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Angus King Looks at States' Rights

Story posted March 17, 2011

Angus King

Former Maine Governor Angus King, distinguished lecturer at Bowdoin, spoke about the balance of authority between state and federal government at his annual talk to the College community on March 7, 2011.

In his talk, "History Usually Rhymes: The Tea Party, the Framers, and the Argument Over States' Rights," King offered a sweeping analysis of history and political science as a backdrop to the current debate over states' rights.

"Who will guard the guardians?" asked King. "It's a question Plato asked four thousand years ago. How do you protect the people from the government? How do you structure something that will allow us to have a functioning organization without it turning into Gadhafi or Mubarak or Hitler or somebody else? The people who wrote our constitution understood this issue precisely."

King examined the development of the U.S. Constitution and the function and structure of government, illustrating his thoughts with sources as wide-ranging as Lord of the Flies, infomercials and Governor George Wallace's 1963 speech extolling segregation.

"One's commitment to one side or the other of the state's rights debate depends to a large extent on whose ox is being gored," concluded King. "If you're a gay person and the Congress passes something called the Defense of Marriage act, you may think that nullification is a good solution. If you're a racist and Congress passes the Voting Rights Act you may think nullification is a good solution. But history tells us that the theory about states' rights is more about the use of that ideology as a servant to serve a policy.

"And the good news is, this is what our Constitution says. The people who wrote it were geniuses. They weren't perfect but they were geniuses. And they didn't say, 'In order to form a perfect union.' They said, "'In order to form a more perfect union,' and that implies constant change, constant improvement, constant aspiration toward an unattainable ideal. That's what the discussion in the country is all about today and as always it's vigorous, it's unhindered.

Listen to a podcast of the full talk.

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