The pro-unity Spaniards may not be able find the answer they are looking for in the American Revolution, but they can come upon something more to their liking down the road of our relatively brief but intense history. You must understand that the average Spaniard naturally sees the United States as one (not necessarily always happy) nation in which regional independence movements are unheard of. People are first citizens of the United States and then of their respective states, if they so choose to feel that way. That’s a fairly accurate depiction of the U.S. today, so you can’t blame them, but it wasn’t always like that…at all.
When I have a some extra time, I say, “Have a seat, and let me tell you a little story.”
“Twelve score and 1 year ago, our Fathers initiated the control of a territory with a growth potential like nothing mankind has ever seen before or since, and created a nation under the notion that all men were equal. Their interpretation of equality would naturally be questioned by today’s standards, as they didn’t have women or black slaves in mind, but you could argue that they did get the ball rolling. It was, in fact, the issue of institutionalized bondage that would lead the country into its most important and lasting internal crisis in its history.” That much most people can grasp. What has escaped many is that behind it was a constitutional standoff – a power struggle.
You see, even though the thirteen colonies had what you could call a common ancestor, that is England, they had managed to acquire a feeling of individualism that led them to believe and behave as if they were practically little nations joined in a federation. Its residents felt a greater allegiance to their state than to the country as a whole. Never was this more clearly illustrated when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, then an officer for the United States Army, and one with a distinguished military career at that, was faced with the dilemma of which side to join. Nowadays, that seems unthinkable, but back then it was a fairly common debate. He was in fact opposed to the secessionist movement of the South for constitutional reasons, and so expressed it in writing. But loyalty to his state was the question. In short, he felt no state had a right to leave the union, but if his state of Virginia did choose to do so and was attacked, he would be left with no choice but to defend it. Even if that meant abandoning his sworn duties to the federal government. His decision is one of great controversy to this day, but let’s not go there.
What was at stake was the very future of the United States. And regardless of the outcome, things would never be the same. Abraham Lincoln was fully aware of this and summed up the trascendence of the moment brilliantly in his now famous Gettysburg Address. It is unquestionably one of the finest speeches ever delivered in history, partly because it was so short. The quintessential example of “less is more”. Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician and the main speaker of the day (can you imagine a time when the president’s oration took second billing?), devoted no fewer than a staggering two hours to his intervention before uttering to a, no doubt, relieved crowd, “Thank you for listening.” And he still apparently didn’t get his point across. He was later said to have praised Lincoln for doing in two minutes what he couldn’t convey in 120.
“Damn straight! Honest Abe wouldn’t put up with no bullshit like that.” Maybe they didn’t word it that way in the heart of Madrid, but something to that effect. While Lincoln’s stance was true, the flip side was that the South was just as determined to have things seen their way…and sent up half a million armed men to help pursuade the federal government. Four years and 600,000 deaths later, the matter was settled and everyone was friends again…sort of.
So why should Spain care? You see, nearly two score years after democracy was finally reestablished in this western European nation in 1978, the situation has an eerily familiar ring to it – with the exception, thank God, that we have not been plunged into a civil war. Behind the age-old debate on how these regions fit into modern Spain is the issue of what the constitution has to say about it. That is, just as Lincoln argued that the South didn’t have the right to leave, so says the Constitutional Court here, as it tries to contain the movement through judicial means. And, of course, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and company subscribe to this wholeheartedly. Spain is indivisible. That’s what most traditional Spaniards purport. They are dumbfounded by all this extremist separatism and struggle to comprehend while anyone would ever want to leave it. They adopt an almost Eastern philosophy approach: that’s just the way things are.
The way things are is that Spain is still a very young democracy, which is ironic for one of the oldest countries in the world, and this current situation has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone but me. Especially from a country with the delicate situation that it has had for such a long time. This was almost bound to occur.
Forty years ago, while Americans were lining up to watch Animal House and Grease, in Catalonia people were queuing to participate in the last official referendum. Ironically, Catalonia was the region with the fourth highest percentage in favor of ratifying the constitution, with 90.46% voting yes, with 70% participation. Many pro-separatists will argue that things have changed, and undoubtedly they have…in every scenario and in many ways. But can the same really be said of Catalonia and the rest of Spain? Are things really that different, or, have they changed in a way that they appear to be?