Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jesus, the Sagebrush Rebel

Jesus wants you to join the Sagebrush Rebellion. It may not sound like something he would normally be concerned about. In fact, that whole "Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" business would almost lead you to think he didn't care about government policies, while Luke 12:13-14 could easily be misinterpreted to indicate that Jesus doesn't take sides in property disputes. Good thing we have Henry Lamb to set us straight.

To be fair,Lamb doesn't say anything here about Jesus. It's just the venue that forces me to make the connection. What does a states rights view of public lands have to do with holding a "Christian world view?" As nearly as I can tell, the blending of religion and politics has gone so far that anything, anything at all, that can be associated with conservative politics is assumed to be godly, anything in Matthew or Luke notwithstanding. Public lands are an especially attractive target because many federal regulations involve environmental restrictions and we know that environmentalism is nothing but pagan nature-worship, with no other purpose than to destroy Christianity. Damn those Satan-worshiping tree-huggers at the EPA, anyway.

Lamb is under that old, preposterous delusion that the federal government cannot own land and that all the public lands were stolen from the states:

It is reasonable to conclude that when a state is carved out of a territory, it becomes a state subject to the powers and limitations of all the other states within the jurisdiction of the Constitution, and no longer subject to the federal authority suffered by the people when the land area was a territory.


How can it be legal for the federal government to own land in a state that it did not purchase with the consent of the state legislature? How can it be legal for the federal government to exercise sovereignty over land within a sovereign state? Why were the eleven Western states and Alaska treated differently upon admission to the Union than were the other 26 states that joined the Union? when all states were supposed to be admitted on an "equal footing"?

There is only one logical conclusion: the federal government should not own the land it now claims within any state unless it is purchased with the approval of the state legislature for the purposes set forth in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17.

Lamb is terribly confused here. He's referencing the section of the Constitution that governs the acquisition of DC, which was understood to be land that was already owned or to be acquired by existing states. It has nothing to do with the public lands that the government owned on its own behalf, in places where no state yet existed. Those would be addressed in Article IV, Section 3, which states clearly enough:
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular state.
I'm always amazed that some Westerners seem to think that the eastern states were given all the land within their borders as soon as they entered the union. That's not how it worked. The land belonged to the United States and, frankly, was almost the only asset the federal government had for many years. They didn't give it away for nothing; they sold it, or used it for debts they didn't have real money to pay for (many veterans of the Revolutionary War were paid this way). Until sold, the land belonged to the federal government and could be governed by the same.

Typically, the land wouldn't go to the states anyway.* Most of it passed directly into private hands, at which time the land and its owners became subject to (in chronological order, as political development proceeded): the federal government, then the territorial government, and finally the state government.

And I do get a tad indignant - for my ancestors' sake, not my own - that in Indiana much of the land was originally purchased by speculators and the eventual settlers had to purchase it at market value, whatever that turned out to be. The Western states benefited from the various Homestead Acts, which allowed a settler to live on the land for awhile and then purchase at quite nominal prices. In the great westward rush after the Civil War, the government was all but giving the land away to anyone who could make a living on it.**

That, of course, is the rub - Western land is damned hard to make a living on. Despite being the cheapest land ever seen, in over 70 years most of it never sold. The Jeffersonian dream of filling the land with small farmsteads foundered on the drought-prone plains and deserts and only the land with reliable access to water had much value. The people in the Western states had more than enough time to acquire the public lands - they just didn't do it, and for good reasons.

Remember, though, this isn't just about land ownership. Straw-grasping legal analysis, bad history, disdain for nature, and knee-jerk hostility to the government is all part of having a Christian world view. Don't leave the asylum without it.

* A notable exception: the Yosemite Valley was given to California on condition that it become a public park; it didn't take California long to realize that it was nicer to give it back to the Feds, who would pay the bills while the state continued to reap the benefits.

** And giving it away to railroads, too, who were expected to sell it to private holders; either way, it didn't go to the state governments.


James Hanley said...

Lamb begins his article with a false dichotomy that scews the issue right at the start.

"Is the federal government sovereign, with authority over state governments? Or, are individual state governments sovereign, with authority over the federal government?"

Well, a pre-1930s constitutional answer would be, "Neither" Dual federalism meant that each was sovereign, but neither had direct authority over the other--just over its own distinct and non-overlapping sphere of authority.

But why are you reading the WND? I know for a fact you can't afford to keep replacing your irony-meter on a regular basis.

Scott Hanley said...

This isn't WND, although Worldview Weekend are just as delusional and have a few of the same crackpots (e.g., David Barton). I got on their mailing list once and developed that sort of horrified fascination that keeps people watching Jerry Springer or paying to see the five-legged goat.

My irony meter is pretty robust, but I do have to turn the volume down to keep from hurting my ears.