The statue of John C. Calhoun looms over Marion Square, reminding the college students, the homeless, and the tourists who pass under it of Charleston's past as the center of the slave trade in the United States and the Palmetto State's honor as the first state to secede. The spirit of the South Carolina secessionist also lives on at the Eighth Annual Abbeville Scholar's Conference, taking place just a few steps away at the Francis Marion Hotel.
The conference, featuring both the academic and the average Joe, is hosted by the Atlanta-based Abbeville Institute, a think-tank of sorts dedicated to studying one of Calhoun's pet causes, secession. The institute also takes its name from Calhoun's birthplace in Abbeville.
For some, the Calhoun connection alone might call into question the Abbeville Institute. Is it simply a better-educated, more-mannered player in the white power movement or an honest-to-not-so-Honest Abe think tank dedicated to the study of secession?
It's a charge that has been leveled many times. After all, the founder of the Abbeville Institute, Don Livingston, is a former member of the League of the South, a secessionist group seeking to implement a decidedly anti-egalitarian Christian government in which white Southern values and European-based culture reign. And at least one attendee we spoke to at the conference, Jim Hanks, was once the chairman of the South Carolina branch of the League of the South.
According to both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, the League of the South is a white supremacist organization.
Hanks, for one, denies the accusation.
"There is a charge that our organization is racist, and it's only built on a knee-jerk reaction — and government schools and who won the war — that any regional independent movement in the South has to be based upon the desire to segregate the races. It doesn't apply to us," Hanks says. "We have black members in our organization. We have black speakers at our meetings."
He adds, "Human beings have rights. There is no grouping that trumps human rights."
Hanks says that the League does not accept "race hatred" of any kind.
Of course, the League and the Abbeville Institute are two separate entities, and any attempt to label all, if not most, attendees at the conference as avowedly racist would be a mistake. Stephen Heiner, an Abbeville Institute student, is proof of that. Heiner is an Asian American.
As for charges that the attendees of the Abbeville Institute event are racists, Heiner says, "Unfortunately, and no pun intended, we're going to get tarred with that brush anyway."
He adds, "From everything that I have seen, I have never had the sense from any of the events that I attended that I'm with a bunch of people that hate other races."
As for his own personal beliefs about the Lost Cause, Heiner himself believes the issues leading up to the Civil War are incredibly complex. Moreover, his own beliefs may have been at odds with the majority of white Southerners at that time. "I do think it's very difficult for those of us, I don't want to say we would have been abolitionists, but we might have worked for the freeing of slaves, to consider a society were slaves were normal, but it was their way, and I'm a very big fan of letting people run their house their own way," Heiner says. "It's one thing to, say, support the South. It's another to say, I like slavery and bring it on, or let's bring back slavery."
Of course, as accustomed as we are to associating secession with the followers of the Lost Cause and the historical revisionists still fighting the War of Northern Aggression, that's not always the case. Or as in the words of Livingston himself, "Secession is for everybody."
And it is. In the Aloha State, the idea of secession for the native Hawaiian people is not just common, it's commonly approved. And rightfully so, considering that the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegally overthrown by the United States in 1893. And in case you need to be reminded, former Alaskan First Dude Todd Palin was a member of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party.
And then there is the Second Vermont Republic, a northeastern secessionist group headed up by Thomas Naylor. The Republic supports universal healthcare, green energy, equal rights, and nonviolent resolutions to international conflicts. Simply put: the members of the Second Republic are what some might call hippies.
Along with Second Vermonter Kirkpatrick Sale, founder of the Middlebury Institute, Naylor was a scheduled speaker at the Abbeville Conference. His lecture topic: "The Vermont Village Green: An alternative to empire." As for Sale, he had a lecture lined up of his own. The subject: the size limits of states and the human scale of secession.
For Sale, there's a primary reason why secession can be advocated by both the right and the left. "There has always been a part of the left that has been anti-authoritarian and decentralist," Sale says. "And then there are anti-authoritarians on the other side. Ayn Randian types, Paulists types. But that's the guiding principle, the anti-authoritarian impulse.
Now, that doesn't mean that the Second Vermonters and all those at the Abbeville Conference see eye-to-eye. They don't.
In 2008, Naylor said the time had come for the League of the South to disassociate itself from white supremacists. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Naylor wrote, "[s]o long as the albatross of racism hangs around its neck, the LOS can never be a truly effective partner for SVR," adding that the Second Vermont Republic "risks being tainted by the scourge of racism simply by associating with the LOS."
But exactly what do the attendees agree upon? If you've been following the Tea Party, you know exactly what their primary beef is. Many believe America is headed for a collapse and it must change its big spending ways.
And perhaps nobody at the conference is more familiar with this subject than Yuri Maltsev, a professor of economics at Carthage College in what he calls the People's Republic of Wisconsin. Maltsev was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, and he knows the dangers of an over-extended and debt-ridden empire all too well.
"The Soviet Union was definitely too big to fail. It had 11 time zones, one-sixth of the world's surface. And it failed miserably. I think that what would be interesting to discuss is too big not to fail because bigness is not necessarily a good thing. Bigness in many cases leads to excessive centralization, depriving people of their liberty," the lecturer says.
"We have a government that is spending like a drunken sailor," Maltsev adds, a line often used by 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain on the campaign trail. "This is a slander against a drunken sailor because he spends his own money."
Stephen Heiner expresses similar sentiments. "As we see government expand more and more these days — OK, we're going to pay for everybody's healthcare, we're going to pay for all the bankers to holiday in Switzerland, and everyone has to pay for it — people are looking more to local things," Heiner says.
Heiner says that you can see this in the buy-local movement, in which people buy from local farmers and support locally owned businesses.
Hanks is also concerned with the growing size of the federal government. "The only way for prosperity and freedom to flourish is in small states. The future belongs to small states," Hanks says.
However, according to Heiner at least, there's a noticeable difference between the Abbeville Conference attendees and the Tea Partiers, some of whom attended their own conference this past weekend. "I wouldn't characterize the Tea Party movement as an intellectual movement. I think it's an angry movement, and I think there are some intellectual underpinnings there," Heiner says, adding that the we're-mad-as-hell-and-we're-not-going-to-take-anymore mindset is common among Tea Partiers. According to Heiner, the folks at the Abbeville Institute Conference aren't interested in the "passing political action of the day."
He adds, "We're interested in enduring political ideas that take us back to John C. Calhoun."