln on Liberty," Thomas DiLorenzo, made his intentions clear when he said "I consider Abraham Lincoln an enemy of the Constitution" to a round of applause. He's offered book-length attacks on America's first Republican president, now characterized as the original progressive despot because of his violations of the Tenth Amendment, and explications of how Confederate President Jefferson Davis "championed states' rights in defense of liberty"—not slavery.

The CPAC seminar "When All Else Fails: Nullification & State Resistance to Federal Tyranny" was, if anything, less subtle. It mimicked the language of Civil War-era secession and civil-rights era defense of segregation, which Martin Luther King, in his "I Have a Dream" speech, alluded to when he spoke of "vicious racists," like Alabama Gov. George Wallace, with "his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification.'"

That seminar's speaker, Dr. Thomas Woods, author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to History, has written about "the conservatives' traditional sympathy for the American South and its people and heritage" and participated in the founding of the neo-Confederate organization, League of the South, which advocates "independence of the Southern people" from "the American Empire."

All this might be dismissed as academic and simply fringe if it wasn't for the fact that eight states passed Tenther resolutions in the first year of the Obama administration.

Under the innocuous-sounding banner of "Affirming states' rights based on Jeffersonian principles," the resolutions resuscitated Confederate and segregation-era arguments about the right of states to nullify the Constitution and disband the United States if the president or federal government assumes powers not explicitly provided for.

As the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, Michael Boldin, explained: "These non-binding resolutions, often called 'state sovereignty resolutions,' do no carry the force of law. Instead, they are intended to be a statement of the legislature of the state. They play an important role, however. If you owned an apartment building and had a tenant not paying rent, you wouldn't show up with an empty truck to kick them out without first serving notice. That's how we view these resolutions—as serving 'notice and demand' to the federal government to 'cease and desist any and all activities outside the scope of their constitutionally delegated powers.' Followup, of course, is a must."

In Georgia, where the Tenth Amendment Center is hosting its convention today, the resolution passed the conservative state senate on April Fool's Day 2009, by a vote of 43 to one. It was not a joke. The resolution was co-sponsored by some of the most senior members of the state legislature, including the senate majority leader and president pro tem.

Among the areas enumerated in the Georgia resolution were "Further infringements on the right to keep and bear arms including prohibitions of type or quantity of arms or ammunition"—in other words, a reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban could trigger Georgia to secede from the union.

It also reserved to Georgia the right to judge "how far the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom." The Taliban might have approved.

The Gone with the Wind state wasn't the only one to sign up. Similar resolutions passed in Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana, and Alaska—all states won by McCain-Palin in 2008. And Sarah Palin, whose husband was a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party for 10 years, was one of the few governors to put her signature on the bill, before resigning in the summer of 2009.

The Tenthers represent the newest incarnation of an old constitutional debate about the powers of the federal government. There is separate neo-secessionist movement in the United States, which I'll be writing about in the future—and there is some overlap—but most Tenthers see themselves as rebellious defenders of what they see as the Founding Fathers' first intentions. Nonetheless, they should question the perspective and intentions of those on the fright wing they find common cause with. Populist conservative appeals, anti-federal government impulses and threats of secession are nothing new, but they take on special resonance with a black president in a bad economy.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.