With his recent book, Our Last Hope: Rediscovering the Lost Path to Liberty, Michael Maharrey of the Tenth Amendment Center has done us all a tremendous service. Where previously there was but one popular volume dedicated to nullification, he has given us a second, thereby exponentially advancing efforts to restore this key concept to its proper role in public consciousness.
In 2010, Thomas Woods almost single-handedly resurrected the history of nullification, triggering a tide of controversy that is still washing over the American political scene. In Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, Woods handed us long-ignored primary source documentation; succinctly helped us to understand their meaning and implications; and deftly cleared away gross misinformation around nullification’s purported relationship to confederacy and slavery. He kick-started the arduous process of navigating around political zombies so that Americans could start to see nullification as the powerful tool it is in reclaiming and maintaining states’ rights.
Now, via Our Last Hope, Maharrey has taken the next steps in making nullification even more accessible to a popular audience. Breaking nullification and its implementation into simple, memorable terms, he facilitates an easy embrace of nullification not just as a useful tool but as a truth revealed – much as if it were a basic mathematical formula: When the federal government reaches beyond its proper constitutional authority, remember who’s in charge and just say no.
With great effectiveness, Maharrey underscores the simplicity and power of this equation from the start by means of a resonant metaphor: What happens when your teenaged daughter comes downstairs in the morning wearing something too immodest in which to be seen out and about? Do you sit back and let her do whatever she pleases, or do you exercise your authority and insist that she march upstairs to change into something more appropriate before leaving the house? Anyone who has half a clue about responsible parenting immediately knows the answer.
The American system of government described in our founding documents places the people and the states in authority. We are the parents, charged with the solemn duty of ensuring that the federal government behaves according to its constitutionally established limits – our family rules. Yet, we have forgotten and no longer recognize the authority that we hold, Maharrey points out. Only when we remember, claim, and actively exercise our rightful authority can we begin to tame the unruly child that is our federal government – the child that has now convinced itself and many of us that it is the parent.
Maharrey doesn’t just deliver the formula, he helps us understand it, builds solid historical and logical cases around it. For example, walking us through the historical circumstances and documents that gave birth to initial expressions of nullification, he goes one better. He explains that even had James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, never written the concept into the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, nullification was actually a solution inherent to and fully spelled out within our American form of government, just waiting to be leveraged in the inevitable event that government would attempt to slip its moorings. Maharrey points us, in particular, to words taken straight from Virginia’s ratification of the United States Constitution.
Now, the interesting thing about ratification of the Constitution, as Maharrey points out, is that each state ratified separately. Moreover, each state’s ratifying instrument spelled out the specific conditions under which its people would ratify the Constitution and enter into the union. When accepted by the other states, these ratifying instruments each became binding on all states in the union, not just on the state that had submitted the instrument. All states were thus bound by Virginia’s ratifying instrument, which stipulated personal sovereignty – that the powers granted under the Constitution derived from the people and could be resumed by them whenever those powers became perverted to the injury or oppression of the people.
If the Principles of ‘98 are at the heart of Woods’ Nullification, I would argue that Virginia’s ratification language is the very soul of Maharrey’s book. It’s not that Woods doesn’t address the Virginia ratifying instrument. He does. But Maharrey plants a flag in it and shouts, “This way to liberty, everyone! The constitutional justification for nullification that’s supposedly lacking…? It’s right here!”
While the whole of Our Last Hope is engaging and enjoyable to read – woven through with popular references from Ghostbusters and Monty Python to chess and football – it is in its consideration of the Virginia language that Maharrey’s book inspires and empowers. States’ rights are nothing if not a powerful bulwark against the infringement of individual rights, but it is personal sovereignty itself that lies at the foundation of the whole American experiment – and on which Maharrey ultimately focuses his efforts to greatest effect. No wonder then that the final chapter of the book, which exhorts the reader to do the work of nullification, almost feels unnecessary. While the last chapter contains practical information, by the time the reader arrives there, Maharrey has likely already persuaded him not only to act rationally and enthusiastically in the interest of his own personal liberty but also to contend with any necessary challenges.
While they say there is no such thing as a perfect analogy, many of Maharrey’s come darned close. It’s a great boon, the apparent ease with which he couches the various aspects of his subject in terms the reader will not only understand but appreciate and often even have a good chuckle over. There was only one analogy that didn’t work for me, but that’s likely because it involved football, and I’m the closest one gets to sports illiterate. All in all, through the use of verbal illustration, the presentation of targeted primary source material, and the crystallization of ideas, Maharrey has written a work that is truly accessible to everyone…exactly what is needed.
Admirably, Maharrey also strives to keep his book on non-partisan footing. Liberty is not, in fact, a partisan ideal. The more that we can strip away false oppositions and build bridges in the fight for personal freedom, the better off we will all be. On this score, to nitpick just a bit, Maharrey’s use of the word progressive early on in the book seems a little too tied to Democratic policies, which might put off some readers. There are, after all, big-government progressives on both sides of the two-party “divide.” However, if the reader sticks with Maharrey to the end, it becomes abundantly clear that he sees in both major parties an ongoing willingness to bastardize the Constitution and compromise personal liberty.
If I might make a suggestion, don’t just pick up a copy for yourself… Grab one for any state officials you know who may be looking for justification to take a stand for individual and states’ rights…or who you think might be persuadable. Don’t forget to highlight the passages about the Virginia Ratifying Instrument.